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“You mean the Greek gods are here? Like…in America?”

“Well, certainly. The gods move with the heart of the West.”

“The what?”

“Come now, Percy. What you call ‘Western Civilization.’ Do you think it’s just an abstract concept? No, it’s a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years.”

I grew up on Robert Graves‘ translations of Greek mythology. Heracles was a pre-modern superhero, Theseus a tragic hero whose cleverness and bravery could only get him so far, Odysseus proof that intelligence could give a hero the edge when faced with a physically stronger opponent. I enjoyed the morals these stories seemed to contain, alongside fantastical descriptions of minotaurs, gorgons and cyclopses.

Of course later, when I returned to these texts, or read different translations, I realized something – those ancient Greeks were jerks!

Unfortunately Percy Jackson has yet to learn this lesson. An ordinary boy growing up in New York with an unusual habit of getting expelled from schools – he swears that it is never his fault – as well as suffering from dyslexia and ADHD, life has dealt him a pretty poor hand. When he discovers he is also the illegitimate son of the god Poseidon and targeted for assasination by both Hades and Zeus, as part of a growing Olympian civil war, well, it is just not fair really.

Being the son of a god has some advantages though. He gets to escape to the safety of Camp Half-Blood for one, where the marauding furies and minotaurs on his trail are held at bay. What’s more he discovers he has several abilities related to the control of water, which could even help him survive a frontal attack by a monster.

He’ll need every trick to stay alive when he and two friends leave the camp on a quest to discover who has stolen the thunder bolt of Zeus and framed him for it to boot. So it is time for a road trip to the Land of the Dead – Los Angeles.

While Rick Riordan is said to have completed the manuscript in 1994, but it was not actually published until 2005. It  therefore does seem likely that segments of the book were rewritten to suit the Pottermania fad. Camp Half-Blood is a Hogwarts filled with the abandoned off-spring of gods and yes Percy is yet another child of destiny.

Where I found the story sticking in my craw a bit was the translation of Greek myth to American culture. I accept that this is the conceit of the book – as the quote featured above states, America is now the ‘seat’, of Western civilization – but it leads to some uncomfortable moments. For example Medusa is described disguised as a Middle Eastern woman. Hades is said to resemble “the terrorist leaders who direct suicide bombers.”

Really Riordan? You went there huh? What’s more, much like the tarnished Greek heroes of my youth, Percy is actually quite a bloodthirsty little punk. I get that his life is at stake, but after the second, or third decapitation I started checking the book for a parental advisory sticker. Through in spouse abuse – his mother has endured a horrible relationship for years, in order to keep Percy hidden – and this becomes an uncomfortable, sickly feeling cynical package.

This is one fantasy series I will not be continuing with.

Hey kids. Do you remember this!? Ah. Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. I used to love that show. Now maybe you would think I wanted to take after Spider-Man. After all, he is the star. Or how about Iceman? But no, my favourite character was always Firestar. Not because I wanted to be a girl or anything…..let’s start again – fire powers are cool!

So I was always curious about her character. Imagine my surprise when I eventually started to read Marvel comics and discovered not only was she not ‘friends’, with Spider-Man – she did not even exist in comics before the show. Eventually she got shoved into the X-Men almost as an afterthought, but I don’t think my child self ever got over that disillusionment (cos…y’know…fire powers….cool!).

This book is not all about my girl Firestar. In fact it is a ‘non-team’, comic, focusing on several random young superheroes who have all been somewhat forgotten. First off there is Gravity, one of Sean McKeever‘s own creations, a nominally cheerful young hero, who has begun to question the legitimacy of arrested superpowered criminals, as they only just escape to wreck havoc again. Then there’s Araña, recently depowered and so unknown most people call her Spider-Girl. Nomad is a girl from an alternate world where she was a highly trained sidekick to the most famous superhero on her Earth – here she is no one. What’s worse she had a friend on this other Earth named Benito Serrano, who has his own counterpart in her new home. Though he takes the same superhero name, Toro, and has the same abilities, he has no idea who she is. What’s more only Araña is capable of speaking Spanish with him (at one point Gravity mutters regretfully that he took German in school).

What brings these heroes together is a violent gang of young villains, the aptly named Evil Bastards, who torture and kill New Yorkers for fun and then upload the footage online for their ‘fans’. Gravity in particular is horrified by the callousness of the gang and is pushed to the edge, in danger of himself becoming a killer in retaliation. In their first encounter with the Evil Bastards, one of the villains detonates a massive explosion on the site of Ground Zero itself.

McKeever has stated that the theme of this book “was that [the Young Allies are] fighting for the soul of their generation”. In a neat piece of meta-commentary it is made clear that what McKeever is referring to is the morals of comic books themselves. The Evil Bastards (sounds like a Warren Ellis rock band) claim to be the sons and daughters of supervillains themselves. Their contempt for the value of life, to my mind, reflects the persistence of shock tactics and ultraviolence in contemporary comics. As the older villain Electro comments, to violate the sanctity of Ground Zero itself would be unthinkable for him. It is a horrific moment in the book itself, but Gravity’s obsession with finding justice for the victims properly addresses the true horror of this event.

I found myself comparing McKeever’s use of an actual site of tragedy, with what has been revealed in the trailer for the  upcoming X-Men movie. The plot will involve the superheroes in an actual historical event – the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think ultimately McKeever is respectful in his use of 9/11 as a feature of the plot. The Evil Bastards are reminiscent of message board users making horrible jokes about actual tragedies. One of them even describes her crimes as being like playing an MMO. Marvel Comics frequently used nuclear radiation as a plot device and McKeever refers to this again throughout the book. Firestar, for one, suffers from her constant exposure to incredible temperatures and is in fact a cancer survivor. It is a neat reversal of the comic-book science that allowed for characters such as The Hulk, or Spider-Man gaining superpowers from radiation.

This flirting with realistic concerns and comic book absurdity is ably managed by McKeever, who has a great partner in crime in penciller David Baldeon. The art reflects the threatened innocence of the characters. I particularly like his designs for the Evil Bastards themselves, all quite creative in their callbacks to the absent parents they draw inspiration from.

So Young Allies is that rare thing – a quietly ambitious superhero comic with a lot of heart. Recommended for comic book fans looking something less cynical than certain popular titles out there.

‘The making of artificial intelligence is one of the proudest boasts of the secularists’, said Campbell. ‘Next to artificial life, it’s the greatest triumph for their materialism. Perhaps greater. They claim to have done what Christians once claimed could be done only by God – creating a rational soul. Would this triumph not turn to ashes in their mouths if their own creations were to acknowledge the true Creator?’

I have a confession. Back in the summer of ’03 I was living and working in Edinburgh. I lived out of the Central Library, just opposite the Royal Scottish Museum where I worked in a restaurant. I would take out fourteen books at a time and read them over a month or so, then return them for the next load. Those were pleasant days. I recall taking out Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division. I remember reading it. To be honest though, I have no memory what it was about at all. I am not even sure I finished the book.

Not an auspicious start for a review, is it?

In The Night Sessions MacLeod maps the conflicts of our time, a diabolical festoon of resource wars and radical religious fudamentalism, on to a near-future society where the Western world underwent an event known as The Rejection. All forms of religious belief have been driven underground. A brutal, second Enlightenment took hold, America was swallowed in a destructive civil war and artificial intelligence escalated the spread of the conflict.

John Richard Campbell is a young man fascinated with robotics. His work in a New Zealand preserve for animatronic models has given him an interesting outlet for his religious beliefs. He has begun to proselytize to his charges and what’s more, they are listening to what he has to say. When a secret sect in Edinburgh hears of him, Campbell is initiated into The Free Congregation of West Lothian. During the same visit, he meets a virtual reality dj Dave Warsaw and his partner Jessica at a club night in a former church. Campbell is repulsed and secretly intrigued by the orgiastic scenes created by Warsaw’s mastery of music and image. His faith has hidden him from such activities, a faith that makes him especially vulnerable to manipulation.

A year passes and a series of murders in Edinburgh begin to rise tensions throughout the secular world. The targets are clergymen, former soldiers in the Faith Wars, with hints of inter-fundamentalist cell reprisals. Adam Ferguson leads the investigation, using bleeding edge technology to identify patterns in the murders, compile every scrap of data on file regarding the victims and their surroundings. However, he finds himself confounded by the complexity of the case. There are also fears of a much great attack at the secularist nations, so thoroughly denuded of religious faith that Ferguson has to remind his officers out of courtesy to refer to the murder victims by the title of ‘Father’, or ‘Bishop’, and not the prefix ‘Citizen’.

MacLeod’s novel is a vast spider-web of ideas and supposition as to the future course of our society. The ‘Rejection’, I am sure sounds like Richard Dawkins’ fondest fantasy, but the story does not shy away from depicting the overzealousness of the anti-religious factions in this new world. His vision of future developments in surveillance technology and A.I. is also exciting and playful. Ferguson’s robot Skulk is more a partner than an investigative tool, complete with a winning sense of humour.

I also enjoyed the familiar sights of Edinburgh being mildly tweaked to fit this depiction, despite surviving catastrophic sectarian conflict. MacLeod’s characters are for the most part Scots. There is in fact quite a large cast. The prologue that introduces Campbell serves to fix him in the reader’s minds before his eventual return in the latter-half of the book.

If some of this sounds familiar, perhaps you are a fan of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, which also had the premise of a futuristic society running headlong into a conflict with fundamentalist religion. The difference is MacLeod’s book has balls. The ending is much more satisfying. Yes, I am still bitter.

This is a book that I will have no trouble remembering. A thrilling and inspiring read.

Somebody enquires: Are you still a Marxist? Never before has the devastation caused by the pusuit of profit, as defined by capitalism, been more extensive than it is today. Almost everybody knows this. How then is it possible not to heed Marx who prophesied and analyzed the devastation? The answer might be that people, many people, have lost all their political bearings. Mapless, they do not know where they are heading.

A few months before Stephanie and I were married we travelled to Foggy London Town to choose a wedding dress for the big day. While there, we looked up an old friend for lunch. I remember at one point we were discussing our reasons for wanting to move to Australia. We had lived together in Sydney already for a year and so thought it only fair to do the same in Dublin. In addition, we felt it was important for my family to get to know the woman I had chosen to marry. Given the distances between our respective families, the normal routine would not be possible. As it was my parents only met Stephanie’s on the day of the wedding itself.

The course of international romance never runs smoothly.

At any rate, we were chatting away about our future prospects when I mentioned that one of the reasons we were leaving Ireland was because in Australia we could actually see ourselves having a future. My home was swept up in economic turmoil, wasteful political in-fighting and a general apathy on the part of the public in what was happening to the country, despite the growing mountain of debt. Our friend was greatly surprised at this. Aren’t the Irish rebels, she said, coming from a culture defined by its fight for independence and resistance against the British occupation? Weren’t we taught as children to admire men like Daniel O’Connell, Charles Parnell and Michael Collins?

Well yes and no, came the reply. We talk a good game, but when it comes to politics the Irish turn a blind eye to the decisions that have the biggest impact on public life. There would be a lot of complaining, certainly, but little in the way of grass-roots political action. Those protesters that did persist in Ireland, such as the anti-Shell protests in Corrib, tended to be dismissed as crusty hippies.

So here I am watching the news from home, hearing about how the IMF have begun to assess the economic mismanagement of my country, the refusal of our leaders to accept any responsibility and the rising calls for a change of government. Too late, too late, the writing was on the wall years ago.

This collection of essays by John Berger focuses on the global political inarticulacy of responses to the illegal invasion of Iraq by Western nations and their allies; the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and what it revealed about the poverty ordinary Americans suffered; the encroachment of Israeli forces on Palestinian settlements; and the hypocrisy of Tony Blair’s reaction to the tragic London bombings.

Statesmen pitch the rhetoric while ordinary people across the world separated from us by geography, class and war suffer. What is worse, we all know their stories. There is this sense of impotence or apathy that pervades the coverage of these events, as if nothing is to be done and so we simply change the channel.

Berger’s intermingles poetry and politics, to highlight just how isolated from common feeling the political process has become. The show of sincerity has replaced the need for any statesman to tell the truth. Propaganda has replaced the need for argument. The Twentieth Century has been a time of great opportunity, as well as loss: Our century was one of unprecedented massacres, yet the future it imagined (and sometimes fought for) proposed fraternity. Very few earlier centuries made such a proposal.

Discussions of Paulo Passolini, Emily Dickinson, Francis Bacon and Lars Von Trier are used by Berger to regain that sense of emotion and creativity abandoned by modern politics. Government has become the plaything of corporate interests and as such, has lost any claim on ideals of how we should live.

To take in what is happening, an inter-disciplinary vision is necessary in order to connect the ‘fields’, which are institutionally kept separate. And any such vision is bound to be (in the original sense of the word) political.

This is a powerful collection of essays, strongly recommended.

 

 

A sixty-something desk clerk with a dishevelled stare and dark armpits told me to sign my name in the registration book. I blanked. He repeated I should sign my name. I couldn’t sign my full name, Mary Alice Baker. Nina was the first name that came to me, because it was exotic, foreign sounding. I couldn’t imagine a terrorist Nina. The sum total of my life to date would be my last name. I signed myself in as Nina Zero.

Let me tell you about a weird little incident that happened to me in Amsterdam. Oh don’t worry, it’s nothing like that. I broke the mould on visitors to that capital of lax morality by visiting comic stores to hunt down hard-to-get titles. In one store I asked the owner if he had any copies of Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude. He directed me to accompany him downstairs to the basement. There I found a low-ceilinged room stuffed with long-boxes. The owner began to list the contents of each, naming companies I was familiar with and then he pointed to the fifth box along and said “those are Bad Girl comics”. The pattern repeated itself, with several other boxes being identified in the same way.

Bad girls? I really did not know what he meant. Female protagonists that act like pulp fiction tough guys, often written by men and parodying feminist heroines perhaps.

Mary Alice Baker starts this book as a ‘good girl’, but informs us that she soon learned how to be a ‘bad girl’. Living on a meagre wage from taking pictures of children for doting parents, Mary’s own family life is an abusive, dysfunctional nightmare. Her father rules the home with an iron fist, frequently taking out his frustrations on his children and long-suffering wife. Mary does not have much luck with the men in her life, as her boyfriend Wrex is an emotionally manipulative parasite, whose relationship with her is dependent on her allowing him to sleep in her bed.

Then he asks her one favour too many, deliver a package to a stranger at LAX Airport. Seconds later the man, and indeed the arrivals lounge, are blown to smithereens. Mary suddenly finds herself a suspected terrorist, her name and face decorating the front pages of newspapers across Los Angeles. One safety pin through her nose and a dye-job later and Nina Zero is born. She falls in with fame-hungry Warholian artists, even gets a crash course in becoming a private eye and decides to hunt down the party responsible for the bombing. Maybe put a few holes in Wrex as well if possible.

This novel has some fun with poking fun at the shallow LA art scene. Nina’s new flatmates are a paranoid film-maker who expresses contempt for Hollywood, but is desperate to get her own picture deal. Then there’s Billy b, an intense artist who likes to draw portraits of Elvis and Kim Basinger. Together they talk long into the night about the philosophy of kitsch, which Mary/Nina can only barely follow. When they discover she’s a suspected terrorist she becomes their goose with the golden egg.

The eagerness of the people in Mary’s life to stab her in the back allows for a certain amount of black humour. However, the sheer negativity of this book becomes tiresome. What’s more every man in Mary’s life treats her like crap. For all R.M. Eversz’s claims to the contrary, she seems less like a bad girl and more like a victim. This leads to the uncomfortable notion that the rough sex and the violence featured is itself meant to be entertaining. Personally I found it distressing. Compare Nina Zero to Lisbeth Salander. Stieg Larsson avoided accusations of voyeurism by creating a character with genuine mental issues, as well as a fierce independence.  Eversz does not convince, Nina’s problems are solved by handing her a gun. She even points out to her abusive father at one point that while he has fists, she has the means to kill him now she has a weapon.

What a wonderful moral!

While this book was a quick read, it left a bitter aftertaste. Not for everyone. Sadly I only figured out the meaning of the title after realizing the Warhol connection. And yes, a print of Elvis is actually shot.

‘Ever see the movie 28 Days Later? No? You should. The sequel rocks, too. Anyway, that movie dealt with a virus that stimulated the rage centers in the brain to the point that it was so dominant that all other brain functions were blocked out. The victims existed in total, unending, and ultimately unthinking rage. Very close to what we have here.’

‘What, you think a terrorist with a Ph.D. in chemistry watched a sci-fi flick and thought “Hey, that’s a good way to kill Americans”?’

So it appears someone went and invented a whole new horror sub-genre when I was not looking. Namely books about post 9/11 zombie terrorists. The first book I reviewed for this blog, Feed by Mira Grant did this very successfully I thought. Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth was less so, but thankfully did not take itself too seriously.

Jonathan Maberry’s novel, as the title indicates, is once again concerned with the notion of scientifically plausible zombification. As silly as that sounds, to his credit the author makes a solid attempt at establishing plausible pseudo-science behind the plot.

Which is kicked off thanks to that handy deus ex machina the United States Patriot Act. Joe Ledger is an ex-military serviceman who has worked with the Baltimore Police Department for enough time to realize that if he wants to put his investigative skills to any real use – and make better money – he should become a federal agent. He is well on track to achieving that goal when he is approached by a man known only as Church and recruited to become a member of a secret intelligence agency, the Department of Military Sciences. Their first mission, defeat a plot hatched by Muslim extremists to infect America with a pathogen that reanimates the dead.

Joe’s recruitment is the result of a very special kind of interview. He survives being locked into a room with a zombie. Afterwards he finds himself heading a team of specially chosen grunts and intelligence agents to track down the source of the plague. Meanwhile in the Middle East (don’t you just love that phrase?) a man known as Sebastian Gault has been funding the activities of the terrorist El Mujahid. He will deliver the pathogen created with Gault’s money to the States, but who is manipulating whom? What is more, as the outbreaks of zombie attacks increase, it becomes clear to Joe that someone in the D.M.S., perhaps even a member of his own squad, is feeding information to the enemy.

This book unfortunately contains a number of things that I loathe in horror fiction, in particular the portentous punctuation of doom, otherwise illustrated as ‘…’

On the other hand, Maberry has done an admirable amount of research to justify his far-fetched plot. He also makes a number of nods to pop culture to indicate that this is meant to be above all fun. Characters mention 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead and The Evil Dead. Then there is ‘Doctor Hu’, whose name gets a startled reaction from Joe (who in turn appears to take his name from a Marvel superhero, as Hu points out).

Enough character detail is given to flesh to the plot. As a modern man Joe prefers therapy to the confession box. His friend Rudy likes to debate the finer points of Blue State/Red State political divisions with him. What is more Maberry addresses that the activities of the D.M.S. are unconstitutional. Of course modern terrorism does not respect privacy laws, or the Geneva Convention, so in order to defend America they must fight fire with fire.

Which leads to uncomfortable undertones of fascism. This is a macho fantasy and unashamedly so, but I fail to understand why 9/11, an actual historical event, is being employed to underscore fantastical horror (as already stated in my review of Farnsworth’s book). On that same note this book features a very ugly portrayal of Islam. A character dismisses the criticism that there is no way an Al Qaeda cell hiding in mountainous wilderness could successfully engineer a deadly pathogen in the required lab conditions, by stating that such an argument is racist. Regardless of that handwaving, it does introduce a note of implausibility into the plot. Also the villains of the piece are Muslims and decadent, bisexual Europeans.

Finally, it is not scary. That is something of a deal breaker for me. Think Tom Clancy, but with zombies.

Rumpole is determined to win the appeal of that ghastly terrorist who is now safely in Belmarsh Prison. This is absolutely the right place for Dr Mahmood Khan, if you want my opinion, or that of most sensible people, but when I tell Rumpole this he starts talking about Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. And he hardly listens when I tell him that there were no suicide bombers and no al Qaeda when King John signed up to the charter on the island of Runnymede.

John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey has become an enduring fictional creation. Leo McKern’s performance as the character on television immortalised him and the phrase ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ is possibly more famous than the Rumpole himself. I remember watching the show when I was a kid and being fascinated not by the witty badinage, or plot twists, but by the wigs! Oh those wigs, I always wanted one.

Rumpole’s own wig has lost its lustre and has developed an unsightly yellowish tincture, to match his raggedy robes. He’s a man out of time it seems, coasting on successes that no one remembers, refusing to use a computer in court (pen and paper are faster he maintains) and reduced to relying on the dreadful Timson family for cases, as getting caught committing petty crimes is something of a tradition for them.

Things take a turn for the decidedly worse, however, when Rumpole agrees to defend a doctor from Pakistan who has been accused of crimes under the new anti-terrorism laws drawn up by the New Labour government. Under the terms of the legislation the defendant and their counsel are forbidden from learning what the particulars of the arrest are, such as what the crime in question was, when it occurred, what evidence has been presented. The days of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, have come and gone it seems, with pressure mounting on Rumpole to drop the case from above and below. A New Labour stooge attempts bribery and the Timsons withdraw their business. Rumpole himself begins to doubt his client’s innocence. Dr Khan’s seems almost too good to be true, waxing lyrical about cricket and the Queen, all the while wearing a patient, bemused expression on his face while sitting in Belmarsh prison. Is it all an act? What’s more She Who Must Be Obeyed, Hilda, receives an unusual proposition from Rumpole’s enemy Justice Leonard Bullingham, whom he nicknames Mad Bull, all of which she details exhaustively in her own memoirs! Could Rumpole’s lady wife be looking to sweep the carpet from under him?

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror is a quick read, with amusing asides from our hero to the reader. As far as I know She Who Must Be Obeyed was previously an invisible presence in the books, at least that was my impression from the television show as a kid. Mortimer introduces extracts from her own memoirs as a counterpoint to Rumpole’s struggles with the Dr Khan case. Much of the humour derives from witty quips traded between the long suffering couple and the courting of Hilda by Mr Justice Mad Bull makes for a diverting secondary plot.

However, at its heart this book is an angry broadside against the policies of New Labour, its shirking of the letter of the law and dismantling of civil liberties. Rumpole finds himself stuck in a situation Kafkaesque in its absurdity, attempting to defend a man stripped of any right to a fair trial. Any appeal on our hero’s part to the rights of a citizen of Britain is dismissed as unfashionable and behind the times. Rumpole himself is treated as a relic of a by-gone age.

That Mortimer ties this all together in a gripping, yet also witty package is a testament to his skills as a writer. This is my first taste of the Rumpole series and I’ll be happy to investigate further.

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