Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes (2011) by James S.A. Corey

This is meat and potatoes SF writing, but the respective protein and vegetable components are of a very high quality. More specifically, this is an SF novel that's conceived and written to be one of the best SF films of the 1980s or '90s; it's basically a film script in novel form, and the obvious influences are Alien, Aliens, Outland and Blade Runner. This isn't a "hard" SF story, the kind that delves deeply into the effects of scientific or technological changes on a future society; this is about tough men and women who swear, drink and fornicate, and also get caught up in a monstrous corporate plot that threatens to destroy the solar system.

The two main characters are described in broad strokes--brave space captain, hard-bitten space cop--with just a little bit of extra shading (a bit of humour here, a dash of exstential despair there) to make them more than just cartoons. Secondary characters run the gamut from good ol' boys to slick corporate baddies to grrl power femmes, all of whom are familiar to us from every action movie of the last thirty years. The plot is a deftly-constructed series of revelations and cliffhangers, and the action scenes follow the templates laid down in most every SF film.

Leviathan Wakes is a clean, efficient, enjoyable piece of genre writing that's devoid of any original style or exciting prose, but what makes it interesting is that it's the product of two writers working under the Corey pen name: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. The only dual author novel I've read previously was Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. That novel read exactly like any other Pratchett book, and I was left wondering if Neil's only contribution was to bring Terry tea and Jaffa cakes when he was feeling peckish. Leviathan is no-frills blue collar writing, but it's also an example of error-free writng. Something that too many genre novels (SF, fantasy, mystery, crime) have in common are literary "speed bumps." What I mean by speed bumps are those moments in a novel that make me put down the book, groan, and wonder why an editor wasn't around to say, "Uh, you might want to rewrite that last bit."

This isn't really about bad writing. Lots of modern genre novels feature decent prose, but too often they feel like a rough draft rather than a finished product. For every genre novel I read, I probably abandon two others because they need heavy pruning; have serious, but fixable, plot problems; are barnacled with clumsy pop culture references; get caught up in referencing genre conventions; and have underdeveloped lead characters. Good prose writing can't be taught or edited into existence, but all of the aforementioned problems can be eliminated or reduced with the help of a good editor. I'm guessing that the drastic belt-tightening that's gone on in the publishing industry has probably diminished the role of  creative control editors in favour of glorified proofreaders. At least it seems like that's the case. The Corey team hasn't produced deathless prose, but each author undoubtedly acts as a rigorous editor for the other, and that's resulted in a novel with a high degree of professional polish. Oh, and it's also going to be the next big show on cable TV.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Olivia Chow's Bobo March to Certain Defeat

Olivia's costume did not produce the desired flock of voters.  No one
in the photo wants to tell her that enthusiastic Tweets don't count as votes.
If you're intelligent, have experience in politics, possess a university degree, have never been charged with any crimes and have a pulse, you should be a front runner in any race against Rob Ford for mayor of Toronto. Olivia Chow is more than qualified to bury Ford at the polls, and for most of the year she's been leading Ford by a healthy margin, but the most recent poll has shown her slipping badly. Her main opponent, John Tory, has taken the lead, which is a bit of miracle given that he's duller than a Velveeta and iceberg lettuce sandwich. He does, however, have the advantage of having hosted a local radio show for the past five years. But what's really doomed Chow is the curse of being a bourgeois bohemian, or bobo, a term coined by writer David Brooks.

Rob's lack of a costume produced at least two voters. And
possibly the next Mrs. Ford.
Here in Canada, the politicians we used to call socialists (aka members of the New Democratic Party) have morphed into bobos. Their bohemian side comes out in their enthusiastic embrace of the arts, the tamer elements of the counter-culture, multiculturalism, and anything eco-friendly. That would all be well and good but then we get to the bourgeois side of the ledger. The bourgeois politician is "sensitive" to the needs of big business and celebrates the "entrepenurial spirit". Olivia Chow is bobo to the core. She turned up at the Caribbean Carnival parade wearing a discreet, but unexpected, carnival costume that sent the message that she embraces the city's cultural mix, she's hip, and she knows how to let her hair down. Her fans on Twitter and elsewhere were giddy with delight at her bohemian sartorial choice, and scorn and sarcasm was directed at Tory and Stintz for their more boring attire. But as with most bobos, the colorful plumage hides a more conservative soul.

A quick look at Chow's campaign website shows her bourgeois backbone. The introductory page gives us her CV and mentions that she "was elected an MP in 2006." And which party was she a member of? Conservative? Liberal? Bloc Quebecois? Green? We're left in the dark because Chow is apparently frightened of reminding people that she was once one of those scary NDP socialists. Dig a little deeper in her website and you'll find her speech to the Economic Club of Canada, where she once again mentions her time in Parliament without identifying the party she belonged to. What's even more interesting about the speech is the fact that it took place at all. How many votes does Olivia think the Economic Club of Canada is worth? Does she actually believe currying favour with the one percent resonates with the average voter? It's the sharpest example of Canada's left-wing following the misguided path blazed by Tony Blair with his rebranding of Britain's Labour Party into "New Labour." This strategy involves abandoning the core values of socialism in favour of what could charitably be called capitalism with a human face. The Ontario NDP tried this strategy in the last provincial election and saw it blow up in their face.

In Olivia Chow's case her drift to the political centre has left her fighting for the same middle-class votes as John Tory, and the result is that Rob Ford, despite being the human version of Slimer from Ghostbusters, is slowly crawling back into the race for mayor. And the reason why is that a big chunk of his base support--the poor, the marginalized, the working poor, and penny-pinching retirees--have been quietly ignored by Chow. These people should be her base if she had a socialist bone left in her body. Instead of speaking to the Economic Club and its dozens of potential votes, Olivia would have been wiser to have made an appeal for support from the City of Toronto's thousands of unionized workers, who would have loved to hear her say she won't be launching a pogrom against them (as Ford tried to do and as Tory would probably attempt) and that she values what they do for the city. But "union" is a dirty word in the lexicon of New Labour and bobos. To these people unions are too old school, too contentious, too confrontational, and so very, very unhipster. Ford may be an evil muppet, but when he holds press conferences in Toronto Community Housing complexes, his crocodile tears in full flow as he describes the terrible living conditions therein, he's actually acquiring votes. It's all mendacious political theatre, but it gets the job done for Ford. Chow needs to be chasing those Ford voters, not wrestling with John Tory for votes in Rosedale, the Kingsway, Riverdale and North Toronto. Chow will get haute bourgeois votes simply because she's an alternative to Ford, but she'll have to work different, bleaker neighborhoods in order to win the election.

Sadly, I don't think Chow is going to be able to manage a change in strategy. Her 27-member advisory committee shows only one bona fide unionist, no leaders of grassroots community groups or anti-poverty organizations, but lots of people who've been living with six-figure salaries for a very long time. This isn't the brain trust to show her how to grab votes in Thorncliffe Park, Dixon Road, Flemingdon Park and Lawrence Heights. Another problem, and one that may have no solution, is Olivia herself. If you bother to read her speech to the Economic Club of Canada (I wouldn't recommend it) you'll probably be astonished by it's sheer awfulness, and I'm not talking about its political content. A speech this badly written wouldn't pass muster in a high school debating club. It's flat, the syntax is awkward, there are mistakes in grammar, and it has no personality or spirit. It's possible it was written by a SpeechBot 3000. Whether it was Olivia or one of her people who wrote the speech, it speaks of a campaign that's sloppy, unimaginative, lacking in vision, and careless about the details. I think Olivia always figured that Ford's ganglion cyst of scandals was her golden ticket to the mayor's office. But it appears that her overconfidence has created a mushy, feel-good, bobo campaign that's helping Ford stage a comeback that, if successful, will be one for the history books. That's not the way you want to go down in history, Olivia.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Book Review: Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944) by Jim Corbett

"Gone native" is a term of mild disapprobation that the British once used to describe fellow colonial officials who had taken too great an interest in the people they were ruling over. Going native could mean anything from speaking the local language, eating and dressing like the natives, or even, at the most politically dangerous end of the colonial spectrum, being supportive and respectful of local culture and/or independence movements. Lawrence of Arabia is the poster boy for going native, but the British Empire produced a handful of others who put a human face on colonialism.

Jim Corbett (1875-1955) was one such man. Born and raised in India, he was part of the small army of British bureaucrats, politicians, military men, engineers, and businessmen who managed the jewel in Britain's imperial crown. Corbett was in many ways more Indian than British. He spoke the local dialects, he spent most of his life in a remote area of India, and aside from military service during World War One, he barely seems to have set foot in the UK. Corbett  became famous in the late 1940s with a series of books about India's flora and fauna, the life of the rural poor, and, most famously, his exploits hunting down man-eating tigers and leopards.

Man-eater is almost too mild a term for the animals Corbett faced-off against. These tigers and leopards didn't just kill a few people, in some cases they had killed hundreds. One tiger is reputed to have killed more than 500 people in Nepal before being driven out of that country by the army. It set up shop in India where it killed another 400+ before being bagged by Corbett. These were the Blofelds and Hannibal Lecters of the animal kingdom. Corbett's stories of tracking and killing man-eaters are small masterpieces of narrative tension. Corbett isn't the most poetic or fluid writer, but his clear, workmanlike prose works beautifully in bringing alive the tensions and terrors of tracking man-eaters on foot through dense jungle. What makes Corbett's stories more than just plus-sized hunting pieces are his joyful descriptions of the natural world. He knew and understood everything that went on in the jungle and he brings that knowledge to the reader with a contagious enthusiasm. Perhaps the most notable feature of these hunting tales is the empathy Corbett displays for India's peasants. His writing makes it clear that his primary concern in shooting the man-eaters isn't the challenge it poses but the relief it brings to villages and regions paralyzed with grief and fear. It's Corbett's humanity, his love and concern for India's poorest people, that really makes these books something more than tales of adventure.

Corbett's interest in India's rural poor and working classes is even more evident in My India (1952), a mix of anecdotes about his non-hunting career, scenes from rural life, and an extended piece about his involvement in the hunt for Sultana, a legendary brigand who terrorized the United Provinces in the 1920s. Corbett was asked to take part in this police action because of his prowess as a tracker. Corbett has nothing but respect for Sultana, and he makes it very clear that because Sultana was a member of one of India's "official" criminal classes, his depredations were inevitable and blameless. It's hard to imagine any other British colonial official of that era taking as kindly or understanding a view of Sultana. It's undoubtedly for this reason that Corbett makes a cameo appearance in Sujit Saraf's The Confession of Sultana Daku (2009), a wonderful fictional retelling of Sultana's story (my review here). Corbett's affection for Sultana is also definitive proof that he had "gone native." At some point, consciously or unconsciously, he stopped seeing Indians as colonial subjects but as fellow citizens, and that's what makes Corbett's writings more lasting and significant than if they simply concentrated on hunting and nature.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review: The Centurions (1960) by Jean Larteguy

This novel about modern war and soldiering went from obscurity to semi-cult status when  U. S. General David Petraeus lobbied for its republication back in 2011. Petraeus was in charge of American forces in Iraq at the time, and had done a notable job of winning (temporarily) hearts and minds in Mosul, so interest in The Centurions spiked. The novel follows a group of elite French paratroops who are captured after the battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, spend several years in harsh captivity, return to a France that's ambivalent, at best, about war and colonial adventures, and then end up in Algeria to put down the pro-independence revolt that's breaking out.

There's a hell of a lot going on in this novel, what with dozens of major and minor characters; escapes from Viet Minh prison camps; philosophizing about miltary, moral and political matters; discussions of Communism; romantic entanglements; and sundry scenes of battle and torture. In this respect, The Centurions might be one of the best 19th century French novels of the 20th century. Like Balzac and Zola, Laterguy isn't afraid to roll his sleeves up and paint a big picture on a very big canvas, cramming every square inch with colour, energy and lots and lots of plot. What's best about this novel is its reckless enthusiasm in tackling so many big issues, historical events and disparate characters. The story moves at a gallop but Laterguy doesn't forget to garnish his novel with telling details and asides that remind us that he had first-hand experience of many of the events in the novel.

The politically correct version of what Petraeus found important in this book is its discussion of what's required of a modern Western army if it's to match arms and wits with a popular, especially Communist, uprising. Laterguy's paratroops learn the hard lesson that a modern army has to be more adaptable, more committed, and at least as politically informed as its enemies. The other reason, and a more worrying one, that Petraeus probably loved this book is that it carries a whiff of fascism. Laterguy's modern centurions are shown as disconnected from civilian life, or rather, civilians don't understand or care about the purity of purpose and love of battle that an elite soldier must possess. The Centurions certainly isn't an uncritical celebration of the martial spirit and mindset, but from time to time Laterguy, who had a long and distinguished career as a soldier and war correspondent, seems to envision a future where political decisions are made by the military.

The only real flaws in The Centurions are some sections of dialogue that get too polemical and the portrayal of female characters, all of whom fail the Bechdel test. Laterguy was a fairly prolific writer, and it would be interesting to see more of his books available in English. In the meantime, you can watch Lost Command, the Hollywood adaptation of The Centurions that came out in 1966, starring Anthony Quinn and George Segal as an Algerian rebel(!).

Friday, August 8, 2014

Little Big Man

Ford reveals his plan for robbing Fort Knox to pay for
Toronto's new subways.
On July 25, Toronto mayor Rob Ford held Ford Fest in a Scarborough park. The picnic/campaign event attracted a few protestors, but mostly it brought out the hardcore Ford supporters and those attracted to any kind of celebrity, notorious or otherwise. Toronto Life did a brief piece on the people who turned out to support Ford, and it's an efficient insight into the continuing puzzle of why this man, who appears to have absolutely no redeeming qualities, continues to earn the attention and admiration of perhaps a quarter of Toronto's electorate. As well, this article in Now provides an interesting look at the surprising (shocking?) support Ford gets from black voters.

What emerges from the two articles is that Ford's base can be divided into two camps. The first consists of those whose ears prick up every time Ford says things about working for the "little guy," a term he uses so often you'd be forgiven for thinking he's Mayor of Munchkinland. To back up his claims Ford regularly stages media events in which he visits public housing projects to knock on doors, shake hands, and listen to complaints about faulty elevators, leaky plumbing, and so on and so on. The fact that this isn't Ford's job and that his visits accomplish nothing is lost on "little guy" voters. The mere fact that he's paying attention to them, calling them by name, as it were, is enough to garner their adulation. Why? Because Ford has accidentally benefited from the class divisions in Toronto. The poor and the working poor in Toronto are largely ignored until one of them picks up a gun. The two other mayoral candidates of note, John Tory and Olivia Chow, spend most of their time currying favour with  the middle and upper-middle classes. On the provincial level, the NDP, supposedly the party of the working class, stayed mum on the subject of raising the minimum wage during this year's election. This election also saw them move vigorously towards the middle of the political spectrum. In sum, the people living on the economic edges of Toronto rarely hear a politician talking about them, and never see one turn up on their doorstep looking concerned. It's not surprising, then, that some of Toronto's proletarians would move into the Ford camp. They might be holding their noses while doing so, but their support for Rob is probably as much a protest against the way they're ignored as it is a vote for Ford.

The other group that loves Rob are those who like to see a "big man" in power. In large parts of the world the tribal chief, clan leader, capo, party boss or religious patriarch is expected be a big man, by which I mean a guy who throws his weight around, bullies, browbeats, acts tough, makes a show of his power and wealth and machismo, and, sometimes, is also physically large, or at least fat. In lots of cultures that are undemocratic or have weak democracies these are the kind of men people expect to see as a leader. Rob Ford is tailor-made for that demographic, and there are certainly lots of Torontonians who have come from countries and cultures that tolerate variations on Ford as leaders. And one has only to look at Italy and Silvio Berlusconi to realize it isn't just less-developed nations that have a weakness for loudmouthed, racist boors. Even Rob's brother Doug (a Toronto city councilor and Rob's more thuggish clone) got into the "big man" act this past Christmas when he gleefully handed out cash to residents of a public housing project as though he were the local lord of the manor or the resident drug dealer.

The socio-economic underclass and adherents to the "big man" theory of politics aren't going to be enough to get Ford re-elected (fingers crossed), but it's a reminder that when people feel ignored and lacking in representation, they'll be tempted to ally themselves with politicians who are willing to speak to them, even if those politicos have no intention or ability to do anything for them, and are singularly lacking in talent, intelligence and morals. Perhaps it's time for Chow and Tory to show up with their tool belts at their nearest public housing complex.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: Turbulence (2013) by Samit Basu

As newspapers have folded or drastically slimmed down as a result of people getting their news and opinion from the web, one crucial piece of collateral damage has been the demise of the newspaper book review. Once upon a time any half-decent book would appear in paperback bearing blurbs from newspapers both large and small, anything from the New York Times to the Kingston Whig Standard. These reviews weren't a foolproof guide to a book's quality, but it was a lot better than the situation we're in now. These days paperbacks arrive on the shelves barnacled with glowing reviews from bloggers, online fanzines, and other authors. The problems here are obvious. The bloggers and fanzines are usually uncritical promoters of most anything that falls into their field of interest, and authors are doing favours for friends, publishers, or in the expectation of getting their complimentary reviews repaid in kind. It's become common to come across cabals of authors in various genres and sub-genres who seem to have nothing but good things to say (in print) about their fellow club members. It's all very cosy and does a great disservice to readers.

Having been burnt several times in the past by novels recommended by authors, I've no one but myself to blame for reading Turbulence. The fact that four of the quoted reviews are from blogs with the word "geek" in their name should have provided ample warning. But wait! I think I'll blame Mike Carey and Ben Aaaronovitch, two of the best writers in the urban fantasy fiction genre, because their gushing reviews of Basu's novel are what made take a chance on it. I won't quote their blurbs, if only to spare them the embarrassment. Turbulence is about what happens when the passengers on a London to Delhi flight arrive at their destination to find that they've all been gifted with superpowers, from the odd to the frightening. What follows can charitably be described as fan fiction for people besotted with Marvel's X-Men franchise. There are cinematic fight scenes, much fretting over the responsibility of having great power, and a lot of B-grade quips. The only creative wrinkle is that all the characters are Indian. Basu had a great opportunity to do something more with his concept, specifically the idea of superheroes all being members of the developing world. One intriguing aspect of comic book superheroes is that at one level they are projections of Western (primarily U.S.) power and ideals. How does being an Indian superhero change what a superhero does? Would the caste system still exist amongst Indian superheroes? From Untouchable to Unstoppable? There are a lot of cultural and political ramifications to the idea of Indian superheroes and Basu hasn't addressed any of them.

The SF/Fantasy field is stuffed with bland and bad writing, and good writers like Carey and Aaronovitch don't do readers any favours by pointing them towards vanilla novels like Turbulence. In fact, they damage the reputation of their genre as a whole by promoting books that any discriminating reader is going to be disappointed by. Clearly, the publishing world needs a superhero who has the power to stop first-rate authors from promoting second-rate novels.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Betty and Veronica Unveiled

When I was a kid my least favourite comic book was Archie. From my point of view it was strictly for girls and it couldn't even claim to be funny. Fast forward to seven years ago when I began working at the library. To my amazement, Archie comics were still around. I had figured that the Archie universe of malt shops, roadsters, proms, and Archie's frankly bizarre relationship with Betty and Veronica would seem hopelessly out-of-date and unappealing to 21st century teens. Not so fast, Jughead. It turns out that kids and teens are still fascinated by the denizens of Riverdale, USA.

And here's the interesting part: in my neck of the woods some of the most avid readers of Archie are Muslim girls, especially the ones swathed in chadors and hijabs. At first blush this might seem odd. How can they relate to two female characters, Betty and Veronica, whose lives revolve around dating and clothes shopping, and who feel free to kiss any boy, any time? No psychology degree required to deduce that Archie serves a wish fulfillment function for these kids. The personal freedoms enjoyed by Betty and Veronica are clearly something these girls covet and dream about. The girls are also reading the usual variety of teen lit titles, especially the ones featuring teenagers with supernatural powers.

You don't have to throw a stone very far before hitting a right-wing politician or commentator who rails against immigrant Muslims for failing to integrate, for not adopting Western standards of dress and behavior. That might be true of some Muslims, but that only makes them like every other group of immigrants. Past a certain age, say thirty, we all become old dogs who are too reluctant or too lazy to learn new tricks. It's the kids who adapt and integrate. The popularity of Archie in the Canadian teen Muslim demographic would be just a cultural oddity if it didn't also point out how strongly young immigrants of all varieties want to participate in North American culture.

And now enter a time machine with me and journey back to Toronto in the late 1960s, a time when the city's most visible and numerous immigrant group was Italians. To we WASPy Torontonians, Italians were a strange race, indeed. We tsk-tsked at their large families; snickered at the shapeless, form-disguising black dresses worn by their women; mocked their accents; and most of all we fulminated about their inability to become Canadian, to speak English instead of that ridiculous language of theirs. From a WASP point of view in the '60s it didn't seem Italians would ever be "Canadian." It's at this point that the "the more things change..." cliche comes into play.

Having grown up in Toronto and seen it become one of the most multicultural cities in the world, it's dead obvious that immigrants of all varieties eventually integrate. Some immigrant groups manage the transition quickly, some do it over the course of a couple of generations. But they've all done it. And judging by the hunger Muslim girls have for Western grrl power literature and comics, their female children or grandchildren will one day be acting like Betty and Veronica instead of just reading about them.

I'll close with a story about the way in which integration can even find its way back to the "old country." I went to university with an Italian girl (I'll call her Sophia) who once told me about the time in the mid-1970s when she and her sisters, all teens, spent a summer in her family's town of origin in southern Italy. Her female teenage relatives in the town noticed that she and her sisters shaved their armpits. Sophia was pointedly told by these girls that only whores shaved their armpits. By the time Sophia and her sisters left for Canada, those same girls had started shaving.

Sophia's story neatly reveals how cultural values can backwash into an immigrant's country of origin through family relationships and friendships. So I wonder what seeds are planted when a girl in India or Pakistan or Iran is given a gift of secondhand Archie comics by a relative in Canada? What does she think when she sees Archie kissing an African-American girl? How does she react to Kevin Keller, Archie's openly gay friend? And what on Earth does she make of Betty and Veronica publicly flirting with boy after boy? I'm not saying that the world of Archie & Co. is an aggressive agent of cultural revolution, but in its depiction of teens living their lives unfettered by ancient tradition, ironclad gender stereotypes, and ruthless social prohibitions, the kids of Riverdale are presenting a seductive picture of a world largely defined by the choices and beliefs of individuals. There's nothing very revolutionary in that picture when viewed from North America, but in the right household, in the right country, it could tilt, even in a small way, the axis of someone's world.