ewx: (Default)

From Deep State To Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution And Its Jihadi Legacy, Jean-Pierre Filiu, ISBN 978-1-84904-546-9

This book analyses the background to, and aftermath, of the Arab Spring: the military despotisms in Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, with a lesser amount of material on Tunisia and Libya.

The question the book asks, essentially, is how the contests between military oligarchies, street protesters, political Islam and violent ‘jihadi’ movements ended with the first of the above remaining in charge, the middle two components crushed, and the latter successful and destructive. Filiu’s answer is essentially that the jihadists were indirectly, and in some cases directly, supported by the governments they supposedly oppose, both as a warning of chaos and as “my enemy’s enemy”.

The most blatant example is Bashar al-Assad, initially providing support for Iraqi enemies of the USA (including the local precursors of IS) and subsequently emptying its jails of jihadists in order to support its own propaganda once popular protests erupted in Syria.

The author also touches on Tunisia and Libya. In both cases the dictator fell, but the outcomes were very different. The reasons can be found both in the pre-revolutionary structure of the two countries and in the subsequent political processes.

The military oligarchies are characterised as ‘modern Mamluks’, alluding to historical military rulers. In their modern form, the author finds them excellent manipulators of both world powers and their regional neighbours, successfully extracting support in the form of money, weapons and oil; and vigorous defenders of their own privileges; but poor rulers of their countries.

This is a pretty depressing book. The only remotely successful entities in places like Syria are those that are prepared to burn the country to the ground to keep or take control, and when compared with the similar situation in Algeria in the 1990s, neither the ferocity of the conflict nor the negligible Western response seem particularly surprising.


Oct. 18th, 2016 12:10 am
ewx: (penguin)
Monstress vol. 1: Awakening, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda.

I encountered the first issue of this as a Humble Bundle sampler (http://ewx.livejournal.com/626752.html) and liked it, and bought it cheap on Comixology during a sale. From a high level, the setting isn’t the most original: the world is largely divided (with a literal wall) between humans and magical halfbreeds (Arcanics). However it’s a good implementation of the cliché and the plot and characters in any any case transcend it.

The previous hot phase of the conflict between the humans and Arcanics was terminated by some kind of major and very destructive magical event, with even the known details to some extent covered up. Maika, superficially human but in fact rather more complicated than that, knows her mother had something to do with it, and wants answers from her former colleagues. As the book opens she is tactically exploiting helplessness, but she soon turns out to be exceptionally dangerous, a repeating theme being others discovering this a bit too late. This could easily have been mishandled but by in practice it stays interesting throughout; her strength, or a least her willingness to use it, does have its limits.

Maika’s principle antagonists are a powerful religious order which when not exploiting enslaved Arcanics seems to be thoroughly overrun by its own members’ private agendas, a characteristic which extends (albeit mostly in less brutal form) to many of the other protagonists, adding a realistic gloss of human nature to a fantastical world.

The volume ends with a satisfying resolution, but with open questions and loose ends lined up for further issues. I look forward to them.
ewx: (penguin)

House of Cards, Michael Dobbs, 978-1-4711-2852-3.

An unscrupulous 1980s Conservative chief whip plots and schemes within a re-elected but weakened government. This is not really great literature: most of the characters are stereotypes rather than in any way rounded portrayals, and the writing felt a little pedestrian. Nevertheless it was fun to read and I can see why it was adapted for television multiple times.

A Very British Coup, Chris Mullin, ISBN 978-1-84668-740-2.

A far-left Labour politician becomes Prime Minister, and the establishment and the Americans set out to undermine him. In some ways timely as Harry Perkins partially reflects Jeremy Corbyn: however, importantly, he is considerably smarter and has the backing of his parliamentary party (and, at least initially, the country). As above the writing is not of the most dazzling style, and the characters are if anything even more 2-dimensional, but also as above, it got the job done.

Also, really, a more serious political work, focusing not on the process of climbing the greasy pole (and stamping hard on those below) but instead on the structure of UK politics (at least as it stood at the time). Amusingly, the book mentions US interception activities in Europe, three decades before Snowden and half a decade before Campbell.

ewx: (penguin)

Some sampler issues that came via Humble Bundle a while back and I’ve only just got around to.

Black Magic #1. A witch who is also a policewoman. First episode works in isolation but is clearly intended as the start of a longer story. I liked this and could be tempted by more.

Citizen Jack #1. Brutish snowplow salesman makes a deal with a demon to run for president. Didn’t grab me at all.

Huck #1. Small-town superman-alike just wants to do a good deed every day. What happens when the media find out? Find out next issue! Difficult to assess as it’s basically all setup in this issue.

I Hate Fairyland #1. Small girl magically transported to fairyland wants to get home and (eventually) responds to persistent setbacks with anarchic cartoon violence. Amusing idea but I didn’t get a sense there was any more to it than that.

Injection #1. See here.

Limbo #1. Noirish amnesiac detective (reminds me of Dead Letters, which I enjoyed) with magic. The issue concludes at the point he thinks he's got a job all wrapped up, and there's a genre convention about that... Has potential.

Monstress #1. A physically and emotionally damaged witch tricks her way into the stronghold of her enemy in search of answers, but has to leave satisfied with nothing better than revenge. I liked this.

Paper Girls #1. Four ?1980s paper delivery girls in (I think) encounter some kind of alien intrusion, although not a hugely competent one so far. Curious to find out what’s going on.

Plutona #1. Spends the entire issue character-building the group of kids who encounter the eponymous superheroine towards the end of the issue. Difficult to asses for the same reason as Huck, but the setup is more character-building and less situation, which I think is promising.

Pretty Deadly #6. Nice artwork and creative panel layout. But the story seems to be mostly setup and I wonder how much I’m missing from being dropped in at a 6th issue. An odd choice of sampler?

Ringside #1. Lots of good character stuff around an ex-wrestler and others ... followed by what looks suspiciously like the setup for a revenge fantasy. Undecided.

Saints #1. Saints run around a dingy bit of the USA and find each other. Angels plot. Reminds me a bit of Lyda Morehouse. The authors clearly share my amusement at medieval depictions of Saint Sebastian.

The Goddamned #1. A blond naked white dude called Cain (yes, that one) kills a bunch of savages in order to recover his stolen clothes and stuff, then spends a few pages moaning about how horrible everything is. I didn’t really like it.

Tokyo Ghost #1. A pair of police-ish types track down a villain who might be at home in a crossover between Ghost in the Shell and Batman: The Killing Joke. Sanguinary but fun.

ewx: (penguin)
Humble Comics Bundle 'Creators Own Worlds'. About a day left so I’ll post pint-sized reviews now rather than waiting any longer.

Bitch Planet Vol. 1. The setting is a world where patriarchy is more overtly the basis of society; the president is called “Father” and women are imprisoned for the most trivial breaches of strict gender roles. The plot is largely set in a prison, where it can focus on systematic oppression and attempts to live within a corrupt, brutal and tightly circumscribed environment. But the planet of the title refers to the fact that apparently space travel is easy enough to ship these convicts to a prison located on some other planet - yet puzzingly this doesn’t seem to have made any other difference to society (at least as far as we see it). Some good characters.

Descender Vol. 1. Haven’t read this yet.

Free Issues Courtesy of Image Comics. Haven’t read this yet.

Image Comics Humble Bundle Preview Book 2016. Haven’t read this yet.

Injection Vol. 1. Magico-technological thriller. (Magicological?) The computer stuff mostly didn’t make me roll my eyes, which sounds like a low bar but in practice isn’t. I found the presentation a bit flat but the story was interesting enough to make up for it.

Invincible Compendium (Issues #1-47). Haven’t read this yet.

Jupiter's Circle Vol. 1. 1950s-ish superheroes with 1950s-ish flaws (gay, has affairs, alcoholic, etc). Watchmen did it better.

Just The Tips. Satirical sex and dating advice from the people responsible for Sex Criminals. Funny.

Kaptara Vol. 1. A small group of humans get stranded on an alien world. Very reminiscent of the Flash Gordon film. Humour with occasional darkness. Not bad but not great.

Low Vol. 1. End-of-time submariners attempt to navigate sea monsters and human monsters to save the world, which seems to have less clothes and less immortals than you might otherwise expect. The artwork sometimes emphasizes prettiness over clarity but I coped.

No Mercy. A group of students are in a bus crash somewhere remote. Relentlessly depressing.

Nowhere Men Vol. 1. A small group of superstar scientists degrade over the years from successful and positive collaboration to struggle and the creation of monsters. Lots of flashback. I found it hard to follow.

ODY-C Vol. 1. The Odyssey in space with female characters. More artwork emphasizing prettiness over clarity. Lots of narration, which would normally be a bad sign in a comic, but it gets away with it.

Outcast Vol. 1. Haven’t read this yet.

Phonogram Vol. 1. Magic and 1990s indie bands. Would particularly suit a reader who didn’t need most of the four-page glossary at the end (none of it about magic) but I enjoyed it nevertheless

Phonogram Vol. 2. Haven’t read this yet.

Rat Queens Special: Braga #1. An orc wants something more than orcish conflict. *shrug*

Saga Vol. 4. By volume 4 you should probably know whether you like this or not. I do.

Saga Vol. 5. Haven’t read this yet.

Self-Obsessed. Bounced off this almost immediately.

Stray Bullets #1-41. Unsympathetic people doing horrible things ... I nearly put it down, but I persevered and got to some more engaging characters. There’s nearly 1,200 pages here so don’t expect to get through it in a single sitting.

Sunstone Vol 1. Two women enter into a BDSM-based romance. Nicely drawn.

Trees Vol. 1. Mysterious alien trees plant themselves on earth, causing chaos and destruction. Most of the story is about the various characters development rather than the trees; some of them are sympathetic and interesting but others unexcitingly horrible. If anything I was more interested in the idea of volume 2 about three quarters of the way through than by the end.

Virgil. Revenge fantasy involving a gay Jamaican police officer.

Wayward Vol. 1. Tokyo urban fantasy. A teenage girl moves to Japan and finds she has magic powers and meets similarly equipped peers. Together they struggle against creatures from Japanese folklore. Nice artwork, good characters. Huge appendices containing background on all the things they run into.

Wolf Vol. 1. Los Angeles urban fantasy. European folkloric monsters this time. Not bad but not as good as Wayward.

Wytches Vol. 1. Black magic in rural America. I found the artwork a bit chaotic but the story was enjoyable.


Jan. 11th, 2016 09:22 pm
ewx: (penguin)
I reached for 1. Outside first, because of course I would. A concept album and I love the concept; aurally while I like the music, it’s the lyrics that I’m really here for. Some of my favourites:

(i) “Oh, Ramona - if there was only something between us
If there was only something between us
Other than our clothes

Something I have thought about a number of people over the years.

(ii) “Something is going to be horrid” ... BOOM CRASH HALLO SPACEBOY

A fantastic audio cut, at a key point in the story - if it was a film this would be the last time we saw Baby Grace Blue alive (nonlinearity permitting).

(iii) “Watching the young advancing all electric

A lovely image, and always makes me think of the explosion of personal electronics in the years since. Laptops, iPods, smartphones, Fitbits, and it’s not over yet.

(iv) “I started with no enemies of my own
I’ve been dreaming of sleep ... and ape. men. with. metal. parts.

Ramona gets the best lines, consistent with her role, and the delivery of the latter in particular is fantastic. The implication that someone might have to - or want to - borrow someone else’s enemies, until they could organise some of their own, is a marvellous one.

Rolling Stone wrote, admittedly among some more sensible things:

It’s too bad that Bowie and Eno don’t allow themselves the luxury of a straightforward pop song until the very end. You have to wade through 19 tracks of conceptual mischief to get to the simple melodic development and swelling chorus of “Strangers When We Meet.”

Fucking philistines. The conceptual mischief is the whole point. For a review from someone who actually got it, see the second review here (by Iai).
ewx: (penguin)
The Killing. Lengthy subtitled Danish police procedural, in which Copenhagen detective Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) becomes obsessed with solving the horrific murder of Nanna Birk Larsen.

There are some fairly engaging characters here. Lund’s self-destructive obsession is very well portrayed, and Troels Hartmann (Lars Mikkelsen) political machinations under fire are enjoyable.

I guessed fairly early on who was the most likely killer although of course I wasn’t sure until late whether this was the kind of story where you see the perpetrator from the start or the police eventually track them down while they’re mostly off-screen.

The biggest problem, and it’s a recurring one, is characters who spend much too long being stupid, for instance inexplicably preferring to get tangled up in a murder investigation instead of than tell the police what they were really up to (which rarely turns out to be anything that the police would be very likely to care much about). In general, failure to communicate is an ever-present theme. I think they were aiming at with all this is “no-one is what they seem” but, to be effective, that needs a bit more than just clamming up for unconvincing reasons.

The series would also have benefitted from being a bit shorter, for instance by ditching one of the false leads, either completely or by having someone given the perfectly reasonable explanation for their superficially mysterious behavior up-front rather than taking a few episodes over it.

Top of the Lake. A more compact story set in a remote part of New Zealand. 12YO Tui Mitcham turns out to be unexpectedly pregnant and then ups and disappears. Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) investigates.

Griffin is not as self-destructive as Lund, but instead mostly struggles with her own history. Tui’s monstrous but complex father Matt (Peter Mullan) dominates every scene he’s in and is the most interesting character here, producing several surprises over the course of the series.

The final episode packs rather a lot of resolution into a small space, satisfyingly tying together a lot of threads but leading to a bit of a change of pace from its fairly relaxed predecessors.
ewx: (penguin)

A Savage War of Peace, Alistair Horne, ISBN 978-1-447-23343-5

This is an account of the Algerian War of Independence.

It covers the background quickly: French colonization in the 19th century (an attempt to shore up the Bourbon monarchy, which did not really work), the establishment of the Pieds Noirs (i.e. European-origin colonists, not all French by any means), and early hints of trouble (at least some of it recognized, but never meaningfully acted upon).

Having set the scene it really gets going in 1945 with the Sétif massacre, with around 100 Europeans killed and shortly afterwards many thousands of Muslims being killed in official and unofficial retaliation. As well as being an appalling crime this was a serious mistake, being the event that radicalized many of the future leaders of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the key resistance organization.

The FLN’s initial strikes were not particularly effective, but got the attention of the French state and even generated some recognition at high levels that reform and negotiation were required - but (in fact despite several attempts) significant reform was never actually delivered, not least due to persistent Pied Noir obduracy. For a long time nor was negotiation, partly for the same reason (i.e. the political impossibility of being seen to negotiate) but also due to the difficulty of identify a negotiating counterparty. The latter seems to have been partly a result of the colonial strategy of disrupting rather than co-opting the local elite.

Instead the response was to send in the troops. The FLN’s rapid and effective adoption of asymmetric warfare (maquis tactics in the countryside and bombings in the cities) saved them from complete destruction but the military part of the story is, ultimately, one of gradually increasing French success, and brutal tactics on both sides (with the French military tactics often acting as recruiting adverts for the FLN - “The stupid bastards are winning the war for us”). The FLN managed to find a degree of sanctuary in recently independent Tunisia (whose initially good relations with France were repeatedly degraded by ill-considered French military action) but weren’t able to exploit it other than tying down a lot of French troops in the form of a highly effective border force.

The result was a disastrous situation for France. The army felt they were doing the politicians’ dirty work, but that the politicians did not have their backs; a problem compounded by France record of repeated military humiliation (in WWII, in Indo-China, at Suez) - the army wanted to win something and thought (quite possibly correctly, in narrowly military terms) that they could do it in Algeria. In Paris meanwhile politics fell deeper and deeper into crisis, with independence politically impossible but no other realistic political solutions on offer and no government able to stay in power for long in any case. Moreover the combination of these two factors had led to the armed forces developing a politically unchallenged habit of independent action.

The result in May 1958 was a military revolt, with General Jacques Massu and others seizing power in Algeria, capturing Corsica, and preparing to take Paris. Their condition was that Charles de Gaulle must return to power, and in this sense, they got what they wanted.

Having taken the reins, however, de Gaulle was faced with much the same difficulties as his predecessors: the military campaign would probably work on its own terms but will not actually solve anything - it would be a permanent occupation, at considerable financial and moral cost.  However, despite the hastily papered-over irregularity of his accession, he was equipped with a considerably stronger mandate to do something about it. In this sense, Massu and his allies did not get what they wanted, but exactly the opposite. By 1961 this had lead to a second military revolt, but this one failed dismally, and subsequently the remains of the war party resorted to the same terrorist methods under the name Organisation de l'Armée Secrète (OAS), in both Algeria and France, that their FLN opponents had long practiced. Nor did it stop there: the Gaullist paramilitaries of the Mouvement pour la Communauté (MPC) were in the habit of blowing up cafés frequented by members of the OAS. (The Day Of The Jackal is fiction, but the OAS really did try to kill de Gaulle).

Ultimately de Gaulle conceded enough about the future disposition of Algeria for negotiations to start making real progress, leading to the Évian Accords concluding the war in 1962. In principle he had been attempting to secure some kind of life for the Pieds Noirs in Algeria after independence; what happened in practice was that hundreds of thousands of them emigrated. He also failed to secure any practical protection for the Harkis, natives who had fought for the French and were subsequently treated exceptionally badly by the country’s new rulers.

History has not treated independent Algeria well. Its first independent government was quickly replaced by military dictatorship. It spend much of the 1990s in civil war.

Why was the conflict so intractable for so long? Many among the French governing elite understood that the game was up, but the persistent weakness and instability of French governments prior to 1958 meant they were unable to act on this. The Pieds Noirs and their military and nationalist allies, as well as being the immediate cause of that instability, were convinced they could and should win, although rarely within any kind of coherent idea of what the outcome should look like - the most clear-headed saw South Africa as their model, but others imagined even into the 1960s that they could reach some kind of accommodation with the Muslim population, which over the course of the previous decade had gone from optimism to fantasy. Finally, the FLN also thought they could and should win, but were actually right: they knew how to use their enemy’s strength against them, by provoking them into ever more brutal measures. Essentially they discovered how to make victory - or even a frozen conflict - too painful for France, and then they just had to wait until France broke, at which point they achieved their goal of total independence.

The reason I really bought this book, though, was to learn more about the May 1958 crisis.

de Gaulle does not (at least in Horne’s account) seem to have been involved with the planning and initiation of the coup. Rather he seems to have been ‘waiting for the call’ - but there is no clear indication that he was expecting to come from the army rather than, say, popular demand or a political party. However, he made himself complicit with Massu’s revolt both by announcing once it was underway that he was ready to assume power, and (in response to the last gap of parliamentary resistance) remarking “I shall have no alternative but to let you have it out with the paratroops”.

In particular, after reading books by Javier Cercas and Serhii Plokhy, I wanted to know how the coup compared with the failed coups in Spain and the USSR in the second half of the twentieth century.

In Spain, the golpistas perceived a country in serious trouble, just as France was in 1958, and General Armada planned to follow in de Gaulle’s footsteps by using military pressure to ensure he won a vote. But unlike the French example, where President Coty and the National Assembly conceded, Armada was unable to constitutionalize the coup, due to the failure to successfully co-opt the Spanish monarchy; whether he could have won a vote in the Cortes is unknown. And while 1980s Spain did have some serious problems, the country was in an ongoing process of reform; in contrast France in 1958 was demonstrably not coping and there did not seem to be any reason to think matters would improve - there was no light at the end of the tunnel and no realistic alternative to de Gaulle to rally opposition.

In the Soviet Union the country was also in a bad way - it had run out of money, had already lost territory and key regional elites were agitating for independence. Indeed the worst fears of the coup plotters were ultimately realized: the USSR destroyed itself from within not long after they had been defeated. While their actions no doubt contributed to this, the internal destructive processes were already well underway and I don’t think it’s controversial to say the outcome would have been essentially the same.
ewx: (penguin)

(Caveat: it’s a while since I’ve read most of these so they aren’t all very fresh in my mind.) Underlining marks the best of the bunch.

From the 2015 Hugos packet:

Ms Marvel #1. A Muslim girl in the US gains super powers, and spends most of the book learning to cope, although some longer-term plot starts to pick up towards the end of this volume. Think Vimanarama but more American. Enjoyable.

Rat Queens #1. Four female mercenaries in a D&D setting. Praised as “realistic-looking female characters” and I guess that’s true by comic standards (i.e. discounting pointy ears etc). Well-drawn, some nice lines, reasonably engaging plot. Would probably read more (I’d have to re-read volume one to remember what was going on).

Saga #3. Continues the story. If you liked #1 and #2 (the latter of which I said a little about last year) you’ll probably like this.

Sex Criminals #1. Suzie discovers that time freezes when she orgasms, and as luck would have it meets Jon who has the same unusual power. Inevitably they team up and fight commit crimes. Enormously funny and I will be reading more.

Via Humble Bundle:

Alone Forever. 100 pages of mostly amusing ?autobiographical anecdotes about being single.

Bone #1. Weird little creatures who look like this gradually integrate with cute talking animals ... and find themselves caught up in obscure and rather darker than the setting would have suggested. I’ll be reading more.

The CBLDF Presents: Liberty. Huge collection of shorts, mostly touching on censorship and opposition to it. Mixed quality but fun overall.

Crime Does Not Pay #22-25. A 1940s collection of sensationalized accounts of crimes. Massively popular in its days, which was before a culture of self-censorship set in during the 1950s.

ElfQuest: The Final Quest. Elves doing nothing I found remotely interesting, I got bored and read something else instead.

Essex County. Small boy who likes comics grows up in rural Canada. I’m afraid I got bored of this one too.

Locke And Key. A family loses its father and, on returning to the ancestral home, becomes embroiled in struggle with an evil spirit, their principal weapons being a collection of magical keys unlocking a variety of capabilities for their users. There’s a lot in here and I couldn’t put it down.

Lost Dogs. Roughly-drawn tragedy. I made it to the end but I don’t think it was worth it.

Maggie The Mechanic (Love and Rockets). A vaguely futuristic setting provides the backdrop for meandering relationships between a collection of characters slightly too large for me to remember entirely clearly at this distance. Reminded me of Strangers In Paradise in many ways (not just the artwork).

Heartbreak Soup (Love and Rockets). Similar kind of idea but with an initially more claustrophobic and down-to-earth setting of a Latin American village.

The Madame Paul Affair. Chaotic goings on in a Montreal apartment block. It didn’t grab me.

March #1-2. Account of the US Civil Rights Movement as seen from the inside. Hard work at times but very interesting.

Morning Glories #1. Superficially an exclusive school but in fact the staff are torturing and murdering the students, among others. Might be tempted to read more of it sometime, not sure.

Mouse Guard. Sword-wielding talking mouse on a quest. I can’t really remember anything about this.

Parker #1-4. Career criminal repeatedly finds himself in ever bigger holes due to incompetence and/or betrayal by his associates. I remember this being fun to read.

Revival #1. The dead come back to life and cause all sorts of trouble. I don’t remember much about this but skimming it just is encouraging me to revisit it at some point.

Sidescrollers. A bunch of kids who mostly like playing video games get into scrapes. Fun though not exactly heavyweight plot. Wonderfully characterful greyscale artwork.

The Boys #5. Superpowered hit squad whose job it is to deal bloodily with the worst excess of the world’s superhero population, who seem to be at best criminally reckless. I think I probably suffered a bit from coming in at the fifth volume, but it was good enough that I’ll probably get hold of #1 at some point.

The Frank Book. Weird ?dog creature encounters weird things in a weird world. Quite nicely drawn but I got bored relatively early on.

The Little Man. Random ?autobiographical strips. I didn’t find it very interesting.

We Can Fix It. Jess Fink uses a time machine to revisit her past and generally interfere. A lot of fun.

Wytches #1. Villagers sacrifice people to dark forces in return for all the usual gifts. The victims fight back. I found some of the artwork a bit hard to follow in places but the story was a good one.

ewx: (penguin)

…and some post-holiday reading, as it happens.

The Last Light Of The Sun and The Lions Of Al-Rassan (Guy Gavriel Kay). I thought I’d reviewed some of his other books in this forum but I can’t find any evidence of that. GGK’s favorite strategy is to take a more or less well known historical era and its actors, lightly rename them, add a bit of magic, and then write a compelling story in the resulting setting. In this case we are mostly dealing with Viking era England, with Alfred the Great renamed Athelbert and the Vikings renamed Erlings in the former, and a renamed Spain during the reconquista in the latter, with the most famous of the character templates being El Cid. I got on well with both books, which meditate in various ways upon the passing of ages. Specifically, in the former, the subject is the end of a heroic age and the dawn of powerful medieval states, with the arbitrariness and brutality of the violence of the former contrasted with the inexorability and totality of the latter. The latter concerns the existential conflict between a sophisticated and cosmopolitan society with a more primitive but more vigorous one, to a great extent making the same sort of contrast.

Tigana and A Song For Arbonne (also Guy Gavriel Kay) have a slightly weaker connection with real-world history, though both take inspiration from past cultures in their settings. It seems to me that Tigana is really about how the weak can hope to fight the powerful and monstrous: direct open confrontation in force is impossible, so the indirect, covert and personal must be employed instead. A Song For Arbonne covers some of the same territory as The Lions of Al-Rassan, really, but draws quite different and ultimately more hopeful conclusions.

Cider With Rosie (Laurie Lee). The author recounts his Gloucestershire childhood, early in the C20th. Beautifully written, engaging characters, interesting events: it’s completely obvious why it’s considered a classic.

The Manifesto On How To Be Interesting (Holly Bourne). Teenage girl struggles with friendship, popularity and love at school, packing in a multitude of (some of them perennially) topical misadventures. Entertaining.

The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides). Slightly unusual narrative structure fails to rescue a story that I found essentially dull. But not half as offputting as…

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell). Jesuits In Space sounds superficially promising, though the idea of a bunch of friends deciding one night to mount the first manned interstellar mission and succeeding made me laugh in disbelief. Putting that aside, however, the flashback structure means that the body horror aspects that might otherwise have been localized to a disaster towards the end of the book instead relentlessly impinge upon the reader throughout. I couldn’t finish it.

The Shell Collector (Hugh Howey). A bit of a departure for Howie. The post-apocalyptic scenario is familiar, albeit that it’s a more realistic and less drastic one than usual. But rather than the usual engineering-fiction romp that he does so well this is actually a straightforward love story. More strikingly still he doesn’t massacre enormous numbers of his characters, which I can only imagine must have been a wrench. Joking aside I got on pretty well with this, while the science-fictional element may be there just to support the primary romantic plot it’s still nicely done and the side-character interactions are enjoyable.

Also recently Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie) but (i) I suspect people are still hoping to avoid spoilers just now and (ii) I don’t think 2145 on a Sunday night is a time at which I can do justice to it. So maybe another time.

ewx: (penguin)

The Anatomy of a Moment, Javier Cercas, 978-1-4088-2210-4

Some time ago I read The Battle for Spain by Anthony Beevor, an account of the Spanish civil war leading to the triumph of Franco. I don’t think I wrote a review but I did post a choice quote.The eventual sequel to that conflict was the Spanish transition to democracy after Franco’s death. I was vaguely aware that he’d been succeeded by Juan Carlos as King of Spain, who had reintroduced democracy, and that there’s been a failed military coup attempt that the King had had some hand in putting down.

Of course, it was a lot more complicated than that.

So firstly, for me Javier Circas’s book shed some light upon the events, their background, and the personalities involved. By the time of the coup the Spanish democracy had been underway for long enough that the King’s original choice of Prime Minister, Adolfo Suaréz, had spent all his political capital and more. The economy was in trouble; ETA terrorism was out of control; the communists were legal again; social reform was underway; it was now obvious that Suaréz had not just reformed Francoism but totally abolished it (which was why he’d been appointed). Many of the country’s problems hurt everybody but the conservative establishment felt particularly aggrieved (and with ETA’s campaign principally impacting the security forces, this wasn’t entirely sour grapes).

Talk of a coup, “a hand on the rudder,” was in the air from all sides, even from people who ought to have known better. Everyone wanted Suaréz gone, but the golpistas wanted a change of direction too. In the event they got what the former without a coup - Suaréz resigned - but they did not get the latter and that is why his resignation did not prevent the coup: and so as the deputies in the Cortes voted on his replacement they were interrupted by an armed incursion. You can watch it on Youtube.

Circas analyzes who was behind the coup. The key figure is General Armada (and for an English reader it’s hard to imagine a better name for Spanish villain), who wanted to put himself in charge but nevertheless maintain constitutional appearances by winning a vote in the Cortes, presenting himself as a compromise. This was ultimately revealed to be a fantasy by the subsequent King’s broadcast against the coup, though as Circas points out, had he been more successful the broadcast may have been re-interpreted as a condemnation of the initial violent incursion rather than the entire project of the coup.

The brains of the operation is also the most mysterious and most colorfully described character, intelligence officer José Luis Cortina, described as a “twelve-faced character” and, even more remarkably, a Marxist-Falangist. Cercas is sure that he supported the coup at its inception, but equally sure that he opposed once the writing was on the wall. (Ultimately he escaped conviction.)

The man on the ground was Lieutenant Colonel Tejero, who took over the Cortes. Between him and Armada was a dangerous difference in expectations: Tejero’s goal was the re-introduction of military rule. He was supposed to seize the Cortes peacefully - but in the event sent bullets flying, which in Cercas’s analysis gave what had been intended as a “soft coup” the unavoidable appearance of a “hard coup”, one of the first things that went wrong.

This is the moment that Cercas relentlessly anatomizes. When the guns open up, most of the deputies in the Cortes dives to the floor. But Suárez sits impassive, along with Santiago Carrillo (the communist leader, compromising from left to establish Spanish democracy) and Suárez’s deputy General Gutiérrez Mellado (compromising from inside the army, to the same ends), before turning to protest. This refusal to submit to the attack is revisited again and again through the book and analyzed from every angle.

Ultimately Armada’s attempts to constitutionalize the coup by invoking the monarch are frustrated by the King himself: the King refuses to talk to him and ultimately broadcasts on the television against the coup. Armada’s only remaining avenue is to attempt to be the hero by negotiating with Tejero - but this founders on the differences in the two men’s goals and on Tejero’s unwillingness to sacrifice himself to Armada’s soft coup.

Of course, it was a lot more complicated than that.

If you want to know more than I can recommend reading the book. It’s a colorful and entertaining account of a critical moment in Spanish history, written in a style quite unlike any work of history that I can bring to mind, endlessly questioning itself and second-guessing itself and third-guessing itself, and the actors, and the evidence, and the events, within every other sentence. The author has brought a novelist's sensibility to a work of historical analysis and this shines through in Anne McLean’s translation.

ewx: (penguin)

Alif The Unseen, G. Willow Wilson, 9780857895660

Alif is a half-Arab, half-Indian computer hacker who lives in an anonymous Gulf city. When Alif’s girl trouble mutates into government trouble he is forced to flee his home and seek help from what turns out to be supernatural figure, resulting in an adventure through the religious, magical, technological and political, and various relationships between all of these domains -  while nobody actually says “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” the idea is clearly there.

This is urban fantasy set in a modern Middle-Eastern city. Aspects may be inspired by the Arab Spring but the concerns are certainly not unique to the Arab world. There’s some unfamiliar terminology (e.g. desi and thobe) but I didn’t have any real difficulty figuring it out from context and there are plenty of familiar anchor points too.

Alif’s good with computers; some of the descriptions here verge on technobabble, but fortunately not for very long. He’s not so great with people, to the despair of some of his allies. Nevertheless they stick by him for plausible reasons. It must be said that his enemies are a bit on the 2-dimensional side, though with Alif as the viewpoint character there are only limited opportunities to round them out.

I had trouble putting this book down.

Jennifer Government, Max Barry, 0349117624

Hack Nike works for Nike, and makes a series of bad decisions. The latter is true of many other characters in this well-populated book.

This satire is set in a near future where pretty much everything has been privatized. While government still has a residual role the title character still has to solicit funding from the victims of crime merely to launch an investigation, and corporate private armies prove a repeated obstacle. Her primary antagonist gets a lot more viewpoint time than any of Alif’s opponents, but the reader still doesn’t get much more insight than that’s he’s amoral and greedy.

Barry writes in short, punchy chapters, maintaining a rapid pace throughout. Not quite as hard to set down as Alif but still a pretty quick read.

ewx: (penguin)

Muhammad: A Biography Of The Prophet, Karen Armstrong, 1-84212-608-3

This is a sympathetic biography of the Prophet Muhammad. While the (very broad) outlines of his life and achievements are familiar to me from a variety of works, I didn’t really have any of the detail, so there was much here that was new to me.

The book is specifically aimed at western audiences and as such includes a fair bit of material intended to put the story into context, for instance to square the religious figure with the military leader. Of course this is aimed squarely at the long-standing and widespread western perception of Islam as inherently violent - though I think anyone even slightly familiar with the period would conclude Muhammad was no more violent than any other leader of the time: the Byzantine Emperor of the day, “God’s vicegerent on Earth”, for instance, was busy invading Persia at the same time Muhammad was prosecuting his conflict with the Quraysh.

It’s based on the Qu’ran and a handful of biographies written in the 8th and 9th centuries in the middle east. This is a tricky collection of source material to deal with: the Qu’ran is not even a narrative much less a biography, while even the earliest of the rest was written over a century after the death of their subject. While well-referenced it does not really display much interest in establishing the accuracy of its sources, so while it may well be a good presentation in English of the traditional understanding of Muhammad’s life, it seems reasonable to wonder how close to the facts it may be.

It’s definitely picking a particular viewpoint, too. Armstrong writes of the hijab: “in the Qu’ran it was simply a piece of protocol that applied only to the Prophet’s wives”. But it’s not hard for even an amateur to find statements in the Qu’ran that at least superficially seem to have more general application and Wikipedia makes it clear that there’s a variety of views on the subject.

Still, in a book that is about the person as traditionally understood, rather than about the theology, these aren’t major criticisms. Worth a read if you’re unfamiliar with the details of the background to Islam.

In The Shadow Of The Sword, Tom Holland, 978-0-74811-951-6

An alternative, wider and more questioning, view of the history of Islam, this book starts with a discussion of the historical background to the appearance of Islam: the Roman and Persian empires, the conflicts between them, and the religious and cultural situation within and beyond both. This is excellent stuff and it would make a good standalone work with only a little expansion. However the point of the exercise is to set the stage for the second half of the book.

The author is skeptical about (in particular) the location of the events of Muhammad’s life. As an alternative to the traditional story he proposes that they took place not far from the boundaries of the Roman empire of the time, essentially among the Arabic tribes that from time to time provided mercenary service for one empire or another (essentially analogous to foederati such as the Franks in northwestern Europe), historically attested examples being the the Ghassanids and the Lakhmids.

Various arguments are advanced in favor of this proposition. However I wasn’t entirely convinced; many of the arguments turn out not to be as strong upon further investigation as they may seem from the text in isolation.

Take one locational arguments, for instance. The traditional view is that Muhammad lived in Mecca and in 622CE fled to Medina. Holland argues that Mecca is exceptionally obscure in the 7th century and earlier, with very little material from the time referring to it. This does seem to be so. The only certain reference to it in the Qu’ran is to ‘the valley of Mecca’ (48:24) though the reference to Bakkah (3:96) is traditionally held to refer to the same place (or to some part of it). Holland suspects that this interpretation is mistaken, and that there really are two different places with two different names here, and that the latter was the original home of Muhammad and site of the Ka’aba (surah 3 mandates pilgrimage to it), with the significance of Mecca being a later development.

However, surah 48 immediately follows its reference to the valley of Mecca with a discussion of past and future access to the Sacred Mosque (a phrase also used in 2:144 when discussing the direction of prayer). Unless this is to be read as a non-sequitur, the location is evidently one that Muhammad considers to have non-trivial religious significance.

Holland also suspects that the qibla was not originally in the direction of Mecca. (Tradition does indeed claim a change from praying towards Jerusalem to praying towards Mecca, but puts it in 623CE, i.e. shortly after the flight to Medina and within Muhammad’s lifetime. This book is arguing for a much later change.) Various texts and archaeological sites are offered in support of this argument, for instance the remains of a mosque at Be’er Ora in the Negev Desert appears to have prayer niches pointing both south and east. A justification for interpreting both features as Muslim prayer niches isn’t given, unfortunately. Another bit of evidence is only alluded to but on tracking it down it seems to be a passage by the ninth century writer Al-Baladhuri, in which an arrow is fired towards the qibla and further arrows north, east and south, at the start of the construction of Kufa, a city in Iraq. As far as I can tell, which isn’t very well, the archaeologically discoverable remains at Kufa have a fairly conventional qibla; nevertheless for a ninth century writer to allow without comment the implication of a western-pointing qibla is somewhat curious.

All this does leave a question to be answered, and Saifullah et al put a lot of effort into challenging a version of it. I admit to only having skimmed it, but one can skip to the conclusion which is roughly that accurate methods of determining the prayer direction were simply not available in early Islam and the heuristics used instead were (by modern standards) not particularly accurate.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s an interesting book, engagingly covering a pivotal time in history.
ewx: (penguin)
The Last Empire, Serhii Plokhy, 978-1-78074-529-9

An account of the final months of the Soviet Union. Plokhy skims quickly through the background, before engaging with the details in the run-up to the August coup and from then until the formal dissolution of the USSR. The broad outline is familiar enough but, whether due to (necessarily) incomplete reporting at the time or simply forgetting over the course of nearly a quarter of a century, there is a lot of interesting detail that I don't recall from reporting at the time.

Most notably the role of Kravchuk’s Ukraine is emphasized. This isn’t to play down Yeltsin’s central position: after the coup his position was enormously enhanced and he was involved in key decisions. But the Ukrainian drive to independence, deftly piloted by Kravchuk, left Russia comparatively isolated within the rump USSR, and ultimately forced to seek its own exit.

Much is highly relevant today. The author documents Russian threats to tear up border treaties, and a plan (at the time not executed) to stir up unrest in majority-Russian parts of Ukraine. Interestingly, Kravchuk managed to achieve a majority for Ukrainian independence not only nationally but even within the Crimea, having put substantial effort into selling the idea to the locals.

Gorbachev struggled for power and relevance, right until the end, but it was always a doomed struggle - eventually he was fighting for little more than for relevance. The coup demonstrated that his power base was untrustworthy and its failure allowed Yeltsin to undermine much of the rest - in the end he was able to simply de-fund the USSR’s institutions.

The American viewpoint is also discussed in detail. Bush and his team supported Gorbachev, as far as they could, long past his sell-by date; only Cheney favored helping the USSR to its end. While this somewhat contradicts the subsequent (electorally targetted) rhetoric about victory in the Cold War, the reasoning was rational enough - the Americans had found Gorbachev a reliable negotiating partner when it came to arms control, while the leaders of the Soviet republics in which nuclear weapons were stationed were much less well understood - indeed the worst case scenario was characterized as “Yugoslavia with nukes”.

Comprehensively written and an easy read, well worth a look if you’re either interested in the fall of the USSR or want a bit of background on recent events.
ewx: (penguin)
Brief notes about the books I read while in Germany.
Read more... )

Loncon 3

Aug. 22nd, 2014 12:25 am
ewx: (penguin)

I went to Worldcon.

People. So many familiar faces! Many were expected; others less so. Some made for good company from time to time, others I barely glimpsed across a room. Some I see most days, others I last saw a decade or two ago. Some people I only even know were there from Twitter. Sorry if I missed anyone!

Programme. Huge and packed and not a chance of getting to see everything I’d have liked, on the upside that also meant little chance of spending much time bored. Some of the panels were a bit hit-and-miss but everything that I attended with a single person presenting about what they did (research, creating comics, etc) was excellent. There were solid academic and comics streams, and I think every academic item I went to told me a lot of stuff I didn’t know but nevertheless didn’t leave me feeling out of my depth. I made notes with varying degrees of coverage and legibility which I summarize below. The embedded recommendations cover anything I heard of at any time, so don’t take them as personal endorsements!

Hugo Awards. Massively pleased to see Ancillary Justice win, though less surprised than the author seems to be. Catherynne Valente was robbed. Randall Munroe inarguably had the best acceptance speech, using Cory Doctorow as a proxy, though Jon Chu’s reaction to winning was certainly the most affecting.

Art Show. Definitions of art often involve some notion of producing a response in the viewer. Too often I found the response was “oh, another spaceship” or “oh, another scantily clad woman”, though. A couple of things did catch my eye though, Vince Jö-Nés’s sculptures and Sarah Clemens’ paintings, especially Joyride.

Venue. The fairly linear topology of the much of the venue was very good for bumping into people at random, particularly when going for food. It was also located well for hotels meaning we got cheap rooms at the Travelodge 5-10m walk away.

Less positively some of the programme rooms were much too small for some of the items scheduled into them, and there was a severe bottleneck between the main collection of programme rooms and everywhere else, to the point that at one point I had to step smartly to the side when coming off an escalator to find the crowd in front had unexpectedly stopped. And at one of the food outlets I actually timed out and went elsewhere, something I’ve not done for many years. The rest were perfectly prompt though. (With one exception I ate within the venue. Given one of the tales of food faff I heard I think that was the right decision…)

Programme Stuff )
ewx: (bananaman)

Humble Bundle are selling a bunch of ebook comics cheap. Sketch opinions so far:

Bee And Puppycat [*]. Magical temp worker and her cat perform daft assignments. I found it a bit thin.

Bravest Warriors [*]. Cupcake deathmatches, two-headed space kittens, sapient celery, clowns. A small band of cartoon characters save worlds from bizarre threats. Give me more.

Curse. Werewolves and dying children. Excellent artwork but I found the story depressing.

Day Men. Vampires employ humans to do their waking-hours dirty work, and consequently this is mostly about v-on-v feuding. I’d rather watch a few episodes of True Blood.

Dead Letters. A man wakes up with no memory of his past and almost immediately comes under attack. Then things get weird ... he spends the next four episodes learning about the background and odd properties of the world he’s in and playing the violent political game of its inhabitants. I really liked this.

Evil Empire. Slightly unlikely US political thriller with the occasional page revealing bits about the mid-future outcome. I didn’t find this that exciting. I don’t think I’ll buy more.

Hacktivist. Computer security thriller inspired the Arab Spring apparently written by someone who knows annoyingly little about computer security. Improves once it gets over the technobabble, on balance I liked it despite the initial irritation.

Hit. Hardboiled 1940s LA police take to shooting criminals who they can’t bring to justice by legal means, only to find things are dirtier than they look. Good but not quite excellent.

Imagine Agents. MIB types keep children’s imaginary friends under control through high technology and dust-ups. Not bad though fairly predictable.

Lumberjanes [*]. Resourceful girl scouts confront bizarre supernatural threats and earn the occasional badge. Fun, would read more.

Six-Gun Gorilla. A depressed librarian repurposed as a human camera stumbles around a war zone with bizarre physical laws, gradually learning a bit about what’s really going on and starting to affect it, with occasional assistance from the revolver-wielding simian of the title. Interesting and entertaining.

The Midas Flesh [*]. Starts well, with dinosaurs in space, and continues by elaborating the implications of Midas’s wish. Good stuff although I thought the body of the story held up better than the final revelations and conclusion.

(…time passes…)

The Woods. A US high school is mysteriously transported to another world. Some of the children head into the surrounding woods, encountering very hostile and friendly creatures there; the staff and the rest of the children stay in the school, trying to fend off monstrous incursions and rapidly descending into an unpleasant internal power struggle despite their precarious situation. The bundle includes the first three issues (of I don’t know how many). I’m curious what happens next.

Translucid. Nonlinearly told story of a superhero’s struggle, first with his childhood demons and then with his complicatedly motivated nemesis. First three issues of six, feeling a bit undecided about whether I care enough about the characters to buy more.

Suicide Risk. A policeman in a force largely overwhelmed by supervillians himself acquires super powers and starts to fight back. The action is made a bit more interesting by Leo’s initial inexperience and relative weakness and the villains’ numerical superiority, meaning that he has to deploy sneakiness rather than just brute force, though by the end of the second volume he’s overcoming some of these disadvantages. There is also some backstory about the origins of the superpowers and the occasional vignette concerning some individual villain. You could hardly say the concept was original but it does do a good job with it.

Polarity. Bipolar artist discovers that if he stops taking his meds he gains superpowers. Thumpings ensue, plus some discovery of what’s really going on, plus a romantic subplot to motivate the main character a bit. Entertainingly drawn and (at least at the ‘quip’ level) scripted but structurally speaking it didn’t impress.

Fairy Quest. Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf flee the brutal Mister Grimm, who runs Fablewood with an iron fist. Naturally they meet a variety of familiar characters on the way, variously helping or hindering their escape. Another highlight.

Protocol: Orphans. A collection of young secret agent types with a slightly creepy naming scheme fight various kinds of bad guy. Much of the plot is driven by betrayal, unfortunately none of it really surprising enough to raise an eyebrow.

[*] indicates you need to pay $15 or more to get these four. Underline marks what I thought were the real hits.

ewx: (penguin)

Links to my reviews:

Other categories:

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form). Four Doctor Who episodes, seriously? I’ve seen most of them but in general Doctor Who just isn’t that good and none of the ones listed stand out in my memory. I haven’t seen the Game Of Thrones episode and I’m not likely to within the voting period. I’ve seen a season and a half of Orphan Black, though, and enjoyed it, so my only vote is for that.

Best Professional Artist; Best Fan Artist. Not voting. I had a look but none of it really excited me.

Best Semiprozine; Best Fanzine; Best Fancast; Best Fan Writer; John W Campbell Award. Not voting unless by some miracle I find some more spare time.

Best Related Work; Best Editor (Short And Long Forms). Reading hundreds of pages of fiction just to make an amateur assessment of the skill of the editor who picked it doesn’t seem like a great use of time.

ewx: (penguin)

General notes:

  • Major spoilers for everything on the ballot!
  • Reviews in order of reading/watching.

My current ranking is:

  1. Gravity
  2. Frozen
  3. Pacific Rim
  4. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  5. No award
  6. Iron Man 3
Read more... )

January 2017

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