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Bookends: A Tale of Deception and Death in the New Zealand Gold Rush January 2, 2014

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Bookends: A Tale of Deception and Death in the New Zealand Gold Rush

By Dan Davidson

December 23, 2013

Luminaries

– 905 words –

 

The Luminaries

By Eleanor Catton

McClelland & Stewart

848 pages

$35.00

 

If you wanted a quick summary of the main inciting incidents in The Luminaries, you could go to the final section, “Part Twelve: The Old Moon in the Young Moon’s Arms”. The section is dated 13 days prior to the opening chapter and would probably make no sense at all, unless, as Huck Finn once said of himself, you had read the intervening 840 or so pages.

That last section is the briefest in the book, and the italicized “In which …” style prologue that introduces it is far and away longer than the chapter itself, which is all dialogue.

Catton, who won both the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the 2013 Governor General’s Award for what is, in essence, a massive murder mystery, chose to name each of the twelve sections with terms relating to the Zodiac, and the major characters, of which there are enough to require a chart, are assigned astrological values. As someone who knows nothing about any of this arcane study, I was happy to discover that my lack of understanding did not affect my enjoyment of the story.

We begin with the arrival of Walter Moody in the New Zealand mining settlement of Hokitika (a real place with a mining history – you can look it up) on January 17, 1866, nearly a fortnight after events of some significance have impacted the lives of the twelve men he finds sitting in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel. Moody has come to join the New Zealand gold rush and seek his fortune, but he ends up being the disinterested auditor of a series of narratives which take up close to 360 pages on the book’s first section.

One by one these mostly unreliable narrators bend his ear and tell what they know of the strange events surrounding the death of Crosbie Wells and the disappearance of the town’s wealthiest citizen, Emery Staines. Finally there is the collapse, apparently of an opium overdose, of a much sought after prostitute named Anna Wetherell. Some of the accounts are so at odds with each other that it is actually a bit of a relief to have the main points summarized later in the book. It helps us to have some shape imposed on a series of mysterious events.

“So I am to be the unraveller,” Moody thought. “The detective: that is the role I am to play.”

Like many of the observations made to themselves by people in this novel, that turns out to be only partly the case. These people tend to view themselves in a better light than others see them, and interpret events in that light. It’s not exactly lying, but it is certainly far from the actual truth in many cases. Nevertheless, I suppose they could be seen as the luminaries of the title, as it is mostly their impressions and reactions that move the story forward and reveal its secrets.

The narrative, divided into all of these points of view, and only sometimes filtered through Moody, ranges back and forth through time, and establishes that a number of the main characters have connections running back quite a number of years, connections that come as a surprise but do help to unlock some of the mysteries in the tale. There have been plots and counter-plots, deceptions and revelations galore. Much of background presented in the later chapters actually takes place about one year before the opening of the book.

All of these events are unfolded for us under the watchful idea of a very 19th century style omniscient observer, who prefaces his chapters with such notes as “In which Lydia Wells is as good as her word; Anna Wetherell receives an unexpected visitor; and we learn the truth about Elizabeth Mackay.”

Some of them, like this one near the climax of a trial, are a little more vague in order to avoid being spoilers: “In which two verdicts are delivered, and justice fits the sentence to the crime.”

The book opens slowly with an almost ponderous first section. Each of the succeeding 11 chapters is shorter than the one before it, until the narrative seems to have picked up a breakneck speed. An avalanche picks up speed and mass as it careens down a mountainside. The Luminaries manages to pick up speed and significance while shedding mass.

We are claiming Eleanor Catton as one of our own by virtue of her having been born in London, Ontario, where her father was working on his doctorate. The family returned to New Zealand with she was six, and she was educated in New Zealand and England. Her first novel, The Rehearsal, was drafted as her Master’s thesis, and earned her the distinction of being the youngest author to be short listed for the Man Booker when she was 27. At 28 she became the youngest writer to win the prize, and did so with the longest book ever to win the prize.

I think I would recommend waiting to pick this one up in a trade or paperback edition. I read it as a Kobo e-book and attempting to flip back though the pages to settle my mind on some plot point was tedious and got in the way of the story.

 

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Bookends: Communication is the Key to Coexistence January 2, 2014

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Bookends: Communication is the Key to Coexistence

By Dan Davidson

December 18, 2013Enders Game

–  1010 words –

 

Enders Game

By Orson Scott Card

Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, Harlan Ellison and others

Macmillan audio

11 hours, 57 minutes

$34.50

 

It’s hard to tell how well the Ender’s Game movie did, largely due to the Card boycott organized by those who object to the author’s more recent anti-gay political views. It’s odd that Card, who holds these views as a devout Mormon, should be insensitive in real life while being capable of writing so well about tolerance in his fiction.

While the book is a war story, it’s a war story about children and it’s about tolerance and communication. The movie aged everyone a bit because it’s hard to find 6 to 10 year olds who could act the complex parts that the story demands. It’s a case where the written word can clearly go where the camera can’t.

In an essay after the main part of this book, Card describes the long battle he had with Hollywood (where this book was optioned decades ago) to keep the moguls from aging the cast to a bunch of 16 years olds and injecting a love story into the plot. In the book, these kids are all pre-teens, and romance is the last thing on their minds.

Some 80 years earlier in this future, Earth was invaded twice by human sized insectoid creatures who were generally known to earth folk as Bugs or Buggers, because they were, after all, most like bugs. Later, as more is discovered about them, they were called Formics, because of their similarity to ants. That’s the term used in the movie, probably because of Card’s non-fiction reputation.

In the book, the worst thing you can say to anyone is to call him or her a bugger lover, and it comes up a lot.

In the book there are both population control and eugenics. Two kids are the maximum, unless it happens that the state wants something from you. Andrew (his older sister could only manage to say “Ender” when he was little) Wiggin’s parents have special genes and the military hopes to get a special offspring from their union. Peter is too vicious. Valentine is too empathic. Ender, a Third (and that’s a real slur) is permitted to exist because he might be just right, to carry that Goldilocks reference to its extreme.

It turns out that he is. He does not like to hurt people, but he likes even less being hurt and when he is seriously challenged he makes sure that he doesn’t just win that battle, but makes all other battles impossible. It bothers him to do this, and he does everything he can to find other solutions, but if there is no other solution, he acts.

An incident in primary school makes the watchers of the International Fleet decide that Ender is a perfect candidate for Battle School, and so he is drafted, a condition to which his parents had to agree in advance in order for him to be conceived at all. In the end, after much struggle, he masters every skill needed to move on to the next level, and does so in record time, just a few years instead of the usual ten.

The book spends much time on the Game, a zero G battle room where “armies” of youngsters (mostly boys) try to outwit each other and learn strategy. Ender excels at this to the point where the teachers rig the Game repeatedly to try and trap him. They have no success.

Ender and the best of the other student warriors are promoted to the Command School where, unknown to them, they begin to fight a very real series of battles against the Formic enemy. As far as Ender and his squad leaders know they are practicing strategies in video games. After many of these, they win a very final battle, only to discover after they have done so that they were not still playing and that they have destroyed an entire species.

Ender’s Game has faced challenges in a number of school and library districts because of its violence. I’ll wager that most of the people who have raised the issue have never finished the book. It moves on past that fiery climax to a long section that deals with the consequences of violence, the need for communication between strangers and the means of restitution for past wrongs.

The movie collapses the time frame of the story, from the initial three or four years to what seems like a few months, and then fails to jump in time for the coda, which takes place when Ender is middle aged and has been living with his burden for years. This, to me, is a weakness.

The other major weakness is the loss of the secondary plot involving the lives of Peter and Valentine back on Earth, and how two teenagers develop a scheme to save the world from itself and succeed.

The producers should probably have gone for a mini-series.

This audio production is excellent. Rudnicki does narration well and has a variety of accents and tones that he brings to the dialogue. Ellison adds a sardonic touch to his delivery. There are other voices here that are not identified in the notes. The sections focussing on Valentine are narrated by a female voice, and it was a good decision to move away from the battle school in sound as well as in story.

I used this book with English 10 classes a couple of times, and the result was that the students pestered the school library to pick up the sequels. They were in heavy rotation for several years, so I know they were enjoyed.

I picked this up through Audible.com as a digital download at a price a lot cheaper than what I have listed above. It filled the time very nicely all the way to Whitehorse and about halfway back to Dawson. My copilot stayed awake for the entire reading.

 

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Bookends: How the war in Afghanistan broke a reporter’s heart January 1, 2014

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Bookends: How the war in Afghanistan broke a reporter’s heart

By Dan Davidson

December 11, 2013

– 894 words –

 

The dogs

 

The Dogs Are Eating Them Now

Our War in Afghanistan


Alfred A. Knopf
By Graeme Smith

298 pages

$32.00

I haven’t actually met Graeme Smith, but he became a Facebook friend of mine after I assisted the Writers Trust of Canada in helping to raise the public profile of the contest for the. I photographed the cover of the book, which they supplied me from the list of finalists, against the backdrops of a number of iconic Dawson places, including the London, Service and Berton sites.

Even before it was announced that Smith had won the prize, he had seen the pictures and requested to connect with me. It’s been interesting reading his occassional postings from Afghanistan, where he currently works as senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. A fairly recent post commented on an event that occurred during his return to Kabul.

“Just arrived back in Kabul. My colleague Sharifullah Sharaf says he will slaughter a sheep to celebrate our good luck: on the way to Gardez, flying over Logar province, our white UN helicopter was hit with a .762 round which passed through the cabin – not hitting anybody – and lodged near a small fuel tank. The bullet was 10 centimetres away from causing a problem.”

He says his understated reaction wasn’t one of bravery because no one in the chopper knew how close they were to dying until after they had arrived safely at their destination.

I was reading this book at the time and thought that this seemed like a reflection of the whole problem with the Afghan conflict.

Some years ago now I read a book about the history of conflicts in this region. The British called their efforts in the area the Great Game and reputations were made and lost there. The Russians learned the hard way that the place could not be subdued the way they had done in contiguous parts of the world.  The Americans were instructed once again, and once again failed to learn, the lessons they should have learned in so many other states where they financed the anti-Soviet forces only to have their protégés turn out to be problems equally as bad as the regimes they had aided them in toppling.

Smith concludes that the Western powers in Afghanistan have never understood the nature of the place, the fractiousness of the population, the degree to which they were seen as invaders, and the amount of corruption among members of the current elected government.

When a bomb or a drone kills the wrong people, or even when it kills the right ones and just a few innocents, the Afghans do not view it as “collateral damage”, that sanitized vocabulary of modern warfare. No, they see it as a personal affront, and will avenge it with a persistence that we in North America tend to find only in the tales of the Hatfields and McCoys, or the Black Donnellys.

Smith takes us through his life on assignment for the Globe and Mail during the war, beginning in 2005 when he was a shiny new war correspondent full of excitement at the idea that an international force was actually going to go into the mess there and clean it up, “bring the whole basket of civilization” to the state. He arrived during the period when the prevailing theory was that throwing enough troops, ordnance and money at the problem (the first two parts of that equation quaintly termed “surges”) would produce the desired effect: no more Taliban and a transformation of the country into something like a recognizable democratic state.

By the end of his time there he had realized that “Our attempts to set up a moderate Afghan administration gave birth to a regime that resembled neither a fully democratic government nor a group capable of ruling its entire territory.”

The message is not remarkably different from that found in Michael McLear’s 1980s documentary on Viet Nam, The 10,000 Day War. Afghanistan was once described as the USSR’s Viet Nam, but during its 4000 plus days (and counting) it has turned out to be pretty much the same experience for everyone involved in it.

The book’s title comes from an anecdote on page 65, an example of how war hardens well meaning man and leaves them with memories that might begin to account for some recent suicides among veterans.

Aware that the Muslim Taliban did not like to leave their dead behind, but collected them for quick and proper burial services, some soldiers staked out some dead bodies as bait and waited for the Taliban to come and claim them. It didn’t work and later the corpses were devoured by wild dogs.

“The soldiers casually joked about it afterward; in our of my audio recordings an officer sounds casual about it. ‘We hit a couple of guys over there,’ he said. ‘Left them out as bait. And the dogs are eating them now.’”

In addition to the Weston Award, Smith’s book has been nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize. It’s a depressing read, but well worth your time. Expect things to get worse over there, though we’ll probably hear less about it as our presence is withdrawn.

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Bookends: An unlikely trio of investigators saves the day January 1, 2014

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Bookends: An unlikely trio of investigators saves the day

By Dan Davidson

December 4, 2013

– 826 words –

 

Halting State

Halting State

By Charles Stross

Ace Books

324 pages

$9.99

 

You open the book to find that it begins with an email that looks a lot like an extended version of one of those phony employment ads that keep turning up in your junk box. This one’s addressed to someone named Nigel, whose name will turn up later, and it is from a firm claiming to be headhunters, offering him a job.

You move on to chapter one, where you meet Sue Smith, the first of three viewpoint characters who you are gong to follow as the story develops. Sue is a sergeant in the Edinburgh Constabulary in the year 2018, when cops wear google-glasses as pretty much standard equipment so that all their on-duty actions and observations are recorded in LifeLogs. They a lot of their work in various forms of online detecting and analyzing, within a dedicated cloud channel known as CopSpace.

Sue is called out to the oddest theft she’s ever encountered, and it takes you a while to to realize what’s going on. Within the framework of an online video game a bunch of thugs who shouldn’t even have had access that universe broke into a structure similar to a bank and made off with all the quest items and magic artifacts that pass for wealth in that gaming world and several others. Her task is to find the perps and the swag, which can apparently be traded around a lot like the bitcoins everyone is starting to get excited about now.

Next you meet Elaine, who is an investigator with the insurance company that has been called in to work on the same case. She’s great with generally accepted accounting principles, but not so well versed in gaming.

That’s where Jack enters the story. Jack’s an out of work programmer with lots of gaming skills and he is to be Elaine’s guide in the online world. You meet him sitting in a drunken/stoned haze in an armchair chained to a NO PARKING sign in Amsterdam, having just been fired from his software developing company. It’s not a promising beginning, but he is soon selected by a search engine to be Elaine’s parter/mentor, for reasons that will be made much clearer to you as the book continues.

Just before the story begins, Charles Stross thanks a whole long list of first readers of this book for their invaluable assistance. I’ll bet a good chunk of it addressed the problems inherent in writing an entire novel in the second person singular voice, something usually reserved for instruction manuals and choose your own adventure books.

It’s quirky, and it took me a few character rotations to stop noticing it and just let the story run.

That is, of course, why the first five paragraphs of this review were written the same way, just to give you an idea of how the book feels.

There are layers to this story, and the simple burglary is just the first level of the adventure, which is, I suppose, structured a bit like the levels in a video game. Somewhat like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, the plot gets bigger the further into it you move, and I soon found I was picking up this book before the other ones I was reading at the time (there are always several of varying genres on the go) just to find out what Stross’ odd trio of protagonists was going to encounter next.

The title of the book is a pun, according to the author. Stross is a former computer programmer and the Halting Problem is a rather famous conundrum in programming. An online description puts it thusly: “Given a description of an arbitrary computer program, decide whether the program finishes running or continues to run forever“.

A lot of the plot of the book involves a group of hackers who are attempting to bring the economy of a small European state (Scotland has achieved independence in this future) to a screeching halt, or … a halting state.

Video games, computer surveillance and LARPing (life action role play) have a lot to do with how this story develops. Like that poetic passage in the book of Ezekiel, there are wheels within wheels within wheels before our poor protagonists begin to have any idea what’s going on or how their very lives have been manipulated by players behind the scenes to bring them to the point where they would be caught up in the attempt to set the situation straight.

Having read two other novels by Stross, each of which was completely different from the other, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that this one read differently than either of those. They do have a certain subversive sense of humour in common, but that’s about all. He’s hard to describe but he’s definitely worth picking up.

 

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Bookends: A very class conscious murder mystery January 1, 2014

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Bookends: A very class conscious murder mystery

By Dan Davidson

November 27, 2013

– 791 words –

 

Thrones, Dominations

By Dorothy L. Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh

384 pages

New English Library

$9.89

Thrones, Dominations

Audiobook version

10 hours, 14 minutesRead by Ian Carmichael

Blackstone Audio

$24.23

 

Lord Peter Wimsey was one of those gentleman detectives that gained popularity among English mystery writers in the early part of the last century. Dorothy Sayers first produced the character in Whose Body (1923) and aged her ideal detective in pretty much real time until she penned her last mystery in 1937.

Wimsey was a bit of a dandy on the surface, but that was a mask for a brilliant inquiring mind. He suffered from what we would now call PTSD, but in those days was termed shellshock, a legacy of his experiences in the Great War.

The other heritage from that conflict was his “Man”, Bunter, who had been his Batman (aide) during the conflict and stayed on as a cook, butler, assistant, etc. in a relationship that was the serious version of what P.G. Wodehouse was working with Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.

Mystery novelist Harriet Vane was introduced in the fifth novel in the series, and Wimsey spent the next five books persuading Vane to marry him, after which there was one final novel in 1937.

Sayers, a serious scholar and the only woman to be connected with the writers’ group known as the Inklings (Tolkien, Lewis, et al) began a book called Thrones, Dominations, but got more interested in working on her massive translation of the Divine Comedy, religious plays, Christian apologetics, and non-fiction on a variety of subjects, so it languished for decades.

Jill Paton Walsh, who was born the year Sayers began that book, was contracted by the family to complete the work in late 1990s, and has continued the series with three more original novels since that time. She had previously created her own mystery series, as well as a long list of children’s books. In 1994 she was short-listed for the Booker Prize for her novel Knowledge of Angels.

Thrones, Dominations is set in 1937, right after the last of Sayers’ books, and is full of period references, some of which could only have been added by Walsh, since there is much written about Hitler’s aggressions in Europe, the death of King George and the ascension to the throne of the rather disappointing Edward VII.

The spotlight in this book is shared by Peter and Harriet, and it is, in part, a chronicle of the beginning of their married life. For Peter, it’s the end of living in posh apartments with Bunter, and having to take up the reins of managing the properties to which he is heir.

For Harriet, the marriage is a move up through several levels of class strata, and she has a good deal to cope with – not the least of which is the decision she has to make about continuing her literary career. He had been writing to support herself. Can she still find the motivation now hat she doesn’t need to?

Their marriage is contrasted with another, that of the Harwells, Laurence and Rosamund, who seem to be the perfect couple. He’s a wealthy theatrical producer and she, like Harriet, has been somewhat elevated by her marriage. When she is found murdered at the country “cottage”, Peter is asked to get involved in the mystery as to who might have done it. There is a suspect, but Peter doesn’ find the case convincing.

It takes establishing the link to another, seemingly unconnected, murder, as well as some of Harriet’s observations, to point him in the right direction.

I’m of two minds about this book, and some of that ambivalence is due to the reader, Ian Carmichael, who played the Wimsey role in a series of BBC adaptations some 30 years ago now. He read well enough, but wasn’t much for getting away from his Lord Peter voice, and I felt the reading needed a bit of variety to be completely successful. It made parts of the book move somewhat slowly, and I found myself waiting for them to leave the class confusion behind and get on with the mystery.

That said, the parts of the book that are about the Wimsey adjusting to their new life together are quite effective, and of the sequences involving Wimsey’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, are hilarious. Indeed, some of the bridging sections of the book are presented as being her diary entries and letters.

It’s been too long since I read the original Sayers novels for me to be sure that Walsh captured her style, but it did seem very much like what I can recall.

 

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Bookends: Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Legacy Lingers on January 1, 2014

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Bookends: Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Legacy Lingers on

By Dan Davidson

November 13, 2013

– 836 words –

Bourne Sanction

 

Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Sanction

By Eric Van Lustbader

Grand Central Publishers

672 pages

$11.99

 

There are a couple of different things a publisher can do when a prolific and popular author dies. One of them is to simply keep the author’s characters alive by hiring writers with similar talents to carry on the torch. Sometimes, as with the works of Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time), this is because the writer already has the series finale planned out and simply didn’t live long enough to write it. Brandon Sanderson seems to have done a decent job of wrapping up Jordon’s convoluted plotlines.

Jordan was at least perennial in his output. Fans have been terrified for years that George R.R. Martin, who has had some health issues, and who takes about five years to write additions to his Song of Ice and Fire saga, might not be around long enough to complete it.

Other writers don’t have long story arcs planned out, but still have popular characters that the publishers, and perhaps the families, would like to see continue earning them money. Robert B, Parker died a couple of years ago, but his Spenser and Jesse Stone series have each had a different mystery writer assigned to carry them on. This was tried, with less success, with the creations of Earl Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason) and Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe) when they passed on some years ago, and these once popular characters have faded from sight since then.

V.C. Andrews was the first writer I can recall whose name got turned into a trademark (™) and her gothic horror series have been continued and added to since 1986 by Andrew Neiderman.

Robert Ludlum died 12 years ago and was trademarked shortly after, with as many as nine other writers listed as co-authors on the nearly two dozen books that have been added to his own tally of 22 since then.

Ludlum’s best-known character is Jason Bourne, and the original book was beautifully adapted in a TV mini-series starring Richard Chamblerlain. Intended as a stand-alone novel (as were most of his own books) Ludlum did return to the Bourne identity twice more, examining the life of a man who just wanted to leave all that nasty stuff behind, but found that his past kept coming back to bite him. Both of the sequels take place some years later and explore, to some extent, the life of a middle-aged agent who has lost a step of two in the game.

Those three books (The Bourne Identity, Ultimatum and Supremacy) have almost no connection beyond the basic concept to the very successful Matt Damon trilogy, which established what amounted to a reboot of the character.

Eric Van Lustbader, already successful as a fantasy and thriller writer, was selected to continue the Bourne series, which he did with The Bourne Legacy. Once again the film (starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton) that used this title (and was enjoyable) had nothing at all to do with the book, which dealt with Bourne’s reunion with a son he never knew he had.

Van Lustbader has continued to work with a theme Ludlum established, which is that the central character has a basic personality conflict. On the one hand he is Jason Bourne, trained assassin and agent. On the other he is David Webb, a mild mannered English professor.  The fragility of Bourne/Webber’s self concept and memories is fertile ground for continuing the series, though Van Lustbader seems to have discarded the idea that his man might be getting a little old for this stuff.

He has also added a whole cast of new characters, mostly allies of a sort, to the Bourne universe, and much of the intrigue in this book seems to come from the internecine struggles within the American intelligence community, which is a very dysfunctional family indeed.

In the present book, Webber is encouraged to embrace his Bourneness in order to stop a terrorist plot aimed at the United States. At the same time, half a world away, a man named Leonid Danilovich Arkadin is working with a group called the Black Legion to carry out the plot. Arkadin is very much Bourne’s mirror image, save that his character flaw is a nearly uncontrollable rage. The two men have a lot of parallel experiences in the course of the novel and, not surprisingly, their eventual personal clash nearly overshadows the terrorist attack that they are both – for very different reasons – working to prevent.

But their stories are not the only ones being told here. In fact, my main complaint with the book would be that it has a few too many plots and counterplots crammed into its nearly 700 pages. There’s a lot going on, and a lot of people to keep track of. Ludlum’s books were often long, but they tended to be leaner than this.

Still, the result was a good page turner and kept my interest.

 

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Bookends: When Reality TV Gets A Little Too Real January 1, 2014

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Bookends: When Reality TV Gets A Little Too Real

By Dan Davidson

November 13, 2013

– 841 words –

Inside Straight

 

Inside Straight: a Wild Cards novel

Edited by

TOR Books

421 pages

$9.99

 

The shared universe of the Wild Cards Consortium has gained quite a boost since one of its original members and head editor, George R.R. Martin, became justly famous for his massive fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted for television by HBO as Game of Thrones (the name of the first book in the series, of which there are currently five novels, with two more planned).

Martin’s name is prominently featured on the covers of all the books, including the reissued and expanded versions of the earliest volumes, so it only seems fair to warn readers that he is but one of many writers engaged in this particular project.

The Wild Cards universe is nothing like the world of Westeros. It is an alternate version of our world, a place in which human beings with super powers are quire real thanks to an alien virus let loose on the planet in 1946. It triggered DNA level changes in those it infected. 90% of the victims die horribly. Nine percent of them are transformed into deformed creatures known as Jokers. One percent become Aces, who gain super abilities. Some of these powers are useless (the ability to instantly grow hair all over your body) and these Aces are called Deuces.

The plague is still evolving, and children born of earlier victims have a high chance of Turning Their Card when they reach puberty. They may draw the Black Queen (die) or one of the other fates. Tens of thousands of people around the world have been infected with the virus, though most humans are still Nats (naturals).

Wild Cards was inspired by a role playing game called Superheroes and by comic books themselves. Many of the standard powers appear in the stories by the various members of the consortium. Some 31 writers have been involved with creating the characters and writing the stories at this point (book number 19) in the series. Some volumes contain only short stories set in the same universe. Others are standard adventure novels written by just one author. Still others are like this one, a braided novel produced by nine different writers, featuring points of view from many different characters, with a central plot line (or two) holding it all together.

In this book, the world has moved right along with ours and the big rage on television is reality TV, for which one of the biggest shows is American Hero. Teams of Wild Carders with Ace level powers are pitted against each other to see who can deal with dangerous situations most creatively.

We meet four teams of aces with a variety of imaginative abilities who interact in both adventures and relationships. We see much of this through the many eyes of Jonathan Hive, an Ace with the disconcerting ability to transform into a swarm of wasps, and the desire to become a reporter. His blog and his reports are interspersed through the chapters of the book, the first half of which deals mostly with the show and the contests.

Of particular interest are these Aces: Drummer Boy, actually a Joker who is a human drum kit; Lohengrin, who manifests spectral armor and a sword, Bubbles, the former supermodel who absorbs force and releases it as explosive bubbles, gaining and losing size and weight as she goes; Stuntman, who always recovers from injuries; Curveball, who turns anything she throws into a missile; and Tiffani, who can turn to flexible diamond.

The second half deals with trouble in this world’s version of the Middle East, where a great many of the Jokers have transmogrified into animal headed avatars of the old Egyptian animal gods. Much of the part of the world has been under the control of the Caliphate, and when their ruler is assassinated in the early part of the book by the shape shifting teleporter sometimes called Lilith, the blame falls on the Egyptian Jokers, who find themselves fighting a new kind of battle to avoid ethnic cleansing.

Into this mess comes the former Ace, John Fortune, possessed by the Ace abilities of one of the Living Gods, called Sekhmet, who manifests as a giant fire-breathing lioness. Fortune/ Sekhmet inspires some of the Aces in the Discard Pile, who have been voted off the show, to accompany him to Egypt and fight to save the Egyptian Jokers, whom he/she claims as his/her people.

So the second half of the book morphs into a war story, with Hive punctuating the various narratives with his blog from the front. The kid means well, but he lacks a decent liberal education and misreferences literary quotations and history all over the place. His efforts add a bit of humour to a pretty black situation.

These are lightweight adventures, but if you’ve enjoyed shows like Mutant X, Alphas or the Tomorrow People, not to mention the X-men, you might enjoy them.

 

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Bookends: The dangers of gagging scientists and other public servants January 1, 2014

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: The dangers of gagging scientists and other public servants

By Dan Davidson

November 6, 2013

– 950 words –

The War on Science

 

The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada

By

Greystone Books

176 pages

$14.40

 

As a journalist covering technological and environmental stories, Chris Turner found himself wanting to look for the positive side of these topics. It was not that there wasn’t any bad news to cover, or that he didn’t provide surveys of just what the bad news was. It was that he wanted to focus on possible solutions to problems, and that he was able to find them in various places all around the world. It seemed to him that a good many nations were taking the issue of climate change quite seriously and were making efforts to deal with it.

Our own country, previously seen as being a supporter of such efforts, now seems to be the poster child for denial.

That is perhaps the biggest reason wh, after producing two good news books  – The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need (2007) and The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy (2011) – Turner’s most recent book is an angry study of how Canada’s formerly progressive stance on a number of issues has undergone a 180 degree reversal that sees us marching backwards into the future.

Turner’s basic thesis is that the Harper Government (as it styles itself) is anti-science in nearly all of its activities, and seems intent on turning back to the clock to a way of thinking that predates the prime ministership of Robert Borden.

Turner and a number of other writers have picked Borden’s term of office (1911- 1920) as the beginning of the modern era for several reasons. It was under Borden that the professional civil service, positioned at arms length from the elected government, began to take shape. Its role evolved over the decades to become the advisory body to the government, providing it with the best, most objectively verifiable, advice available on a variety of topics.

Today, as we have seen repeatedly over the last several years, the job of the civil service is to prooftext reality and selectively report those facts which will support the conclusions the governing party has already committed itself to. The first job of public servants is no longer seen to be service to the public, but rather service to the party in power.

It was under Borden that the National Research Council began to take shape, a body dedicated to innovative scientific endeavors from the esoteric to the practical. The views of the scientists employed by the government in various departments were once respected around the world. Now they travel to conferences (when allowed to) with government media minders in attendance and are not permitted to speak or write freely about the results of their investigations.

One is reminded of the political commissars that once were a feature of the various Soviet Socialist Republics. Only data that supports government positions is to be made public.

The NRC has been downgraded to a “concierge” agency dispensing solutions tailor made for the needs of the business and industrial sectors.

Not satisfied with ignoring the science that might contradict its ideology, the present government has, through measures bundled within the pages of massive omnibus bills, selectively reduced its own ability to collect such information or to monitor for problems.

The Experimental Lakes Area was responsible for much vital research on questions like algae bloom and acid rain contamination, and the science carried out there shaped legislation and policy around the world. The current government shut it down, and it was only saved by the efforts of provincial governments and NGOs.

In spite of tons of evidence indicating that criminal activity is falling off, the government passes an omnibus crime bill, enacting just about every sort of punishment that the experts had advised against.

While good data relating to social issues across the nation is essential for good governance, the Conservatives eliminated the mandatory Long Form Census, replacing with a much less accurate voluntary document.

In spite of the PM’s annual Northern Tours and continued rhetoric about the importance of the North, the High Arctic research station known as PEARL was shut down in the winter of 2012-13 due to budget cuts. Funding was restored in May of 2013, but it seems the government’s main interest is in a newer facility, much further south, that will not cover the same range of environmental reporting.

There are more examples, but perhaps it is best to note the place where Turner begins, with the Death of Evidence protest march staged by many of Canada’s scientists in July 2012. The rallying cry of the lab-coated marchers is significant:

‘What do we want?”

“Science!”

‘When do we want it?”

“After peer review!”

Without the freedom of government agencies to follow the science to where it leads and give that advice to the government free from political interference, what we will get is more disasters like the collapse of the cod fishery off the Atlantic seas coast, where the advice provided by the scientists was overruled by bureaucrats too closely plugged in to the political agenda. The short term pain of prudently reduced catch quotas became instead the long-term pain of the total ban on fishing and the destruction of the fishery.

This thin volume is one of the books Turner was working on last winter while staying at Berton House, which Turner acknowledges in his notes as “incomparable … for providing a comfortable and endlessly fascinating retreat for the writing of a portion of this book.”

 

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