Sunday, September 30, 2012

Our own little dystopia: Rockford Files version

Granted most of the books I have been reading are more about collapsing societies, rather than really awful ones. But a fair amount of those (sort of) fictional collapsing societies have a dystopian/negative aspect to them that plays into the story. In some cases the dystopia comes about after the collapse (Handmaiden's Tale being a classic example) or they are the agent that helps bring about their collapse (Planet of the Apes with its simian slave-state). So while we are not all about disfunctionality, it does play apart in our final thoughts.

So when our government works so hard to let us live out fictional dystopian scenarios in ther real here and now, we get interested. Today's subject comes about from an interesting article by Truthout. Granted truthout is worrying about the fate of anarchist protestors, the problems are not specific to them. My first understanding of the problems with the grand jury system actually came from an old Rockford Files episode, when Jim Rockford gets dragged in front of the grand jury. He gets into all sorts of trouble, but actually gets off a little easy compared to what might have been the case.

Facing Grand Jury Intimidation: Fear, Silence and Solidarity
Natasha Lennard, Truthout, 30 August 2012 (hat tip: NC )

[T]he grand jury process has been long and regularly used as a form of political repression. According to Heidi Boghosian, director of the National Lawyers Guild (the NLG is a group with a long history of advising grand jury resisters), "abuse of grand juries includes attempts to gather intelligence or information otherwise not easily obtained by the FBI." As such, the grand jury process has been used to probe and intimidate activist groups of various stripes, from the Puerto Rican Independence Movement last century, to black liberationists, environmentalists and anarchists. For the grand jury resisters themselves, the time during which a grand jury sits (typically 18 months) is a harrowing one. As the NLG's Boghosian explained: "If someone receives a grand jury subpoena and decides not to cooperate, that person may be held in civil contempt. There is a chance that the individual may be jailed or imprisoned for the length of the grand jury in an effort to coerce the person to cooperate."
"It's actually lawful for the prosecution to hold an individual in order to coerce cooperation, but unlawful to hold the person as a form of punishment," said Boghosian. "In addition to facing civil contempt, in some instances a non-cooperator may face criminal contempt charges." For example, in 2009, Utah-based animal rights activist Jordan Halliday spent jail time for civil contempt and was sentenced to 10 months in prison for criminal contempt for his effusive noncooperation with a grand jury. And many resisters who were not jailed nonetheless recount traumatic experiences.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Unemployment problems: for pirates

Unemployment is a problem not just in the Unites States.  Even once thriving markets are falling short.

AP Impact: Party seems over for Somali pirates
ABDI GULED and JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press, 25 September 2012 (hat tip: MR)
HOBYO, Somalia (AP) — The empty whiskey bottles and overturned, sand-filled skiffs littering this once-bustling shoreline are signs the heyday of Somali piracy may be over. Most of the prostitutes are gone and the luxury cars repossessed. Pirates while away their hours playing cards or catching lobsters.
"There's nothing to do here these days," said Hassan Abdi, a high school graduate who taught English in a private school before turning to piracy in 2009. "The hopes for a revitalized market are not high." 

Armed guards on merchant vessels, and patrolling by naval forces is making life difficult.

Dead Apocalyptic Poets: Philip Larkin


We will do our apocalyptic poetry on Saturday, as the weekdays are being taken up by our International Book Reviews series.
Quiet a few of our upcoming novels take up the thought "the death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is a static".

We all face our own inevitable apocalypse.
Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true
By Philip Larkin 1922–1985 Philip Larkin

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. 
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Massive: A review

Brian Wood's (lead writer) The Massive (#1#2#3 reviewed) is a comic book series set in the near future after a series of dramatic somewhat mysterious ecological catastrophes.  It is set on the Kapital, a small ship owned by the activist environmental group, Ninth Wave, and captained by Callum Israel.  It is a post war, post-crash, post disaster, post-everything world where their previous idealism is starting to look a little out of place.  This is a flip on some of the earlier international reviews, we have an American thinking about what a collapse in the rest of the world might look like.

Cover to #2, choosen because it looked more apocalyptic - The city is Hong Kong.
Brian Wood is well known within the comic world as an "indie" superstar, or at least presence.  His most famous work appears to be DMZ,  an apocalypse-in-progress set in Manhattan after a massive militia-style uprising.  The publication of this series by Dark Horse Comics seems to be bringing the "indie" more into the mainstream.   I saw a reviewer comment to this effect, but my own experience confirms the statement.  When I bought number one and two through E-bay because I had a hard time figuring out which comic book venders were legitimate, and could not find it at Amazon at that time.  While there is a bit of the comic book action adventure sensiblity to the preceedings, the author has done his research, and the look and feel are excellent.
Cover of first issue, showing Kapital.  Regardless of cover it is a trawler, not an ice breaker.

The story line has a little bit of a road warriors on the ocean feel to it.  Their ship, the Kapital, is largish trawler with a helipad on the back deck, but no armament other than a hunting rifle they have on hand.  The group is attempting to maintain their eco-liberal pacifist stance (easy to do if all you have is a hunting rifle), but it is not working out real well for them.  Some retrospective scenes, and some faux government-style document sheets are used to fill in some of the details, but the action starts with them in a fog bank off Kamchatka (a favorite location of mine from the game Risk) and some small boats the radar screen headed their way: unfriendly small boats.

Throughout there is a little mayhem, and a lot of personal tension, as the unhappy activists look for their lost friends, and wanting to eventually get home.  Only one member of the crew, a minor character, is American.  Home for the rest is scattered all over the globe.

It feels a little odd reviewing such a small portion of a larger story, but that is the nature of the beast with comics.  The artwork is very well done, and the slightly over-the-top nature of some of the action isn't too distracting.   Nobody is shooting webs, or psion blasting anyone.  Just speedboats, and a little karate-chopping.  It has a little bit of a left wing-PC world view going, but so did the old Spiderman comics.  I am not sure if I am going to continue with the series. After #1 and #2, I was encouraged.  But #3 got a little more PC, with the crew arguing the merits of passivity.  A handful of eco-activists motoring around the globe using up the last of the rare refined fuels, and they are worrying about being overly aggressive with a hunting rifle.  I may not continue the adventure. 

For our descriptive (versus qualitative) ratings - readability and realism - 1 to 7 with 7 being high.

As is expected of a near future story based around a ship, realism is relatively high. The illustrations are done in an illustrative, rather than stylized fashion.  Our heroes do worry about supplies.  There are enough drifting wrecks to get fuel from for the time being, but it is clear they expect supplies to get tighter.  They are in a tight spot, and it is not clear how they are going to recover. The odd nature of the catastrophe,  a sort of cosmic ecological event, is only semi-realistic, but as our rules go, we don't count crash-scenario plausibility.  However, the storyline is slightly heroic, and slightly condensed narrative required of the format looses some of the immediacy.  One notch below the maximum: a six.

Readability.  It is almost unfair.  It is very visual, and it is often a page turner.  You will catch a few details on the reread.  For instance, in an aside, the not the sinking of a U.S. Fleet.  The blurry ship sinking however, has the very distinctive turret outlines of a Bismark class battleship.  Comic books are an easy read: a 7.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Loom of Ruin: A Review

Sam McPheeter's Loom of Ruin is an often comedic, apocalypse-in-progress novel set within the environs of current day Los Angelos.  Although mostly within the confines of the City of Los Angelos, the novel has a cast of characters that span the globe with brief tangential storyline elements in Africa, and President Obama's White House office.  With the addition of an entity calling itself Satan involved, it doesn't take to much for the activities to threaten to become global.  A three chapter (the book is comprised of many short chapters) excerpt is here.


Sam McPheeter (1969), originally from Ohio, but has spend much of his working life as an musician/band leader withing the left and right coast of the U.S. punk rock movement.  Around 2006 he began writing short pieces within a variety of musical periodicals.  He has currently settle down in  in Pomona, California, where he lives with his wife.  This is his first novel.
The Loom of Ruin is 109 short chapters.  Each chapter focuses on one character and most of them are within the main "thread" of the story line.  If there is a main, main "thread", it is Trang, the permanently enraged Montagnard Vietnamese (Hmong) owner of nine Chevron gasoline stations in Los Angeles.  Trang has been accidentally shot not once, but twice, by the Los Angeles Police.  The second incident left a brain injury that causes him to be extremely angry all the time.  Because of this past history, a fear of racial unrest, and more lawsuits, the Los Angeles Police have a complete hands off policy with regards to to the enrage Trang, and so long as he stays within the City of Los Angeles, they won't touch him.

Trang's   Chevron gas stations are more successful than any other comparable stations in the world: by about 3%.  Chevron management would desperately like to figure out why.  Chevron is undergoing a corporate "make over" and this allows them to try and meddle in the affairs of his stations.  "Try" is the key word, as he is enraged all the time, and the police won't touch him, mayhem ensues frequently.  There are a variety of subplots that all orbit, often very loosely, around Trang and his gas stations. They span from grocery store shelving arrangers to rebellious oil workers in Nigeria.
The novel is often very funny.  It did make me laugh out loud (LOL).  That is fairly unusual for an apocalyptic novel.  There have been other satirical apocalypse-progress novels that I have found amusing at moments.  But I don't remember laughing much.  Just past 10% of the way through (Kindle 457/3874) I had LOL'd three times, and been amused an uncertain number of other times.  And a lot of it is a pure, if sometimes gruesome, slapstick humor.

The punk element comes from the anti-PC tone to the proceedings.  It shows all groups, creeds, organizations, and religions, in the very bright, harsh glare of reality.  It exposes both the idiocy of corporate management, while equaling skewering the idiocy and complacency of working America.

Through much of the novel, I wondered why it wasn't better known.  Everyone likes a good disaster, and it is funny as well.  The problem, to my mind, is that the carefully woven tapestry unravels at the end.  I had some suspicions early when some of the threads seemed to be hanging out on their own, but the ending is rather detached from much of the rest of the story.  Even with all the intricate machinations of the entity known as Satan, the final disaster requires a lot of coincidence to work, and truthfully could have been set off at page one without all the entertaining stories in the middle.

The net effect was to be disappointed by the end of the novel.  What starts of as a highly funny look at our modern urban wasteland, just falls apart.  The very gritty sardonic-realism of the common people, is contrasted different sensibilities than mine, who will probably really like this novel.  It is one of the very few novels (G.A. Matiasz's End Time being another possibility)  that would have an anarchist-liberal world view.

For our descriptive ratings: Realism and Readability: 1 to 7 with  7 being high.

Realism is pretty strait forward, it is a slightly sarcastic depiction of real life.  People work in crummy jobs, find themselves in crummy situations, and often have a very poor idea of their actual standing (good or bad) within the world.  It is over the top, particularly at the end, so I will be cautious and put it above the midpoint at 5.

Readability - how easy is it to read.  The novel is very fast paces, and the short chapters keep it moving.  There are some in jokes, but I doubt you need to catch very many of them to make the story worthwhile.  At the end, there are so many threads being pulled together that the disparate points of view, and short chapters start to work against the pacing.  None-the-less, a fast easy read:  a 6.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dog Eat Dog: A Review

David J. Rodger's Dog Eat Dog  (paperback here) is a post-apocalyptic-cybepunk novel with both zombie and Cthulhu flavoring to boot.  A full force mashup novel set within the roleplaying game world of Yellow Dawn.   Within our International focus that we have been working on, we have a British author focusing (primarily) on a collapsed United States, with secondary looks at both Europe and near space settlements.

An excerpt of the first five chapters can be found here.

The story behind the photo/cover is here

David J. Rodger (1970) lives in Bristol England with his longtime girlfriend and editor.  He has worked within the IT department of a British Agency, before going to work as a project manager of a major U.K. publisher.  All of his fiction novels, although stand alone by design,  share a common universe.  He notes his influences to include  the horror of H P Lovecraft  Robert Ludlum thrillers, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Philip K Dick, William Gibson, Iain M Banks,  Richard Morgan, John Grisham rounded off with the blunt violence of James Ellroy and Andy McNab (an interview here).  That being said, this novel is specifically noted as being set within the Yellow Dawn role playing game (RPG) setting, so it is taking place 10 years after the collapse.  If his other works are apocalypses-in-progress, this work is post-apocalyptic.  I guess what ever attempts the good guys made in his earlier works to stop the bad-things from happening were not entirely successful: bummer.

Without going into to many details, after an industrial accident in near-orbit, a  deadly plague swept over the world eliminating all but the 21% of the population who were not immune to the yellow dawn plague.  Followup plagues create a rabis like desease that creates zombie-like creatures who like to bite people.  In the following anarchy, none of the nations survive.  Within the solar system, a variety of space stations, bases, and such still survive.  All that remain on Earth are a handful of holdout cities, of varying capabilities, with zombies, who tend to like urbanized areas just outside their walls, and beyond that a huge sprawling wilderness.  Here and there little settlements and groups try to pull themselves together, fighting against zombies, and brigand-lords to make the best of it.
So what does cyberpunk meets post-apocalyptia feel like?  Well we start in Southern France near Marseilles.  The leftover medieval fortifications guarding towns are useful again.  The vast majority of people are armed with various medieval style weapons: swords, clubs, crossbows, etc. That being said, there are still some pretty serious bits of firepower still out there for those with the right connections.  One of the two main characters, Carlos, is trying to get into town:

The main access point to Aigues-Mortes was the Porte de la Gardette, and suitably named, Carlos ruminated as he stood beneath the guards lookout window set above the gate. Although the main curtain wall was about eleven metres high, the guard tower in front of him must have been at least another six metres higher. The entrance was flanked by two enormous curving towers, possibly ten metres or more in diameter. The whole structure was physically imposing and generated an immediate sense of impregnability and security. As did the two surly sentries giving him a hard time about his appearance...
That surprised him. The sentries were equipped with high-quality wands. They asked him about the wetware wired inside his skull: he told them the truth, a chunk of data-storage connected to a synaptic-bridge. They asked him about the insertion-port below his ribcage. He lied, told them it was for insulin to treat his diabetes; in reality it was for reloading his gland-implant.
Then they checked for staph and other skin infections; they pointed out his tangled hair was full of lice; they didn't take his blood; they didn't take anything that could have his DNA.

Note, this section is all found in the sample noted above.

The author himself gives a synopsis of the story line in an interview about his gaming world.

A criminal thriller that charts on the collision course between two survivors – a renegade intelligence agent and a cold-blooded thug-for-hire – as they become tangled in a wider political plot for influence and control. It showcases key features of the Yellow Dawn world – the disparity between the wilderness and the Living Cities; the bleak desolation of the Dead Cities and the screaming terror of a zombie surge.
It is written in a modern noir style mixed in with a heavy dose of brutal action adventure.  Which is to say that it is entirely unsuitable for children, and would not be enjoyed by adults who are adverse to foul language and extreme violence.  The sexual language is explicit, but mostly stops short of being pornographic.

Clocking in at 547 pages in print length, it is long book.  For much of the novel I was actually thinking that I was reading an interesting set of stories in series, but much to my surprise, about 3/4 of the way through all the different strands start weaving themselves back together and it is a surprisingly tight package for covering so much ground.
Did I enjoy the novel?  Yes, very much so. I would almost say surprisingly so.  It is long, but manages to hold together its narrative thread.  It has a variety of intertwined mysteries, but if you get confused, you get second chances to pull yourself out of the weeds, having both a lot of science fictional and supernatural horror elements, it still manages to maintain a grittier realism then many less speculative tomes.  Both main characters are interesting, and you are wondering what will happen to them up to very end.  To be honest, I if this novel is indicative of the authors usual efforts, I am surprised he is not better known.  I certainly intend to look closer at his other works.

For our descriptive ratings: 1 to 7 with 7 being high.

We will have to go into a little detail with Realism.  Realism does not generally include the cause of collapse unless it has an ongoing effect on the plot line.  This may sound odd, but a lot of collapse stories are rather generic in their causal effects.  Pink monkeys, solar flares, hyperinflation, whatever, causes all hades to break loose and then we get to move on with the fun with roughing it in the wilderness, or wherever.  But zombie stories tend to have a continual effect.  The nature of zombies generally mean that they will have an oversized effect on how people act.  Since zombies aren't real (right?) they will cause a lack of realism.  Ditto for the supernatural elements - even Lovecraftian supernatural elements that come cloaked in a sci-fi explanation.  If Fed blows up the economy, and all chaos occurs, we wouldn't expect to see Cthulhu marching out the sunken depths and trotting down Main Street (right?)  Further, while we can conceive of space within the solar system and colonies orbiting around the earth, they are not part of our current life, and are not going to be part of any disaster that we face today.  Somewhat mitigating these elements is the limited impact that the supernatural, and off-world elements have on the day-to-day activities of the people. We have enough of a collapse, that the overall high tech feel is reduced.  The people living safely up in space, could be living in some untouched area in some other collapse story (Chili, Japan, wherever).  The supernatural elements are creepy, but not much creepier than people are capable of on their own. Much of it acts as just another motivating factor for mayhem.

And that's it.  It is otherwise highly realistic.  The heroes, and even the heroic villains are very deadly people.  They are dangerous.  And they still mess up all the time.  They are playing for fairly high stakes, against intelligent (mostly) people, and intelligent people won't let you win against them all the time.  The main actors worry about money, they worry about their ambitions, although both of the main actors are single men, family issues or social attachments do factor in.  The author has a very strong feel for the particulars of functionality.  For a Brit, who as understand are not allowed any weapon more dangerous than breakaway toothpicks, he is surprisingly knowledgeable about the use of firearms.  In net, Realism is a point above the mid line: a 5.
Readability is a little more straightforward.  It is an easy enough read with maybe a slight deduct for too many initials as names, and for length.  There are are a fair number of places where it is a page turner, and in only a few places gets particularly bogged down.  There are a few scenes that could afford to be trimmed, but their entertaining scenes, and arguably the length is only an issue if you were on some sort of schedule - like trying to finish up a series of reviews.  Again, one point above the mid line:  a 5.

Our author, David J Rodger, at the apartment building where H.P. Lovecraft wrote The Horror At Red Hook (from here).

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Memoria- A Corporation of Lies: A Review

Alex Bobl's Memoria: A Corporation of Lies (at smashwords)(translation from Russian: Irene Galaktionova) is a post-apocalyptic noir dystopian action-thriller set in a near future.  The collapse was brought on by inter-state resource wars.  At the time of the story the fighting is in the past, although refugees, and veterans of the conflict play a prominant part in the story line.  For the term noir, here we will use Merriam-Webster’s definition: Crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings.   Add in a little bit of speculative science fiction, and you have quite a mix.

Cover art was by Vladimir Manyukhin

Alex Bobl, an ex-Russian paratrooper, started writing in 2007 and has already produced 16 novels, the best known within the (now translated) S.T.A.L.K.E.R setting, and also has an interesting blog where he discusses (in English) Russian post-apocalyptia and feature artwork and interviews. Memoria is his first novel that has been translated to English.  He is currently living in Moscow with his wife and two boys.

Our hero, Frank, is a lawyer working for Memoria, and the novel starts with his return from an important business meeting in the mostly rebuilt, but still post-collapse, Washington, D.C.  It does not take him long to get himself framed for a crime, and find himself on the lamb.  Shadowy villainous figures are stalking him, and murder and mayhem flourish when Frank and villains cross paths.

Memoria, the Corporation,  has the technology to read peoples memories, and erase the painful moments.  The path to abuse is rather obvious.  To some degree it reminded me of the slightly more subtle scheme in the Australian near future dystopian Yellowcake Springs.  Here, since we are in noir pulp thriller territory, the plotting is a little more over the top.  If they are so good at mental manipulations, it seems like it would be easier to just sell everyone cheap gin, or maybe Vodka in this case, and than just mentally erase the hangover.  The money would roll in.

There was a note at the author's website that its Russian language addition had come out to some  'controversial' reviews. Possibly some people found it a bit chauvinistic in tone.  Its "noir" setting is a bit overplayed.  Are you really going to have future New York City police officers debating the merits of a potential subjects phrenology?   Men dominate the power positions, the bad guy thugs are all men.  Most of the good guys are men, except for one daughter who mostly brings the men their food, along with the occasional biting and scratching in the combat scenes.  All of this would be extremely normal in a 1950s era- noir pulp novel.  But we are supposed to be in the future here.  There are dystopian feminist run future worlds (Gate to Woman's Country comes to mind), so presumably a future chauvinist male future would be fare game - but at least some explanation, or lip service toward this change would be in order.

A lot of Russian post-apocalyptic literature, I gather, is tied in with computer games. This no doubt leads to novels heavy on action. A lot of the original noir novels, moved along a little slower, and less violently, than some of today's page-turners.  Noir balances more toward the action end of the scale.

Did I enjoy the novel?  It had its interesting moments, and I would give it a qualified recommendation.   Combining elements of 1950s noir-crime fiction, modern day action adventure, and post-apocalyptic dystopia, it tended to address each element reasonably well at times, but sequentially rather than concurrently.  As the novel rolls along at a relentless pace, the mood shifts. Starting with a heavy noir feel, it later turns itself into a bit more of a mission impossible meets 1970s New York City cop show. The post-apocalyptic theme is mostly back story to explain the odd cast of characters.  Part of the problem is personal bias on my part: the genre: noir pulp detective fiction is not my favorite literary style. It is one of the few genre, where I like the movies better than the written work.

At times the translation is a bit quirky, nothing incomprehensible, but it is not a New York City style dialect.  I gather that the norm is for the translator to translate toward their native language, not from it.  In other words, if I became a translator, I would translate novels from Inuit (Eskimo) to English, rather than  the reverse.  When translating into a non-native language, it is inevitable that a few idioms are going to get mangled along the way.  The hand-to hand combat scenes are probably impossible to give a smooth translation. They are not easily written in English. Robert B. Parker's Spencer comest to mind.  Spencer had one good fight scene in him, and you better like it because you were going to see the scene over, and over, and over again in every novel. 

With a word count listed at around 73,470, it is longer than the Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon (67,000), but shorter than William Gibson's Neuromancer (79,000).   Givin the strength of the plotting, it could have stayed closer to the lower number without giving up too much.

The depiction of the noir setting strikes me as being fairly close to genre standards.  It is a little more up beat than some of the more famous examples; nobody is killed by their girlfriend. I would feel safer recommending it as a quirky noir crime fiction, than as a quirky - dystopian future.

We now move on to our descriptive  ratings (1 to 7 with 7 being highest): Realism and readability.

Realism here is meant to describe a sense of impending reality for the reader:  does this story line hold at least a potential future course of events for them.  Noir fiction, gloomy though it may be, is not particularly realistic fiction.  It plays with its audience and uses a variety of tricks to mislead the audience so as to bring on the unexpected twist at the end.  Action adventures feature bulletproof heroes enduring ridiculous hardships.  There is an additional science fictional content to the story that has a lot in common with Doctor Frankensteins laboratory.  It is all good fun, but it is not very "real."  Realism is one point below average: 3.

Readability is fairly straightforward.  There is very little real symbolism.  The "noir" is more in the settings tone, than in any illusionary trickery on the part of the writer.  There is a little clumsiness with some of the "vernacular" language, but the only confusing sections are some of the combat scenes.  Since combat is inherently confusing, I am not sure that that is not a reflection of the original in any case.  I wouldn't call it a page turner, but other than one short stretch in the middle, it generally keeps the scene shifting.  Readability is one point above the average: 5.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Friends and Other Stories of the Apocalypse: A review

We are starting on our international reviews, and will begin with two that are set in the United States, but are created, at least in part, from an outsiders perspective.  In this case a novel heavily illustrated by a Japanese artist.

A.P. Menzies' Friends and Other Signs of the Apocalypse is a heavily illustrated collection of loosely interrelated poems and vignettes set in the teenage dystopian world of 1980s Orange County, California. The illustrations, by Japanese artist Mari Araki, loosely fit into the story line, but are the most apocalyptic part of the book.  There is a free online (pdf) version of the novel here.  The author can be seen reading one of the short vignettes here.

A.P. Menzie grew up in Orange County, California.  Orange County is famous for bankrupting itself, more than once, using esoteric instruments to float their pension funds, and for being a new-commerce pro-Republican bastion of the Reagan Revolution.  Mr. Menzie segued his high school rock band experience into the life of an indie rock musician before going to art school and deciding to become an author.  My suspicion is that indie rockers net more income than authors.  The illustrator of the novelMari Araki, to quote her bio "was born in Tokyo, Japan and raised in Ishikawa, a suburb of Kanazawa.   In 2005, she graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. She currently lives in Southern California, with her cats Nade, Nini and Rock".
It is a very short work, and with such a scattered collection of stories and artwork, it is a little hard to summarize beyond the general malaise that growing up as spoiled rich kids in the surreal world of upper middle class suburbia.  Although the young protagonists have a desire to accumulate extra spending money, it is generally spent on music, or snacks rather than saving for college, or some other productive enterprise.  Granted, the author, making a career out of his passion for music is probably being more independent minded than most of his cohort, the territory covered here is the early dilettante stage.

The illustrations, are the most overtly apocalyptic portion of the novel, displaying various suburban landmarks in a collapsed, post-apocalyptic road-warrior type setting.  Some of the illustrations were interesting, more thematic, than "realistic".  They were uneven in style, getting more simplistic in style as the book progressed.  I am presuming they are intended as the visual companion to the nihilism of the teenager's thoughts.

Did I enjoy the novel?  Well it is free if you download the pdf, and at 88, often empty, pages it takes very little time at all to read, so you have to factor in the very low opportunity cost.   It was slightly entertaining at moments.  But in the end, I am not sure what exactly the point to it all is.  I guess the complete emptiness of many of the lives of the children of the well off would surprise some, and from the glimmerings I get,the teenage landscape has not changed much from the '80s'.   The book has a rather whiny-narcissistic tone to it.  It is trying to be quirky and clever, but those are adjectives that should be earned.  Better adjectives for most of the work might be muddled, and pointless.  There have been glowing reviews (video) that don't appear to come from family and friends, so obviously some people connect with this approach.  Having grown up at the edges of a slightly earlier, East Coast version of this world, possibly I have been too close to ground zero to get enjoyment out of the setting.

I am not sure how applicable our descriptive (versus qualitative) ratings will be here, but let's make a go of it.  Ratings go from 1 to 7; with 7 at the top.

Realism is both high and low.  There are stories of everyday life mixed in with the highly poetic, one could say nonsensical portions.  Since the "1s", cancel out the "7s" we are left at the mid-point: a 4.

Readability is somewhat similar.  You have fairly straight readings on contemporary life.  Although, the author gives the impression that these stories are of a time and place, they pretty well fit in with self-absorbed middle class teenagers in many locations.  There are also fanciful sections that are clearly an attempt at literary obfuscation.  again "1s" and "7s", but in this case the extremely short length adds a point: one-point above the median: a 5.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Updated international book review listings

Here is an update on the books included in the International Special.  I seem to have missed a few in my previous lists.  These will start tomorrow, and there will be a break on the weekends.  They are not in order of upcoming appearance:

2012 - Alisa Krasnostein and Ben Payne (editors) Australian short story collection

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1905) - Elliot E. Mills - British, Collapse of the first World Empire

Ashes, Ashes (Ravage) - René Barjavel - Vichy French

Quarter-Life Crises - Evan Murphy - Canadian - Graphic novel set in Toronto

Coming From an Off-Key Time - Bogdan Suceavã - Romanian

Enfold Me - Steven Greenberg - Israel

Vlad - Carlos Fuentes

The Literary Conference - César Aira - Argentinian, but mostly set in Venezuela

The Massive - Brian Wood - Graphic novel serial - American author with international setting

The Loom of Ruin - Sam McPheeter - American author set in the immegrant melting pot of Los Angelos

Fall Out - Gudrun Pausewang - West Germany

Friends and Other Stories of the Apocalypse- A.P. Menzie - American author/Japanese illustrator - but it was short and free.

La Jetée Ciné Roman - Chris Marker - French - Based on movie of the same name. Was the inspiration for the movie 12 Monkeys.

Memoria - Alex Bobl - Russian - Classic noir fiction in a dystopian future setting

Dog Eat Dog - David Rodgers - British with International setting. Has a RPG game (Yellow Dawn) associated with it.

Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood - Canadian authoress - mosly U.S. setting, but some in Asia

The Rest is Silence - Scott Fotheringham - Canadian author - split between New York City and Nova Scotia

Living Souls - Dmitry Bykov - Collapse in Russia

H.P. Lovecraft - Michel Hoellebecq - A French author reviews the importance of the early master.  Two of H.P.'s stories (Call of Cthulhu, and The Whisperer in the Darkness) are included.

For completeness, these are the international novels that we have already reviewed (see book review tab):

King of the Store Room - Antonio Porta - Italian

China Tidal Wave - Wang Lixiong -Chinese

Tobaccoo Stained Mountain Goat - Andrez Bergen - Australian

Malevil - Robert Merle - French

Yellow Cake Spring - Guy Salvidge - Australian

Kingdom of Four Rivers - Guy Salvidge - Australian

Red Queen - Honey Brown - Australian

End is coming quicker: dying faster

O.k. so the apocalypse, in some fashion, will be on us soon.  It looks like some of us, at least some of the poorer folks are less likely to live long enough to see it.

A team lead by, S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois at Chicago, have found some pretty severe drops in life expectancy.

Reversing Trend, Life Shrinks for Some Whites
Sabrina Taverni, New York Times, 21 September 2012 (no hat tip)

The steepest declines were for white women without a high school diploma, who lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008, said S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead investigator on the study, published last month in Health Affairs. By 2008, life expectancy for black women without a high school diploma had surpassed that of white women of the same education level, the study found.
White men lacking a high school diploma lost three years of life. Life expectancy for both blacks and Hispanics of the same education level rose, the data showed. But blacks over all do not live as long as whites, while Hispanics live longer than both whites and blacks.

The cause of this is unclear.  They list such factors as: an increase in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, more smoking by less educated women, and less health insurance for low end workers.  These are all fine, but there would have to be huge changes in those numbers to make for a five year change.
But then they go on to make the following observation:

The five-year decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London.

The decline among the least educated non-Hispanic whites, who make up a shrinking share of the population, widened an already troubling gap. The latest estimate shows life expectancy for white women without a high school diploma was 73.5 years, compared with 83.9 years for white women with a college degree or more. For white men, the gap was even bigger: 67.5 years for the least educated white men compared with 80.4 for those with a college degree or better.
They go on to note a number of other indicaters that life for those in the lower ranks is less than ideal at the moment.
So what it is really saying is that "for people whose lives really suck, life expectancy drops like a rock".    The white women may be losing the most years, because they have the most years to give up.  But within the group that was the bedrock of what is often referred to as the "working poor" life has not been going real well.  They have become the "unworking" poor. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The wind dies down

Siemens is laying off one-third of its workforce within its wind-energy U.S. operations for lack of orders.

Richard Weiss, Bloomberg, 19 September 2012 (hat tip: Early Warning)
Siemens AG will eliminate 615 jobs at U.S. factories producing windmills in response to declining orders, dealing a blow to Chief Executive Officer Peter Loescher's push into environmentally friendly energy sources.
Multiple troubles face wind industry (no link)
Diane Cardwell, New York Times, 21 September 2012 (via Raleigh's News & Observer)
Fairless Hills, PA
Last month, Gamesa, a major maker of wind turbines, completed the first significant order of its latest innovation: a camper-size box that can capture the energy of slow winds, potentially opening up new parts of the country to wind power.
But by the time the last of the devices, worth more than $1.25 million, was hitched to a rail car, Gamesa had all but shut down its factory here and furloughed 92 of the workeers who made them.
Weak demand for electricity, the cheap pricing of natural gas, the flooding of the market with cheaper (state and currency supported) Chinese competitors are all sited for the loss of jobs.  One item I did not see noted, but probably should have been, the lack of free capital to make the switch over.
The key here is not whether or not renewable sources of energy can be harnessed to replace fossil fuel, but will they.  We are not moving at lightning speed.  And when I look at the solar panel industry, they are busy trying to erect various certification requirements to inhibit competition.  Not exactly the sign of an industry going all-out.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Saudi oil exports: sand in the wheels

A lot could happen between now and then, but that great big gusher of oil known as Saudi Arabia could become a net importer of oil by 2030.  They are already using up all the natural gas that they produce.

Saudi oil well dries up
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Telegraph (U.K.), 5 September 2012 (hat tip: NC)
The basic point – common to other Gulf oil producers – is that Saudi local consumption is rocketing. Residential use makes up 50pc of demand, and over two thirds of that is air-conditioning. The Saudis also consume 250 liters per head per day of water – the world's third highest (which blows the mind), growing at 9pc a year – and most of this is provided from energy-guzzling desalination plants.

All this is made far worse across the Gulf by fuel subsidies to placate restive populations.

The Saudis already consume a quarter of their 11.1m barrels a day of crude output. They are using more per capita than the US even though their industrial base as a share of GDP is much smaller.

The country already consumes all its gas. (Neighboring Kuwait is now importing LNG gas from Russia….

If you go through the link, and look at the charts, you will see that this is a strictly demand-side story: no peak oil required.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Carbon politics gets deep

Note that this is not a review.  I have not yet read Timothy Mitchell's Carbon Democracy  which tells a story of how it was coal that brought us democracy, but then oil has brought us...something else.  His novel, in a unique way intertwines the development of energy sources with the development of new political systems.

From Chapter One:
Modern mass politics was made possible by the development of ways of living that used energy on a new scale.  The exploitation of cal provided a thermodynamic force whose supply in the nineteenth century began to increase exponentially.  Democracy is sometimes descrived as a consequence of this change...

Matt Stoller had a review at Naked Capitalism, in which he made the following point:

How Coal Brought Us Democracy, and Oil Ended It: Lessons from the New Book "Carbon Democracy"  Matt Stoller, Naked Capitalism, 13 Septemeber 2012
The ultimate conclusion of the book is that a climate crisis, and peak oil, are putting our deeply held political arrangements in a period of uncertainty and crisis. Once you’ve gone on this journey through time, and you understand Mitchell’s narrative that our very intellectual horizons are dominated by oil as a surplus and infinite commodity, it becomes hard to conclude that our cultures will look remotely similar to what they look like today in just a few years. Against this sweeping narrative, our current political debates seem incredibly tiny, almost irrelevant. We have, as it turns out, been living in a land of fairy tales about how our society works, because we’ve been ignoring what powers it, oil, and what drives that commodity. The pipelines, the wells, the financial channels, these construct our physical society, as well as the intellectual environment in which we conceive of and organize our social relations.
I agree with this particular point.  But the naratives I read all seem to focus on the "undemocratic" Middle East.  While, to some degree, all of that is true, it is to some degree an accident of geography and geology.  Oil has been found all over the place, and one of the early big producers was the United States, and the Japanese went to war with the United States to get their hands on the Dutch East Indies, not Iran/Persia.
That big oil would be become politically powerful does not strike me as being a particularly unique phenomina.  The British took over Egypt over the issue of debt collection, and the British-German blockade of Venezuela in 1904 also involved interference with business interests.   Possibly the most extreme example, "The Opium Wars" where the opium-exporting British went to war over the Chinese Emperorer's bans on opium dens, names the very interest involved: which is not "Big Oil".  Shoot, the Opium War preceedes the extensive use of oil by a number of years.
Its just that the Empires of that day had not yet stumbled onto the concept of buying their empires through cash and trade, and thus tended to back up their business in a more blunt fashion.  The militiary intervention on behalf of oil is not the first time the Western Economy has used the stick of its military to get what it wanted.
I have flipped through enough of the book to see that the "blurb" reviews are mostly doing it an injustice.  I suppose I will have to take a closer look and see for myself.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The 2030 food riots

We have discussed food issues here often enough.  A new chart coming out of MIT is making the rounds showing that food pricing is set to start another mega-riot by 2030.

From the Abstract

Marco Lagi, Karla Z. Bertrand and Yaneer Bar-Yam, New England Complex Systems Institute
10 August 2011 (hat tip: Mother Board via NC)

Social unrest may reflect a variety of factors such as poverty, unemployment, and social injustice.  Despite the many possible contributing factors, the timing of violent protests in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 as well as earlier riots in 2008 coincides with large peaks in global food prices. We identify a specific food price threshold above which protests become likely. These observations suggest that protests may reflect not only long-standing political failings of governments, but also the sudden desperate straits of vulnerable populations. If food prices remain high, there is likely to be persistent and increasing global social disruption.

From here (pdf)

To my mind 2030 is an awful long way off to be making pricing predictions.  If there is one pricing item that seems to be sensitive to the flapping of butterfly wings in Bolivia, it is food prices.
It also ignores that the countries that have been having the big riots have both youth bulges, and education bulges.  So in effect you have uplifted your youth to the status of dangerous revolutionaries, rather than leaving them in the more usual state of desperate peasants.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wind power über alles

We have enough wind. And I don't just say that because it is the political season.

Since I report on the bad news all the time, I like to make note of the good news items if they have at least a basis in fact. 

Wind could meet many times world's total power demand by 2030, researchers say
Andrew Myers, Stanford Edu/Stanford School of Engineering, 10 September 2012 (hat tip: NC)

In a new study, researchers at Stanford University's School of Engineering and the University of Delaware developed the most sophisticated weather model available to show that not only is there plenty of wind over land and near to shore to provide half the world's power, but there is enough to exceed total demand by several times if need be, even after accounting for reductions in wind speed caused by turbines.
The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford and Cristina Archer, an associate professor of geography and physical ocean science and engineering at the University of Delaware.
Knowing that the potential exists, the researchers turned their attention to how many turbines would be needed to meet half the world's power demand — about 5.75 terawatts — in a 2030 clean-energy economy. To get there, they explored various scenarios of what they call the fixed wind power potential — the maximum power that can be extracted using a specific number of wind turbines. 
Archer and Jacobson showed that four million, five-megawatt turbines operating at a height of 100 meters could supply as much 7.5 terawatts of power — well more than half the world's all-purpose power demand — without significant negative affect on the climate.
I have no problems with any of this.  I certainly don't know enough about the calculations to dispute them.  So what are we to do with this news?

We'll we now have a baseline of what would be needed.  Let's see them get built.  But I can't help it, I just have to say it....

Don't hold your breath.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Food trailer bunker bust

Using a food trailer as a cover to your double decker underground bug-in compound is not an awful idea, although if you think there is going to be widespread looting along with the panic, I might choose something less targetable, like maybe an old flower delivery van or on low cinder blocks.

In any case, since the idea is to conceal the entrance, if you don't want to bring attention to yourself, it is best if you don't (allegedly) steal it.

There is of course a Fox News video  It has gone a little viral as it is being noted in England

Kissimmee man stole trailer, planned doomsday bunker, police say
Desiree Stennett, Orlando Sentinel, 11 September 2012 (hat tip: NC)
What started out as the recovery of a trailer reported stolen by Clay & Sons, a tire and automotive store in Kissimmee, turned into a morning of unearthing a resident's "doomsday bunker."
The stolen trailer was found in the front yard of a Kissimmee man's home, and police spokeswoman Stacie Miller says it's likely that the man had plans to add it to his double-decker bunker already in the making.
The man didn't tell police exactly when he thought the world would come to an end, but cops say he was preparing a personal underground survival bunker. One stolen food truck was buried in the backyard, and another stolen storage trailer was parked at ground level above it.
Although I have heard it mentioned by people as an idea to pursue, I think I agree with the town planner who said that it is not a good idea to burry trailers, as they are not structurally sound for that type of utilization.  Because he was using an excavator to do the digging, I think he was greatly underestimating the amount of weight that was involved with the surrounding soil.

The bunker (from here)

The house (see the "X") in better days- before it was painted green! (from Bing)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

International theme apocalyptic book reviews

We are finishing the last of the books that are "international" in some form. So we will likely start posting reviews a week from now. That will allow me time to go back and try and make sure that all of the reviews are finished, and not in completely rough form.

We will stick with the list that we noted before.
We have international in the sense of foreign language, or at leas non-British, non-American authors 
writing about their home country:
Ashes, Ashes (Ravage) - René Barjavel, Quarter-Life Crises - Evan Murphy, Coming From an Off-Key Time - Bogdan Suceavã, Enfold Me - Steven Greenberg, Vlad - Carlos Fuentes, La Jetée Ciné Roman - Chris Marker. Also all the other international author's we have reviewed, fit under this catagory.
Less common, we have international authors/artists who are touching on American settings:
Friends and Other Stories of the Apocalypse- A.P. Menzie (with Japanese illustrator), Memoria - Alex Bobl.

And then we have Americans and British authors who are writing with an international scope:
The Literary Conference - César Aira, The Massive - Brian Wood, The Loom of Ruin - Sam McPheeter, Fall Out - Gudrun Pausewang.

Dying regrets

Bonnie Ware is a hospice nurse in Australia and wrote a book about the regrets that dying people express at their death bed:

Top 5 regrets of the dying
Susie Steiner, Guardian (U.K) 1 February 2012 (hat tip of sorts: Penelope Trunk)
1.  wish I had had the courage to live a life true to myself rather than the life others expected of me.
2.  I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3.  I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4.  I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5.  I wish I had let myself be happier.
Of course, in fairness to those of us who are dying (we all are aren't we?), but are not yet at death's door, there are no ramifications to imaginary outcomes that are not realized, and we do not have the advantage of knowing the outcomes.  After all, we work hard to put food on the table, and maybe to improve one's, or one's family's, station in life.  It is only at death that it would not come out as we expected.  It is also very possible that some of these people are kidding themselves about how hard they worked.  I mean think about it, it is the number 2 complaint, and apparently one sited by almost all of the men.  Do you know that many hard working people?  Apparently they all live in Australia.
Teasing aside, these are the normal regrets of normal people.  If they found out that work-life did not bring the lasting satisfaction that they expected.  It is likely that you, or I, won't either.  If  they wish they had kept up better with friends, and if they have come to realize that happiness is something that is within their control, than likely it will be the same for us.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Pride goes before the fall


The Harvard Business Journal tends to go on (and on) about the latest flavor of business theory, but here they are discussing something that happens to be a bit more universal.  It is not just that we get over confident, but we also loose our focus.

The sequence they note goes something like this:  Clarity of purpose leads to success; at which point your success leads to more available options, the exploration of these options leads to a loss of clarity; which then leads to failure.
The disciplined pursuit of less
Greg McKeown, Harvard Business Review, 8 August 2012 (Hat tip: Big Picture)
Curiously, and overstating the point in order to make it, success is a catalyst for failure.
We can see this in companies that were once darlings of Wall Street, but later collapsed. In his book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins explored this phenomenon and found that one of the key reasons for these failures was that companies fell into "the undisciplined pursuit of more." It is true for companies and it is true for careers.
So it is another case of "less is more." All this could be loosely summed up to:  "stick to your knitting".

Which could be broadly expanded to a societal message about worry about what really matters.  I saw the Mayor of the small town of Wake Forest the other day and teased her that now that they were discussing the option of allowing in-town bow hunting, they could pass pass their super secret conspiracy initiates with impunity while everyone was distracted.

Friday, September 14, 2012

What the police know (U.K. addition)

This is culled from a list of answers to a basic question to police officers - they appear to be British officers primarily, but the truths are universal.

What have you learned as a police officer about life and society that most people dont know or underestimate?  (Hat tip: MR)

1.  Take away alcohol and stupid, and the world would require about 90% fewer cops.
2.  The number of homicides where neither the victim nor the perp knew two minutes out that it was about to happen is astounding. (See "alcohol and stupid" above.)

3.  If you get a group of four or five cops together and ask them to name the last time they arrested someone who had never been arrested before, be prepared for a thoughtful silence.
4.  Everyone has a "hot button." Calm and even-tempered as you might be, there is some topic that will set you off, especially if it's referenced to you personally.
5.  Although they may not know it, there are people who find these hot buttons instinctively, and they live to push them.
6.  The likelihood of someone being caught (sans video of their ugly mug on the 6 o'clock news) is a factorial of the number of people involved and the size of their mouths. Most just cannot SHUT-UP. We don't need force to make em talk, most of the time, they won't shut-up! You have the right to remain silent...PLEASE!
7.  Never say, "Now I've seen it all." There will always be innovators.
8.  High-speed chases look like fun because they are.
I have found that item 5 explains many of the abuses of power in the workplace.  Normal, well balanced people, uncommone as they may be, have a hard time understanding that some people just like to mess with other people.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

50,000 year old revival

My little boy was wondering recently about how the experiments to recreate a dinosaur out of modern chicken/ostrich  eggs was going.   I am not sure about that experiment, but another "revival" experiment has been a resounding success:  recovering the complete dna sequence from a little girl who died  50,000 years ago.

Genome Brings Ancient Girl to Life
Ann Gibbons - Science Now- Wired Magazine, 31 August 2012 (hat tip: NC)

In a stunning technical feat, an international team of scientists has sequenced the genome of an archaic Siberian girl 31 times over, using a new method that amplifies single strands of DNA. The sequencing is so complete that researchers have as sharp a picture of this ancient genome as they would of a living person’s, revealing, for example that the girl had brown eyes, hair, and skin. “No one thought we would have an archaic human genome of such quality,” says Matthias Meyer, a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “Everyone was shocked by the counts. That includes me.”...
Ironically, this high-resolution genome means that the Denisovans, who are represented in the fossil record by only one tiny finger bone and two teeth, are much better known genetically than any other ancient human — including Neandertals, of which there are hundreds of specimens. The team confirms that the Denisovans interbred with the ancestors of some living humans and found that Denisovans had little genetic diversity, suggesting that their small population waned further as populations of modern humans expanded.

The Denisovans are close relatives of the Neanderthals, there are differences from modern humans.  But 3% of the genomes of the people of Papua New Guinea come from Denisovans, so to a degree they still live on.