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Matter, by Iain M Banks (Books 2008, 1)

So, the latest Banksie. Always a treat, of course, and especially so when it’s a novel of The Culture. This one, though, is slightly disappointing.

It’s not actually bad — certainly not badly written (though he does overuse the phrases “appeared to be”, and “looked like”, when describing things; I was told off years ago (by Lisa Tuttle, no less) for using “seemed” when describing something: “it either is, or it isn’t.” I’ve been painfully aware of that word, and phrases that take its place, ever since). It’s just not as good as we’ve come to expect, which is a disappointment.

The main fault is that he describes too much of the scenery, to the point where it all starts to get a bit much. He didn’t always do that, I don’t think. Or maybe he did, but it was better executed, and so not so noticeable.

It’s the tale of some of the inhabitants of a level on a ShellWorld, and how they come into contact with The Culture, and why, and what follows. All good stuff, with plenty of fabulous tech.

But you know what was the most annoying thing about it? The cover. It shows a human figure in silhouette, walking away from (or it could be toward) our PoV. On the horizon a city is burning. Overhead there are stars. It’s not annoying because no scene remotely like it happens in the book (well, there is one scene a bit like it, but she isn’t on foot).

It’s annoying because of the shadows.

The figure’s shadow shoots out to its left, implying that there’s a strong light source to the right; a rising or setting star. But the burning city is giving off lot of light, too. Enough, it seems to me, that she (if it is a she) should have a secondary shadow, also to her left, but coming towards our PoV.

It’s a small thing, I know, and I don’t usually comment on the covers of books, but I noticed it when I was about two-thirds of the way through, and it bugged me every time I looked at it thereafter.

Still, you know what they say about books and covers.

Eee! PC.

My new Eee PC relaxes on the bed:

New toy relaxes

A photo of one of my recent technological acquisitions, as taken by the other. It’s hard to take a photo of a new camera, unless you have another. And since this Canon Powershot G9 is the first digital camera I’ve had…

Both of them are fabulous. The Eee is finally an almost perfect replacement for the Psion 5 as mobile writing platform (much more powerful, but not as pocketable). And I’m taking the camera everywhere and filling up hard drives with the results. So expect to see more pictures appearing here.

Messing around with the blog

I’m trying out a different theme on here for a while, along with a Wordpress Plugin called QuickPost .

Both the plugin and the theme are supposed to make WordPress be usable a bit like Tumblr. There are a number of flaws, though. The theme (Tumble-Hybrid by Tribe) is perhaps a bit too simple. I’m all for a clean, simple look, but this might have gone too far.

And the plugin doesn’t allow for a preview before posting (as well as not working properly with Flickr, though presumably that will be fixed in due course).

Edit: No, that won’t do at all. One or other of them disabled comments and lost the title (even though “Allow Comments” is ticked, and the title appears, in the main editor.

I suppose the thinking is that, for something quick and dirty you don’t want comments or titles, but I do. Even Tumblr has titles, if not comments.

Edit 2: Well, a bit of CSS hacking sorted that out. But posting photos isn’t working at all as I would expect. That may be to do with the fact that I’ve never really dealt with posting images before, though, rather than the plugin or theme.

Human rights and human gains

It is a tragedy that a member of the public, when interviewed on the radio, should say, when the phrase “human rights” comes up, “Oh, bloody hell, human rights, suffin fussin wussin mumble grumble,” in a tone of disgust.

The subject being discussed was the call to ban this “Mosquito” device, which is intended to stop kids and teenagers from hanging around shops or elsewhere by emitting an annoying noise which is too high for older ears to hear. But it could as easily have been the bugging of prisoner-lawyer conversations, or one of a dozen other triggers for what Dave Hill calls the seething classes.

Here’s the thing, people: human rights are a good thing.

I can’t quite believe I’m having to write that. Again: human rights, and governments upholding them, are good. An unequivocal good. There’s no question here; we’re not in any kind of moral grey area. Some things are as stark and as plain as the type and the paper on some of the entities I’m about to blame: treating people with equality before the law, with respect; acknowledging a basic set of rights to which every human being is entitled, and striving to make those rights available to everyone: these things are an unequivocal good.

Let me spell this out in words of one syllable:

That’s what our parents and grandparents fought the fucking war for!

OK, went a bit over my syllable count there.

It is just a few years since the incoming Labour government passed the Human Rights Act, incorporating into UK law the European Convention on Human Rights; how has our country got to the position, since then, that “human rights” has become a swear word?

I blame the tabloids. Specifically, I blame the right-wing, ranting, seething, whinging rags of the Daily Mail, and the Murdoch-owned scumsheets. I blame big business and the CBI; I blame the petty little-Englander mentality of a disturbingly vocal minority of the citizens of our great, multicultural nation.

What is to be done about it? How do we regain the natural state of the British psyche, where we stick up for the underdog, as well as have a respect for natural justice? Or, if not regain it (since it hasn’t really gone anywhere) at least make its voice audible again? How are we to make the complainers tone down, or better, teach them, show them, that human rights are for everybody (even the complainers), not just for the tiny minorities whose stories get wildly inflated in the tabloids; and that even those tiny minorities (where they actually exist) deserve the protection of those rights; and perhaps above all, that our society, our nation, is enriched and improved by our granting and acknowledging those rights?

McQualifications

I probably don’t need anything more than the title for this one. I mean, who the hell would ever think it was a good a idea to let McDonald’s issue qualifications “equivalent to A-levels”? I’ve nothing against on-the-job training, of course: that’s a good thing. And businesses sponsoring people to study for recognised qualifications, and so on: all good.

But letting businesses issue qualifications that have that equivalence? I thought we were supposed to be worried about the devaluing of A-levels; it seems unlikely that allowing commercial interests to issue them (or their “equivalents”) will do anything other than further lower their value.

And I feel bound to say: would you like fries with your certificate, sir or madam?

Nutters, “Emigration, Death, Regret and Substance Abuse”

I see that Tony Blair has become a catholic. No surprise there. But as an ex-catholic atheist myself, I’m feeling down with Nick Clegg.

In other catholic-related news, there’s a fine analysis of ‘Fairytale of New York on the BBC website, after the Radio 1 farrago. And I hadn’t realised that Shane McGowan’s birthday is Christmas Day. So as well as Newtonmas, we can also celebrate McGowanmas on Tuesday.

Rationalism and excess: what a fine seasonal combination.

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis (Books 2007, 7)

I hadn’t read any Amis before (either of them), but I’ve wanted to try Kingsley for a while; mainly for his SF connections, but when I saw this in a second-hand bookshop I thought it might be a good place to start.

This one isn’t SF, of course. Instead, it’s described as a “comic novel”.

I have to say that I found very little in it to laugh at.

Oh, the odd chortle, or wry grin, certainly; in particular there is a description of a hangover that has been quoted often enough that I recognised it in its entirety.

But our national sense of humour must have changed since 1954, or something. Not to mention a great deal more about our society and the way we interact. At times in this novel I found it harder to understand the motivations of the characters than of the most alien of characters in SF (well, ok, not to the extent of ‘The Dance of the Changer and the Three’, say, but anything less than that).

That’s no bad thing, but since it wasn’t the intent of the author, that sense of confusion or dislocation can leave you feeling lost. This is quite different from the effect you can get in good SF, where you’re thrown in at the deep end, not quite knowing what’s going on. There, you just hang on and enjoy the ride, trusting in the knowledge that it’ll become clear in time.

In this case there’s no hope of an explanation, because Amis didn’t realise that the behaviour of his sexually stilted 1950s academics would be quite so opaque and mysterious to a reader in the zero-years of the 21st century (why didn’t they just go to bed, already?)

Still, as a gentle rom-com, it wasn’t too bad.

Cheerleader Saved, World Saved…

… for now, at least

(What, you think that’s a spoiler? You saw the future world when Sylar had healing powers: obviously that one wasn’t going to come true).

You know, some things shouldn’t have a second series. They are perfect bite-sized little vignettes as they are (OK, pretty big bites, and not so much of the “ette”, in this case). Their story is told, and while it may not have a tidy conclusion to every thread, it has at least reached a satisfying point at which to stop; there are no downright cliffhangers left.

And that’s like life: there are no beginnings, no endings; not really. Only a continuing narrative that we pay more or less attention to; and that we eventually have to stop reading (or writing), and put away forever (which last fact is intensely annoying, and the sooner we can edit it out of our reality, the better).

I’m sad that Heroes is over; but in a way I’m sadder that it’s going to go on. Because there will be inevitable deterioration — I read recently that Tim Kring has apologised about the quality of some Season 2 eps (oh, there are a few mild spoilers for Season 2 at that link; or not so mild, depending on how you feel about them) — there will be shark-jumping. And eventually it may fall to the lowest common denominator of all serial drama: soap opera.

I’m looking at you, Desperate Housewives.

And things that should go on, that need to go on, don’t get to. One of these days — and it must be soon, I think — Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip is going to finish, and then it’ll be gone forever, irrespective of what plot threads are dangling. Bummer.

I fully support the WGA writers’ strike, by the way.

Here’s Tae Us

I just heard John Bell of the Iona Community on ‘Thought for the Day’. He was talking, since it’s St Andrew’s day, about the old Scottish saying, or toast, “Here’s tae us, wha’s like us? Damn few, and they’re a’ deid.” That’s, “Here’s to us, who’s like us? Damn few, and they’re all dead,” in case you have trouble with Scots.

Thing is, Bell was bemoaning the attitude he thinks it represents. He thinks it means, “The only people we can emulate are dead.” He thinks it epitomises a ‘national inferiority complex.’

That’s not how I ever understood it.

Rather than looking back wistfully on past glories, to me it was triumphal, celebratory, even arrogant, if you need a negative adjective. It said — it says — “We’re here, and we’re great; there’s no-one like us.”

So happy St Andrew’s day: we rock.