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The Einstein Intersection, by Samuel R Delany (Books 2008, 5)

Or, ‘A Fabulous, Formless Darkness’, which was Delany’s original preferred title, according to Neil Gaiman (him again?) in his introduction to this edition.

Delany writes twisty puzzle-stories, where it’s not always clear what’s going on, or why. I’m a big fan of his later masterpiece, Dhalgren, which matches that description, for example.

This one is more straightforward by comparison. It is Earth’s far future. Humans have gone, and the world is instead inhabited by an alien race. They have taken over, not just the planet, but humanity’s identity, its myths, even its genetics. And they are struggling to be human.

Or that, at least, is what we are told. That is what our hero, Lo Lobey, believes, what the elders of his village have taught him. But personally, I’m not convinced.

See, there’s nothing here that requires that the characters be aliens; they behave just as humans would, in most cases. Far-future, post-fall humans, yes, but still they could be humans. Sure, Lobey has prehensile toes, there are various other physical differences, and there is a neuter (or hermaphrodite, it’s not clear) ‘third sex’; but none of that is anything that a bit of genetic manipulation - deliberate, accidental, or a combination of the two - couldn’t cause. And there are some psychic abilities, but that is well within humanity’s capabilities in thousands of stories, of course.

More importantly, they feel like humans. As Gaiman says, “they are us.”

There is one element that is more alien, though. That is the curious character of Kid Death, and his (and perhaps some other characters’) apparent ability to bring back the dead at will. The latter could be illusion, of course, and would then be in keeping with the psychic powers I mentioned above.

Why does this matter, you might ask? Why do I care whether these people are aliens or advanced-and-fallen humans? In one sense it doesn’t matter, of course. You can enjoy the story while taking the explanation for its background at face value. But there is, to me, something unsatisfying about the “aliens who have taken on the characteristics of humans” explanation. It is too unexplained.

Not that we can or should expect everything to be explained in SF (or not at first, at least); and in Delany’s work this low expectation is perhaps lower than in most. Certainly Dhalgren, for example, gives few clues as to what is going on, or how things have got to where they are (it occurs to me, in fact, that it could be set in the same world as the present story).

To have a story about such an alien race, with no examination of what they were like before they took on the role of humanity, or why they did it, seems a curious choice. But I suppose we could see it as a demonstration of true alienness: there is no explanation of why they behave as they do because we simply could not understand their rationale.

And I think that’s the explanation I like best.

Floating

So the Tories took Crewe and Nantwich in the by-election.

I don’t understand (never have) the mentality, the mindset, the brains of floating voters. I’m not saying that no-one should ever change their mind, in politics or anything else; nor do I think that people can’t be convinced by the arguments over issues - nor, for that matter, swayed by the force of a candidate’s personality. Furthermore, I speak as one who has voted against Labour, my lifetime-favoured party, in recent years.

But floating voters - and in particular ones who’ll switch all the way between Labour and Tory - I just don’t understand them.

Of course it’s possible - even likely - that no-one actually describes themself as a floating voter. They might all say, “I decide on the issues each time,” or even, “… by who I like…” That would be OK, y’know? I could get behind that, sort of. I mean, it doesn’t sound very committed; but it could be. On each occasion you could examine the candidates’ and/or their parties’ positions on human rights/the environment/tax cuts/hanging and flogging (or whatever your particular concerns may be). Match them against your own position and preferences, and see who suits you best.

But I’m not convinced that’s what the bulk of these ‘floaters’ do.

See, I suspect that they mostly take little to no interest in politics (which is to say, little to no interest in the world) between elections. Then when one does roll round they vote whatever way their stupid, dumbfuck tabloid paper tells them to.

Though I may be doing many people a great disservice there. And at least they do get out and vote.

It’s just that sometimes the world might be a better place if they didn’t.

Jeremy Hardy obviously feels similarly to me: on The News Quiz the other night he said that floating voters who switched all the way from Labour to Tory (rather than voting, say, Green or LibDem) were like someone saying, “Well, I’ve always had my hair cut at the barbers in the High Street, but this time I’m just going to set my head on fire!”

British Summer Time, by Paul Cornell (Books 2008, 4)

Paul Cornell wrote some of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who‘s recent years: ‘Father’s Day’, and the ‘Human Nature’/’Family of Blood’ two-parter. After the latter, I downloaded and read the ebook of his original novel (on which the episodes were based). So I came to this with some knowledge of his writing.

But not with so much knowledge of his religious beliefs. I had some sense — from reading his blog, presumably — that he was religious, at least in a vague, Church-of-Englandy sort of way; but I didn’t expect, on picking this up, that it would have such a religious heart (or maybe ‘soul’ would be more appropriate).

Though I’m not sure that the Archbishop of Canterbury would quite approve — and I’m absolutely sure the Pope would not — of the theology.

It’s a fine story of a woman who can read the patterns of the world around her, a space pilot from the future (but is it ‘our’ future?), a disembodied head, and four mysterious ‘golden men’, who might be angels, might be the biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, or might be something else. It’s an easy read, and I recommend it.

But does the religion get in the way of the story? No, not really; though it was something of a distraction at times for this atheist. It’s by no means preachy; indeed, you could argue that the religious interpretation of the events in the story is a misinterpretation. Though since that interpretation is the author’s, that would depend on where you stand on the whole postmodern thing about the author being irrelevant, and the reader entering into a dialogue with the text.

The question for me on a personal note is, would I have approached it differently - or read it at all - if I had known about the religious content before I started it?

The answer is, I would have approached it differently. And, if I hadn’t known the author’s work, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all.

By saying that, I’m convicting myself of being likely to prejudge religiously-inspired fiction; well, yes, guilty as charged. Just as I’m likely to prejudge romantic fiction, literary fiction, heroic fantasy, and so on. We don’t approach anything in a vacuum, after all. Our past experiences, our expectations, colour our understanding and appreciation of any art. And we all have our preferences.

Still, if I had known, and rejected this, I’d have missed out on something worthwhile. So that’s worth bearing in mind.

Time for writing crosses in booths, folks

You know what’s coming. It’s nearly the 1st of May, and that means elections. An all-too-infrequent chance to exercise our fundamental democratic right and duty. Always important, even when you’re quite happy with how things are. Somebody else won’t be, and you don’t want them to change things.

Of course, that’s not what gets people out to vote: a desire for change is much more likely to bring crowds to the local schools, village halls, and other little nooks and crannies of public space that experience a kind of sovereignty for a day.

Either way, there’s no better or nobler duty that you can do in a few minutes in a small cubicle with a pencil and a piece of paper.

And if you live in London, and have a vote, please, please, please get out and use it against Boris Johnson.

I don’t really care who you vote for (well, the BNP are standing, but I’m sure anyone reading this is much too decent and right-thinking to go there). Though it’s clear that only Ken has a serious chance of keeping the bumbling buffoon out.

I’m convinced, by the way, that the Tories put him up to it as a joke. The thinking probably went something like, “Nobody’s going to beat Livingstone, so let’s put comedy candidate up, and make a mockery of the whole thing.” Then somehow, thanks largely to the vile rag that is ??The Evening Standard??, and the lack of seriousness with which some people treat politics, Boris climbed up the polls, and now looks like a serious contender for the Mayorship.

It will be a disaster for London if he gets elected, of course. We can only hope that it will backfire on the Tories: that he fails fast enough that it seriously harms them in the general election.

Putting your hopes for the country on disaster for your city is no position to be in, though. So I can only reiterate: get out and vote, and stop Boris. Give at least your second vote to Ken. He has his faults, but he’s done a pretty good job of running the city this last eight years.

Vote!

That ‘reporting back from Eastercon’ business

I realise that I said I would report back from Eastercon. It already seems like quite a long time ago. I had a great time, though I missed out on the Saturday night and Sunday morning and early afternoon, as I went to collect my son from his grandparents’.

It was his first convention, and I think he quite enjoyed it; though the next time we’ll need to ensure that there are some other kids there who like Yu-Gi-Oh! (mental trading card game beloved of ten-year-old boys).

I saw some old friends and had a fine time. I was very restrained in comparison with my old conventioneering days. Early(ish) nights, the lot. It was quite refreshing to come home on the Monday and not feel at all rough.

The guests of honour were great, those of them that I saw, at least. I missed “Charlie Stross’s”:http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/index.html speech because of being away for a while, but he was by far the most visible of them all around the con. China Miéville gave a great speech about how it doesn’t spoil stories to read more into them than the author consciously intended; or than our interlocutor might say we should (you know, the kind who say, “You’re reading too much into it! It’s just a story!”).

And Neil Gaiman (the net’s no. 1 Neil) was lovely. He read a short story, and talked for a bit, and then read the start of his new novel The Graveyard Book. Later on, he did a kids-only reading of The Wolves in the Walls. The best part of that was that parents and carers were allowed in too. He really knows how to handle an audience; even one of the most demanding kind, such as this.

And my boy got his books signed without having to join the apparently-mad queues for the official signing sessions.

Then there was a performance of my friend Andrew’s play, The Terminal Zone, which I wrote about when I read the chapbook, It’s a fine work. This particular performance could have done with more rehearsal, but of course, these are amateurs, fitting it all into the rest of their lives, and doing a damn fine job.

That was followed by a live set from Mitch Benn, who I’ve been a fan of for some time from his performances on Radio 4’s The Now Show, and live, he was absolutely fantastic, especially, I think, since the audience got all his SF references (you don’t say) without any prompting.

All in all, a great weekend, in a fine hotel (pity it’s lost its swimming pool, though).

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi (Books 2008, 3)

I’ve been reading Scalzi’s “blog (Whatever…)”:http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/ on and off for a few years, and he comes across as one of the good guys: certainly on the side of light, a good laugh, and someone you imagine would be fun to meet. So I’ve been meaning to read his SF for a while.

My thanks to his publishers, Tor, then, for making his debut available via their free ebooks programme. I read most of it on the Eee PC, with some bits on my phone (when I was standing up on the tube).

In short, I loved it; though I have some doubts, or reservations.

It’s a curious universe (or at least, galaxy) that he describes: it is teeming with life, intelligent life; but nearly all of it is antithetical to nearly all of the rest of it. Certainly, it is a book about war (the clue’s in the title); but it’s not one war between humanity and another alien race. Instead it’s a series of small wars to defend human colonies from alien attackers, and to attack alien colonies and capture the planets for humans. And once our hero joins up, he is constantly at war; there is no respite, at least that we hear of.

And only one, minor, character questions this state of affairs (though others do express their doubts).

I have a feeling, though, that these questions may be addressed in the sequels, which I’m keen to read (more proof, were it needed, that giving things away can be a good thing for authors and publishers alike).

The ‘old-man’s‘ bit is that you can only join up when you reach 75 years of age. You relinquish your Earth-nation’s citizenship and are legally considered dead. Members of the Colonial Defense Force can never return to Earth.

But to make up for that, you get a new youthful body, and (if you make it through your tour of duty) the opportunity to have a new life on a colony planet. The Colonial powers being technologically far in advance of Earth (which has become a bit of a backwater), there is not similar life-extension technology available to those on Earth.

So you can see the temptation. Peaceful soul that I am, I can imagine that I might take up the offer. Life is better than the alternative, you know?

Easter Weekend plans

Off to the exciting, glamorous Heathrow area tomorrow, for Orbital, the 2008 Eastercon. It’ll be the first convention I’ve been to for about ten years, so it should be quite fun.

When I was last at the hotel in question, it had a swimming pool. That has since been filled in, sadly. Then again, when I was last there, I don’t think that I actually used the pool, so perhaps it’s not a big deal.

It’ll be good to see some old friends and hopefully make some new ones. And they’ve got a great lineup of guests: Neil Gaiman, Charlie Stross, and China Miéville are the official ones, but as always, there will be various other authors there.

I’ll report back here on how it was (unless, you know, I don’t). Actually, come to think of it, there’s said to be free wifi in the hotel, so I’ll probably report back from it.

The Hidden Family, by Charles Stross (Books 2008, 2)

Volume 2 (or the second half of volume 1, depending on how you look at it) of Charlie’s ‘Merchant Princes’ series.

It continues the story of Miriam Beckstein and her recently-discovered alternative-universe family of ‘world-walkers’. In this one, Miriam discovers that (not surprisingly) there is more than one alternative Earth, and takes advantage of that fact.

Two things bother me about all this, though. One is that at no point, it seems, does she or anyone else do any investigation into the world-walking ability, or the designs of the talismans that make it work. Though I have reason to believe that that point gets addressed in a later book.

The other problem I have is just how capable Miriam is. She’s a can-do hero in the Heinlein — even in the Doc Smith — mold. Which is all very well, and all kudos to Charlie for making such a figure a woman, rather than the ubiquitous men created by those illustrious earlier writers. But those characters were never very believable, and we live in more sophisticated times now, do we not? So it’s hard to believe in someone relatively ordinary who finds themself in another universe, and who just copes. Indeed, not just copes, but prospers.

On the other hand, I’ve said elsewhere that we don’t read SF for the characters, but for the stories (and the ideas, of course). And this is a great story that I sat up late to finish. And you can’t argue with that.

On secondary school selection and the myth of choice

My son will be starting secondary school in September this year. So towards the end of last year we spent a lot of time reading up on the policies of our and adjoining London boroughs, visiting schools, and finally applying.

The application works like this. You can name up to six “preferences” (not “choices”, note). A central (London-wide, but I’m not sure under what body — I don’t think the GLA handles education) body assesses your application against the entry conditions of your first preference. If you meet those conditions, you get a place in that school; if not, they go on to your second preference; if you meet that school’s conditions, you get a place there, and so on.

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course, because schools’ entry conditions don’t just apply to your child in isolation; they have to take account of how many people are applying, and how many of those fall into each of the entry conditions, and so on. As well as that, not only do different boroughs have different conditions, but so do different schools within a borough.

The entry conditions of most state schools, including the new academies, depend primarily on distance from the school. There are special conditions for children with special needs, but that’s a small minority.

Now, all of this raises a number of problems — or contributes to them, at least.

First is the fact that different schools have different entry conditions. This applies in particular to the new academies. Our closest, non-denominational, mixed-gender, state secondary, is Mossbourne, the much-cited flagship of the government’s new academies programme. We live about 900 metres from it, according to Google Maps. Close enough, you’d think. But their admissions policy goes something like this:

  • the first 10% if the year’s intake goes to kids with special needs;
  • next, you get priority if you have a sibling already at the school;
  • about 60% of the remaining places go to the nearest kids within a 1km “inner zone”;
  • the rest go to kids outside the 1km zone, but not by simple proximity; it now depends on how far away the next-nearest non-denominational, mixed, state school is.

Confused? Most parents who have kids going up were. And it’s further complicated by the fact that there’s a test. Not a pass -or-fail test, of course: this is still a comprehensive school, so there’s no selection by ability allowed. Rather, this test is used to split the kids into ability bands. The entry conditions then ensure that an equal proportion of kids from each band is offered a place. This is to ensure that the school has kids of a range of abilities; to ensure that it is truly comprehensive, if you will.

None of that is inherently bad: a school can’t take every kid, if more want in than it has places, so it has to have some conditions by which to decide which ones to take. And ensuring that you take on kids with the full range of abilities is egalitarian and in keeping with the comprehensive principle.

The problem comes when the school is oversubscribed, and so is the next one in the area, and the next; and when they all have different entry criteria.

Such is the situation in our corner of Hackney. Well, across Hackney as a whole, but we happen to be in one of the more problematic corners, since we’re right at the edge of the borough. That wouldn’t matter if the Hackney schools gave priority to Hackney kids, but they don’t: their distance criteria are based on pure straight-line measurements, ignoring borough boundaries.

Again, that wouldn’t matter so much if all the other boroughs did the same. But they don’t. Our neighbours Tower Hamlets, for example, not only give priority to Tower Hamlets residents, they also have tied primary schools. If your kid goes to one of these, then they are guaranteed a place in the associated secondary school, if they (you) want it.

But this is not intended to be a big bowl of sour grapes. Our boy almost certainly won’t get into any of the Hackney schools, but he should get into the next-nearest one, which is just over the border into Waltham Forest. And all of this may be moot, anyway. But more of that later.

I referred in my title to “the myth of choice”, and I was careful to stress above that the application process allows parents and children to specify their preferences, rather than choices. That’s because of what happens next, after the application process has come up with a school for your kid.

You get an offer. One offer. That’s it. (Or maybe none, in which you have to run around frantically making further applications.)

It’s not like it was when I applied to university (and probably still is for university applications today). There, you could apply to five (or was it six?) institutions using the UCCA (now UCAS) form. They all assessed your application, and up to all of them made you an offer. You could then choose among your offers and decide which place would suit you best.

That was choice. For secondary schools. despite what the government might tell you, there is no choice. All you can do is state your preferences.

Our particular dilemma had another wrinkle, though.

See, he and some of his friends decided that they wanted to go to something called The Latymer School, in Edmonton. I was surprised when I found out that this is a grammar school. Now, some years ago I was surprised to discover that these things still exist in England. I’m pretty sure that when the comprehensive system started in Scotland, it was done properly: we got rid of all the grammar schools and Secondary Moderns, as far as I understand it. So as I say, it was a surprise when I realised they still had some in England.

But even then, I thought they were restricted to Kent and a few other places. I had no idea there were any in London.

Still, there we were. We weren’t about to forbid him to look at a particular school, despite our natural left-wing reaction to the idea of a selective school. Perhaps of more concern is that he would be going out of the borough, with both a long journey to get there, and a less ethnically diverse mix than he’s used to from primary.

When it came time to stating our preferences, we let him have the final word. Which is a lot of weight to put on the shoulders of a ten-year-old, perhaps, but it’s better than pressuring him into going somewhere he’d rather not go, and driving him away from us.

One thing I can say: selection by ability is obviously better than selection by ability to pay.

And another: we’ll be incredibly proud of him wherever he goes.

He got through the first battery of tests, and took the second; and we’ve been waiting since then. And tomorrow, we’ll know.