Read: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie‘s “Ancillary Justice” was published just as my reading funk began, oh so many years ago. I remember people speaking favourably of it, and I remember thinking that maybe I should… but as other books piled up unread I didn’t get around to it, not until last week.

In some respects it is pretty standard fare. A macro-political conflict between different visions of what the world should be and a personal conflict based on revenge and perceived injustices, all played out against a backdrop of a future or faraway civilisation vastly different from ours, yet alike.

Not as far out as the kaleidoscopic fractals of Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean Le Flambeur trilogy, nor as harsh and brutal as Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, to name just two, but it sits comfortably on the same bench – not as loud, not as brash, stealth mode operational, but the AI is online and running, telling the story from her perspective.

The choice of protagonist is brilliant. Breq, formerly Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, was once both the AI of one of the mighty Justices and one of many interchangeable and expendable avatars – here called ancillaries – of that same ship AI. She – it is uncertain if she’s female or not but her culture, the Radch, doesn’t care for gender pronouns and uses “she” for anyone – has lived through thousands of years, caring for a succession of human captains and officers, assisting in carrying out annexation after annexation of neighbouring civilisations, expanding the Radch empire. Through her experiences we get to see events evolve over a long span of years and through different eyes, until events unfold and she is left alone, without extended presence, without the ability to see and hear beyond what any unaugmented human might see or hear but still in possession of her conviction to set things right, at any price.

(It also makes it abundantly clear that what hype calls “AI” today is machines capable of learning to sort, parse and react to a specific and limited set of data – to adapt, really, under specific circumstances, rather than to evolve and think and judge in any meaningful way. But that’s for another discussion.)

Leckie’s storytelling is straight-forward. Where other writers get at least partially lost in convoluted subplots of intricate phantasmagoria fed by the endless supply of space offered by software-enabled writing Breq’s journey never loses momentum. She never gets lost in mirrors reflecting and re-reflecting favourite words or favourite images, while in bywords and in passing offering opportunity to reflect on gender, power structures, religion, loyalty, prejudice, and identity.  Among other things.

I am holding my thumbs for the rest of the trilogy to live up to the expectations set by this first instalment. And this is the advantage of being a latecomer: the rest of the story is already published, no years of waiting involved!

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Watched: Thor: Ragnarok (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

So. This was intended to be funny. And of course, it was. Mainly in the slapstick forgettable way – kind of like Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2, which was a romp while it lasted but gone the instant it ended.

Thor: Ragnarok will stay a bit longer, mainly because it so clearly is part of a longer game, acting as a bridge towards The Biggest Explosion Ever (aka Infinity War). And those parts are not funny, at all.

I did smile quite a lot, I will admit to that. But Ragnarok is about Thor coming of  age, centred on Thor’s identity crisis. And identity crisis are serious stuff, yes? Especially when triggered by an evil bad-ass and extremely powerful older sibling.

But, ah – this is a super hero story, introspection and self-doubt is for Bergman films, so how credible can they make it?

Not at all, it seems, because the darker streaks gets embedded in cheap laughs.

But. One of the things with super hero flicks based on super hero comic books is that credibility is not required. We go into the theatre checking our disbelief at the door, and as long as the film is entertaining, the hero wins the day, and (most) of his or her friends survive the day, we’re good.

And Thor: Ragnarok entertains, people mainly survives, and so all’s well.

(I still think that MCU would benefit from being a bit more Shakespearean, it has the potential. It would add some flavour for the adults watching, making it more than a explosion galore show-off intended to excite testosterone kids.)

Read: Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Still in a reading slump, mainly listening to audio books that I’ve already read before, filling commutes with lecture series, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit might be the book that will restart my reading habit.

Found by accident as I visited the SF Bookshop to get the third Linda and Valerian omnibus something about it caught my eye, and so it followed me home.

It met every expectation – a universe vastly different from ours, engineered castes upholding an empire were humans have no value and no choice in who governs their lives… and yet not so different: challenging the expectation of humane society, of right and wrong, of who, indeed, is the bigger threat to human survival.

The Kel is the warrior caste, engineered to follow order without questioning them, even into suicide, but Kel Cheris is something more – a Kel gifted with numbers and mathematical patterns, able to define and execute “heretical” moves in order to defeat the “heretics”.

At first we don’t really know who these heretics are, but as Cheris is picked to lead a mission to put down a heresy from getting a foothold in a major fortress she gets to host the mind of a very successful but ultimately traitor general, deemed insane, long since dead but his mind kept alive and in stasis by clever tech. And as she fights him in her mind, meanwhile running a successful campaign, ultimately she gets to understand the true meaning of his treason.

Unlike many authors who emerged in this time of personal computers and word processors Yoon Ha Lee’s style is liberating.

Free from endless info dumps, barely disguised rants, or scenes that has no bearing on either story or character development, and packed with tight writing harnessing a vivid imagination I’ve already tried to get my hands on the sequel, Raven Stratagem, only the SF Bookshop was out of stock, temporarily, when I was in last week to get my hands on the book.

Until I can get a copy of it I’ll need to read something else, to tide me over.

Hopefully I found my medicine!

Read: Convergence, by C.J. Cherryh

Eagerly anticipated Convergence is the 18th instalment in the Foreigner series, and while Cherryh has run out of -er words imagination has not.

Convergence is two parallel stories but bot starting with Bren, the dowager and Cajeiri as they return to the atevi earth after the kyo encounter. One story is Bren’s, the other Cajeiri’s, and Bren’s is, in some ways, rather in the background.

Circumstances has Bren and his aishid going to Mospheira, to present the human population and their representatives with both the kyo agreement and with Tabini’s demands on removal of the Reunion group from Alpha station. This story is not centre of interest for the book, though: that honour goes to Cajeiri and his solo trip to Tirnamardi – a gesture to show that the aiji still stands with the Atageini, despite a rather unfortunate turn of events in the search for a new Ajuri clan lord.

Convergence sees a upping of the tempo, but also a more concise prose. Some books back (Deceiver, Betrayer, and thereabouts) each of these two stories could well had taken up several books, and now they are both packed into this unusually short text.

This is not a bad thing, all in all. We get to see how the heir has grown up, despite his still young age, and how he comes to understand his role and responsibilities, and maybe, just maybe, a shift in focus from Bren, who is now a rather established personality whose journey is coming to an end, developmentally speaking, while Cajeiri is just taking off.

My only complaint is that the book is too short, not to mention the cliffhanger ending. As no. 18 it is the concluding book in the 6th 3-book Foreigner story arch but it leaves off at a place were you expect to turn the page and find out what’s next… and next up is another year in the future.

I think I need to pick up some other Foreigner book, in the interim, to ameliorate the abstinence.

Re: Uni form

I really don’t do uniforms. Get me right, here; uniforms when used as part of work I have no issues with. Military. Police. Security. Rangers. Official staff, like people who work at pharmacies, grocery stores. I can even see the value of them in schools, even if they’re not part of the Swedish school system.

What I do not do, in any from, is political uniforms, or de facto uniforms – standard expected clothing, in a cultural and societal context. Conformity.

I grew up in an aggressively mono-cultural society. Maybe most Swedes my age has forgotten all about it but once upon a time there was ONE way, and one way only, that you were expected to dress. Skirt length, trouser style, shoes, shirts or tops, materials, colour schemes – uniform. I you didn’t conform you were relentlessly punished. In school, you got bullied and ostracised, and the adults behaved like it was OK. After all, you had not adhered to norm, you were an aberrant. It was like they hoped it wasn’t contagious.

At the same time we got bombarded by WWII documentaries on TV, and lesson after lesson during class on the WWII atrocities, with a strong focus on the Holocaust. We learned of Kristallnacht, of the burning of books, of Entartete Kunst. We got taught what aggressive mobs could do.

Those two things together taught me one thing: to expect all and everyone to be alike leads to bad things. You cannot wholly erase individuality and so you force people into duplicity: one outer, public, persona, acceptable, within expected parameters, and an inner, hidden, persona. That is a scared and insincere society, were you live in fear of exposure, fear of being outed as Other. It is not the society that I want. Travelling pre-Glasnost Eastern Europe did a lot to cement that view.

When I see groups of people, dressed the same, or with dress items signifying a special belonging or opinion. When I see sports fans dressed in team colours, when I hear them chant: I think of the Nuremberg Rallies, of boots marching, of people sent to their deaths for being Other. It is a physical reaction – I shiver, in aversion. I feel fear. Regardless of if I agree with the cause or not.

This is of course not a popular opinion. You know, wearing (or at least owning for Facebook display) a pussy hat is more or less mandatory, these days. But I just cannot. For me, it is the Nazis, the Fascists, Stalin’s Gulags, all over again. Even if I do understand that it, in this case, is meant as a gesture of solidarity it is also an enforced dress code, a  sign of tribal belonging – or not. Black or white, in or out, no discussions needed.

And there you have it. A group, any group, enforcing a certain dress code, or you’re not believed to be serious. If you want to belong, to not look out of  place, not have to take “debates” with people who don’t want to have a serious analytical talk but to convert you, you better conform, even if it’s only a veneer.

Hear the chants. Hear the sound of boots, trampling everyone down.

Even if your intentions was otherwise.

Because democracy cannot rest on peer pressure. Even if you’re justified (in your anger).

Watched: Rouge One: A Star Wars Story

As a kid I loved Star Wars. My dad took me to the cinema to watch the original Star Wars movie, later to be renamed and renumbered into “Star Wars IV, A New Hope”, when it came to Sweden, and I loved it.

As I grew older I also grew more ambivalent to it. Like the Lord of the Rings books Star Wars was important to me during my formative years, in the late 70’s/early 80’s. But back then watching films again and again wasn’t something one could do easily, and so Star Wars floated to the back.

In the late 90’s I bought the VHS box set of the revised original trilogy, and I still own it, despite no longer having easy access to a VHS player. By that time I had become part of the Trek crowd, though, and while I still watched the films every now and again I felt the story to be shallow, and not very honest. I never was interested in watching the prequels at the cinema and I have to admit – while I have later endured Phantom Menace I never got through Attack of the Clones… and that’s it.

Since then our son became an avid Star Wars fan. He jokingly says that he’s a master of Starwarsology. Well before he could read we watched the films off my special edition VHS box set together, with me reading the dialogue/subtitles for him. As a consequence I know the original revised films down to the inflection of the Emperor. I have played Lego Star Wars with him for more hours than I care to remember. I have, however, drawn the line at Star Wars Battlefront because honestly I suck at the PS hand controls (I’m fairly good at Wii, though, and am mean with a keyboard).

I did enjoy The Force Awakens, even though I recognised several of Abrams’ mannerisms and despite the less than stellar acting. And Trek is still my Universe.

Watching Rouge One: A Star Wars Story I am finally able to put in words what’s chafing.

The movie was, as a film experience, acceptable. It balanced drama, humour and action, and while the acting was part good, part stiff (especially on behalf of the actors that were chosen for likeness to original characters rather than for their acting skills: I honestly thought that Tarkin was computer generated – the droid K-2SO was more believable), I was never bored. I might even watch it again, as a diversion, if I get a cold and a fever and has to stay in bed.

So, to get back to what chafes: Leaving the theatre I couldn’t stop thinking that the authors, and Disney, has to be exceedingly out of touch with world politics to present this film to the world.

Rogue One is the logical prologue to what used to be the first Star Wars movie. It is also an ongoing manifestation of the naivety of originator George Lucas. His simple swine herd in space story has snowballed into something bigger than even Lucas’ could ever have imagined, and Disney hasn’t exactly sat down and examined the actual content of what they bought and so instead of reining it in they have allowed it to run amok.

At first it was a story about Good versus Evil. It worked well as a one off.  But as so many before me has pointed out the presumably Good Jedi and their rebellion friends aren’t particularly good.  They manipulate, use terror instead of legal or democratic routes to achieve their goals, and they deceive to get people on their side. Of course, in real life nothing is entirely clear-cut, so why should a movie be?

The big difference is the script. Real life isn’t scripted. We stumble through, doing as well as we can. Some people have an astute moral compass but most of us has unintentionally caused harm and hurt to other people along the way.

A script, on the other hand, is a way of telling a story. Stories can be of varying kinds. They can be used to disseminate human relationships, like the endless mother-daughter, father-son dramas that litter popular culture.  They can be historical dramas, they can be adventurous and exploring. They can be used as a means to present us to different ways to handle various situations, and they can try to present optimistic or pessimistic visions of the future of humankind. They can be used to analyse and disseminate present day events, systems, and cultural norms.

Star Wars has always cared less than zero about collateral damage. In Star Wars it is acceptable to kill and maim or set people up, as long as it gets you were you think you need to be.

As the first Death Star blows up presumable hundreds of thousands of people who only do their paid jobs, as cleaners, cooks, mechanics, gets killed. At that point, back in 1977, we all believed that this was justified, for the greater good. I wasn’t old enough to analyse it, I just thought it was cool. But the pattern continues and in film after film, in series after series, violence is presented as the best way to solve a conflict, and damn the innocent. No introspection. No questioning of means and objectives and relative costs, or of the conflicts between what you say you want and how you endeavour to get there.

No thought on what story you are really telling, what morals and methods you are endorsing.

With Rouge One Disney had a chance to change that pattern. But instead what they do is to present some kind of justification for the likes of the Brussels bombers. Rouge One tells you, the audience, that democracy is nothing and that militias are justified. At one point the protagonists could had chosen to not go with outright violence and certain death for most, if not all, in the party. They could had connived a covert plot to get the schematics. They could had been smart.

Instead they used brute force, and everyone died. Even the cooks and the cleaners and the kids that we don’t get to see. And all glory to the ones who willingly sacrifices their lives for the Cause.

The rebellion did get the schematics, death was justified, and the rebellion is just as Evil as the Empire. It chafes.

And to think that Rouge One is seen as valid entertainment while films like V for Vendetta gets blasted for being too political, too anti-establishment. But that is what happens when one is openly political while the other is more a result of no one stopping to analyse what it is that they really are doing. Or so I guess.

To be honest I don’t think it is intentional. At least I don’t hope so.

But it still chafes. And I’m still ambivalent.

Watched again: V for Vendetta (film version)

A long time ago in a galaxy far away I watched the film adaption of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. My memory tells me that I did enjoy it, back then, but that I felt it to be flamboyantly lightweight: all glitz and low on content.

Today, in this galaxy, instead of empty it is eerily current.

On weekend evenings we often watch films or series together. For a long time we watched  a couple of episodes of Dr Who every Friday and Saturday evening. When we ran up against what Netflix Sweden had to offer in that regard we switched back to films. As son gets the final word we have watched some of the Harry Potter and Jurassic Park movies enough times for some of us to get (more than) a bit bored, but we have also watched most of the MCU – Marvel Cinematic Universe – and at times we try to introduce him to various SF classics. He doesn’t always take the bait, but thus evenings of Alien and Aliens, for example. This past Saturday we ended up watching V for Vendetta with him.

While watching it I at times debated the choice. In the deep fall of 2016 V for Vendetta felt like a prophecy come true: the disinformation campaigns, the fabricated fake news; the thinly veiled threats and terror directed at anyone who don’t conform to frankly medieval morals; the construed and staged threats to society, used to whip up fear and hate; the total disrespect for the individual human being. Wasn’t this a bit much for a  13 yo kid? Yet he sat glued to the screen, not even striking up a discussion over bad special effects, plot holes and discrepancies – something he’s otherwise very keen on. His only comment mid-movie was “Trump ought to watch this” (to which I felt a need to answer that “he’d only black-list it”).

Afterwards we talked a bit about what we had just watched – about reigning by terror, about the importance of not allowing people to threaten you into silence, and about the importance to stand up for those who gets silenced and/or threatened, for those who get dehumanised.

He mentioned how this was a more interesting film than the various didactic WWII holocaust stories they have had to watch in school: how the parallels between Nazi Germany and V for Vendetta was glaringly obvious, but that the film made the issues real instead of a staid retelling of some faraway thing that had once happened (and was unlikely to ever happen again, because we all know we’re smarter now… right?).

In short V for Vendetta made it obvious that fear, hate and institutionalised terror is not a thing of the past. It is a real threat, wherever there are humans. And we’re living on the brink of it.

The issues I have with the movie pales in comparison with this. If the film can make people rethink and re-evaluate their roles and responsibilities in regard to society that is a value in itself, regardless of what I personally think of the politics, the methods, or the cheap references (such as to Emma Goldman’s “a revolution without dancing is not at revolution worth having”).

Especially today, with various anti-democratic regimes rising through-out the western world; with the backlash against people who are perceived as “other”; with widespread nostalgia and anti-intellectualism spreading like a cloud out of Mordor anything that highlights empathy and compassion is needed.

It is highly unlikely that V for Vendetta will ever be used as a discussion piece in school. Too many parents would call it out for its violence, all the while their kids are playing Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed, and its anti-authoritarian message while they on a daily basis deride their own elected government.

But if we care about equal rights, if we believe that gender or sexual identity, skin colour or heritage or inheritance should not affect either opportunities afforded or obligations demanded by and of the individual – then V for Vendetta is nothing to be afraid of.

Because at this time, in this galaxy, not running with the fear-mongers is important.

Watch it, if you haven’t done so already.