Considering: Yule

At this time of year the Yule-themed frenzy starts. Yule films, Yule songs, Yule books and stories. Not, of course, to forget presents, foods, decorations and traditions. This makes me uneasy. When everyone do the same thing, everywhere, in almost the same way, I get sort of a premonition of the Holocaust.

Now, you might this is over-reacting just a wee bit. I think not.

Almost everyone I meet feel some kind of pressure when December approaches – presents, foods, relatives; a pressure to conform, to live up to expectations. We once went to Thailand over Yule, to get away from it, but while we spent it at a smallish low-key place with small establishments hidden under the Casuarina trees, some of them with only sand for a floor, it was impossible to evade the Yule decorations. Given that the Thai don’t even celebrate it themselves we had expected else. This only imprinted the Holocaust-premonition even harder. What kind of culture are we that force ourselves so relentlessly on others?

We march in step to Jingle Bells, living the hegemony of archetypal western civilisation, while at the same time stressing out – almost imploding with the pressure to perform, not to mention all those not so well off people who can’t afford to shop all those expensive presents and all the traditional food.

Most people aren’t happy during the Holidays. Most people are the exact opposite – at the final fraying end of the madly dashing tether. Still we ache to be like everyone else, to not stray from the Middle Road. We are exactly soo close to genocide, in our behaviour, whatever we would like to think.

All of which goes through my mind every time someone mentions their list of Yule Themed Books/Films/whatever they go through every single Yule. And I don’t want to offend anyone so I just grumble-mumble and walk on. But I am really the only one who see Yule mainly as an exercise in mob thinking?

Review: Reamde, by Neal Stephenson

Reamde is not an easy book to review. It is a wast brick of over 1000 pages. My copy is, in my eyes, beautifully bound, partially deckle edged, and with the typography made by someone who actually wants to make reading a pleasurable activity. Which means I was biased towards it, favourably, even before I got around to read it.

Geographically the story starts in Iowa, then romps on to Seattle and China, before returning to north America via a side-trips to Taiwan and the Philippines respectively, and the plot-lines are equally disparate, romping, and – not to forget – with a body count on par with that of the goriest action flicks.

I chose the word “romp” because in some ways and despite the terrible things happening to unsuspecting and, to borrow a term from Stephenson himself – mundane, people, it is a book that is a pleasure to read.

The first person we meet is Richard. He is a fiftyish entrepreneur in the gaming business who decides to help his niece Zula, whose expertise is in magma flow modelling, by giving her a job in the company. Soon after her boyfriend Peter becomes entangled with shady people, for the simple reason that he needs money to stay afloat during the recession. Accidentally he transfers a virus to one of the mobsters, the result of which is that all the data the mobsters need to make money gets encrypted and held hostage in the World of Warcraft-like game T’Rain – the game made by Richard’s company. Pointers leads to China so the Russian mobster grabs his in-house Hungarian hacker Csongor, Zula, and her boyfriend and goes to Xiamen, to find the Chinese hacker and take him out. The mobster’s head of security, Sokolov, is secretly worried about the clinical sanity of his boss but doesn’t dare break a contract. And so it starts…

The people we learn to know are only trying to stay alive, to keep a head above the water and to continue to breathe, and by each of these moments they step by step slip so far into the realm of the outright unbelievable believability becomes a moot point – each step was reasonable so the end result must be reasonable too, right?

No. The end result is not reasonable, it is way over the hill. People gets humiliated, people get shot, people dies. The bad guys kills indiscriminately. They also get killed that way, whenever possible, because soon enough it is clear to the reasonable mundane people that it is the only way to stay alive.

A real thriller, in other words, and in the true sense of it. And I loved it. Absolutely loved every bit of it.

And yet I am a wee bit disappointed. Even when smiling a bit over the brief stop-over in the Philippines, a country featuring heavily back in Cryptonomicon, and even as I was worried over the fate of this character or that, I missed the Big Ideas part that often are so central to Stephenson’s books. In this Reamde is more kin to Zodiac or Cobweb (of which Cobweb is the one worth picking up – it dates back to the anthrax fears of the late 90’s) than it is to Anathem.

Anathem, on the other hand, was the ultimate Big Ideas novel, so admittedly it is unfair to compare the two. Because a good romp, a good thriller and some decent well-written suspense, can be a fantastic experience too. And that Reamde is.

Definitely recommended.

Review: Adiamante, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

So, after a long period of not being able to read due to a combination of stress and physical problems that left me drained, during which I’ve tried different light rereads to get the reading going but without success, I finally managed to finish L. E. Modesitt Jr‘s Adiamante, which I had on loan from a long-time colleague.

Ten thousand years ago, after an age of massive segregation and ecological disaster resulting both from conflicts, overconsumption and a general disregard for the ecological balance, certain people – the cybs – were ostracised from Old Earth. They now return to exact revenge on the descendants of the perpetrators. The Old Earth people have learned and changed, something the returning cybs are unwilling to see.

I had absolutely no idea of either book or author but the cover hinted at hard SF of some kind. Soon enough it became clear that the book was written mainly as a way to put forward certain ideas, ideas regarding ways to conduct one’s life, both as an individual and as a society. At times this made the book hard going, with conflicts and scenes engineered not to drive some kind of story but to act as an arena for dialogues in which the ideas put forth could be displayed – a classic allegory. This puts characters in the passenger seat. Sometimes this is no trouble. For example if the ideas are interesting, or the way in which they are examined, are novel enough, or if the author is an exceptionally skilled writer, this may work. In this case it worked so and so – I would not venture as far as saying the prose was bad but it had a certain Clarkesian feel, in the way there is a tangible distance between protagonist/s and reader, despite the story being told in a first person perspective.

The cybs are representatives of ideas persistent in our present society, with the right and might of the strong prevails, and with the Old Earth people acting as advertising board for a philosophy where people respect the environment and have done away with money (instead you work up debts when you spend resources, debts you work off in different ways). Some aspects of this philosophy, like not protecting the weak or stupid (“because stupidity breeds”) instead letting those be killed off by the aggressive mutated wildlife, is entirely revolting.

In the end it was an OK read but nothing I’d recommend anyone, except if it was the only SF available from the airport kiosk and you really REALLY needed something for that flight ahead of you.