Review: Persepolis (complete), by Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi‘s biographical graphic novel Persepolis is, in all its nakedness and despite its heavy themes, a fast and delightful read.

Satrapi doesn’t shy away from the things that she did that are less than glorious and this is one of the things that makes Persepolis such a good read – she has a keen eye for the events that both move the story ahead and shows why things turned out the way they did.

Another thing is the way it shows that humans are humans, everywhere, whatever the propaganda says, and that no nation is homogeneous. The latter is obvious if we think about the place where we ourselves live but looking at other countries most humans tend to generalise, to think everyone is the same as long as they’re born within the same national borders.

Alone none of these are reasons to read the book. The first would only be of interest if she was a famous person before she published the work – the latter border on billboard politics and as such is uninteresting. No, what makes the book worth reading is that the core of her story hits straight home on the central themes and angsts of growing up (as a girl). Picking up the sentiments of ones parents and making a caricature of them when interpreting them too literal for adult society. Anxiousness over not fitting in. Trying to live up to what you think is expected of you.

That she do these things under circumstances very different from what western kids expect out of everyday only emphasises the universality of the experiences, and to me this is the real value, the real reason to read this book.

Highly recommended.


Review: Serpent’s Reach, by C.J. Cherryh

In our galaxy, in a future far far away humans have happened upon a strange race, a hive mind. Only one Family is accepted, out of the trading families plying the heavens with their barges, but once accepted the human Alliance puts the whole area under quarantine. Thus isolated humanity develops in a carefully balanced symbiosis with their hosts. When we enter the story 700 years later the social and economic inter-species contracts are just about to crack…

Signature Cherryh, if I may say so, and even if it is an old one (first published in 1980) it is suitably disturbing in its challenge of what, really, is humanness, and what do happen when you isolate a group – deprive it of outside contact, of outside impulses; put humanity in a Petri dish, set aside for X time, and see what happens… and as usual with Cherryh the result she imagines is highly probable. Which makes it even the more uncomfortable.

Seen from a 2012 perspective Serpent’s Reach bear likeness enough to Forty Thousand in Gehenna (first published in 1983) to be  a preliminary sketch, a study in preparation for a more elaborate – and much scarier – tale but despite that it stands well in its own right.

I would not recommend Serpent’s Reach as an entry point to the Alliance-Union books – my personal favourites remain the Company Wars books, and Cyteen. All those tell enough to make some of the implicit background add an extra layer to the other books set in that Universe.

Still, a good read and definitely on I’d recommend.

Review: Voyager in Night, by C.J. Cherryh

Though a slim volume – by modern standards – Cherryh‘s Voyager in Night took some time to get through. The reason is this is no light and easy read. Despite it’s outer trappings – a group of young people trying to establish themselves stumbles on a first contact situation with a very alien alien – and a truly cheesy cover this is a book about how we face the other and about individual identity and about what makes us Human.

Siblings Rafe and Jillan, with Jillan’s husband Paul, have invested all their savings (mainly Paul’s inheritance, as the Rafe and Jillan is more or less destitute) in a run-down insystemer ship. They’ve just started off their new lives, in a new part of space, when an alien megaship comes crashing in. Their small ship gets swept up by the alien, entangling them in an esoteric and strange struggle for power.

The multiple character story can be very confusing, as it’s hard to keep track of who’s who – normally I don’t have that kind of problem but in this case very little distinguishes the individuals, if indeed they are individuals. But if you persist in your reading you will, in the case of Voyager in Night, reap a considerable reward. So, despite the cons I’d definitely recommend this book. At least if you’re an SF reader.

Review: Green Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Back in the beginning of December, when I had just finished Red Mars, I ached to get on with the sequel, Green Mars. But first it took me some time to find it and then I started to read other things, always with Green Mars looking at me – I think I started or intended to start reading it about once a week for months.

Then, finally, about a week ago, I picked it up, determined to read it. And this time I did. Writing a review is hard, though. Almost just as hard as getting started with the book.
Part of it is that like Red Mars it’s so obviously a part of a trilogy that it’s more like part two of a one tripartite book than anything else. But part of it is my over all impression of it, which is hard to sort or define.

This time the telling feels even more distanced than in Red Mars. In Red Mars people were passionately angry or loving or pro or con something or the other – this time it’s just a shrug of the shoulders. Even when things are bad.
Granted, some passages had me reading on without wanting to put the book away but those were mainly in the first half of the book – the second half I often had a strong feeling of disbelief, something which worked to distance me even further from the goings-on. The book never touches on the psycho-social effects on society of prolonged lifespans, only on the socio-economic and then only at a distance, and the original cast, those who survived Red Mars, just lives on and on and on, without much problems other than a sense of disconnection and some insomnia. And some of the other stuff is just plain unbelievable. Like the “resistance” being able to covertly build hidden silos AND missiles for ground to space warfare.
So, this is definitely Big Ideas fiction, in the grandest sense, but this time with insufficient drive and energy.

That said this is not the worst book I’ve ever read and I have a profound feeling that I will not be able to judge this book, this trilogy, until I’ve read the last one – Blue Mars. So that’s what I’ll do – read the last one. Then my verdict will fall.

Unalien aliens

Picking on aliens not alien enough is a common pastime among people with a bone to chew when it comes to science fiction. Certainly not the last, but the most recent (that I know of) is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who just like all the others think aliens have to lack faces, an even set of limbs, etc, to be alien enough to qualify as aliens.

My problem with this is most of the film or book alien aren’t there as true aliens. Anyone thinking that doesn’t understand the basic premise of science fiction. At all.

True, some aliens are there to be 1000% ALIEN. Alien (the film) itself is a point in case. The Crystalline Entity, of Star Trek fame, is another. But they are fairly few, and in most cases they are symbols of Evil, or at the very least the truly undecipherable. But the wast majority are humanoid, seductively similar to us. And the ‘seductively’ part is the important one. Because it is in the way the ALMOST like us actually differ, and how we handle this, that forms the backbone of many a science fiction story. And in this it isn’t a story about foreign planets and peoples, but about us – humanity – and how we handle change, and how we interact /or not/ with people different from ourselves. Science fiction in this sense is a looking glass or a mirror, reflecting our own behaviours and customs, forming an arena for inspection and criticism, for questioning certain behaviours and world-views.

In these stories the aliens has to be reasonably humanoid or the point of it all is lost, or at least buried deep enough for it not to get through to the majority of the readers/viewers.

In this light it is totally reasonable for the atevi (Foreigner/Cherryh) to be humanoid in general appearance, just like the mri (Faded Sun/Cherryh), or the ferengi or the klingon or the andorians (Star Trek) or the Na’vi (Avatar). Just to name a few.

Picking on unalien aliens is thus so far besides the point a gas giant can pass through the resulting void. If doing it makes you happy – please continue, but don’t expect to be taken seriously by anyone.

Polarisation. An effect of consciously made choices.

The last months of December 2008 saw the Rosengård riots (here’s a link to an english language text on the events).

The first months of 2009 saw riots in Tensta, outside Stockholm, too.

Lately a series of malls and shops put to fire in Södertälje.

For those not familiar with the areas I’ll say that these neighbourhoods can best be characterised as ghettoes, places where lots of people with refugee backgrounds (first or second, or even third generation) live and where the landlord knowingly exploits these peoples’s lack of proficiency in the Swedish language to make them accept living conditions way below what anyone else deems acceptable.

What is wrong? Swedish National Defence College, or at least the department curiously named Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies, has been investigating the phenomenon (warning: link goes to PDF document, in Swedish) of what they call “radicalisation” and yet don’t seem to be able to reach any decisive conclusions.

Ever since I read the report month ago I’ve had problems deciding what to think of it. The academic world dismisses it, mainly based on bad research ethics on behalf of the researchers. Among other things they destroyed their source material, but they also based their conclusions mainly on interviews with third parties.

I now know what I think is the reason for my lack of determination. While the report talks about the need to break the alienation forced upon immigrants, and lists measures such as a revised national housing policy, it avoids talking about the policies leading up to this state of things.

During these last 20 years or so we have witnessed a policy heavily biased towards a favouring of the one’s already well off. This trend has been at work whether the government have been (nominally) left or right wing. The common wealth that has taken decades to accumulate, in the form of pre schools, schools, hospitals, pharmacies, roads, rail roads, and a sound social security system, has been divested, bit by bit, for ideological (right wing) or populist (left wing) reasons.

We now find ourselves in a situation were only the connected can get a job, were only the wealthy can afford higher education and a decent place to live. If you’re low income – don’t expect anything like health care or schools functioning. Don’t expect flats without severe water leakage, damaged and dangerous electrical wiring, mouldy bathrooms… The lower on the social ladder, the less the support you can expect from society.

And at the bottom of the social ladder, who do you find? Immigrants. So. What is the surprise about riots in areas where the population is almost exclusively immigrant or descended from immigrants? A lack of skills in the Swedish language, a lack of examina recognised by the Swedish system, from another culture alien to Swedish customs, a lack of contacts in the labour market, and sometimes with traumatic experiences from torture, bombings, executions of family members, systematic harassment based on sexual preferences…

Humans are a social species. If the established society fails you, you found an alternative society around you. No wonder there’s a wealth of parallel societies out there, with their own legal systems and their own social control, often at odds with the Swedish system.

The policy that has lead us to this is a conscious one. It the politicians haven’t understood the consequences of their policies, well, that’s on their conscience.

The religious zealots, the crime networks… they only take opportunity of the situation. Apprehend or outlaw these and new will emerge. Because they’re only the symptom.

The ailment is elsewhere, as is the cure.