Review: The Incal (omnibus), by Moebius & Jodorowsky

Back when time began I loved reading comics. Especially Tintin and Asterix but it didn’t much matter what it was – I read it. And at one point someone decided to run Blueberry in the Phantom comic magazine. This was how I discovered Giraud, and later on his alter ego Moebius.

Back then Moebius was, perhaps, a bit too much for me. I don’t know. Anyway, I just passed him by (I own some of his albums, but…), in favour of Enki Bilal and Hugo Pratt (Corto Maltese).

So, about a year ago I started eyeing the omnibus edition of The Incal. It was not inexpensive so I closed my eyes and stayed away from it. Then, last fall, I caught sight of it on a shelf at the local library. I was on my way out so I let it sit, but ever since I’ve kept an eye out for it. And at last it was back on its shelf.
Of course I grabbed it.

I was not rewarded.

Back in the days what attracted me was the colourful graphics. And I still enjoy the drawings and the compositions. But the story is pure mumbo-jumbo. A unimpressive mish-mash of various new age semi-religions that in combination with zero character development and character believability leaves the visual imagery the only interesting aspect of the story.

Not an aspect to ignore, especially since it IS a graphic novel – but I for one was happy that it was a library loan because I would not want to waste prime shelf real estate on this rather hefty tome.

Review: Islamofobi, by Mattias Gardell

In a time when billboards scream at us about the Muslim threat, whipping up fear, Mattias Gardell’s book Islamofobi (Islamophobia) is a timely book and a book that deserves to get read. Gardell methodically shows how the fear of the Other have moved targets over the millennia, catching normally level-headed people inclined towards freedom of thought, speech and expression in it’s wake, making loud cries for control and inhibiting of human rights based on arbitrary and general criteria.
The history of islamophobia in the western world is only one part of the book. For most of the volume he details how Muslims are treated on a daily basis, both politically as a group, and individually, describing conditions I am sure no person would want their kin to endure.

There are those who accuse Gardell of silencing people who want to discuss the Muslim threat. In my opinion that is not what he does. What he says is Muslims are as diverse as Christians in their beliefs and practises, not to mention in interpretation of their holy texts, and that just like Christians are looked at and judged as individuals, so should Muslims.

I don’t agree with him throughout. As an atheist I find no religion inviolable – in fact, I find no religion agreeable but I find many people who believe in what for me is pure superstition to be not only agreeable but nice and kind people, as well as bad-ass egotists. Just like the rest of us.
And no one should be judged based on such superficial grounds as another person’s projection of his or her own fears for the unknown. Especially so when so much of the fear is based on actual falsities, as Gardell shows.

People truly need to read more science fiction, to learn to analyse their own reactions to the unknown. I hereby recommend a healthy dose of anything SF by Cherryh, as a start.
And yeah, I’m serious.
But prior to that anyone reading in Swedish should read this book. Of course.

Review: Rules of Engagement, by Elizabeth Moon

When I opened the first page of Elizabeth Moon‘s Rules of Engagement I expected a fast and light read, which just what I needed, all things considered. Of course, there has to be some element of drama or danger, or there would not be a book worth picking up, but at least I thought it would not pose an intellectual challenge – what I’ve read so far from Moon is well written but uncomplicated, as in no real complex political or historical context. Even when tackling difficult topics she does so in a straight forward way that lends at least the first four of the Serrano books a decidedly YA feel.

This fifth book ventured into darker territory, though, lending her characters and universe to the writing of a pamphlet against religious fanaticism. This in itself does not imply a darker setting but she takes it upon her self to describe in detail the consequences of the beliefs of this particular sect, not backing down from either the outright gruesome or the more systematic injustices.

The tool for this is to let rich brat girl Brun, once Bubbles, get kidnapped by a sect that firmly believes that women are the tools of men and not to have a voice of their own. The sect has not made it’s mark in Familias Regnant space which means it is a large universe to search through before she’s found, time during which she is subject to the culture of that sect, a culture that thinks a man forcing himself on a woman is in his right, were women aren’t allowed the skills of reading or writing, or to walk the streets or to look at a man’s face.

The ending is pure cliché, with some characters we know from earlier books who haven’t really made an appearance here jump in and make the day, rescuing Brun, without much explanation (or show). Despite this I enjoyed reading the book; in the end it was a smidgen darker than expected but all in all light and entertaining.
Not essential reading, but then not everything need be :D

Review: Society without God, by Phil Zuckerman

My original reason for reading this book was a curiosity in how an “outsider”, an “american”, perceived the Danish and Swedish societies. Recent years have made me very aware of the rather large differences between Swedish and US culture, be it northern, southern, eastern or western brand, and so looking at this through the eyes of someone who knew how to dissect those differences held it’s lure.

Zuckerman states in the introduction that he has an axe to grind – with ultra-religious people, zealots who claims that a society not firmly centred in Christian religion is a society in chaos, where people live without regard of others. He then goes on to discuss his methods, being open about the fact that the method he used is slightly biased and that the results cannot be used to make specific conclusions – the selection is too small and too non-random.

I started to suspect that what he was about to present would be too influenced by his agenda.

What I found was… a very apt description of Swedish and, I assume, Danish culture, especially as regards to the role of religion and faith in the society.

He paints a picture were most people just don’t care much, and never have put much though on issues like what happens after we die, or the meaning of life, or religion. A lot of people expressed a vague belief in “something” but his impression was most people would think that if someone claimed he had been told by God to do this or that this person would be viewed as slightly off his head. He then describes the societies as caring, even emphatic, with strong security networks, and goes on to try to find an explanatory complex of theories.

While I, from a Swedish perspective, can see large glitches in this “caring society” – as per more than one of my previous posts (and with great surety more than one to come in the future!) – compared with the US the general security network is strong and encompasses most people, as is the educational system.

During the read I more than once had to stop, to reflect and ponder my own experiences and my own opinions, to look at myself and the people I meet. And I had to realise that yes, my own atheism is viewed, even by myself, as too aggressive a stance on an issue that’s not that important, to most people. (Off topic I also think this is a large part of why most people don’t realise that the agenda put forward by the right-wing Alliance is inhumane in its consequences – they can’t analyse it as the fundamental RELIGIOUS agenda that it is; “Oh, so you’re deaf? You have yourself to blame /or God would had helped you/ so you can pay for your own health care”. If more people understood that the Alliance wouldn’t be as strong as they are. Because most people while not wanting to pay too much tax doesn’t genuinely believe illness is caused by a life in sin, either.)

I think the most shocking episode he tells about is when he describes how he after he returned to the US stood in line at a bank, overhearing a clerk speaking to a client with heavy debts giving the advice to put all the debt statements in an envelope and go visit a certain pastor. The pastor would bless and anoint the envelope, and then the person should donate US$50 a month to that church, and then the debts would be gone. Well, if that’s how US society works I’m not amazed that the author gawked through his stay in Denmark.

The cover is cheesy, the title and the chapter headings have a distinct New Age feel which makes it awkward to read in public. But – don’t judge a book by it’s cover; this one is thought-provoking, and therefore a good read. Highly recommended!

No patience for fantasy

As a rule I have small patience for works in the fantasy genre. I have not stopped to analyse why; I just tend not to choose to read a work of fantasy, except if it has gotten raving good reviews by people who I trust.

Reading Eco‘s The Search for the Perfect Language has inadvertently provided me with some tools for analysing, though. While telling the story of the search for the perfect language the book also works as a rough catalogue listing different beliefs and concepts ruling the statesmen, intellectuals and the church of Europe, starting with the late Greeks and proceeding through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and into our own time.

This exposé of the evolution of ideas is extraordinary (and quite fun, Eco has a wry sense of humour and I do not agree with those deeming this a “dry” book). He connects the need for different ideological constructs with the economic history of Europe, the development of the nation states, etcetera, all the while telling the reader about one bizarre idea after another – ideas genuinely held as true, at least by the originator, some hundreds of years ago.

And as I said – it also helped me analyse my aversion against a lot of fantasy. Because there, in the clear open, lies a smorgasbord of ‘magical’ concepts commonly used in fantasy novels. Everyone of them justified, historically, by a lack of knowledge and a wealth of imagination, and a basketful of faith, in one god or another (but mainly one in number, lol, whatever the creed of the originator).

Today superstition can’t be justified, at all – it’s just ignorance, or wishful thinking. Of course, most fantasy isn’t about today, or about ‘here’. This means that if the concept is well executed and the characters are nicely done the book can be a highly enjoyable experience. If not it just becomes a hotchpotch with deus ex machina on deus ex machina – it’s just poor writing, nothing more. However famous the author.

Urban fantasy is even worse. It’s supposed to be here and now, with werewolves and demons and whathaveyou (zombies, now, are the worst – don’t get me started…). It’s just so unbelievable and… downright INANE.
I get very sad when authors I otherwise think highly of do this kind of book. Like Guy G Kay did with Ysabel

Most of these books are written as pure ‘entertainment’, many of them utilising the horror trope. I have no problems with that. Entertainment is good, I read a lot of books for entertainment, not to mention watching TV or films. Now, to me, of course, entertainment is not having to wince inwardly twice on every page, like I do when I read a Harry Dresden book. So it’s poor entertainment.

I accept that some people like these things. Everyone to his or her own. As far as I’m concerned, though, it’s NOT my cup of tea. At all. And now I know why.
Thank you, Umberto Eco, for that.

Swedish schools breaks the law, and no one cares

Today I got really REALLY upset. Earlier this week my son came home from preschool (which is a kind of preparatory school – every kid has the option to start school one year early, the year they turn 6) singing on a religious song about the birth of Jesus. It certainly didn’t feel good. I’m an atheist, to me religion are important to know but then I mean ALL religions, and schools should not teach what is arbitrary belief.

But. It’s Yule, and Sweden has a strong tradition regarding the singing of carols and such at this time of year – I too did that when I was a kid, and I survived.

Despite this I called the National Agency for Education, to check what the law said regarding this. I had a clear memory of the schools having to be non-confessional, but couldn’t find any information on the subject.
The call confirmed my memory – it’s both in the Education Act and in the Curriculum for the Compulsory School System, which all public schools has to follow.

I decided to talk to the teachers about it, to see how they reacted. My guess was they just hadn’t thought this through. We live in a relatively segregated area, consisting mainly of middle- to high income families, so maybe parents thought this OK.

Then, today, my son came home and told me they had been reading about Jesus, from the Bible, during these past days.

That was when I got upset for real. Did they mention Eid al-Fitr back in September? Chanukha, just recently? No, of course not. They teach the Bible not as a literary reference – I’m not convinced 6 year old kids understand the distinction, anyway – but as a belief system that we all adheres to.

Well – here’s news for you; I’m not!

And – if you’re Christian and reading this. How would you react if your kids came home and told you Mohammed is the true prophet? Or that Jesus is a false messiah?

I’m a great believer in knowledge. I think kids should know that there’s a lot of different ways to look at the world, out there. Without that knowledge they’ll not be able to analyse and understand what’s going on around us.

Forcing a belief – a faith! – on small kids, against the will of their parents, is NOT a widening of knowledge; it’s brain washing. And. In Sweden, it’s against the law.

The school is going to hear from me, believe me.

Reread while sick: The Lions of Al-Rassan

This comes labelled as fantasy but the only fantastic elements are the invented, two moon, world and a boy having visions. Even then the place names, religions and geography closely echoes Moorish Spain at the time of the Reconquista.

The story follows a group of people through the ending of Al-Rassan (al-Andalus). A infamous asharite (muslim) courtier, an equally infamous (or famous, depending on your world view) jaddite (christian) captain and a kindath (jewish) doctor. The supporting cast features a young jaddite soldier, the family of the jaddite captain, an asharite merchant, a jaddite king and a selection of asharite ones, a kindath chancellor and zealous desert warriors.

The first time I read this book the likenesses with real history and real geography irked me slightly but as the story began to spin through the pages my (slight) knowledge of the era, and me having visited some of the remnants of it, only worked to paint that important inner vision of the place, with smells and textures and all.

Kay is good at portraying people as people, worthy of themselves and with motives, ridden by their anguishes, their pride and their desires – very few of the characters are truly evil or truly good – almost everyone is a bit of each.
He is good at political intrigue, even the shrewder bits of it, and I appreciate that a lot as I think it adds considerable depth.

Kay uses ambiguity and multiple viewpoints as stylistic tools, and to me that only makes the story stronger. I can see, however, how it can equally irritate as it slows the actual happenings instead of tightening the psychological pressure, if you’re a certain kind of reader.

After the first few reads I also started to discern the fact that while the female kindath doctor seemed to be a main character in reality she’s only a plot device used to give dimension to the real main cast, the real topic – the asharite courtier and the jaddite captain who when meeting in exile starts a friendship, with her in the middle. But seen that way isn’t EVERYONE in ANY story a plot device?

So I can live with that. Because what he seems to say is that religions as religion, all zealots are narrow minded and when big politics takes over the individual can only do so much to steer clear of the shoals.
That the enemy is ordinary people, just like you and me, only with other goals and circumstances.
This reflects my own opinion.

I chose to read this book because with a high fever I needed a story I knew and with some happy moments in it. This should not be taken as a sign that this is an uncontroversial text; it is a cruel romance, full of severed body parts, spilled intestines and explicit sex. And a great deal of political intrigue and religious critique.
But those things only work to make the characters and the world more realistic, with less need for suspended disbelief.

Nevermind the not very good poetry. After this fifth read I still think it’s a good book.

(Anyone reading the book should NOT skip the epilogue.)