Read: Visitor, by C.J. Cherryh

Book no. 17 in the Foreigner series. You’d think it would slow down, or peter out, or, well, just plain diminish in quality. Thankfully for us who follow the adventures of Bren and his aishid the opposite is true: Visitor is not only a good addition to the series but a very good one.

The Visitor picks up the thread just as the kyo – mysterious and secretive space-faring, and, in general terms, neighbours; neighbours who are engaged in war with another neighbour, as yet unseen – are approaching Alpha station. Bren spends his time worrying over his ability to communicate with the kyo, much the same way we all every now and then worry ourselves senseless at living up to expectations, and suddenly the Other are over the doorstep, pursuing an agenda no one knows about and everyone suspects… I’ll not delve on specifics; the spoilers would be too great. Suffice to say that one of the “what if’s” that I have been entertaining actually came true, and the resulting drama is simultaneously forthright and subtle, if such a thing is possible. But I really want to save that particular surprise for anyone who have yet to read the book.

Instead I will talk about the general.

The Foreigner series balances between sitcom and drama, in written form. At times it touches on interpersonal relations, political intrigue, personal feelings and insecurities… all the ordinary stuff. But looking not at one part at a time but at the over-all story you can see broader themes, such as the interplay between language and culture, or the debilitating effects of fear of the foreign.

In many ways the series offers a looking glass through which we can observe ourselves through the Other, from the outside; a means of analysing the cultural constructs and societally predicated behavioural norms that in/forms our everyday interactions. That can be a very uncomfortable place to be but Cherryh manages to masquerade it behind a screen of ordinariness, making it look like suspense rather than societal critique (which I’m not even sure she’s consciously offering – it’s in the eye of the beholder).

To me both aspects are enjoyable but it also means that you the reader has to analyse and interpret on your own. There’s no large writings on the wall telling you how to think. The many layers lets you chose what layer of the story that captures your personal interest.

Not everyone is up for that.

I, however, can’t wait for the next instalment, or for, well, anything from Cherryh’s pen and imagination!

 

Läst: 179 år av ensamhet – Tio röster från en manlig bastion, red. Jenny Lantz & Linda Portnoff

Efter tjugofem år som kvinna i en mansdominerad bransch – den sk. IT-branschen – har jag inte bara lärt mig var mina gränser går utan också vad priset blir när jag inte är lyhörd för min egen magkänsla.

Redan någon gång i mitten av 90-talet tittade jag på mig själv och vem jag var och bestämde mig för att a) inte kompromissa med det som är viktigt för mig – jag vill kunna se mig själv i spegeln både på morgonen och på kvällen – och b) att alltid dela äran med de andra som deltagit i  eller haft påverkan på arbetet.

Att leva efter det har inte alltid varit lätt och såhär långt kan jag väl ärligt säga att jag fortfarande misslyckas ibland. Vi är alla människor och vi har alla dåliga dagar, fattar alla ibland mindre bra beslut. Som senior har jag alltid sett det som en del av min uppgift att hjälpa mer juniora kollegor att känna att de har rätt att ha det utrymmet – att ha en “bad hair day” utan att världen rasar samman (även om jag själv alltid får ångest när saker inte blev som jag hade tänkt).

Jag har också försökt förmedla en strategi som egentligen var ett råd som jag plockat från en tidningsintervju med någon kvinna i ledande ställning, för så många år sedan att jag tyvärr inte minns vem hon var. Hon underströk att som kvinna fick man ALDRIG NÅGONSIN använda uttrycket “jag känner…”. Män kunde använda det utan urskiljning men som kvinna placerade det en i någon slags subjektivt känsloträsk där man inte behövde tas på allvar.

Insikten hon förmedlade var att män får känna hur mycket de vill, deras känslor är nämligen objektiva och därmed normativa, medan kvinnor som “känner” ses som om de är rov för hormonsvängningar och vad vet jag – kristallers inverkan, eller något.

För mig var strategin framgångsrik. För faktum är att “jag känner” egentligen används för att uttrycka det jag istället har valt att säga, nämligen “min erfarenhet är…”. “Min erfarenhet” väger enormt mycket tyngre än “jag känner”, och som kvinna behöver man all hjälp man kan få när man ska förmå andra att ta en på allvar. För trots “min erfarenhet” så väger jag som kvinna lätt mot munlädersmorda självbespeglande yngre män som utan att tveka och utan att ge kredd till någon annan än sig själv och sitt posse kidnappar min (och andra kvinnors – män ges alltid källhänvisning) kunskap, min under hårt arbete systematiserade erfarenhet, mina angreppssätt på problemet, och gör den till sin.

Antologin 179 år av ensamhet – Tio röster från en manlig bastion sätter ljuset på detta fenomen. Det är en samling på tio texter skrivna av tio kvinnor som alla har det gemensamt att de har bedrivit forskning inom ramen för Handelshögskolans verksamhet.

Handelshögskolan är allmänt känd, i alla fall i mina kretsar, som ett ställe där redan privilegierade män alltid har företräde. Därför föreställde jag mig att det som kvinnorna som kommer till tals i boken skulle berätta om skulle vara som en slags skräckhistorier. Visst kan man inte undgå de misogyna strukturerna men jag kände nog att jag både har bra kvinnligt nätverk och fungerande egna strategier. Och det kanske jag har. Mina har i alla fall, för mig, fungerat bättre än somliga av de strategier kvinnorna i boken berättar om har fungerat för dem, medan andra har varit till förvillelse lika. För liksom många av kvinnorna i boken är jag ofta den enda kvinnan i rummet och jag analyserar så gott som alltid maktfördelning/makttilldelning och spelet som sker i en grupp innan jag väljer strategi. Det är liksom bäst så – jag kan aldrig förutsätta att de jag träffar faktiskt respekterar mig och den kompetens jag står för och behöver därför veta hur jag ska gå tillväga för att få gehör. Om det ens är möjligt.

179 år av ensamhet visar med all tydlighet något som jag visserligen redan visste, nämligen att dessa mina erfarenheter inte är unika utan är en del av en struktur. Alla kvinnor behöver alltid tänka efter extra, alla kvinnor behöver vara extra hårdhudade. Sverige är ett samhälle där mannen ses som norm och där mannen har företräde, av tradition. Kommer många kvinnor in i en sektor sänks automatiskt sektorns status, i omvärldens ögon.

Jag hade hoppats att sånt som beskrivs i boken, exempelvis synen att som kvinna kan man alltid välja att bli försörjd av en man = du hade egentligen inte behövt vara här så du får faktiskt tåla att ta skit, eller att kvinnor inte gör karriär därför att de saknar kompetens (och underförstått förmåga), skulle vara helt passé. Men nej. Dessa forskare, docenter och professorer bedöms och poängsätts i kursutvärdering efter kursvärdering efter hur de klädde sig och ser ut – inte efter kvaliteten på deras undervisning eller forskning. De drabbas systematiskt av att deras studenter men även överordnade tilltalar dem med en “men lilla vännen, då”-attityd, som om deras rigoröst genomförda och kvalitetsgranskade forskning bara var deras egna privata fantasier. De drabbas systematiskt av att studenter och andra forskare tror att de är assistenter och sekreterare, inte huvudföreläsare och kursansvariga. Även andra kvinnor behandlar dem så. Kanske för att de vill framstå i god dager hos de män som kan påverka deras framtid, kanske för att de faktiskt tycker att sakernas tillstånd är i sin ordning.

Och det är ett av bokens bestående värden. Var och en av de händelser som beskrivs kan ses som engångsföreteelser och det är det de oftast betraktas som – en gammalmodig person, eller han var berusad (alltid godtagbar ursäkt för en man, aldrig för en kvinna), eller han skämtade bara, lite får man tåla. Men lagda bredvid varandra ser man ett mönster, en struktur, ett implicit regelverk, en kultur. En kultur som omhuldas och bevaras just i dess negligerande.

Väldigt få skolor har som uppgift att skapa förändring. Väldigt lite forskning bedrivs för att förändring ska kunna uppnås. Forskning finns för att svara på frågan om hur saker fungerar. Förändring baserad på nyvunnen kunskap är en bieffekt, inte huvudmålet. Och skolor, dom är till för att genom återförande av utvald kunskap, utvalda mönster och kulturer, bygga ett stabilt samhälle.

179 år av ensamhet visar med all tydlighet på vilket samhällsmönster som av somliga inflytelserika personer med mycket makt anses vara värt att bevara. Ett monokulturellt samhälle som med maktmetoder annihilerar alla som är oliktänkande. Har vi hört det förut? Känns det bekant?

Läs, fundera, och ställ dig själv frågan om det är det samhälle du vill ha, som du tror på, och vilket ditt ansvar är, som hon, han, den eller det, för vilken riktningen blir.

Reread: Rimrunners, by C.J Cherryh

Many weeks ago now when I, out of some kind of desperation for ANYTHING to read while I had nothing handy except the two Cherryh books on my phone  (Heavy Time & Hellburner), picked Hellburner I did not know that it would mean a reread spree covering some of its siblings.

Downbelow Station came first and have already been mentioned – next up was Rimrunners which is distinguished by the fact that it is the only Company War book that I read but never reread. About time, then. Right?

No matter that I have an unread Culture novel (Excession) beckoning.

Rimrunners surprised me. My memory from my first and only reading of it was that it was OK but not on par with the other Company War books. Up until the very end I was wrong.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Pell (as told of in DownBelow Station) Pell needs somewhere to put the excess people they gained as refugees from the other stations, and also the newly-born Alliance need some space stations besides Pell. The logical thing is to make a second try at the Hinder Star stations, the initial first steppingstone for humankind on its way to new frontiers. Technology has made them redundant but trying to re-establish them seems a good way to solve a lot of problems at once. At least from a macro perspective.

From the perspective of the individual it is not such a good idea, though. These stations are the equivalent of the once thriving communities that got passed by when the new highway got built. Ghost stations. And the people, they become ghosts, too.

Bet Yeager is an ex-Fleet trooper that got left on Pell when her ship – Africa – had to brake from dock during the Battle. To survive she had to hide her military background but she isn’t a stationer and needs to get back out on a ship. To do so she has to lie, fake, and humiliate herself. She manages to get transport from Pell to Thule, her chance at anonymity and finding a ship, perhaps Fleet, that will turn up and take her on.

But instead of a Fleet ship the next one, when she’s almost out, is a rimrunner, a spook, the most detested of all ships, whichever side they’re on… and they don’t even run for Fleet but for the Alliance. Her old enemy. She fights to stay inconspicuous but sooner or later…

The story feel very much pre-word processing software – terse, not spilling anything but the most essential, leaving to the reader to fill in the blanks, yet showing enough for it to be a full experience.

I think everyone who think they understand how politics, society, and groups of humans work and react should read all of the Company War books. No single tome, however scholarly, can manage to so aptly illustrate the three-dimensional jigsaw society is – how most people basically tries to find a way to survive and in that end up on one side or the other, more by chance and geography than by being quintessentially good  or evil.

Enough said. Go get all those books, Rimrunners among them.

Not the most important, or the most difficult and complex. But without which the tapestry is incomplete.

Considering: Life as an Instagram

It is the middle of the Swedish summer vacation period and my Facebook feed is overflowing with instagrammed photos. Every single one shows archetypal vacation imagery – kids in swimwear, strawberry cakes, red lilac-framed cabins basking in sun, plates with pickled herring, sour cream an potatoes, endless glasses of wine, sunsets, verandahs, barbecues… – and almost everyone imitates the faded colours of childhood prints.

Why is this so?

In my mind these instagrammed  moments of life inhabits the same niche as frilled curtains – an conscious or unconscious longing for the simple and therefore happy life, free from worries over money, health, environment, and governmental idiocies. Using artefacts – furniture, curtains, cushions, a vacation experience, the kids – to build an image of happiness hoped to come true through sheer force of stubbornness. It is a proclamation to life – “look how happy I am with my clever beautiful friends/family”.

It is a powerful self-deception and in times of economic recession and political chaos an understandable one. People want to feel like they are successful because just being content with life is not enough – looking good on Facebook is just as important.

And I would have no issues with it if it wasn’t for the consequences. Because we are building a virtual world conforming to a fantasy, far from the real world of flesh, bones, and money. We project an image were our kids are always well-behaved, where food materializes without someone having to do the cooking. The lawn never needs mowing, the water is always warm enough for a bath and chores are unheard of.

It should be no surprise that some people actually panics when they think only their kids are grumpy; that they are the only ones who drown under the ultimate chore of creating the perfect image; that they are alone in not being in possession of a cabin, not having money enough for all those fantastic vacations abroad (not to mention the frustration of seemingly being the only person hating waiting at airports, jetlagged as hell). And of course all restaurants are value for money, and it never rains…

No wonder people are frustrated.

Next time you are posting something consider if you post to project an image or to actually report/share from everyday life.

And if you find that you are in the process of projecting an image, think about how your behaviour affects the world. Do you want to build the fantasy, or do you want to build a society were people can feel like being just who you are is good enough?

Do you prefer tolerance, or do you champion perfection?

Me, I always strive for perfection but I value tolerance. Waking up with a headache is human, and I want a culture and a society where being human – and having the occasional headache – is OK.

How about you?

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: A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge

Highly political and hard on ideology, Vernor Vinge‘s A Deepness in the Sky is not an easy read – not to me at least. It might be that it would had been different if I had read A Fire in the Deep first but I don’t know – all I know now is that it was interesting on an intellectual level but never really interesting interesting.

A mission to a faraway star ends in disaster when two parties with conflicting ideas about how to manage society clashes, with the more violent and dictatorial initially gaining the upper hand. The leader of that party manipulates his way through the decades, waiting for the natives of the planet they encircle to gain enough technological and scientific knowledge to be worth scavenging, all the while telling the humans of the two factions that what they really want to do is trade with the aliens; to trade themselves out of their precarious situation. His real plan is to engineer mayhem downplanet, mayhem that will look like it is the result of a war between multiple nation states, war that will lay the spoils of a naive but skilled society open to him.

(This made me think of Naomi Klein‘s Shock Doctrine, as it is the same theory at work – create chaos and you can then reshape the society to fit your specific needs. Not viable long-term, but in the short – definitely.)

It doesn’t stop there. Rather the book seems to argue that central government never can be successful; that it inevitably ends up being repressive; and that the only viable model is… what?

Throughout the book the other human party seems to be the most likely contender for power, and as it is a community based on trading rather than creating, it seems like Vinge pitches repressive dictatorship against a loose organism whose main interest is profit. But then, surprise surprise, the aliens turn out not to be the victims everyone thought them to be, and it is the nation with the best ability to turn scientific progress into a development that benefits the whole of the society that ends up the winner.

Hrm. Interesting indeed. But to truly enjoy the book and its 774 pages I think “interesting” isn’t enough. Fact is that with 100 pages left I had to force myself to just sit down and finish the damn thing, so I could be allowed to read something else, for a change. Because interesting as it might be character development is at an absolute minimum, despite the fact that the core story spans 40 years and a lot of change and hardships.

Of course, some characters do change. But their change is true to what the ideas need to get properly displpayed, not necessarily true to how a human might respond to challenge or time.

And bottom line, the people – be they machine or humans or aliens, I don’t particularly care, so let’s agree on calling them sentient beings – is what ideas need to be viable, to come to life. We are the material ideas need to become real. And I’m sorry to say but 774 pages of mannequins acting out the ideas of the author is a wee bit too much.

Or perhaps it’s just that Vinge’s voice doesn’t appeal to me. Because I think this book looks like a piece of unfinished wood when stood beside someone like Ian McDonald or Iain M Banks.

So, I’m glad that I finished it but I’m not that eager to read anything more from him.

Review: The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald‘s The Dervish House is a hard book to review, at least for me. Because as much as I enjoyed the story and the storytelling I had a hard time with the characters. Not that they were unbelievable, or shallow, but because not one single one was likeable.

In some books characters who we, should we encounter them in real life, would consider neither nice nor personable and still the author makes us sympathise with them, or at least makes us understand why they are who they are. And some characters can be so interesting that we stop connecting their morals and aims with those of our own, respecting them for who they are, in their own right.

The Dervish House had NO character that I cared for, and there was several to chose from – a nine year old boy with a heart condition, an old side-stepped economics professor wallowing in self-pity, a flash yuppie futures trader and his überclass wife dealing in religious relics, and a whacked out junkie and his Islamist brother.

So, no “connect”, no one whose future I cared about.

Yet – an enjoyable book. How come?

First of all, like all of Ian McDonald’s books that I’ve read it is well written. Presumably well researched, oozing of local colour. No loose ends. Poetic.

Second, the world he describes is not ours, yet a plausible future extrapolation of it. He chooses a technology – in this case nano – and shows how the tech and human behaviour (and politics) combine to make up this new, changed, world. Not really a mirror world, the classic science fictional treat, but an idea of what might become of us if certain things happen. And at heart is human drives, human passions, human conniving; eternal themes, in fiction, in news reporting and in the history textbooks.

Lastly, they story itself is interesting enough to make me want to know how the jigsaw pieces he show, one after the other, me will fit together, in the end. And come together it did, in a very good way.

Poetic, even.

So, definitely worth reading, and recommended. Perhaps especially to those who don’t often read science fiction as the fictional science of The Dervish House isn’t far out, nor placed off-planet, and thus easier to accept.