Saturday, April 29, 2006

Iain Banks - Dead Air

While thinking about this review, I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Dead Air, and found to my amusment, that most of what I thought had already been written there. Dead Air is a fun novel, but like so much of Bank's recent work it's flawed.

I don't subscribe to the criticism of it, that it ignores the events of 9/11 or simply uses them as a backdrop. Anyone on the left in the UK will know, that the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the twin towers, was for many, a period of intense political thinking and debate. That is, of course reflected in the polemical utterances of the main character in the novel - socialist radio DJ, Ken Nott.

Ken is very leftwing. A bit of a maveric, scottish and unaligned to any particular political grouping, he is Iain Banks personified to a certain extent - though given the frequent, drug and alcohol fueled sex I often wondered just what Iain Banks was trying to say.

Ultimately, none of this matters though - the politics, 9/11 and the polemics merely serve as a backdrop to a fairly ordinary tale of a innocent bloke getting mixed up in some nasty gangsters - a plot that's fun enough to carry the reader through to the somewhat predictable ending.

Some of the writing is a little annoying though. I cannot believe that Ken's Jewish wife of several years is really that shocked to learn of his views on Israel, nor his hatred of Sharron. I mean, I know that not every couple talks politics all the time, but you'd have though it would have come up.

So perhaps this suffers for a bit of a rush job. Nevertheless, it's fun and polemical at the same time and few writers (or even orators) can necessarily do that.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Tim Flannery - The Weather Makers (*)

The end of 2004 saw something remarkable happen in Antarctica. For the first time, extensive meadows of grass appeared in an area of the world previously known for its snow, blizzards and ice. There probably isn’t a better example of the effects of global warming on the eco-systems of planet Earth. Tim Flannery’s new book is an explicit attempt to warn the population of the world about the future problems of climate change and what is happening now.

He paints a terrifying picture of the consequences of even subtle changes in the atmosphere. The examples he uses are very different to those often used by environmentalists. For instance, he spends a long time explaining exactly how changes to the amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2)in the environment will change the amount of mist in certain rainforests – and how this means the extinction of species of toad and frogs that have only been discovered recently.

Similar examples abound – from the poles to the rainforests, Flannery paints a terrible picture, and it is indeed a call to arms against Climate Change and CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, this is where he comes unstuck.

Flannery argues that we need to reduce CO2 emissions by 70% by the 2050 if we are to avoid the catastrophic changes that we face. He does point out that many changes, and many extinctions are inevitable due to historic CO2 emissions, but that we still live in a period when we can alter the outcome.

While inspiring the reader to stop climate change, he only offers solutions centred on individual life-styles. Almost absent, is the need to challenge the corporations and governments at the heart of the problem.

He is of course right to suggest that if we all had solar panels on our roofs, used bio-fuel cars or public transport and lobbied politicians to ask what they are doing to limit their own emissions, CO2 emissions would be reduced. But the biggest source of CO2 in the world is the generation of electricity, and what is urgently and drastically needed is massive reductions in energy use – mainly I would argue through more efficient localised generation and a switch to using renewable energy.

There is a surprising amount of agreement in the UK from environmentalists and government scientists that renewable energy is viable and could lead to the sort of reductions described by Flannery. What is lacking is the political will to do this.

Flannery doesn’t offer any direction as to how this can be achieved – limiting himself to personal solutions (including using hand tools instead of electric ones). Unfortunately, it is only through a mass political movement that we will ever force governments and states to challenge the fossil fuel corporations at the heart of the problem.

The fact that Flannery has written such an eloquent book is a weapon in the hands of those that want to build that movement. Sadly it doesn’t offer anyone the real solutions that will save the planet. The book that does that has yet to be published.

(*) The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Raymond Chandler - The Big Sleep

Famously, Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” had a plot so complex, that when it was originally filmed the producers telegraphed Chandler to check who had killed a minor character. “I’ve no idea” came the author’s response.

This is the first novel were we are introduced to cool, hard-drinking, detective Philip Marlowe. It’s a gritty, dirty job this one, and he’s the detective to do it.

After initially being asked to investigate a blackmailer for a elderly oil millionaire, Marlowe find’s himself sucked into a complex world of murder, double-crossing, black mail and violence. Marlowe is of course equally at home with the violence, but he isn’t some angel of justice either. He’s prepared to give as good as he gets. And he hates the cops as much as the criminals.

It’s a great read. It is, at least on first reading, hard to work out what the hell is going on… but that’s the charm and the fun. Detective fiction was never the same after this Philip Marlowe first lit a cigarette and gazed around him with cynicism. It’s certain you’ll not be the same either.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Paul Theroux - Dark Star Safari (*)


One of the amusing things about Theroux’s travels across the continent of Africa by land (and at a couple of boats), is the way that when he reaches South Africa after many weeks of travelling, acquaintances of his introduce him to others with the words “he came from Cairo, by bus!”

This sense of amazement is perhaps natural. Too many people think of Africa as one place – a single country maybe, with a single people. Of course is is anything but, and Theroux’s travels make this clear.

Because Theroux has a history in Africa – he served with the Peace Corps there in the 1960s, in Malawi, he has the language and the confidence to travel in places that many would ignore. But more than that he offers a unique insight into the changes that have taken place in the continent and the things that have remained the same.

Rarely does Theroux express any disgust – except for those charity do-gooders who believe that they can save Africa with more and more aid. He meets many people who point to the bureaucracy and corruption that eat away at donated money. He meets many more people who point the out how simply throwing money around isn’t enough – there has to be a longer term strategy and charity treats the symptoms not the cause.

However, I found the book confusing at times. Not least because Theroux’s writing style is bitty and simple – anecdotes are short and minimal. I was left often wondering what else happened. But perhaps this is a minor complaint about a book that treats the people and environment of Africa honestly, rather than simply viewing the place as somewhere for our sympathy and charity.

(*) Overland from Cairo to Cape Town