Friday, September 14, 2007

Charles Stross – The Atrocity Archives

This is a remarkably strange SF&F novel. I should clarify that I mean this in a good way. The world of the Atrocity Archives is one where magic is real. Demons can be summoned, the paraphernalia of which-craft is real and secret government organisations battle to save the world from monsters from other dimensions.

What makes the novel clever is that this is all part of our normal world. The secret government institutions battle for cash from a stingy treasury and their agents fight bureaucracy. Our hero is a normal IT techy, promoted to active duty instead of his normal work fixing file servers and lost data.

There are also terrorists (as there always must be these days) who in an attempt to commit some terrible crime, come close to summoning a “Lovecraftian” horror from another dimension. To complete Charles Stross’ checking of every available cliché, there are also fugitive Nazis, living on an alternate Earth in a different universe (accessed through a gate opened in a dodgy hotel in Amsterdam).

Now, if this was a plot by Robert Heinlein, you would, loyal readers, expect me to scoff and mock his immature storylines. Instead I must praise Stross for making all this nonsense extremely readable, funny and firmly tongue in cheek. Fantasy writers have to be able to take a few mocking words from readers who don’t care about dragons. Stross shows here that he is prepared to be laughed at by a few reviewers because he knows that many other people will laugh with him. There are dozens of in-jokes about mathematics, physics and computer science – more than enough to entertain the extreme geeks out there.

If I have one criticism about this book, it’s that bundled with it, is a short story set in the same world, with the same heroes. It’s great fun too, but I wasn’t expecting it and you don’t get the impression from the cover of the book that it’s there. It meant that the main story finished about 80 pages before I expected it to.

This is of course not a real moan about what is fabulously entertaining fantasy. A Resolute Reader Recommended Read!

Related Reviews

Stross - Iron Sunrise
Stross - Singularity Sky

Friday, September 07, 2007

Gareth Dale – The East German Revolution of 1989

The closest I have ever been to revolution was to be one of the “Mauer-Spechte” who helped, from the western side, chip away at the Berlin wall in December 1989. Of course, by then, the wall was no longer the barrier it once was. As a symbol of oppression and dictatorship, it had been rendered totally impotent by the struggles of millions of ordinary East German’s over the preceding months.

In the summer of 1989 I’d visited East Berlin with an Uncle. Standing on the Eastern side of the Brandenburg gate he’d told me how he believed that the wall would always be there. Unconsciously he was echoing the thoughts of the then president of East Germany Honecker who argued that the wall would remain for a hundred more years.

Yet a few months later the wall was breached in many places, Eastern Germany was on the brink of collapse in the face of mass demonstrations and a new unified Germany was on the horizon.

Academic, Marxist and Eye-witness, Gareth Dale has documented the exact process that lead to this remarkable turnaround. Through a myriad of human stories, we hear of the millions of ordinary Germans who took to the streets in ever increasing numbers until their voices could no longer be ignored.

Some of this has been documented elsewhere. In particular, the role of the Leipzig protests that grew out of the “peace prayers” in the Nikolai Church. What Dale does very convincingly is to show how the role of the “masses” was the central driving force of the revolution. Arguing against those who believe that the fall of East Germany was simply the result of the growth of internal opposition groups, or the machinations of the west, Dale shows that 1989 saw a grass-roots revolution that showed “the potential that arises when established order breaks down in the face of collective protest”. How this potential was derailed down the path of German unity (which Dale shows was rarely a demand of those who took to the streets in 1989) and rampant neo-liberalism forms the bulk of the latter part of this work. There are many factors, but not least amongst them was the fear of many of those at the head of opposition organisations like New Forum, of the organised workers whose strikes (both real and threatened) shook the German state in early 1990.

At a time when Germans were storming the headquarters of the secret police, demonstrating in their hundreds of thousands, the threat of mass strikes in huge workplaces opened the opportunity for the very “grass roots” democracy that oppositionists had called for. Instead, New Forum condemned the strikes and turned their backs on the organised workers, help to open the way for the destruction of industry and economic collapse that followed reunification.

This is not to condemn those who had for so many years bravely opposed the East German dictatorship. They were not revolutionists and indeed where often swimmingly at the head of the flood, rather than leading it. The German state was easily able to co-opt them into harmless “round table” discussions rather than allow them to lead the struggle for real change.

Gareth Dales’ book is more than a fascinating examination of one of Europe’s most recent revolutions. It’s a reaffirmation of the role of the masses in revolutionary moments. Drawing upon recent works in Social Movement theory, it shows how ordinary men and women do extraordinary things, how revolution changes people’s lives and how even the most apparently powerful of states are often very weak indeed.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Neal Asher – Hilldiggers

Neal Asher is not a new writer on the SF&F scene - “Hilldiggers” his latest [2007] novel, is clearly the continuation of earlier works and themes.

Initially this seems to be a classic story of first contact between a solar system of humans “cut off” in some way from Earth and left to develop in isolation, and the more advanced human societies, left behind. However as we delve deeper we find it’s not quite so simple. The isolated solar system contains two planets whose inhabitants, descendents of Earth’s original colonists have only recently concluded a long, bitter and almost genocidal interplanetary conflict. They have also to a changed substantially from the human form.

Back on Earth, a civilisation now ruled by Artificial Intelligences, sends a human ambassador (himself with various flaws and secrets) to the solar system. The more powerful, victorious, civilisation he encounters seems sick to the heart – militaristic, and superficially democratic – understanding its many secrets, including the initial provocation for war itself and the consequences of a strange “alien” artefact discovered during the war are key to solving the ongoing interplanetary hostilities. This is the precondition for welcoming the worlds back into the warm embrace of humanity (or at least it’s governing AIs).

The alien artefact has imbued four individuals with superhuman powers of intelligence and analysis. But as the different forces these people represent in our alien solar system jockey for power, war becomes once more inevitable and it is left to our human envoy (alongside an invisible, faster than light travelling, cat shaped AI, nicknamed Tigger!) to save the day.

If all this seems a bit like the proverbial literary whirlwind, don’t worry, it reads like that to – probably intentionally on the part of the author. So readers might like the myriad of plot twists and technological innovations that are thrown out on every page. Personally I find it a bit tiresome, though I was, I admit hooked till the last page.

However if this story of a flawed human envoy, travelling to a lost outpost of human civilisation, as an ambassador of a near utopian civilisation ruled by Artificially Intelligent machines, aided by a companion who has more technology in one robotic arm than the entire solar system being visited rings any SF bells, this is because it’s been done before in one of the best contemporary SF novels. Neal Asher’s book is enjoyable, but it’s not first class SF.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Peter Linebaugh - The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century

Loath as I am to quote favourably anything from the odious Daily Mail, when reviewing Peter Linebaugh’s monumental work, they got it absolutely spot on - describing it as “A remarkable book… this is history as it should be written”.

Linebaugh’s starting point is to argue that you cannot understand the history of London without understanding property relations within that society. And you cannot understand property relations and the development of capitalism without understanding the struggles that took place between those who had property, and those who had little or none. In this he consciously echoes the famous lines of the Communist Manifesto, whose authors wrote that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

Following on from this argument, the author examines how punishment and indeed crime changed to reflect the changes taking place in society itself. The ultimate in punishment is death and Linebaugh’s work examines society through the often detailed records that accompany the judicial murder of London’s criminals by hanging at Tyburn Hill.

Those with even a cursory knowledge of crime and punishment will recollect that capital punishment in the early eighteenth century was often for what we would consider the most minor of crimes – the stealing of a handkerchief for instance. What this book argues is that the public spectacle of capital punishment had a more complex purpose – to shock and cow the public into the acceptance of new forms of property relations and the destruction of old forms.

Perhaps the genius of Linebaugh’s book is to combine this understanding of the rise of capitalist society with the voices of those who where hung. Their explanations of why they committed the crimes, their contempt for a society whose only interest in their lives was the brief life history before their condemnation, and their belief in a more just way of living.

The way our modern world is shaped by the struggles of the past is brought out in fascinating detail. The network of national banks arose as a response by rich farmers unable to return home from the markets in London and Bristol because of the overwhelming numbers of highwaymen. But those highwaymen themselves were often those whose traditional livelihoods in the countryside had been destroyed by new practises that centralised farming and destroyed the small butchers and traders, replacing them with larger businesses.

Time and again, through Linebaugh’s detailed examinations of the lives of butchers and highwaymen, prostitutes, Irish immigrants, former slaves and shipbuilders we discover a willingness to hold onto the few “rights” they had, the customs and practices of decades, in the face of a brutal and rapidly changing world. Sometimes this exploded into anger as with the burning of Newgate prison. For too long this event was described as an anti-Catholic plot by a drunken mob, yet in relating was a huge mass movement that targeted and destroyed symbols of oppression, such as the prison, as well as the houses and homes of those establishment figures who had condemned so many to it.

We learn of the first “general” dock strikes in Shadwell where the strikers raised the Red Flag for the first time in history and on a smaller, but no less important scale, we read time and again how the crowds gathering to watch a hanging often tried to intervene, sometimes with great success.

Towards the end of the book, Peter Linebaugh describes a world where capitalism is almost triumphant. Through his examinations of day-to-day custom and practice in the Deptford shipbuilding yards, we see how establishment figures are grappling with the very nature of exploitation through work. How they measure, quantify and calculate surplus value. We see the first attempts to deskill a workforce, to introduce piece work and to “rationalise” industry through the introduction of technology.

Shipbuilders, in all their different tasks, had for centuries taken “chips” home. These were the excess cuttings from the colossal amounts of wood required to build the ships needed for Britain to further its imperialist ambitions abroad. For the capitalist, these “chips” represented waste, inefficiency and outdated methods. For the workers on the other hand “chips” were the difference between starvation and life, in an industry where payment was often 15 months behind schedule.

The attempts by the establishment to stop this tradition – first through legislation, then with violent punishment and then to the aborted attempt to use technology to make sure that the waste was minimised are countered by the struggles of the dockyard workers themselves – from the smuggling of bits of wood under clothing to strikes and machine-wrecking.

These stories are mirrored throughout this wonderful work in the stories of the men and women who struggled against the consequences of a rising capitalism, to try and ensure that their space within the new society was their own.

In his afterword to the second edition, Linebaugh makes an obvious point – we continue to live in a world where countries around the globe, and in particular the world’s major capitalist power still use capital punishment to cow and batter their oppressed peoples. The struggle for justice and freedom cannot be successful, until that is no longer the case.

Through their struggles, the men and women of eighteenth century London ensured that hanging was no longer seen as a safe option for the London establishment, and brought forth a new (if still oppressive) form of justice – it is a battle that will have to be won again and again today.