Friday, May 30, 2008

Century Rain - Alastair Reynolds

There is a narrow sub-genre of Science Fiction that I love - archaeologists in space I like to know it as - this is the type of Science Fiction novel that has historians looking at the remains of long vanished alien civilisations. Usually before they disturb some artifact and find themselves plunged into a wormhole etc etc etc.

Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain has a interesting variant on this theme. A few hundreds of years into the future mankind is divided between those who blame technology for the war that made Earth uninhabitable, and those that believe technology is a useful tool.

Earth is uninhabitable, but parts of it remain, and archaeologists like the protagonist Verity Auger, are experts at piecing together the last fragmentary remains of the doomed society. They hope to find more out about the last moments of Earth, in order to prevent a similar catastrophe in the future.

Now, elsewhere in the universe there exists an old, abandoned alien transport system. One of the portals to this contains, rather astonishingly an exact copy of the Earth in the mid-1950s. Even more astonishingly, the portal leads directly into Paris - the very city that our heroine Verity is an expert on! Of such coincidences the greatest Science Fiction is made, and Verity sets off to explore this copy of Earth (which turns out to have not experienced the Second World War, and the fascists are on the rise again!). Of course, it's not so simple. There is a murder and a classic, film noir detective to make the plot more and more convoluted.

Of course Ms. Auger rapidly finds herself in the midst of a plot to destroy the Earth (Mark 2) and all manner of people try and stop her. Including some truly nasty children.

Century Rain is not part of Reynold's normal SF universe. It is however a fun and interesting standalone novel. Well recommended if you like detectives, space and archaeology.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Eric Newby - Love and War in the Apennines

The aftermath of the Second World War brought a plethora of memoirs of wartime experiences. Popular amongst these where books about the experiences of Prisoner's of War, in particular those of escapees.

Eric Newby's memoir of his wartime experiences as a POW in Italy, and then as an escapee on the run waited almost three decades before making it into print. In the introduction he says that he did this, because he didn't think that his experiences were as exiciting or interesting as those of many others. He didn't for instance, even "getting through the enemy line as so many people did", nor did he join the Partisans.

Instead, Newby's story is one that shows the heroic, and forgotten resistance of ordinary people who simply refused to allow a stranger in their midst to be captured by the powers that be - whether they were Italian fascists, or German soldiers. While it is true that Newby was betrayed (twice in fact) by people in the communities that sheltered him, it is also true that those people were not representative of the Italian peasants who hid him for months and years. It is also true that one of those betrayers was never allowed to forget what she did... "lucky not to be shot by the partisans".

When Mussolini's government fell, Newby escaped his prison with hundreds of other British POWs. Before the German's took control again he had made it into an area of tiny villagers in the Apennine mountains in Northern Italy. Moving from village to village, tiny shelter to remote cottage he was looked after, fed and protected by dozens of nameless souls, who faced death if the authorities found out what they had done.

Poverty is rife in rural Italy then and now. Wartime brought many further hardships and Newby had to work hard to repay the support he was given. He spent many months removing stones from one farmers poor fields, or doing other odd jobs in the towns.

In one of the most memorable chapters, Newby is found by a German officer, butterfly hunting. This soldier doesn't try and capture Newby. Recognising him as British by his very demeanour, the German discusses the end of the war and the inevitable defeat of Germany. At the end of the encounter, the German returns to his search for butterflies, and the surrounding villagers dismiss him as a lunatic.

Newby returns to the area after the war. He fell in love with the daughter of the first people who helped him, and had kept sporadic contact with her. His return to the village that sheltered him many years later is the subject of the final chapter, and is a deeply moving account of how he brought thanks for his life - something that the villagers had done simply out of honest solidarity, with no hope, nor thought for reward.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Phil Piratin - Our Flag Stays Red

Unusually for an MP, or indeed a local government councillor, Phil Piratin didn’t believe that political change came from Town Halls or even parliament. He firmly believed that change came because ordinary people fought for it. The role of Councillors and MPs representing working class people was to help facilitate those struggles.

In this capacity Piratin was elected a Communist Party councillor in Poplar and then MP for Mile End in the 1945 General Election. His campaigns centred very much on the struggle to improve the lot of ordinary working class people – working men and women who then, as now, live in overcrowded, poverty stricken conditions. Today of course Poplar council is part of the larger borough of Tower Hamlets, but 60 years ago the gulf between rich and poor was remarkably similar for the people of the East End.

This short book tells the early life story of Phil Piratin, how he became involved in the fight against Mosley’s blackshirt fascists in the 30s, and how he became a member of the Communist Party. It has much to offer the casual reader – particularly one who lives in the East End. Many of the places mentioned still stand and it’s amusing to read of the street fighting, street meetings and demonstrations that happened on this or that road.

Those who would really benefit from reading it are those socialists and radicals up and down the country campaigning against injustice and poverty today. This isn’t simply because of Piratin’s inspiring story. Nor is it to get a sense of what can be achieved, though both of these are important. While the reader may cheer to read the accounts of the Cable Street battles that stopped the British Union of Fascists marching through the Jewish East End in 1936, what is truly important I think for readers today is the way that socialists then are faced with the same challenges that we face today.

The late 1930s was a period of history when war loomed on the horizon. Millions of people were fed up of poverty and felt disillusioned with their normal leaders in the Labour and Trade Union movements. Radicals in the Communist Party could get large audiences for their anti-capitalist, pro-peace message. Translating this into deeper support and getting deeper networks in working class communities was the challenge.

As I write this in 2008, the picture is similar. There is anger at the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Millions face economic uncertainty and there is deep cynicism at the established “workers” parties.

At the same time, organisations of the far right, openly fascist in the 1930s but more “suited and booted” today (though still wearing their Nazi credentials close to their heart), thrive in conditions of poverty, alienation and government racism.

How socialists and radicials turn this anger into co-ordinated political activity is the question of the day, and it was also the challenge for Piratin and the Communist Party then. This is/was even more important as fascist movements need to be stopped before they can grow any further.

Piratin lead a hard battle within the Communist Party. He argued that at the same time as being involved in national campaigns like the anti-war movement, you also had to fight over bread and butter issues. In his time this was the issue of rents and housing conditions and the Stepney Communist Party threw itself into building rent-strikes and housing occupations to campaign for better living conditions. The CP didn’t ignore those supporters of fascism facing eviction. Indeed by fighting to defend their homes too, they won BUF families away from fascism, by demonstrating practically the value of working class solidarity.

As the war approached, the pressures on the CP given their uncritical stance towards Soviet Russia clearly have some effect, though the basic nature of their work on estates and in communities continued to have a hearing. Every time you see a photo of people hiding from the Blitz on the underground platforms, remember that the government refused to let the tube network be used like this, until CP members had forced open the gates to save people’s lives. Only then did Churchill’s government cave in and promote the underground as deep bomb shelters.

Piratin’s victory in 1945 came on the back of a huge desire for change that swept out the Conservatives and brought in a Red Flag singing Labour government. This book doesn’t cover Piratin’s experiences in Parliament, if his time there was spent as it was in the Poplar council chamber providing a voice for the voiceless, it must have been very inspiring indeed.

While many socialists today have numerous criticisms and differences with the ideas of the Communist Party of the 1930s, we all have much to learn from a group of men and women who believed that it wasn’t enough for the left to provide propaganda from the side-lines. The only way that socialist politics could be won to a wider audience was through the comrades rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in. For that reason, if no other, “Our Flag Stays Red” should be read, and re-read by all those who want a better world today.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Simon Goldhill - The Temple of Jerusalem

As with the other books in the "Wonders of the World" series, Simon Goldhill concentrates on a single building from history, and examines it's architectural, historical, social and cultural impact. Unlike most of the others, his task is made much harder by the simple fact that the Temple of Jerusalem was pretty much flattened on 28th August 70AD (in the morning we're told).

The Temple of Jerusalem was the most important place for the whole of the Jewish religion. Preceding it, had been at least two other Temples, but this final one, built by King Herod, diminished all others in size and scale. 144,000 square metres in area, and 32 metres in height, the only part that survives now is one of the massive walls that held it in place. The Western Wall, that is now known as the "wailing wall". The Temple only stood for 90 years. For almost 2000 years Jews from around the world have travelled to the wall to pray, and mourn the loss of the Temple.

For the Jews the Temple holds a special significance. But the area at the heart of Jerusalem, holds significance for the other two, key religions from the area - Christianity and Islam. For this reason, the Temple as a building (and the Temple as an Idea) hold special importance for millions around the globe. And now, as then, this significance creates ideological, as well as religious importance.

Goldhill describes then the limited knowledge we have of the building. What archaeologists have discovered and what the few historical writings that describe the building tell us. We know a surprising amount about the Temple rituals - depicted with great accuracy in Jewish holy books. But the meat of his book, is to examine how the building has been fought over (by Christian, Jewish and Islamic troops) and how the Idea of the Temple has developed through the years. He argues that for Christians, the promise of rebuilding the Temple in the future, becomes linked with the idea of Jesus as personification of the Temple. It's image becomes part and parcel of actual buildings now - witness the "Temple Church" in London.

In one example Jewish revolutionaries against the Roman occupation placed an image of the Temple on the coins they minted - a sign of the ideological importance of the building. Everyone from the Crusaders and the Freemasons (though their contribution is decidedly a-historical) have grasped at the concept of the Temple in one form or another.

Finally, Goldhill finishes with the 1967 Israeli war to capture Jerusalem from the Arabs. He makes the point that how you view the story, will be coloured by the readers politics (and events since then).

For a building that hardly existed on a historical timescale, the Temple has perhaps more than any other ancient building shaped our current times. I'd recommend this book if only because it gives a better understanding of some of the great political, social and religious movements in our own times.

Related Reviews

Gere - The Tomb of Agamemnon
Ray - The Rosetta Stone
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Stephen King - The Drawing of the Three - The Dark Tower book two

Volume two of Stephen King's seven part "Dark Tower" series is a very different beast to volume one. This is a good thing, as I found that the first book tried to hard to be an epic. You can read my review of that here.

In volume two, Roland, the Last Gunslinger finds three doors into other places and people. The book is entirely set on a seemingly endless beach. The beach that the Gunslinger arrived at towards the end of the first novel. As he opens each door, he finds himself in the head of one of three fascinating people. The first is a drug smuggler, the second a angry, brave and rich woman, clearly suffering from some sort of dual personality problem. The last is a serial killer, whose life has already crossed the Gunslingers and is responsible for the woman loosing her legs.

Interestingly, this volume continues the theme of the epic journey, though this time it is the slow trip along the beach. It's slow because the companions are hampered by illness and injury and a wheelchair. But King's writing is good enough for us to feel every turgid step.

The reader also can find amusement in his own knowledge. Each time Roland enters 'our' world (1980s New York) he is confused and bedazzled by everything around him. His attempts to understand, by fixing the knowledge, laws and understanding of his own times onto the things around him, create lots of little in-jokes for the modern reader.

This is an enjoyable read, certainly it's very different to the first in the series and bodes well for the rest of the series.