Friday, January 30, 2009

The Inferior - Peadar O Guilin

The cover of The Inferior suggests barbarian-based fantasy, but the story is solid sci-fi. In the vein of Brian Aldiss classics like Non-Stop, much of the fun comes from working out the bounds and the rules of the alien environment through which our protagonists are struggling. And struggling they certainly are here - a small community of humans lives virtually on the verge of extinction in a ruined city, surrounded on all sides by vicious alien races, all of whom have to kill and eat each other to survive. Ritualised cannibalism is the norm; for those too old or too slow to hunt, their only contribution to the tribe is from inside the cooking pot - protein is too scarce to waste in burials or cremation. None of these species are able to communicate with each other, making collaboration impossible, so when it's discovered that two enemy species are co-ordinating their attacks, the community knows it's in real trouble.

The hero of the piece is Stopmouth, an adolescent boy with a stammer; he's not a mighty hunter, but can bring in enough game to save himself from the pot. His older brother is a much more respected warrior and tactician, who soon becomes leader of the tribe, but a wedge is driven between them when a mysterious woman falls from the Roof, offering hints of a whole new world above. Eventually, Stopmouth is forced to flee across alien territories, and gradually discovers the true nature of the world he inhabits.

The age of the protagonist and the simple style (think JK Rowling) have seen this book pitched mostly at a Young Adult audience, but there are enough delightfully gruesome details to satisfy a bloodthirsty horror-reading adult, too. The various alien races are all full of inventive nastiness, and it's an interesting exploration of the ethics and mechanics of survival in some very adverse circumstances. This is very reminiscent of old-school sci-fi, down to the mild but unfortunate sexism, so there's nothing particularly ground-breaking about the book, but the story is very entertaining, the world compelling and unusual, and it's certainly worth a read. Unless you're particularly squeamish about cannibals...


Monday, January 12, 2009

The Complex: An insider exposes the covert world of Scientology - John Duignan

I know parts of this were serialised in the Sun, but being a Guardian-reading lefty, I didn't hear about this book until a few days later, when reports came in of it mysteriously vanishing from the Amazon listings. The word on the internets was that there'd been an emergency meeting between Tom Cruise and the Amazon CEO, after which the book was swiftly removed from sale, and all other UK booksellers soon followed suit; the Scientology legal team had obviously been putting on the pressure and the sellers had shamefully caved in. Tsk. Now, despite having had some prior run-ins with Scientologists, I probably wouldn't have actually bothered buying this book, but the fact that they tried to ban it made me very keen to get hold of a copy. The publishers in Ireland, when I contacted them directly, were unable to ship to the UK, but another Irish bookseller (Eason's) was quite happy to sell me a copy, and I was quite happy to give my cash to a seller less craven than Amazon or Waterstones; even if it turned out to be crap, book-banning is something worth opposing. Luckily, it turned out to be a pretty good and very interesting read.

The name of L Ron Hubbard is something of a joke among the SF community - failed writer of low-quality sci-fi starts own religion! - but on reading this personal account of Scientology's foot-soldiers, it starts to look less like a comedy and more like a terrible tragedy. Duignan's story, capably ghost-written by Nicola Tallant, tells of a troubled young man in search of stability, seduced by the Church's promise of answers and then sucked in to do the cult's bidding for over two decades. More like a pyramid scheme than a religion, the lower-level staff work 16-hour days or longer, their salaries entirely dependent on the number of new converts they bring aboard, and the number of books or courses they sell to existing ones. Theoretically, the aim of all Scientologists is to progress towards the enlightened state of "Clear" and beyond, where time-travel, telekinesis and total bodily control are possible, but every step of the way has to be paid for, and most of the staff never make it, despite years of underpaid work. The money just seems to vanish somewhere into the upper echelons, while the acolytes (and their children) live in squalid dormitory conditions, fending off demands for harder work and more money - for example, Duignan tells of how every staff member was forced to buy a newly-released box set of L Ron Hubbard lecture CDs, at a cost of several hundred pounds each. While the high-profile (and rich) celebrity members can rise through the ranks with alacrity, the poorer ones can end up spending their lives in a state of near-slavery without even getting near their goals.

Why, then, do they put up with this? Well, this is where the claims of brainwashing come in. In Duignan's case, this was a young orphaned man from a broken home, not particularly well educated, who had already tried a religion or two and was obviously easy pickings; just the initial friendly treatment by the recruitment staff was enough to hook him in. After that, the combination of high-pressure sales-talk, the insistence on staying away from corrupting influences (friends, family and other non-Scientologists) and some elementary psychological tricks (confidence-destroying group sessions and high doses of toxic vitamins, among other things) served to increase his dependency on the Church; soon, like an abusive relationship, he came to believe that he had no hope of surviving in the outside world, and accepted all of the crap that was thrown at him. The list of atrocities committed by the Church against its members is long and very uncomfortable to read; there are families split up by arbitrary staffing decisions, terrible work-camps for transgressors, medication denied to the sick, even female Sea Org members being forced to have abortions when their pregnancy broke Church rules.

However, if all this sounds too depressing, and you were hoping to have a laugh at some crazy cult practices, there's plenty of comedy material here too. The announcement of Hubbard's death is particularly funny; a stadium full of committed Scientologists are told that, rather than dying, Hubbard had merely ascended to the next plane of reality, and cast aside his unnecessary body, and he was quite well, thankyou. The Church's initial attempts at creating a database were also quite hilarious - given that Hubbard had inconsiderately died before giving them any guidance (Hubbard's direct instructions had to be used for all aspects of life, including the best ways to clean floors), their back-up plan was to try some past-life regression, to see if any of their previous alien incarnations had any particular skills in database-creation. It's things like this that give me hope that Scientology will be too utterly incompetent to complete their World Domination plans.

Duignan's apotheosis came after he started illegally accessing the internet (forbidden to all Sea Org members). Finding out that the Ultimate Truth towards which he was aspiring was actually some old guff about Lord Xenu, and that the Great Leader Hubbard was not only terribly ill when he died, but also full of the same psychiatric drugs that he forbade his own followers - well, this was the last straw. With the help of some anti-cult organisations, he planned and executed his escape, though not without some tense moments as the Sea Org enforcers were sent out to bring him home. Luckily for him, he managed to evade their clutches for long enough to be properly deprogrammed, though their next step was predictably to try to block publication of this book. While Duignan wasn't quite as high-up in the Church as the blurb makes out (more like middle-management than serious corporate insider), this is still an absolutely fascinating exposé of a very nasty cult, and worth reading by anyone who has an interest in such things, or who opposes the banning of books by pressure-groups. A cult classic (heh heh).


Thursday, January 08, 2009

Little Brother - Cory Doctorow

Note: I normally avoid spoilers, but I found it hard to review this book fully without them, so beware!

Within the blogosphere, Cory Doctorow is best known as the editor of Boingboing, and for his sterling work in campaigning against DRM and other insidious forms of copy-protection. Appropriately, it was on a lefty blog that I first heard of this novel, a paranoid-dystopian bit of near-future SF for young adults. Set in a San Francisco not many years from now, where CCTV (etc) monitoring has been gradually encroaching on all areas of society, teenager Marcus (online username w1n5t0n - geddit?) knows all the technical tricks for evading detection and sneaking out of school. However, while skiving off one morning, he and his friends get caught up in an awful terrorist attack, and are whisked away by Homeland Security for questioning. Brutalised and intimidated by the security forces, Marcus vows to break their stranglehold on the city, and starts to organise a resistance...

On the face of it, this seems like good, subversive stuff, if somewhat white and affluent (lucky Marcus, having all the latest gadgets with which he can thwart the government surveillance, and how terrible that middle-class kids should be treated as criminals!). The writing style isn't brilliant but the story is decent enough, as Marcus stays one step ahead of the authorities, defying his corrupt teachers and clueless parents, and navigating the pitfalls of betrayal and infiltration; my main criticism of the narrative would be all the technical detail that slowed the pace down. Doctorow is clearly trying to give a useful blueprint for tech rebellion at the same time as telling his story, and doubtless this is all very handy for people more paranoid and net-savvy than I, but if you have no personal inclination to start (eg) tunnelling your data then the extraneous detail is just slightly annoying, and liable to make the book date rather quickly. It also means that Little Brother is entirely out of reach to older and more technically-illiterate people; my mum, for example, could certainly benefit from a demonstration of the evils of government surveillance, and the similarities with the civil rights movement of the 60's, but there's no way she'd get through even half of this book.

This is a shame, because the final message of Little Brother is that the kids can only do so much; for all Marcus's (ultimately rather inept) scheming, the bad guys' machinations are only finally exposed with the help of the adults. Despite the "never trust anyone over 25!" rhetoric, it all seems to boil down to Good Kids defying Bad Grownups until the Good Grownups stop being oblivious and sort it all out; this is about as anti-authoritarian as the Famous Five. I appreciate that this is a rather more realistic conclusion than if the kids really HAD done it all by themselves, but that didn't make it any more satisfying. It was basically entertaining (and educational for those interested in cryptography), but as an Orwell for the Noughties - well, it's not entirely made of fail, but fail is definitely among the ingredients. A pity.


Monday, January 05, 2009

Happy New(ish) Year!

OK, my one and only resolution this year is to get at least one review up per week, cos my slackness over the last few months has been a disgrace *hangs head in shame*. For a taste of what's (hopefully) on its way...

Reviews still in progress from last year

Watchmen - Alan Moore
The Inferior - Peadar O Guilin
The Ennead, Divide and Rule & Enough Is Too Much Already - Jan Mark
The Complex - John Duignan
Little Brother - Cory Doctorow

Books I haven't finished reading yet

Bloodheir - Brian Ruckley
In Search of the Craic - some folk-music journalist guy
The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21
Bad Science - Ben Goldacre
The Extended Phenotype - Richard Dawkins
Howard Who? - Howard Waldrop

Books I haven't even started reading yet

House of Leaves - Mark Z Danielewski
Chronicles of the Xandim - Maggie Furey
City at the Edge of Time - Greg Bear
Feast of Souls - Celia Friedman
Cryptonomicon - Neal Stephenson
Dragonscarpe - Pat McNamara

Still waiting for it to turn up from Amazon

Thongor fights the Pirates of Tharakus - Lin Carter

If anyone has an opinion on which of these I should tackle first, then please speak now!