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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, November 29, 2021


 


 


Just Finished Reading: All Involved by Ryan Gattis (FP: 2015) [397pp] 

Los Angeles, April 1992. It was as inevitable as night following day. After the acquittal of the officers accused of killing Rodney King the rioting started. Many saw the following events as a tragic response to a tragic event, others saw it as a complete indictment of the America system, others saw it as an opportunity – for payback, to loot and burn. Others saw it differently. With the police busy elsewhere, indeed everywhere, it opened up a whole world of opportunity including for revenge. As the night started to heat up Ernesto Vera was making his way home after his shift had finished. He was dreaming as always of food, not eating it but cooking it. Ernesto longed to own his own restaurant and to cook food the way he liked it and the way he knew others liked it too. But he would not make it home alive tonight. Despite not being ‘involved’ he is targeted in the absence of his younger brother for a nightclub shooting earlier that week. He should have been safe, outside of the expected rules of retaliation. He was, after all, a civilian in the eyes of the local gangs. But it seemed like those rules no longer applied. Now a response needs to be made. The perpetrators need to be identified and swift justice administered before a total gang war can erupt in South Central. Despite tradition there is only one person that can carry out the counter hit – Ernesto's younger sister Lupe, AKA Payasa. Armed with a ‘borrowed’ 9MM she knows the time and the place where her brothers' killers will be celebrating. All she needs to do is walk in there and start shooting... 

I bought this book YEARS ago because, on a 5 second scan of the blurb, it looked interesting and different. I started reading it for that very reason. Although I had some idea what to expect I had no idea going in how gripping the narrative would be. Honestly it took a little to get into at first. Ernesto’s death was quite brutal but very well handled. It was visceral without being gratuitous. He gets a total of 7 pages in the narrative but in that time you get to know him and his dreams for a better life – you like the guy. Now imagine what the author can do in almost 400 pages. Everyone in this quite complex story is a living breathing person – from the gang members themselves – both the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad’, to the local nurse, to the fireman and to the graffiti kids just looking to make a name for themselves. The sense of place is amazing. The action takes place over a period of 5 days and we ‘see’ things evolving from around 8-10 points of view each of which adds to the overall feeling of this amazing novel. Each set of eyes has a story behind it. Some are dark, some just fucked up, and some are at least hopeful. Those who know what I like in my novels will not be surprised that I was most impressed by the depth of the characterisation throughout this book. Although few of us would want many of these characters living next door – or even in the same town! - you can’t help but sympathise with (at least some of) their circumstances. Payasa’s posse generated a lot of sympathy and, to be honest, admiration in me for the way they handled themselves throughout the 5 days of the book. I liked them as people. 

Now the caveats/warnings! Being the kind of book this is and the events that unfolded throughout this is definitely NOT a book for the faint of heart. Although not a crime novel per se there is a LOT of criminal activity here – from casual murder, arson, copious drug taking (mostly from a few characters), looting and at least one illegal left turn. Likewise, there is a fair amount of swearing – mostly F bombs but with at least a few C bombs too. It is, from the very first page, most definitely an adult book! But saying that I have to admit that this is THE surprise hit of the year for me. It might have just hit me in the right way at the right time but this completely blew me away with its utter quality. Easily a Top 10 book of the year. Highly recommended for those who can deal with a ‘gunshots and all’ world in the raw. 

Thursday, November 25, 2021


 


Just Finished Reading: Robot Uprisings edited by Daniel H Wilson and John Joseph Adams (FP: 2014) [472pp] 

It’s been a coming idea since the very beginnings of SF – our technology turning against us. It probably first occurred to our cave dwelling ancestors the first time a stone knife ‘turned’ in his or her hand and they cut themselves. Just think, they probably wondered, if that was a nuclear grenade I’d just dropped in the cockpit of my space cruiser!  

Most collections of short stories, as you might expect, are often hit and miss affairs. Afterall even the most generous of us can’t like the output of every author (even in a favourite genre) on every subject. This is however a pretty good collection with few poor shows. One of the poorest (yet still not terrible) was The Omnibot Incident by Ernest Cline where an ‘AI’ robot Christmas present impresses its naïve young recipient a little too much. But others (who more closely fit with the overall title of the work) were suitably disturbing if not actually creepy – which some definitely were! Complex God by Scott Sigler was a good example were nano-bots started building statues of their creator giving her an even bigger god-complex, Lullaby by Anna North was another good one where the teenage granddaughter of the vilified creator of the machines that challenged mankind in a recent war stops another attack in an intriguing way. One of my favourites was Epoch by Cory Doctorow where the world's first AI fights not to be turned off (to save money!) by playing on the fears and ambitions of its maintenance staff. Needless to say the AI is way smarter than the people who built it and is always 10 steps ahead of them. It’s always difficult to realistic portray something smarter than people (and still be understood by the readership and the author brings it off with style here). An interesting one was Of Dying Heroes and Deathless Deeds by Robin Wasserman where a house robot in a global uprising is suffering from PTSD and is cured by a human enabling it to go on killing it oppressors. Definitely a strange one was Spider the Artist by Nnedi Okorafor where a poor musician becomes friends with a maintenance robot just as it and its compatriots become self-aware. 

If you’re interested in AI, robots or cyberwarfare (at least in fiction!) this is definitely the book for you. Brimming with interesting ideas it’ll give you lost of food (and pauses) for thought about what’s going on right now in the world of robotics and AI research and where some of that might end up – and how such a thing might just be the last thing we invent before shuffling off this mortal coil in a rather spectacular own goal. Definitely recommended.   

Monday, November 22, 2021


 


The power of GM.........


Just Finished Reading: We Want To Negotiate – The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom by Joel Simon (FP: 2019) [163pp] 

It was hard for me to resist a title like this one. We hear about them all the time it seems. A journalist, contractor or ‘extreme tourist’ taken hostage by a group of rebels in South America, the Middle East or Africa. Threats are made, videos posted on-line, demands come through for money, release of fellow members or something more political like a message, a resignation or troops being pulled out. Sometimes it's all very public with a country's politicians talking of negotiating teams, what they will (and won’t) agree to and so on. The media circus, especially when the hostage is one of their own, hang on every word. Other times the first we hear of any negotiations is when the hostage is returned either dead or alive – usually with the accompanying denials of ransoms being paid or disputes about how much.  

This is the area covered by this fascinating short book. The author is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists so not only did he have some serious ‘skin in the game’ he also had access to the governments, the security agencies, private contractors and victims' families involved in various hostage situations over the past few decades. Countries attitudes to hostage negotiation vary widely. Some countries are willing to publicly, or at least without a media blackout, speak either directly or indirectly with the kidnappers to get their people back, others will negotiate fully in private whilst a few (at least publicly) refuse to enter into any negotiations with ‘terrorists’ - a term that is often very freely defined as required. The most common excuses (or explanations) for not negotiating is that it gives the kidnappers legitimacy and that it provides them with funds (or released compatriots) to continue their efforts. Worse still, so they say, it encourages further hostage taking in the expectation that ransoms will be paid. Not paying up therefore reduces future kidnappings and cuts off a funding stream for terrorist activities. Interestingly the stats over the past decades do not support this approach at all. Governments who are known to pay ransoms do not find their citizens kidnapped more often than those countries known not to pay. Generally, the only difference in outcome is those countries that do not negotiate tend to get their citizens back, when they do, in body bags rather than to cheers and tears on the airport tarmac. As to the idea that ransoms simply allow terrorist bands to operate far longer than they would have been able to do – this also is questionable as often, post payment, money is recovered by security forces and criminal gangs are arrested or killed during the recovery process. But obviously there are no easy answers in any of this as the author points out throughout the book. This is why companies who operate in kidnap risk countries have ransom insurance and why professional private hostage negotiators exist and (generally) do valuable work in the area. A quick and interesting insight into a seemingly perennial news headline. More from this series to come.    

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Thursday, November 18, 2021


Just WONDERFUL. This is EXACTLY how I imagined the DUNE ornithopters would look & act like!


 


Just Finished Reading: The Secret Twenties – British Intelligence, The Russians and the Jazz Age by Timothy Phillips (FP: 2017) [329pp] 

It was, at least in some ways, a good thing. With the end of the Great War all government departments, no matter how vital to national defence, would be assured of significant budget cuts. Afterall, the country had almost bankrupted itself fighting the Central Powers and could no longer afford much that many had started to take for granted. One department, however, had a new threat to face and needed the budget – still cut but not wholly removed – to fight it. Since the Russian Revolution of 1917 the British (and indeed Europe at large) had fully expected the Bolsheviks to attempt to export their revolutionary ideology further west. Fortunately, it would not be easy for Russian agitators to slip into the country to cause their particular brand of mayhem. Until that is, in his infinite wisdom, Prime Minister Asquith INVITED them in. The PM was certain that ‘normalising’ relations with the dominant Soviet government would cool their fervour and reintegrate them into ‘polite society’ before they could cause too much harm. Over the protests of the Intelligence services trade and cultural exchange was to be discussed and established at meetings in London. Soon a large delegation of Russian diplomatic and auxiliary staff had taken up residence in the heart of the Empire. MI5 (British counter-intelligence) and Special Branch (the political arm of the police force) were convinced that at least some of the staff must be spies. They were right. Over the subsequent decades British Intelligence monitored mail, spied on members of the British Communist Party (including elected officials), government ministers and prominent icons of British intelligentsia as well as celebrity guests of the new Soviet regime. There were successes as well as almost farcical failures in intelligence gathering. Time was wasted in investigations of those who flirted with Communism whilst dedicated spies, both Russian and British, passed on vital secrets to Moscow. British intelligence had a lot to learn but learn they did and these lessons came in very handy indeed following the next great war... 

I have missed the dark and seedy world of the spy for a while now so this was exactly what I needed. Researching recently declassified files from MI5 archives the author not only delved into the ongoing struggle between the still underfunded, fledgling and to be honest rather amateurish counterintelligence efforts of the British as they fought the hardnosed and dedicated Russian operatives on their native soil. Almost as interesting was the many insights into the shift in attitudes in the general population (as exhibited in intercepted correspondence) towards authority, sex, politics and the larger establishment. Although seen as a period of at least relative peace between two titanic conflicts the 1920’s and 1930’s where far from as peaceful as most people would have thought. Not only were huge technological and economic shifts happening in the background but newly minted nations across the world were fighting for their futures and often came into the world bathed in blood. It was a time of great change and great struggle. Not all of those struggles took place in the full light of day. Indeed, the day-to-day struggles in the shadows were often just as important, if not more so, than those screamed from newspaper headlines. An interesting and highly informative look at part of that struggle. Recommended.    

Monday, November 15, 2021


 


 Samurai in training....... 


Just Finished Reading: The Warehouse by Rob Hart (FP: 2019) [465pp] 

Paxton was, despite everything that had happened to him, one of the lucky ones – and he knew it. With the world falling apart and with unemployment the fast road to starvation and death he had been accepted as a provisional employee at Cloud, not only a major retailer (and SO much else) but THE dominant retailer on the planet. If he worked hard and kept his nose clean he could, at least, have three ‘hots’ and a cot which is more than a lot of people could say right now. Sitting next to him on the bus to his new home at a Cloud City was Zinnia who had also passed the interview. Her aspirations were somewhat different from Paxton’s. Her assignment was to infiltrate Cloud and discover what was REALLY going on behind their walls. Luckily for her Paxton had been given a role in security and, from the way he looked at her, was open to some horizontal social engineering. She’d need his access to get deep enough into Cloud to discover its secrets for whoever her employer was. It wasn’t that different from a hundred other jobs she’d had around the world. This, she thought was going to be a walk in the park compared to some of her jobs – no scars or broken bones this time at least! Or so she thought... 

This was, in many superficial ways, similar to my last read – The Store. A mega-corporation has taken control of the majority of the world’s trade and someone wants to know what their dark secret really is. After that the similarity ends. This is a vastly better written and equally better plotted narrative than ‘The Store’. Both the main protagonists Paxton and Zinnia are more rounded and believable that the cardboard cut-outs in the previous novel. I didn’t like Paxton very much at first but, as the story progressed and he got his mojo back I started to warm to him a bit more. Zinnia, however, was a completely different story – I liked her immediately and this grew as the book progressed. I’d have liked to know more about her backstory and the world she came from but that wasn’t really the focus of the novel. Like ‘The Store’ this was essentially a criticism of the Amazon-style workplace and the process that leads to one corporation completely dominating a sector to the exclusion of all else. But the critique is actually, contra to ‘The Store’, contained within a good story rather than simply hitting you over the head with it. Zinnia’s experiences as a ‘picker’ make the point very well indeed. But... despite there being much to like about this book – and not only standing next to the risible Patterson example reviewed last week – it does have a number of notable weaknesses.  As with the apparently omnipotent ‘Store’, Cloud despite its driven workforce and meticulous attention to every detail is rather grubby around the edges and seemingly falling apart with elements out of order or just shoddily made. There’s mention of an impenetrable ‘firewall’ separating Cloud from outside interference/hacking followed by a simple hacking event. Then, most annoyingly, is an obvious plot device (almost as if the author had painted himself into a corner so had to use ‘magic’ to progress the plot) of a failed security device that IT knew about (!) but didn’t tell anyone for fear of blowback. As soon as I found that out I'd have fired the WHOLE department!! As to the ‘hidden’ secret(s) I thought the first one was better than the end big reveal – even if the first both made me laugh and turn my stomach at the same time. The second secret was honestly LAME. The other thing that both bothered me and made my eyes roll was the introduction of a ‘resistance cell’ that gave the whole idea of resistance a bad name. My god, I could create a better resistance movement than that and I wouldn’t be bitching about the lack of access to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ as part of it. That group was quite honestly pathetic! [Deep breath]. But, despite those criticisms, this was a reasonably good read which could probably be catergorised as light-SF anti-corporate dystopia. Not exactly knocking it out of the park but should give you an entertaining few days and something to think about – especially as you use the McDonalds Drive Through...         

Thursday, November 11, 2021


 


Just Finished Reading: The Store by James Patterson & Richard DiLallo (FP: 2017) [322pp] 

With their latest writing project ‘The Roots of Rap’ rejected as being of limited consumer interest, Jacob and Megan Brandeis need a new idea to get them back in the game. With ‘The Store’ as a dominating influence on retail and watching its drone delivery flights buzz around their New York apartment doing an undercover exposé seemed like the obvious answer. With the online application accepted and a house assigned to them at a facility in Nebraska they were on their way to really dig the dirt on ‘The Store’. Their new home seemed, at least at first, just too good to be true – until they found the cameras and microphones logging their every move and every conversation. It soon became obvious that ‘The Store’ wanted to know EVERYTHING about their new employees and their teenage children. It filled their kitchen with their favourite foods, their wardrobe with new clothes in their exact sizes and responded immediately to any casual request. But what were they hiding? Why did neighbours appear and disappear overnight. Why did everyone in the town already know their names? Time to start digging before ‘The Store’ found out what they were REALLY doing. 

This was, by far, the worst book I’ve read this year or possibly in the last few years. The ‘plot’ such as it was felt like it had been stolen from a sulky teenager's laptop after s/he had already rejected it as being too poor to continue working on (never mind actually publishing). Being generous it was a thinly veiled attempt at an attack on (obviously) Amazon. However, with this travesty of a novel, I am not feeling generous at all. Frankly the veil did not exist and as the ‘plot’ thrashed about looking for a coherent narrative I found myself mesmerised by the experience of watching a fictional train wreck in slow motion. The characters research, once they got ‘inside’ the apparently secretive organisation, consisted of talking to neighbours, co-workers and lower management, doing a few Google searches and hacking into Congressional e-mail traffic. This skill (from Megan) was apparently acquired during a course on the subject that her husband had either forgotten about or which Megan never mentioned previously. Once the devilish plot had been uncovered (to amend the Constitution in favour of ‘The Store’) it was never referenced nor mentioned again. I could go on but I won’t. Overall, the characterisation was universally terrible without a single believable character – most especially the teenage pair who behaved like no teenagers I’d ever known. ‘The Store’ was portrayed as both omniscient and blind, omnipotent and hopelessly incompetent. The ending, which didn’t come soon enough, was embarrassingly bad – not quite in the ‘it was all a bad dream’ way but close enough. The pairs exposé is published to the horror of ‘The Store’ and the now enlightened public and all is put back as it should be with no drones flying and independent bookshops and libraries flourishing overnight. All is right with the world again – hurrah! What TOSH. What a sad, sad excuse for a book. This was in effect a childish rant against an organisation that must have offended the author at some point. If this is the best he can do in response I’m guessing that Amazon had a really good laugh at the author’s expense and sold a few more of his books whilst doing so. SO not recommended. AVOID.   

Monday, November 08, 2021


 


 


Just Finished Reading: Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age by Peter Green (FP: 2007) [184pp] 

It was, he knew, his destiny. His military campaigns would not only overshadow those of his father but would inscribe his name deep into history like no one before him or since. What Alexander cared less about was how, or indeed if, his empire continued without him. Creation was his task, to conquer lands that his ancestors or contemporaries had barely been aware of. This he did but did not live to see the greatest empire the world has ever seen fall into infighting almost before his body was cold. Indeed, one of his own generals stole his body enroute to Macedonia and had it interred with great ceremony in Alexandria on the Nile. In the decades that followed fighting broke out between the Alexander’s rival captains for control of parts of the empire he left behind. None was individually capable of holding anything but pieces and soon the parts became mini-empires in their own regard. The most stable of them over the coming centuries was the Ptolemy Dynesty in Egypt. Incredibly rich and, by extension, incredibly powerful Ptolemy and his decedents became one of the power centres of the whole Mediterranean world. The other players were Alexander’s home country of Macedonia (and greater Greece), Carthage and the upstart Roman Republic. Each vied for power and control and, at least at first, the Romans were largely ignored which allowed them to consolidate their position on the Italian peninsula and to eject all other threats to their domination there. With the Hellenes still very much in control of the eastern Mediterranean it was only a matter of time before they came into conflict with Roman ambition. Splintered into rival factions and susceptible of being played off against each other – with Roman assistance – the Romans managed to win several encounters and forge strong alliances with Greek communities.  

But it was with the Punic Wars that Rome became a powerhouse in the region. Once Carthage had been defeated it was time to turn east again and to subsume Greece into the Roman sphere of influence after it was discovered that the Greeks had sought to exploit Rome’s troubles in North Africa and Spain. Once Greece was largely absorbed (or at least no longer a credible threat) Rome set about a period of consolidation leaving the last remaining Hellene area – Egypt – to its own devices. The Egyptians, know which way the sand was blowing at this point, offered friendly relations and support. Naturally having a very powerful ‘associative power’ so close was both a danger and an opportunity. Unfortunately, it was an opportunity for those looking to take power in the Republic and it wasn’t long before such a person – Marc Antony – made his move against the Republic using Egypt and the Ptolemy Dynesty as his powerbase. In a war between Egypt and Rome only one could emerge victorious. We all know who that was and the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31BC ended the Hellenistic Age and ushered into existence the Roman Empire. 

Despite its short length this interesting book crammed a LOT of detail into the centuries long Hellenistic Age begun by Alexander and ended by Rome. Naturally the author could only really cover the grand sweep of ancient history with short bursts of more detailed explanation. If you are unfamiliar with the period or are looking for an overview and ideas for further reading this is definitely the book for you. I shall be looking to cover much more of this period in future reading. Recommended.  

Sunday, November 07, 2021

"The battle for the survival of man as a responsible being in the Communications Era is not won where the communication originates, but where it arrives."

Uberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality.


 


 

Saturday, November 06, 2021

 Ancient World Fiction (1) 

I seem to be getting the Ancient World bug presently. It does happen sometimes – I get an urge, bubbling under from somewhere, to read a particular type of fiction which (eventually at least) needs to be satisfied. As there’s comparatively little of this type of thing in my ‘read next’ pile I thought I’d hopefully tamp down the urging by listing some of the Ancient World fiction I’ve read so far.

Steven Pressfield

Gates of Fire
Tides of War
Last of the Amazons
The Afghan Campaign

Robert Harris

Imperium

Jo Graham

Black Ships

John Stack

Ship of Rome
Captain of Rome
Master of Rome

Ben Kane

The Forgotten Legion
The Silver Eagle
The Road to Rome

Valerio Massimo Manfredi

Alexander – Child of a Dream
Odysseus – The Oath

Harry Sidebottom

The Last Hour

Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles

So, not exactly a great number of books in total nor a particularly impressive number of authors. Likewise, the focus is predominantly on the Greco-Roman world with a slight look eastwards along with a hint of Egyptian in the air. What I’m going to try next year is to add a few new authors, a handful of new books and an expansion at least to the *edges* of the Roman Empire and, with luck, beyond into Terra Incognita. We shall see!