Saturday, July 26, 2014

Accidental Paperbacks

You can buy The Accidental Species as a hardback. You can download it to your Kindle. You can even listen to it.

So what's missing?

Ah yes - a paperback. Well, I have just heard from my friends at the University of Chicago Press that a paperback is planned for the Spring of 2015. Finished books are expected in April, they say. Whoop! Whoop!

Friday, July 25, 2014

And The Children Shall Lead

Writing in today's Torygraph, David Blair (no relation to Tony, one hopes) bemoans the cycle of violence in the Middle East. Hamas is very good at firing lots of rockets. Israel is very good at shooting them down. The story has to move on. But how? Mr Blair gives us no answer.

What is not clear from Mr Blair's article, though, is that neither side is a monolithic entity. Israel is a vibrant democracy with all shades of opinion, from wipe-out-the-Arabs right-wingers to end-the-Gaza-bombardment hard-lefties. It's hard to get a sense of this from the international press, so I advise anyone with a serious interest to sign on to the English online edition of the Israeli newspaper Ha'Aretz. This paper has a soft-left angle, I guess - imagine, if that's possible, an alternate universe in which The Guardian is balanced about Israel - but reports from all sides.

One effect of the conflict has been a coalescence of Netanyahu (on the right) and the likes of Tzipi Livni (on the left) to say that whatever will happen in the future, it cannot happen while Hamas is firing rockets at Israel and has the stated aim of destroying the country. Nothing much will happen before that changes. The leader of Hamas demands an end to the blockade, more access, an international airport, a seaport and, for all I know, a pony - but none of that will happen before Hamas stops firing rockets, digging tunnels and dedicating itself to martyring itself and taking as many Israelis down at the same time.

It's harder to know about shades of opinion on the Palestinian side, but we know that Mahmoud Abbas is much more sensible to deal with than groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Given that half the population of Gaza is 14 or under, and that Israelis are fanatical about their kids, one might do worse than promote charities such as Children of Peace, a non-partisan group which aims to bring the youth of both sides together.

I am proud to say that Crox Minor (16) is a Youth Ambassador for Children of Peace. She is in Israel right now with her Liberal Jewish youth group which, among other things has been forging links with Israeli Arab youth.

Perhaps we should give them our blessing and let THEM sort it out where the adults seem plainly to have failed.

And it would be nice if news organisations did more to promote the good things that are happening, however small, underneath all the bad.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

You Gotta Laugh

The current dust-up between Israel and Gaza has spilled as much ink as blood, and although my brain whirrs with things I might like to write, and my heart is torn in all directions by the unfolding carnage, and you will of course subscribe to the news channels which best serve your prejudices (I find the live updates from Ha'Aretz as balanced as they are excruciatingly detailed), it all, really, boils down to this.

That the clip comes from an Israeli satirical comedy show (Eretz Nehederet), and was made quite a long time ago, might be ironic. Or not. I am not sure. Either way, I hope that all the various parties negotiating an end to the conflict get to view it. Perhaps it might allow some perspective.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Jack Glass

I'd been hearing good things about Adam Roberts' novel Jack Glass for some time, so while I was browsing in a well-known bookstore beginning with 'W' recently, I bought it.

Now, I don't often buy new books, given my habit of haunting secondhand bookstores, and the fact that I work for a publishing company in which it's hard to leave the building without accreting old review copies. So the fact that I bought a brand new copy - and from a bookstore, noch, not from an online retailer - is probably an accolade all by itself.

Thinking about it, though, I remember reading a rave review by my friend B. C. of Swindon, and possibly a similarly rave review in Interzone (indeed, it was reviewed in issue 243 back at the beginning of last year), so there's been quite a buzz about it. These, and the fact that it picked up an award for Best Novel from the British Science Fiction Association, probably prompted me to buy the book rather than replace it on the shelf.

But enough of such japery.

Jack Glass is a deliberately old-fashioned kind of science fiction thriller, which also nods, quite consciously, to a very old-fashioned kind of whodunit. The book contains three locked-room mysteries - no, don't go away, I know that locked-room mysteries have been the hackneyed fodder for mysteries ever since Poe created sleuth August Dupin in the retrospectively dreadful Murders in the Rue Morgue, but Roberts manages the rare feat of telling us that the eponymous criminal mastermind Jack Glass was the murderer in each case, and yet we are still thrilled by Roberts' ingenuity.

One of the reason that the novel works so well is that Jack Glass makes for an appealing antihero - wanted and yet admired, a celebrity who is all but invisible. Everyone likes a lovable villain, whether he's Slippery Jim DiGriz from Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat novels or - perhaps more pertinent here (because old-fashioned) Gulliver Foyle in Alfred Bester's still-amazing 1956 novel The Stars My Destination. Not that Jack Glass is lovable, really - more that he is driven by a higher calling than simple self-enrichment.

Glass is a true revolutionary, working in a Solar System a few centuries hence whose business is controlled by a few super-rich, omni-powerful Clans whose machinations all but ignore the welfare of the trillions of paupers living in the billions of tiny, fragile, space habitats of the interplanetary slum that's The Sump. Roberts has succeeded in creating something genuinely futuristic - that is, more than merely extrapolative - with characters who, while impossibly exotic in many ways, are rounded and believable. The language, too, is gorgeous, a strange but atttractive argot which stands to 20th-century English as our daily converse stands to the English of Shakespeare. (Yes, there is a glossary.)

Futuristic, and anachronistic. The final pages reminded me not so much of Bester or Harrison than Sayers, so much did they resemble the by-play between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey.

My favourite read of 2013 was Dark Eden by Chris Beckett - which by complete coincidence is a very old-fashioned kind of SF, in this case, set on a remote planet whose marooned colonists have reverted to the stone age. But there is nothing wrong with old-fashioned, if the story is - as it is, in both books - well told, imaginatively realised, and with characters believable enough that they can take us on their extraordinary journeys. Fashions in storytelling come and go, but it's the good old-fashioned virtues of a good story, well told, that will always win out in the end.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Time To Die: A Question for Tolkienists

Mes yeux were caught this week by news from a debate in the UK Houses of Parliament (specifically the House of Lords) about proposed legislation to allow the assisted suicide of terminally ill patients in certain circumstances. Now, I do not propose to discuss the issue itself, except to say that in some religions, suicide is a sin, because it is a wilful negation of the Divine right to give and remove life.

My purpose here is to ask a question of any Tolkienists who might be reading this. The author J. R. R. Tolkien (for it was he) was a devout Catholic and so (presumably) would have regarded suicide as a sin.

And yet, in his legendarium, the Kings of Men (the Numenoreans) were not only granted lives of a length thrice that of ordinary mortals, but also the choice of when to renounce life and die with dignity. It is made clear that as the Numenoreans slowly became enamoured of the dark arts, they clung on to life all the more desperately as their lives shortened.

At the very end of The Lord of the Rings - even in the Appendices - we read in the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen how Aragorn, now the King and one of Tolkien's great heroes, finally lays down his life. Before he does so, he advises a grieving Arwen:

Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless. Nay, lady .. to me has been given … the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift.

In Tolkien's world, the freedom to die at one's own wish, with dignity, goes with nobility, courage and valour, and is awarded specifically to those who actively turn away from the darkness.

Now, it's well known that Middle-earth is surprisingly free from religion. Unlike his friend C. S. Lewis did with Narnia, Tolkien quite purposedly stood well away from constructing his legendarium as an allegory. There are occasional glimpses of Christianity in The Lord Of The Rings, but you have to dig for them. However, lack of religion is one thing - turning it on its head quite another.

So how did Tolkien reconcile the renunciation of the gift of life with his own Catholicism?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Guardian's Freudian Slip Is Showing

On the left is a tweet sent by The Guardian, whose account is seen by 2.4 million followers, according to the Jewish Chronicle. The problem is that it's materially wrong.

It implies that the brief ceasefire in Gaza collapsed because Israel resumed its attacks, when what actually happened was that Israel unilaterally adopted a ceasefire that its opponents ignored, so felt compelled to resume its actions to target the launching sites of missiles directed at its territory.

Following immediate complaints, the tweet was taken down and replaced with something closer to the facts, but by then the damage had been done.

My question is why this tweet was released.

It could be that the journalist concerned was actively biased against Israel and was intent on making mischief. Whereas one might have cause to find fault with Israeli policy, telling deliberate lies is more than mischievous - it is malicious, and not really befitting of a serious newspaper. Nor, indeed, any newspaper.

More worrying is that the tweeter had no such intention and had meant to be unbiased, but the form of words was such to create an anti-Israel impression. After all, Twitter, as I know from personal experience, is a difficult medium in which to convey complex issues, something akin to Monty Python's summarise-Proust-in-fifteen-seconds competition. What came out was an unintended and easily misconstrued distillation of the tweeter's view, something which might be filed as 'unconscious' bias.

But we may never know. I have not been able to find any comment on this twitter mishap from the Guardian itself. Please tell me if you can find it. I suspect you'd need patience and a microscope.

The problem is that the Grauniad has form in this area, and carries a persistent whiff of anti-Israel bias (and possibly anti-Semitism) in its coverage, something which I have myself experienced in interactions with the newspaper.

This happened when the Grauniad publicised a proposed scientific boycott of Israel. I wrote, privately, to a prominent member of the boycotters - Professor Patrick Bateson, FRS, and Chair of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, the department in which I did my PhD. Even though the email exchange was private, Professor Bateson saw fit to discuss it with a Guardian journalist called Andy Beckett who printed some of it in such a way to draw attention to my own Jewishness. You can read the whole tedious exegesis here.

Naturally I complained. The Editor didn't reply to my letter. I got a weaselly note of self-justification from Andy Beckett. Luckily I had friends at the Grauniad, and one was Tim Radford, their longtime science correspondent, who took up the cudgels on my behalf. He took my complaint to the Grauniad's Reader Ombudsman who found in my favour, and printed an apology in tiny print in a subsequent issue, to the extent of an admission that it shouldn't have printed my private correspondence without my knowledge or consent. But by then, as with the tweet, the damage had been done.

For detailed blow-by-blow updates on the current situation, you could do a lot worse than follow the online feed, in English, from the Israeli newspaper Ha'Aretz, a left-of-centre publication whose coverage seems uncoloured and balanced.

The BBC is doing its best, but tends to act as the broadcast arm of the Guardian, and until it releases the Balen Report cannot really be trusted, in my view. The report, commissioned following complaints of a persistent anti-Israel agenda at the BBC, has been seen by very few, yet rumours circulate that it confirmed anti-Israel bias at the BBC. My feeling is that if the BBC feels that it has nothing to hide, and that such rumours are wrong, it should publish the report and have done. Needless to say the story on the Guardian's mischievous tweet hasn't been aired on the BBC, as far as I am aware.

Disclaimer No. 1. I actually quite like The Guardian. Some of my best friends are Guardian readers. I read it myself. I have even written for it. But I don't inhale.

Disclaimer No. 2. Crox Minor is currently on an organised tour in Israel. The rest of us Croxii are worried shitless. Misleading reporting by newspapers such as The Guardian is unhelpful at best, cruel at worst.

Remembering Jon

Today (16 July) marks two years since the passing of Jon Lord (1941-2012), founding member of the influential beat combo Deep Purple, a considerable composer in his own right, and perhaps my most important inspiration as a musician.

I can still remember the time I first became aware of his playing. It was the haunting Hammond organ that introduces the ballad Child In Time on the album Deep Purple In Rock (1970). It was the common room in School House in Sevenoaks School in Kent. It was 1975, or maybe 1976. "You've got to hear this!" said my friend Zak Choudhury, putting the disc on the turntable.

We were fourteen.

I have never gotten over it, and I never will. To commemorate Jon Lord my playlist today will be wall-to-wall Jon Lord and Deep Purple. If I had a Purple armband I'd wear it. But perhaps my memorial is best as it is: ongoing, musical and constant. I play Purple in my rock covers band Stealer, in which, in memory of the late Mr Lord, the sound of a heavily overdriven Hammond organ is front and centre.