Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists - Gideon Defoe

This is the third Pirates! book by Defoe (his real name, apparently), and takes much the same track as their previous adventures with Scientists and Whaling. The Pirate Captain is in need of a new coat, so along with his piratey crew (the pirate with a scarf, the pirate in red, the pirate with a hook for a hand etc) he heads to his favourite tailors in London. Following a case of mistaken identity, he gets mixed up with Marx and Engels, and has to flee to Paris to thwart an evil plot to discredit communism...

"Hello, Comrades," said Engels.
"Hello, Engels," said the communists.
"Any capitalist spies in tonight?"
A few men with stuck-on beards waved.
"Would you mind leaving?" asked Engels politely. "We've nothing to hide, it's just that there aren't enough chairs and some real communists are having to stand at the back. Thanks."
The spies left cheerfully, and Engels pressed on.

Yeah, it's extremely silly, but that's rather the point. The humour is a bit hit-and-miss but it's so much fun to read that the misses don't really matter, and besides, it's hard to go wrong with pirates. The chapters all have wonderfully piratical titles that bear no relation to the story ("Nightmare on Shark Mountain!" "Eel Stampede!"), and the Pirate Captain's attempts at social philosophy are a joy to behold; Defoe even manages to slip in a sneaky pop at the Daily Mail. It's probably not quite as good as the first book in the series, but, if you like pirates (and who doesn't?) it's still very much worth a read.


Monday, January 29, 2007

Tourist Season - Carl Hiaasen

"Hiaasen is one of America's finest satirists. Brookmyre is Britain's."

With this quote appearing on the front of most Brookmyre novels, it was only a matter of time before I gave this Hiaasen fellow a shot. Making the reasonable assumption that I was going to like him, I spent my Christmas pennies on a three-book omnibus, containing Tourist Season and two others that I haven't read yet. It was a promising premise - grisly murders in sunny South Florida, failed journalist taking on a band of inept but bloodthirsty terrorists, pointed satire about politics, big business and the media... that's a lot to live up to, and in the event, I was pretty disappointed.

It's hard to say exactly why this book didn't work for me; in fact, it's hard to find anything to say about the book at all. The main character was so bland that, a day after finishing it, I can't even remember his name; the story had some interesting and unexpected deaths but was otherwise really ordinary. Some of the more unpleasant characters were more entertaining, particularly the rival journalists Ricky Bloodworth and Skip Wiley, but even they were drawn with an overly detached and cynical eye; they were definitely just ciphers and caricatures rather than real people. I didn't really care what happened to any of them.

Some of the writing was funny, but it wasn't that funny, sufficient to generate some smiles but few actual laughs - which is pretty much what you'd expect from any book that wasn't entirely miserable. I can sort of see where the Brookmyre comparisons have come from, as it's a slightly political crime thriller with some eccentric characters, but frankly Brookmyre wipes the floor with him. I'd be more inclined to compare this to an average Agatha Christie with more bile but less heart - not irredeemably awful, but nothing special either.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

An Infidel Manifesto: Why sincere believers lose faith - Gary Lenaire

A long time ago, Ben was a fairly devout Baptist. While he has long since recovered from this, it does mean that our record collection contains many albums by Christian Rock bands. Such a one (posh prose) is Tourniquet, whose speed-metal repertoire eschews the usual cheesy paeons to Jee-zus in favour of some particularly dire warnings about what awaits the unbelievers when the Rapture comes:

"All of sudden
God's grace will be torn
Billions of hell bound
Will wish they never were born
Let us pray
None of your excuses
Or shattering yells
Will turn the head of God
Who once called for your help"

- You Get What You Pray For

Lenaire, Tourniquet's former axe-wielder, has evidently had a change of heart regarding the whole God business, and has penned this book to explain how he came to reject his faith. It's self-published, which doesn't augur well for the quality, but it's still a fairly interesting read.

It's immediately clear that this book was not intended for the likes of me. Lenaire's target audience is his erstwhile co-religionists, the Christian fundamentalists of Middle America, which makes for a bizarre reading experience - for example, the argument against the literal truth of Noah's Ark takes up about three pages, and is prefaced by a warning that it "may shock some people"... For someone whose own Christian indoctrination consisted of little more than some half-arsed Sunday School lessons, it gives the uncanny feeling of being in a parallel universe where the normal laws of science and logic do not apply.

Lenaire's case is particularly interesting, as it looks like it was the Bible itself that caused him to lose his faith. With his background as a lay preacher, his Bible knowledge is extensive, and most of his arguments centre on its inherent contradictions and atrocities - he mocks his own previous literal belief with disarming self-deprecation. However, his research outside the Bible has been rather sparse in comparison, and the book is littered with embarrassing factual errors. He frequently refers to the "flat earth" belief as an example of the Church hampering science; he thinks the genocide in Rwanda was a religious conflict; he has the American War of Independence down as a noble stand against religious oppression, and he states that the Holocaust was carried out by "Nazi communists"(?). Where the facts are more complicated, he often ducks the argument with an emotive outburst - for example, regarding the source of morality, he makes no mention of the anthropological evidence, and instead just tells all Christians to stop being hypocrites.

While Lenaire is clearly intelligent and articulate, and can string a coherent sentence together, the overall style is bloody awful. His arguments are clumsy and confused; he way overdoes the emotive language, and his pages are peppered with bold text and italics and CAPITALS. These are all the unfortunate hallmarks of a self-published book (the poor guy is a PublishAmerica victim) which could have been fixed by a bit (or quite a lot) of editing; at the moment it still looks distinctly amateur. This is a shame, as he has some good points to make, but it can be hard to tease them out from the morass of Biblical cross-referencing and opaque argument structure.

The main problems come back again and again to the facts of Lenaire's background and his audience, which is all the more ironic as I can't imagine many fundamentalists ever daring to read this. It may be quite funny to read about how Christian philosophy irretrievably contradicts itself, but for non-Christians the point is fairly irrelevant. Lenaire's fundamentalist background also rears its ugly head on occasion, showing that while he's shaken off most of the brainwashing, he's still a right-wing Middle American at heart. He goes to great lengths to assure us he's not a Liberal (yeah, I know that's a much dirtier word over there than it is here, but even so) or, God forbid, a Feminist, and the best he can say about homosexuality is "well, it's OK as long as I don't have to hear about it, and keep it away from my children". Still, this is an honest and heartfelt account of what was obviously a difficult de-conversion, and if that's something you can relate to, you'll probably get more out of this than I could.


Monday, January 22, 2007

The Book of General Ignorance - Stephen Fry et al

We don't watch a lot of telly at home, partly because our TV reception is obstructed by Brighton's weird hillyness, but mainly because most of it is utter shite. However, I've caught a couple of episodes of QI at friends' houses and it actually looked pretty good - lots of fascinating trivia and the debunking of various urban myths and well-known "facts". This, of course, is the book of the show, and having seen but a few episodes, all the info is new to me. It is indeed Quite Interesting, and includes such nuggets as:

  • Pistachio nuts can spontaneously combust, and frequently do

  • The Arctic was named after the bears that live there ("arcturus" means "bear" in ancient Greek)

  • A blue whale weighs as much as 2700 people, while a goldcrest weighs about the same as a 5p piece

  • The last country to be invaded by Scotland was Panama

Some of the facts are a little dubious - the number of planets in the solar system is now inaccurate, with the downgrading of Pluto, and the reduced number of Henry VIII's wives is based on some rather suspect legalism - and some of them are not that obscure, but the most annoying ones are where a myth is debunked that you'd never heard of in the first place. So polar bears aren't left-handed, eh? However, there's nothing in here that isn't interesting, which, of course, is the point. The compilers of these facts haven't had to rely on lame jokes to spice up the trivia, as it all stands up perfectly well on its own. I suppose the book may not work quite as well if you've already seen all these answers on the TV programme, but it's certainly recommended for those who haven't.


Friday, January 19, 2007

Altered Carbon - Richard Morgan

You can tell from the cover that this is one for the boys. It's a sort of shimmery, science-fictiony version of those airport thrillers by Tom Clancy and his ilk, probably about grizzled veterans chasing down terrorists and that sort of thing - a fairly accurate indication of the contents, as it turns out, though it's leagues above those mainstream potboilers. This is a gritty cyberpunk thriller, featuring one of the best anti-heroes I've encountered in a while, and I thought it was great.

The "altered carbon" of the title is the technology on which the story hinges - the ability to store human consciousness on a carbon stack embedded in the base of the skull. The technology has become so ubiquitous that the whole nature of human mortality has changed - what was once murder is now only "organic damage", and immortality is now a practical possibility as long as you can afford a new body when your old one runs out. This sound like classic hard SF, where technobollocks often takes precedence over character or plot, but luckily Morgan has handled it very well - he never gets too technical, and all the machinery is just a frame for the plot, not a substitute for it.

Takeshi Kovacs is our hard-bitten protagonist; in the grand tradition, he is an elite combat veteran turned criminal, bought out of his online incarceration by a powerful Earth magnate to investigate a murder. To complete the picture, he's also been downloaded into the body of a world-weary, chain-smoking ex-cop, though this makes for some entertaining moments where the non-smoking Kovacs tries to stave off his new body's nicotine addiction. In the course of his investigations, he tangles with the cops, the criminal underclass, the gang-lords and even his employer's wife, who has an agenda of her own; his position as an offworlder unfamiliar with Earth customs means we can get the extensive infodumps with only minimal clumsiness, as he finds out what's going on at roughly the same time as the reader.

The plot has terrific pace and energy; it generally only slows down for the glimpses of Kovacs's past, his military training and some of the horrors of his brigade's actions. This is probably just as well - I suspect that there are more than a few holes in Morgan's technology and the grand solution to the murder mystery, but we are never given time to stop and consider them, just whisked along with the ride. The mystery itself, altered carbon aside, is fairly formulaic, but the investigation is so much brutal fun that it's hard to care. I'm not sure how well Morgan's other Kovacs novels will compare to this one, as there is (obviously) less of Kovacs's history and character left to reveal, but I'll certainly be reading them to find out.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Devil's Advocate - John Humphrys

I'm not sure how well-known he is abroad, but most Britons will know John Humphrys as the hard-nosed, politician-grilling presenter of the Today programme, one of the last bastions of serious political debate. I have to admit I've never actually listened to it - I hardly ever use the radio - but I'm glad it exists, and when I spotted this book while spending my Christmas money I thought it would be interesting to see Humphrys's take on today's society. Interesting it certainly is, but today's society it isn't - quite.

Devil's Advocate turns out to have been written in 1999, which sounds quite recent but was actually (whisper it) eight years ago. It's also a year I know very little about, as I was out of the country for the duration, so many of the "current" cultural phenomena he mentions go zooming over my head. It was a time when the word "texting" was only just being invented, the internet had less than 5 million websites, and reality TV was in its infancy. All of this serves to make Humphrys's complaints look just a little weird - while his general themes cover a broad cultural swathe, and the core arguments haven't dated that much, it's very odd to see a diatribe against cheap telly that makes no mention of Big Brother, and an entire book about modern society that completely ignores the internet.

I don't want to give the impression that this book is just the incoherent grumblings of an old man harking back to yesteryear - far from it. The prose is as intelligent, concise and articulate as you'd expect from such a veteran journalist, and Humphrys has no qualms about pointing the finger at those he considers responsible for society's ills - not teenage vandals or even politicians, but mostly the media and market forces that have turned us from citizens into consumers. He makes the valid point that, while it would be stupid to wish for a return to the Fifties, that doesn't mean that the current social model is the best alternative. I don't necessarily agree with all of his analysis - for example, he makes the bizarre claim that, despite all of the evidence, TV violence does cause violence in real-life, simply because that's "common sense" - but it is all very well argued and he certainly raises many issues to think about.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Anubis Gates - Tim Powers

In the same way that he seamlessly blended pirates, voodoo and ancient magic in On Stranger Tides, Powers does just as well with this fabulous mix of Egyptian myth, gypsies, scary clowns, time travel, shape-shifting and Regency poets. In early nineteenth-century England, two ancient Egyptian magicians attempt a spell to restore the power of their gods, dormant for thousands of years. This misfires, and punctures scattered holes in the fabric of time. One of these is discovered by an eccentric millionaire in the late twentieth century, who plans a money-making time-tourism trip to watch a lecture by Coleridge; he employs Coleridge expert Brendan Doyle as a guide. However, the magicians are still at large, now leading a band of gypsies and beggars, and are very interested in the results of their spell; when Doyle misses his return trip to the present, he is suddenly the focus of some very unwelcome attention. And there's also the problem of the missing poet William Ashbless, and the elusive serial killer Dog-face Joe...

This book was written in the early Eighties and pre-dates most of the time-travel tropes that have since become a staple of film and cult TV. You'd think that the theme would look pretty tired by now, especially in a book that was written before we all got wise to the usual time-travelling continuity tricks, but Powers - very impressively - still manages to stick a couple of surprises in, even when we think we know what's coming. The addition of the Egyptian myths and the understated horrors of the beggars' guild was also quite inspired, and takes this far outside the realm of more mundane time-travel tales; it's barely science fiction at all. The dark and filthy streets of Regency London are conjured up extremely effectively, and all the historical details are very well researched - it's clear that Powers knew his stuff.

While the main plot with Doyle was highly enjoyable, a few of the side-plots were less so; particularly, the Egyptian magicians' schemes to do away with the King all seemed a little stupid and I found it hard to care. The section in Cairo, detailing Muhammad Ali's seizure of power from the Mamelukes, also seemed rather unnecessary and little more than the author showing off how much research he'd done; fair enough if you're writing Flashman but it didn't fit too well here. Still, this was a fantastic read, and it's also interesting to see where Terry Pratchett got a lot of his ideas from, as Powers's London clearly led to the bastard offspring that is Ankh-Morpork. No disputing Anubis Gates's position as a Fantasy Masterwork.


Friday, January 12, 2007

Villains Victorious - Martin H Greenberg & John Helfer (eds)

I've always had a soft spot for stories where the bad guys win. There are generally only two ways you can go with that: dark or funny, both my favourite flavours of fantasy. This is (no!) an entire collection of tales about victorious villains, all seemingly written especially for this anthology, and I was expecting to find at least one great story here, despite the lack of big-name authors involved. Unfortunately, it was all a bit disappointing.

While there are no real turkeys, there's nothing that particularly stands out, either. The first and last stories in the collection are definitely the best - it starts off with Tanya Huff's All Things Being Relative, where an evil queen is dictating her life story to a scribe. It's pretty funny and has some beautifully understated writing that only hints at the details ("I dealt with the council in the usual manner, then had the carpets cleaned"), but a few of the jokes seem forced and the ending is rushed and very trite. Slightly better is the closing story by Peter Crowther, about a world infested with superheroes and supervillians; it avoids the clumsy jollity of many of the other stories, but has a Message rather than a plot so isn't as satisfying as it should be.

Also of note is The Mould of Form by Rosemary Edgehill - written in authentic-sounding 17th-century English, it tells of the origins of a famous literary villain. However, it all seems rather contrived, and as the whole point is to reveal which villain he is, and it's not a villain I particularly care about, the effect was wasted. The wooden spoon goes to Tim Waggoner, whose Horror Show is an unconvincing tale of a Tim Burton-esque movie monster coming to life. All the rest are fairly mediocre - a Sherlock Holmes story marred by the author's insistence on showing off his Celtic knowledge; a well-written but dull tale of domestic drama in Depression-era America; a nasty but overly preachy story about the murder of abortion doctors in a near-future dystopia. None of the dark stories are dark enough, and the funny ones are all somewhat trite and forced. For a good dose of triumphant villainy, I recommend you avoid this and look elsewhere.


Trouble at D'Hara High

The student committee was in uproar. Some girls were openly weeping, even the tough ones like Cara and Denna, who until last year had been the baddest girl-gang in the school. If it hadn't been for that new kid Richard, they'd still be terrorising the place, egged on by the evil teacher Mr Rahl, but Richard had put a stop to that. Both Mr Rahl and his friend Mr Nass had been exposed as kiddy-fiddlers by Richard and his girlfriend Karen, and the dark rumours of what had happened to the disgraced teachers made sure that no-one objected to Richard's takeover of the student council, and all the boys crossed their legs when Karen walked past. Richard later admitted that Mr Rahl was his dad, and started using the surname, but for some reason the students found that strangely comforting, and were known to experience moments of heavenly joy when chanting the name of their old oppressor.

"SILENCE!" bellowed Richard, and a fearful hush descended on the room, where it landed with a jolt and scurried off into corners to suppress the squeaks of errant mice. He looked around at the terrified faces, and allowed himself a not-so-rare moment of self-congratulation. He'd come a long way from the small-town hick who had strolled into D'Hara all those months ago. The old janitor, Mr Zedd, had persuaded him to sign up for classes, and though he still didn't hold with all that book-learnin', he'd certainly made his mark on the place. But now his position was in danger - the Imperial Property Developers (Inc), led by the evil Mr Jagang, were planning on knocking the shopping mall down to build an orphanage! It was up to the school council to stop them!

The room tensed as they prepared for one of Richard's speeches. His T-shirt puffed out, emblazoned with an "R" in a circle, in case anyone forgot who he was. But, before he could begin, Karen called out "Hey! Where's Cilla? Where's my sister?" Karen's sister had been head of the cheerleading squad, but had quit after IPD thugs beat her up after practice one night. Karen had taken over, but had soon handed the job to Richard, who enjoyed waving the odd pom-pom from time to time. His raptor-like miniskirt tended to put off all the competing teams, giving D'Hara High an unbeaten record in cheerleading contests all season.

Just then, Karen's brother, Harry rushed in with a couple of his mates. Karen glared at him and he began to visibly wilt, turning slightly brown at the edges and drooping towards the ground. "I've got a message from Cilla!" he stammered.

Richard and Karen both folded their arms and looked at him. The crowd began to mutter.

"Cilla's too scared to leave the house! After she was beaten up, she refuses to go anywhere near the IPD building again, even just to throw rotten eggs and put up posters! She wants her cheerleading team back too, and says you had no right to give it to Richard - he can't even do the splits!"

Lightning flashed, and chilly air blew into the room to emphasise the atrocity of Harry's statement. Karen drew herself up to her full height, which was not as tall as... (etc).

"She refuses to come on our protest march? What will she do when the mall's been bulldozed, eh? Where will she buy her cheerleading gear then? She's just as bad as Mr Jagang! And so are you! When I see her next, I'll get my biker mates Butch and Big Dave to give her a right good going over, you see if I don't!"

Harry fled through the door, and suddenly there was a THWACK!, like the sound of a broom hitting someone's head, followed by the THUMP! of a body hitting the floor. Mr Zedd's cheery whistle sounded, as he moved off, clearly dragging something.

"Right. Anyone else want to drop out?" asked Richard. "Remember, you all have freedom to choose, because if you're not free, you're as good as dead. Anyone?"

Goodkind meets Martin Luther King

Five score years ago, a great D'Haran, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Enslavamation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Imperial slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Imperial Communist still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Imperial Communist is still sadly crippled by the manacles of Rahlization and the chains of Richardization. One hundred years later, the Imperial Communist lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Imperial Communist is still languishing in the corners of D'Haran society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our monarchy wrote the magnificent words of the D'Haran Constitution and the Declaration of Yeardipendence they were signing a promissory note to which every D'Haran was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, Imperial men as well as D'Haran men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that D'Hara has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of niceness are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, D'Hara has given the Imperial Communist people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind D'Hara of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of badly-geverned monarchy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of de-Jagangism to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of Ayn Rand's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Imperial Communist's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. The year of the Yeard is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Imperial Communist needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in D"Hara until the Imperial Communist is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Imperial Communist community must not lead us to distrust of all D'Haran people, for many of our D'Haran brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Imperial Communist is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We can never be satisfied as long as a Imperial Communist in Communissippi cannot vote and a Imperial Communist in New Richardia believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Communissippi, go back to Hug-a-bama, go back to South Kahlana, go back to Zeddorgia, go back to Verniana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the D'Haran dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Verniania the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Communissippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Hug-a-bama, with its vicious communists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Hug-a-bama, little Imperial boys and Imperial girls will be able to join hands with little D'Haran boys and D'Haran girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Yeard shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the Imperial Heartland with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of Rand's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if D'Hara is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Goatshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New Zedd. Let freedom ring from the heightening Gratchaghenies of StupidMonsteria!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Richardrado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of Kahlanafornia!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Vernania!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Warrenessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Communissippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of Rand's children, Imperial men and D'Haran men, hippies and Richardites, Kahlanistants and Nathanics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Imperial spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank Rand Almighty, we are free at last!"

**Richard pulls out his Sword (or hug, iffen you're a gay liberal), and massacres all protestors**

- VigoTheCarpathian

Goodkind meets bad porn

The Purple Sword of Passion

Kahlan's ample marble cupolas heaved in awaitance as she spied Richard's velociraptor-eyed form coming through the dungeon door. He looked splendid in his black latex Cosplay Wizard outfit. His oiled muscles bulged visibly under it, and so did his D'Haran love sausage of truth.

Kahlan was a long-haired woman, but Richard's hair was longer. She slid her experienced fingers down his magnificent yeard and undid his ponytail. His hair fell loose in a waterfall of manly, uncompromising ebony that cascaded past his knees, past his ankles, and pooled on the floor like a pool of starless night. Kahlan's white Confessor dress thing and red lace traveling panties followed.

"Screwhammer, be true this day," Richard said solemnly.

Richard instantly surrendered himself into a dance of life. The memories of all the former Seekers flooded into him, and he moved with the sleek grace of a velociraptor in heat, making not a slightest error as he twirled around like a hurricane of unstoppable blind lust. Boiling hot wetnesses, alabaster pillars, delicious rose puddings, twinned ecstasy mounds, soaking wet hotnesses, and turgid melons flew past him as he felled Kahlan and everyone else in the room within mere seconds.

Bringer of petit morte.

"Oh Richard, plunge your engorged D'Haran sword of passion into my exotic orchid!" Kahlan ejaculated.

With a metallic ring that cut the air into thin slices, so thin that they were transparent, Richard drew forth his mighty meat mace, which had the word Truth engraved in it. No collectivist could ever have such a wondrous sexual eggplant, as those people were without exception acting out of jealousy and justified sense of inferiority and thus wished to surgically, yet as painfully as possibly, truncate every man's stiff, proud flagpole of individuality into dismal but uniform one and a half inches, as was the custom in Jagang's evil Empire. There the wretched citizens gave sexual relations away for free in marriages or brutal gang rapes, while the exchange of money for such acts, which was the only natural and Capitalist way of things, as well as the only way of love that loved life and hated death, was forbidden under the pain of being tortured to death, just like all Collectivists everywhere and in all times wanted it to be.

Bringer of petit morte.

Richard's massive shotgun of masculine desire was naturally 27 inches long, he reflected instantly, a fact that reflected his inner Fabioan superhumanity, just like Kahlan's cup size (D) reflected hers, but he was able to make it as long and hard as he wished using his unique Cosplay Wizard powers. Without delay he made it a hundred times harder than diamond and 74 inches long tumescent test tube of blood and ardour which he plunged to the hilt into Kahlan's creamy softness.

Bringer of petit morte.

Kahlan gasped. Richard gasped. Zedd gasped. Betty the goat wagged her tail and gasped. The namble gasped. All the men gasped. Purple passion swept over them like a tissue over a wet stain under a rising moon.

- Nerdanel

Suggested Sword of Truth porn titles

- Debt of Boners
- Gars 'n Garters
- Bringer of Death (and also, KY Jelly)
- War Wizards Do It In a Rage
- Agiel Envy: How Every Lesbian Needs a Strong Man in their Lives
"The Seduction of Kahlan"
"Dominating Lesbians Choose to Follow Richard"
"Gracchhh luggg Racharggg"
"All Additive Action"
"Subtractive Sluts"
"Bags V: The Helmet of Zedd"
"Whore Wizard Outfit"
- VigoTheCarpathian

"Kahlan Does D'Hara"
"Wizard's First Lay"
"Naked Empire" (can't argue when the man gives us the title himself!)
"Debt of Bonin'"
- Jaxom1974

Chick That Isn't A Chick
- Exa Inova

Some excerpts...

"His noble testicles bounced individually, not as one in a collective scrotum. It was for this reason only that Richard had not cut off one of his giantic balls, in order that they might not appear to be communist." (could be adapted for breast description, as well)

"Richard's hard-on of freedom had no false gods holding it down: it stood erect, on its own as a testament to all of those who would be their own people. The Imperial crowd wept, and started rioting"

"Zedd's skinny, aged frame stood naked in the doorway. "Bags!", he exclaimed, as he stared at his wrinkly old man balls."
- VigoTheCarpathian

Little Dicky Rahl and His Flyin’ Fists of Truth


It was a sunshiny day on the D’Haran playground, and Dicky Rahl was gazing down from the tallest slide, looking over all of his subjects, his eyes perceiving all, in a mini-raptor-like fashion. Dicky looked to his pal, Crazy Zeddy, who was wearing a magic-doer’s robe. Many were frightened of his magic-doing, and his robe frightened many: it also served to hide the bulge of his diaper. Zeddy said “People are stupid-heads. They believe in poop, even if they can’t see the poop or smell the doody-smell. This is the magic-doer’s first rule.”

Dicky nodded: he had seen the kids at other playgrounds that shared their toys with others, and that wouldn’t stand up to bullies. He had shown the sharing children the error of their ways, freeing them from the centipede-like ways by making a hella awesome sand-sculpture. He had beaten up those who wouldn’t stand up to bullies: they were only armed for with their hatred for moral puberty.

“I now know what I must do: I am a fight magic-doer, and in between having to save Little Kahlan from doo-doo heads who want to force her to play doctor, I must either crush or make everyone on playgrounds everywhere listen to me, because I have moral puberty!” He took off his gloves: the words “Truth” were written in red, cherry-scented markers across his knuckles: Crazy Zeddy had given him the Fists of Truth, which made him the Looker of Truth, in addition to being a fight magic-doer. Inhaling the scent of superiority from his balled-up hands, he yelled “Hands, be true this day!” and started running through other playgrounds.

Dicky’s First Two Fantastical Adventures

Magic-doer’s First Rule: Little Kahlan was chased by men who wanted to beat her up. Dicky was like a velociraptor, his fists flying angrily, and with much hate. They hid with the Dirt Children. A bad girl took him captive. Dicky kicked a toddler in the face for calling Little Kahlan a doo-doo head. The bad girl made him play doctor with her. Richard beat up a man who claimed to be his father.

Rock of Tears: Dicky and Little Kahlan become boyfriend and girlfriend at the Dirt Children’s playground. Dicky’s head hurts, and he has to go with some icky girls who want to give him cooties and stuff. Dicky realizes that he is the “Bringer of Hurt.” Kahlan almost gets forced to play doctor. Dicky beats up the guy who claims to be his father again. He finds out the second magic-doer’s rule: “People doing nice things hurts people the most.”

- VigoTheCarpathian

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Crack of Death - Sharla Tann

Roberto’s mother’s name was La Madre and she was in fact an evil woman and she was only pretending to be friendly.

“This girl is perfect for our needs,” she mumbled sinisterly to Emilio when Nancy was not looking. “You must put the Crack of death in her suitcase when she isnot looking.” Mother plucked a hair out of the mole growing on her chin, and hawked into a silver bowl held out to her by an old crone at her side.

“No mother, we will exchange her suitcase before she gets on the plane,” mumbled Emilio evilly to his mother, out of the side of his mouth.

“Yes, that’s a clever idea”, hissed La Madre, who was in reality the head of a big criminal drug gang. All of them were evil and sinister, which Nancy did not realise. She was only thinking of how friendly and nice everyone was, and how much she enjoyed this big happy family. And everyone was eating and dancing all day long, to exotic Latin tunes. And they weren’t even Roberto’s brothers and sisters, which Nancy also did not realise, they were all evil gang members. But they were all pretending tenancy and so they smiled at her cunningly, and pretended to be kind to her, but in reality they were planning to lead her to her destruction.

Billed as the "second worst book in the world", this atrocity was penned by various authors from Absolute Write as a sting operation against PublishAmerica. In case you haven't heard of them, they are a vanity press masquerading as a genuine publishing house, who claim to have genuine editorial standards when actually they'll just publish any old crap. And this is crap of the first order, an absolute masterpiece of crap. It's rare to find anything really deserving the epithet of "so bad it's good", but this work of genius is certainly worth reading - something that PublishAmerica's "editorial" department clearly failed to do.

Ringing the doorbell out of good manners because even though he is a cold bloody killer and drugs barren, he’s looking for the drugs which Nancy smuggled into the country after he hid them in her suitcases, he still has good manners and cerulean blue eyes which twinkle as a man comes to the door.

Apart from all the spelling errors (even the chapter numbers are sometimes spelt wrong) and word misuse, we also have terrible continuity errors where the heroine's name sometimes changes, and her arrival at Heathrow happens about five times in successive chapters. There are jarring viewpoint shifts, and the tense changes from past to present and back within a single sentence; it even jumps between first and third person. There's text-speak, and smilies, and - my personal favourite - huge chunks of exposition dumped in the middle of each scene. The undercover cop lists the web address where she topped up her Oyster card, and tells us why it's better than buying individual tickets; the standoff at Beachy Head includes some tourist-board spiel about the height of the cliffs in metres and feet. The quotes I've posted here may not be the best, but there was so much glorious awfulness to choose from.

All in all, this has all the hallmarks of a book that should never, ever have seen the light of day, and is glowing proof that PublishAmerica are a bunch of dirty scam artists for offering a "contract" on this tripe. Nobody but a vanity press would publish something this bad. Luckily, the authors have done just that via genuine vanity press Lulu.com, so the world can experience the joys of Nancy's run-in with the evil Columbian drug barrens. It's only £1.50 for the e-book, and there's much more than £1.50 worth of entertainment here. I'm not sure I'd dare to track down the worst book in the world, though...

?/10 - I'd give it 10 for sheer dreadfulness, but oh, my eyes! You can check out the official website here

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Devil Wears Prada - Lauren Weisberger

We've all been there - those first few jobs in the real world, before you've got a handle on how much shit you should realistically put up with from your boss before walking out, and when staying late for extra brownie points actually seems like a good idea. Weisburger does manage to capture the idealistic naïvete of Andrea, the young publishing assistant recently hired by demon fashion mag boss Miranda, but the rest of the story I found rather harder to swallow. Beyond the entertaining "my boss is such a bitch" anecdotes, this has the feel of some real-life work gripes hastily cobbled into some kind of plot, and rather too much of it rings false.

One of the advantages straight-fiction writers have over SF/fantasy ones is that they don't need to bother with worldbuilding - no need to spell out the inter-species conflicts or the uses of magic, because the story's set in the real world and we should presumably already know how that works. Unfortunately, this also means that it's much easier for us to notice any gaps in the internal logic, and there are plenty of those here. Some of this may just be a cultural thing - after all, it's entirely possible that there's no such thing as employment tribunals across the pond, and bosses may well be able to legitimately fire someone for not wearing high enough heels - but I suspect a lot more may be due to, er, "dramatic licence" and a stark lack of research, as seen in Miranda's potted history. Apparently she dropped out of her London "high school" at the age of 17, thus failing to "graduate". I mean, how hard is it to find out about A-Levels?

Yeah, it's the old classic, the Evil Brit, lazy shorthand for moustachio-twirling malevolence since time began. Miranda's "British" accent is brought up virtually every time she opens her mouth, including Our Dumb Heroine's frequent failure to understand it; maybe the boss was actually from Glasgow, or Wolverhampton, or Merthyr Tydfil. We also have the stereotypes of the Saintly Kind Boyfriend and the Handsome But Arrogant Suitor, who somehow manages to utter phrases like "Don't worry your pretty little head about it" without getting a smack in the face. Andrea's work colleagues are slightly less one-dimensional, but it seems clear that they're just sketches and composites of real people rather than characters in their own right, and Weisburger never gives us more than a superficial picture.

On the plus side, the work-related setpieces demonstrating Miranda's evilness are both very funny and toe-curlingly frustrating, though Andrea's reasons for sticking with such a hellish job seem somewhat contrived - really, is the New Yorker seriously likely to offer a writing job to some ex-dogsbody on a recommendation from a nasty fashionista whose influence clearly ends at the borders of her industry? However, it's always fun to read about evil bosses, and luckily the final contrivance that I was dreading (the bitch turning out to have a heart of gold) never came to pass. If you can grit your teeth and ignore all the nonsense that was shovelled in to make this a proper book, this is a glorious exposé of the fashion mag industry with its guts hanging out, and is worth reading for anyone who needs reminding that their own job could be a hell of a lot worse.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Canal Dreams - Iain Banks

Hisako Onoda is a famous concert cellist travelling to Europe by sea, as she is afraid to fly. Her ship happens to be traversing the Panama Canal during a period of civil war; along with several other ships, she ends up stuck in a lagoon halfway along, waiting for the situation to clear up so that it's safe enough to travel again. In this enforced stagnation, Hisako dives, and dreams, and mulls over her past, until the rebel army commandeers the ships and the war comes much closer than anyone wanted.

Like many of Banks's earlier M-less straight-fiction works, this is a strange and dark little piece, though rather shorter than most of his other books. The actual plot is linear and very simple, but is interspersed with the protagonist's dreams; as the real-world events become darker and nastier, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the dreams from the reality. In this respect, it's more of a literary piece than a plot-driven story; normally I don't go a bundle on style over substance, but the bitterly triumphant ending here makes up for any early literary pretensions.

Hisako is an intriguing character study - a strange, lonely lady with hard passions boiling beneath her impassive face. This is her story; the book is entirely from her viewpoint, and we see her dreams, her desires and her memories, but come away feeling that she's still a mystery. Is this the point of the book? It's hard to tell, and that's one of the main drawbacks here. Is Banks just giving us a character sketch with added violence? Is he trying to make a political point about what's behind the war? And what's with all the dreams? Speaking for myself, I only reread this because the writing is good and I like the ending, but the whole thing, devoid of an actual story, does seem a little pointless. Ah well.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins

There's nothing quite like an argument with fundamentalists to reinforce one's lack of belief. I found this several years ago when, as a vaguely noncommital agnostic, I stumbled upon the Yahoo! religion message boards; within a few weeks of fighting off frenzied evangelicals, my atheism was verging on the militant. This looks rather like Dawkins is having a similar reaction; as a world authority on the touchy subject of evolution, he probably gets considerably more religion-related abuse than most people, and now he's fighting back. Naturally, this is not a book that will appeal to many theists (despite Derren Brown's sneaky quote on the back cover practically double-daring them to read it) and that's a shame, as it contains a lot of good information.

The God Delusion starts off as less of a deliberate case against God* than a series of rebuttals to the usual theist arguments, which is then followed by an analysis of why religion is both unneccessary and actively harmful. The rebuttals are mostly superfluous if you don't actually believe in a god, but it's nice to see them all laid out so concisely, maybe as a handy reference in case any Jehovah's Witnesses happen to call. They generally follow the pattern of "Some theists say that X proves there is a God. However, X is actually caused by Y, not God, and here's evidence Z." It's no surprise to see that evolution comes up in many of these arguments - it is Dawkins's native subject, after all - but it was interesting to see him also using evolution as an active argument against the existence of a deity, alongside the usual (and comprehensive) trashing of Creationism and its bastard offspring, "Intelligent Design".

Having seen Dawkins in full ranting form on TV, I was a little worried that his confrontational style would be annoying, but he mostly manages to hold his frustration in check; there's only the occasional slip into emotive language, when you know he'd really like to be shouting "OF COURSE THERE ISN'T A MAGIC MAN IN THE SKY, YOU IDIOTS!". However, while he generally remains polite, he soon crosses into the dangerous territory of Religion versus Science. Many atheists avoid this, probably more from a desire for a quiet life than any well-considered ideology, but Dawkins pulls no punches. I'd previously been in the "quiet life" camp, but I now have to admit he certainly has a point.

Dawkins's erstwhile professional rival, Stephen Jay Gould, previously came up with the idea of "non-overlapping magisteria" - an unnecessarily technical term for the separation and peaceful co-existence of science and religion, where scientists handle the science stuff, and theologists handle the, er, moral and spiritual and non-scientific bits that are left. On the surface, that had always looked fine to me, but Dawkins highlights many flaws in the idea that make it effectively unworkable and incompatible with real science. Besides wondering what possible expertise theologians could have on any subject compared to, say, moral philosophers, he also objects to the very suggestion of "God" being used as an explanation for anything. This is not "outside" science, but actively opposed to it - it closes off avenues of enquiry and perpetuates wilful ignorance in the same way as would happen if we wrote off everything we didn't understand as "magic".

The perpetuation of ignorance is one of Dawkins's main arguments against religion, and is frankly a compelling one. The absence of need for any justification beyond "God says so" has led to many atrocities in the past and continues to do so today, and Dawkins argues that this is a direct result of religion's suppression of critical thought in favour of unquestioning devotion. The famous quote goes "without religion, good people would do good things and bad people would do bad things. But to get good people to do bad things you need religion" - to emphasise how a religious perspective skews judgement, he cites a chilling example of Israeli children approving of genocide when phrased in Old Testament terms, but being rightly horrified at it when the phrasing was changed slightly to make it a secular military matter.

The main targets for Dawkins's ire are the fundamentalists, mostly the ones of the three main monotheistic religions, and this has already caused many moderate theists to dismiss his argument as a strawman, not really applicable to their case. This rather misses the point, which is that all religions are fundamentally flawed by relying on something that doesn't actually exist, and is rather unfortunate, as it's likely that the moderates are the only theists likely to be reading this. They're also likely to be rather put off by Dawkins's occasional emotive outburst and his frequent comments about how much more intelligent atheists are - probably not the best tactic for a conversion job.

Most of the flaws here come from the author's personality showing through, not from the arguments themselves - while there are some great and funny moments, there are also some quite cringeworthy ones too, where Dawkins lashes out at his own personal critics, or tries to claim various notable historical figures as atheists while lambasting Christians for using the same tactic. Once his ire runs out towards the end, too, the book starts to waffle and I found myself skimming the last few pages rather than reading them. Still, while this may have been a case of preaching to the converted, one of Dawkins' stated aims for the book was to make atheists feel better about themselves - and whatever the committed theists may make of it, it's great for us unbelievers to have so eloquent a champion.


*or Allah, or Jehovah, or Yahweh, or Zeus...

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Be My Enemy - Christopher Brookmyre

"...Just because you disagreed with the Poll Tax and detested Margaret Thatcher--"

"Detested is a little inappropriate," Parlabane said. "Maybe closer to say that I spent the entire Eighties wishing I was pissing on her rotting corpse."

"Which, to underline my point, still didn't make the KGB nice people."

"Agreed, but my point was that there were extremists at the top of the command chain. Margaret Thatcher being the topical example. My understanding of politics may have been less sophisticated back then, but even looking through the retrospectoscope doesn't change my perception of someone who really did render the political world black and white. She cultivated division as a matter of policy, talking about whether you were 'one of us' or 'the enemy within'."

"And you miss that, that's where we came in, yes?"

"Yes. No. I mean... Fuck, I don't know. Maybe I'm starting to feel my age, but I wish I was still as sure of what I believed today as I was back then; or even just as sure of what I hated. Believe me, Tim, it's tough being a bleeding-heart liberal in a world full of bampots."

Jack Parlabane is back - the cynical, cat-burgling investigative journalist who starred in three of Brookmyre's earlier books, uncovering the murderous money-making schemes of evil Tories while dodging bullets all the way. He's an entertaining character, but his first few books are among my least favourite of Brookmyre's, mainly because his political rhetoric tended to get rather shrill and detract from the plot; whatever your stance, there are only so many times you can hear about MURDERING TORY BASTARDS before it gets annoying. Here, though, the debate has matured considerably, and involves characters from all points on the political spectrum. And because it's Brookmyre, the applications of political theory are highlighted by a stand-off in a remote Scottish mansion against a pack of hitmen wielding claymores.

Without wanting to give too much away, the story takes place in McKinley Hall, where a disparate group of people have assembled for the launch of a new weekend team-building course - the PR girls, some flash city-types, others from further down in the corporate hierarchy, and of course Parlabane, who only accepted the invitation so he could write a story slagging them all off. He has also brought along his friend Tim Vale, the elderly and distinguished ex-spy previously encountered in One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night - one of the many unfortunate self-references that Brookmyre has chosen to scatter throughout the book. After an entertaining but unremarkable start, with a game of paintball and minor upheavals in the domestic staff, the team-building turns sinister when mysterious soldiers start taking potshots, and the staff start disappearing... The buildup to the main action is very deftly done, with the growing personality conflicts and hints that certain characters may have a darker past than they're letting on, not to mention all the sly references to the range of mediaeval weaponry arrayed about the walls, and the payoff is certainly worth it.

Brookmyre's genius with character comes into play yet again, and is helped by Parlabane's retreat from centre stage. We do have Jack's scathing views on Rory Glen, the smarmy advertising exec ogling the ladies, but then we get Rory's point of view and find out that he's actually quite a decent bloke; we also get an outsider's view of Jack himself, which is not at all flattering. Even the bad guys get some viewpoint chapters, and it's quite worrying to see how well they can justify their atrocities to themselves. There are some good little insights into the minor characters, too, from Rory's assistant Liz excising her conscience at the expense of her boss's dignity, to timid Sir Lachlan clinging to his tartan like some kind of security blanket - they all feel like real people, not just ciphers to be moved around and/or killed off as the plot demands.

If there is a downside to the book, it's the number of autocannibalistic references to Brookmyre's other work, particularly the previous adventures of Jack Parlabane. Much of his initial conversation with Vale consists of "Let's recap on all the people who have tried to kill me in the past" - presumably this is for the benefit of people unfamiliar with the earlier Parlabane books, but on the first couple of readings, I found it annoying and unnecessary, especially as I hadn't found those books to be all that great in the first place and really couldn't be bothered trying to remember who George Knight was. However, that takes up such a small fraction of the story that it's easy to ignore on repeat readings, and this is a book I reread often. For a feelgood, funny, action-packed and extremely intelligent thriller, this is highly recommended.