Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Review: The Light of Day

Eric Ambler
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

On the surface of it, this book had all the ingredients of a great mystery story. It is set in exotic locations in Greece and Turkey. The main character is a dumpy small-time crook who gets caught up to his neck in international intrigue. The British author, Ambler, who was described on the book’s 1962 cover as “the greatest living writer of the novel of suspense,” had been, among other things, a songwriter, a vaudeville comedian, an ad executive, and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. So I was raring to read it.

The story is about Arthur Abdel Simpson, son of a British father and an Egyptian mother, who lives in Athens and makes a living as a petty thief and distributor of pornography. One day he picks the wrong tourist to scam; his mark turns out to be a member of a ring of spies (or maybe thieves or drug smugglers) who catches Arthur red-handed trying to steal his travelers checks and blackmails him into helping with a major caper.

At first, Arthur’s task is just to drive a car from Athens to Istanbul. It is supposed to be an easy job but he forgets that his Egyptian passport has expired, so he gets stopped at the Turkish border. The car is searched and the customs officials find guns and grenades hidden in the door panels. The Turkish equivalent of the CIA then makes Arthur a deal: they won’t arrest him for possession of the weaponry if he agrees to stay with the gang and provide information about what they’re up to. So Arthur wangles his way into becoming the gang’s full-time driver, lodges with them in their villa outside Istanbul, and generally gets involved way over his head in their scheme.

It’s hard to say sometimes why a book doesn’t quite catch your imagination the way it seems it should. What happened was that I’d often reach the end of a paragraph and realize that I’d spaced out and missed what had happened and had to go back and read it again. I didn’t look forward to picking this book up again after I’d taken a break and would find myself reading other things instead.

It had a heck of a lot of what seemed like unnecessary detail. All distances were exactly estimated: there was an island sixty kilometers from Pendik; a wall was twenty feet high; they had one-hundred fifty yards to go; there was a sheer drop of thirty feet; the roof was thirty-five feet wide. The gang’s preparations seemed needlessly convoluted: they went to garages, resorts, restaurants, museums, and back and forth to Istanbul about fifty times, without anything major happening most of the time. And every move Arthur made was described in excruciating detail even though he seemed to spend most of the time dusting the car and filling it with gas.

The best parts of the book were actually Arthur’s rare flashbacks to his British public school childhood, when he was a loner and a troublemaker and had colorful run-ins with teachers and administrators.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Book Review: The Dispossessed (Part 2 of 2)

Ursula K. Le Guin
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –


This is a continuation of an earlier review. For a description of the back story and plot of this book, see my post from last week.

I think that the real power of The Dispossessed is that it gives you a chance to explore both a libertarian anarchy and a capitalist government - populated by very similar people - through the eyes of someone with a very open mind. And in a more subtle way than either Le Guin's own earlier work or Heinlein’s polemics.

The main character, Shevek, was born and raised on the moon Anarres, in a society founded as an experiment in nonauthoritarian communism. For him, this is the comfortable default; he has been raised to think of governmental structure as inherently corrupt and of the drive for profit as an unjust and ineffective motive.

In many ways, the Anarresti system is a good one and Shevek is justifiably proud of it. People trust each other (there is no reason not to, since nothing is private). People do, for the most part, work together. No one is left to starve while others have extra food. No one is forced to take an illegal, oppressive, or dangerous job just to survive. Everyone is of equal status – men and women alike.

The problem is that, in spite of itself, Anarres has started to develop a government-like bureaucracy. The Anarresti structure is meant to foster choice and open-mindedness. But every crisis requires the imposition of a little more process which never really goes away when the crisis is over. 

It doesn’t help that the moon is so inhospitable. A five-year famine tests the Anarresti social commitment to the breaking point, with mobs coming awfully close to hijacking food shipments designated for somewhere else. So the bureaucracy, such as it is, clamps down tighter to make sure everyone gets fed. This, plus Shevek’s own experiences with close-mindedness and even censorship at work, make him realize that their system may not be as infallible as he was raised to believe. More and more, norms and regulations are putting the needs of society as a whole before individual freedom.

Urras opens Shevek’s eyes even more - and confuses him.

Some aspects of Urrasti capitalism are indeed as bad as he was taught. When he meets the elite, they all seem anxious, and he wonders if it is worry because someone always has more, or guilt because someone always has less. Women, servants, and laborers are second-class citizens, and they are by no means all happy about it. Large groups of sometimes violent Urrasti people want a change and want him to be their spokesman.

But he also sees things that show him that a profit-driven system might not necessarily be all bad:
“He had been taught as a child that Urras was a festering mass of inequity, iniquity, and waste. But all the people he met, and all the people he saw, in the smallest country village, were well dressed, well fed, and, contrary to his expectations, industrious. They did not stand about sullenly waiting to be ordered to do things. Just like Anarresti, they were simply busy getting things done. It puzzled him. He had assumed that if you removed a human being’s natural incentive to work – his initiative, his spontaneous creative energy – and replaced it with external motivation and coercion, he would become a lazy and careless worker. But no careless workers kept those lovely farmlands, or made the superb cars and comfortable trains. The lure and compulsion of profit was evidently a much more effective replacement of the natural initiative than he had been led to believe.”
What Shevek is learning is that neither type of society is inherently, self-consciously evil. Both kinds of incentive can be used to get people to do things. Both can be effective, to a point and in the right context. And both have dangers.

He also realizes that the mental and physical walls between the worlds hide a big lie: Anarres needs Urras. Although Anarres is anti-capitalist, it is essentially a mining colony of Urras. The Anarresti receive manufactured goods, machinery, and new strains of plants in exchange for their ores. And, although no one seems to acknowledge it, it is largely the fear and hatred of Urras that keeps the Anarresti social bond strong.

In addition, it may be mainly Anarres’ isolation that allows the system to persist. As one of Shevek’s new Urrasti friends points out, it’s easy to be anarchists when your population is small and you have no neighbor states. If Anarres was threatened by an aggressive nation, they’d have to change (like by developing a military) or be wiped out.

By the end, you find yourself feeling that it is impossible to be an ideological purist about any one system. Every system, no matter the theoretical underpinnings, requires vigilance and creativity to avoid either tyranny or stultification.

In describing the theoretical physics he works on, Shevek explains that he thinks in terms of two types of time. One is “arrow time,” in which time is linear, progressing from past to future. The other is “circle time,” in which time goes in predictable, repeatable cycles like the seasons; where past and future exist simultaneously and our "now" is just us experiencing a sliver of what always has been and always will be.

Shevek says that in order for his theories to work, we must exist in both types of time simultaneously. Arrow time enables us to have progress; without it there is no change. Circle time enables predictability and constancy; without it there is chaos.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few... or the one.
Sometimes the needs of the many
do outweigh the needs of the few...
or the one.
I think Le Guin is drawing a parallel between Shevek’s physics and society. We need to make sure that fulfilling the needs of a few individuals doesn’t mean that the needs of the many go largely unmet. But we also need to make sure that the needs and drives of the individual don’t get entirely submerged by the needs of the whole.

The best solution lies in a balance. And achieving a balance, in turn, depends on open communication between people with different ideas, each constantly providing feedback and challenge for the other.

All of this makes me think of the words of the wise and articulate poet Jello Biafra, when he wondered: Where Do Ya Draw the Line?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review: The Dispossessed (Part 1 of 2)

Ursula K. Le Guin
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –


So far, this is my favorite of Le Guin’s novels.

I have criticized some of her other books for having too obvious a message. This one is obvious about its real subject matter – different governmental philosophies – but it is subtle about delivering any simple message or judgment about them.

I also liked the main character very much. He is a smart guy going through a difficult time, learning hard truths about the way he was brought up.

And her writing, as always, is clear and flowing - if maybe a little dreamy.

This book is about two worlds: the planet Urras and its moon Anarres. Urras is a densely-populated analogue for Earth; its main superpower nation is a prosperous capitalist country with a comfortable upper class and struggling lower classes. Anarres is a dusty, barren, barely hospitable mining colony.

Several centuries ago, a small group of Urrasti anarchists were banished to the moon Anarres. After the freighters brought the last group of them up, the exiles built a wall around the spaceport. They kept the port operating for a handful of cargo shipments each year, but resolved that no one else from Urras would ever be allowed up. Then they set about building a non-authoritarian communist utopia based on the teachings of their philosopher Odo.

As a result, today, on Anarres, there are no governments, no bosses, and no wages. Clothes and other necessary goods are available free to anyone at communal depositories. Food is served for free at communal refectories.

Jobs are dispensed by a central computer. You feed in your skills and your requests for location and the computer comes back with a suggested placement. You do not have to accept the placement, although pretty much everyone does.

You have no obligation to do anything in particular. You have the freedom to learn or work at whatever you want at any time. You are owned and governed by no one.

The catch, of course, is that no individual can own or govern anything. No one can become rich or powerful. If you are found to be “egoizing” – keeping goods for yourself or doing things solely for your own aggrandizement, you are isolated and ostracized.

Anarresti children are brought up to see themselves as part of a whole; as a single cell in the body of society. Their role is to find their own best individual cellular function and do that – the idea being that if they do what they do best, that is the greatest contribution they can make to society.

The plot centers around an Anarresti physicist named Shevek. Shevek is happy; he has a loving partner, children, and friends. He is always willing to do his part. He grows up trusting his countrymen and assuming unquestioningly that everyone is working together. He grows up distrusting and fearing the profit-driven people of Urras.

But as Shevek gets closer to developing a General Temporal Theory, which will enable faster-than-light space travel, he discovers that instead of being freely exchanged, his ideas are being stifled.

For one thing, his work is threatening to his advising professor, Sabul. Sabul has been discouraging the publication of those ideas of Shevek’s that he doesn’t understand and, contrary to Odonian teaching, has been publishing the ideas that he does understand under his own name.

Shevek’s work is also a threat to his society; it threatens to break down the walls that protect Anarres from Urras. His university will only permit him to teach basic courses, claiming that not enough students are interested in the more complex ones. The job-posting computer starts to send him to godforsaken places to do mining or agricultural jobs that have nothing to do with physics and separate him from his family for long periods.

An Odonian society is supposed to be in a state of permanent revolution, encouraging of initiative and freedom of thought. But Shevek starts to realize that, little by little, in spite of itself, Anarres is developing a bureaucracy that functions very much like a government and serves to limit radical thinking.

So Shevek reaches out to physicists on Urras, sending them letters via cargo shipments. His correspondence often gets “lost” in transit but the few responses that come back show him that the Urrasti physicists are intensely interested. Thinking that this could be a way to reunify the two worlds, he smuggles himself off to Urras.

The Urrasti receive him with open arms. At first, he is astonished by how luxurious everything is and how happy the people are. But he gradually realizes (mainly through clandestine little notes slipped into his pockets by servants) that he is being coddled by the elite, who hope that they will profit from his General Temporal Theory. They have carefully prevented him from seeing any slums or poverty or other downsides of Urrasti capitalism.

Shevek eventually goes on the lam, gets caught up in a street protest, and is almost shot by the police, before coming up with a solution that serves his needs – and almost everyone else’s, whether they realize it right away or not.

But here I’ve gone on and on about the plot and I’ve hardly talked at all about the real reason to read the book, which is the subtlety and thoughtfulness with which Le Guin, through Shevek’s eyes, compares the Anarresti and Urrasti systems. Any review of The Dispossessed should really include an insightful, complex discourse on capitalism versus socialism, on anarchy versus government, and on how it is impossible to be an ideological purist about any one system.

I feel that this is, alas, beyond my analytical abilities but, to at least show my appreciation for what Le Guin has done, I will try to address it in a small way next week.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

R.A. Dickey: Namer of Baseball Bats

The New York Times reports that Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey names his bats after swords out of Norse myth:
One bat is called Orcrist the Goblin Cleaver and the other is Hrunting. Dickey, an avid reader, said that Orcrist came from “The Hobbit.” Hrunting — the H is silent, Dickey said — came from the epic poem “Beowulf”; it is the sword Beowulf uses to slay Grendel’s mother.

“Just having fun,” said Dickey, whose mystical weapons must be working. His career average entering the weekend was .246, sixth best among active pitchers with at least 60 at-bats.
The best part comes next: the fact-checking from the peanut gallery. Apparently, Dickey told the reporter that Orcrist was Bilbo's sword. But as "AR" from Waldwick, NJ and "Diamond Jim" from Fairfax, VA both pointed out in the comments to the article on the Times's website, that's not true. The Times issued the following correction:
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 8, 2011

An item in the Extra Bases baseball notebook last Sunday misidentified, in some editions, the origin of the name Orcrist the Goblin Cleaver, which Mets pitcher R. A. Dickey gave one of his bats. Orcrist was not, as Dickey had said, the name of the sword used by Bilbo Baggins in the Misty Mountains in “The Hobbit”; Orcrist was the sword used by the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield in the book. (Bilbo Baggins’s sword was called Sting.)

Friday, May 06, 2011

Book Review: The Lingala Code

Warren Kiefer
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

The Lingala Code is a bit like a simplified, jazzed-up version of a John Le Carré spy novel, but set in Africa and with an action hero as the main character.

It packs a pretty good punch of excitement, with riots and shootings and spear-throwing Kasai warriors and even a car chase.

The book is set in 1961 in the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The Congo at that time had just gained independence from Belgium and was a mass of turmoil, with lots of violence, corruption, poverty, and competing warlords jockeying for power.

The main character is Mike Vernon, a former Air Force pilot and current CIA agent (unofficially) working for the US embassy (officially) in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa).

At the beginning of the book, Vernon’s best friend and CIA/embassy colleague gets shot to death in a supposed home burglary. But Vernon is suspicious of the shooting and sets out to find out what really happened, opening up a whole huge can of dangerous worms. His investigation pulls in some of the warlords and a local terrorist and eventually reveals a Soviet mole in the embassy.

All of which is indeed very exciting, even if I did sometimes get confused which of the corrupt politicians was which and who worked for whom.

Vernon’s activities take him all over the country. I am not sure if Kiefer had actually been to the Congo when he wrote this, but the details of what Vernon sees in all these places sure made it seem real and I very much enjoyed being immersed in the sweaty world of central Africa for a time.

At one point, for example, Vernon has to fly a tiny prop plane several hundred miles over thick, dirty green jungle to meet a contact at a plantation just downriver from Stanleyville (now Kisangani). He describes his flight in detail - how he uses the lake near Inongo and the town of Boende as checkpoints and how the crocodiles look like logs floating in the mustard-yellow river below him.

I also liked Vernon’s description of his ride on the car ferry from Kinshasa to Brazzaville:
“Out on deck there was no breeze, but it was better than inside the car. The view across Stanley Pool to Brazzaville was not exactly inspiring: green and yellow clots of jungle hyacinth floated by like small islands, while the ferryboat engines pounded and shook beneath our feet...

The Pool is swift in places and the boat was old and underpowered - probably the same one Joseph Conrad sailed upriver seventy years ago. To maintain course to the opposite bank it sometimes crabbed at a forty-five-degree angle upstream.”
I said earlier that this book was a little like a simplified Le Carré novel with more action. The problem is that more action is not necessarily to a spy novel’s benefit. Le Carré's best novels are gray, bleak, and filled with the unromantic, unglamorous, often tedious work that is real-life spycraft. That’s what makes them so real and, strangely, so tense and nerve-wracking. The dramatic Lingala Code requires, on the one hand, more suspension of disbelief and, on the other hand, less sympathy for the main character.

So perhaps Mike Vernon is actually more like James Bond than George Smiley. The bad guys in The Lingala Code were pretty much bad and the good guys were pretty much good; there weren’t many subtle characters or surprising twists. (Although when there were twists, to Kiefer’s credit, he didn’t try to dangle the suspense along way past when you’d figured something out.)

As happens all too often in murder mysteries, the love interest falls flat. Vernon’s girlfriend Françoise was hard to take as the totally stereotypical gorgeous and understanding Frenchwoman from Aix-en-Provence. I found her completely unbelievable as a motivating factor.
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