Sunday, October 7, 2012

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, September 2012

Reviews of three books read last month: two novels, and a political

1. "Railsea" by China Miéville

This is a "weird" fiction novel set in a future where railway tracks
cover the known world.  The world of Railsea comprises two layers of
sky and four terrestrial layers.  Most of the action takes place on
the rail tracks and the inhabited islands.  This sprawling network of
rail tracks is a legacy of an earlier civilisation.  An undisclosed
catastrophe brought an end to that civilisation, and the survivors
are forced to live a more primitive existence, making do with what
they have.  They have managed to salvage remnants of earlier
technology, and rebuilt cities on "islands" of suitable land amongst
the sea of railway tracks.

Adventurers and scavengers board trains, searching for new land or
valuable pieces of material that can be salvaged.  But venturing into
the Railsea is risky business.  Pirates roam the tracks to plunder
any "treasure" salvaged by others.  Corrupt navies try to impose the
appearance of order, often demanding protection money.  Most ominously
of all, there are giant "moles" that live underground.  When trains
approach, these subterranean monsters can break through the surface
and attack.  Molers are engaged to track down and capture these moles.
There is no explanation of the origins of these beasts: are they
genetic mutations?  Maybe it's not even the planet Earth?

At the start of the novel we are introduced to Sham (don't call him
Ishmael).  He's about to join the crew of the moler train "Medes",
captained by Abacat Naphi (an anagram of "Captain Ahab").  She, like
Ahab, is obsessed by a nemesis, in this case a mole called Mocker-Jack.
Obviously, this novel is paying homage to "Moby-Dick".  After these
initial similarities, the plot of "Railsea" takes a very different
turn when the crew of the Medes stumble upon an abandoned adventurers'
train.  Inside, they find photos (actually "flatographs") and various
instruments.  The story quickly becomes a race to find the "Promised
Land" pictured in those flatographs.

Apparently, this book is classified as "Young Adult", but it should
appeal to the wider reading audience.  I've read and enjoyed two of
the author's earlier books ("The City & the City" and "Embassytown").
Knowing that "Railsea" was inspired by "Moby-Dick", I finally caved
and decided to read that classic.  As it happens, you only need to
have a general idea of "Moby-Dick" to fully appreciate "Railsea".
Overall, I must admit I enjoyed this novel more than "Moby-Dick".
It was much easier to read, and I found the world of Railsea more
intriguing than the history of whaling in the 19th Century.
Stylistically, the only jarring thing was the heavy use of the
ampersand, "&", in place of the word "and".  An enjoyable adventure

2. "The Woman Who Died a Lot" by Jasper Fforde

This is the seventh instalment in the Thursday Next, literary detective,
series.  With such long-running series, there is always the possibility
that the main characters and the underlying concepts may begin to lose
their appeal.  But, fortunately, the author still manages to keep things
fresh.  The previous book was a more radical departure, with the action
taking place mostly in a BookWorld that was literally "rebooted".  This
time, the focus is back on the real Thursday Next, and is set
exclusively in the "physical" world.

Thursday is semi-retired after getting injured in the line of duty, and
SpecOps has been disbanded for twelve years.  She's still happily
married to her husband, Landen.  Their genius teenage daughter,
Tuesday, is working on an anti-smiting defence shield to protect
Swindon from the Global Standard Deity.  And their son, Friday, is
wrestling with his drastically revised future: he was destined to be
a brilliant leader of ChronoGuard, the time travel policing agency,
but somehow the future was rewritten and time travel would not be
discovered after all.

The Goliath Corporation is back to its old tricks.  It has developed
doppelgangers ("day players"), which can temporarily be inhabited by
the consciousnesses of Goliath agents, while their actual (albeit
incapacitated) bodies are elsewhere with convenient alibis.  Perfect
for carrying out assassinations and other misdeeds.  Two of Thursday's
long-standing nemeses return to also make things difficult for
Thursday.  Jack Schitt is back, and when not trying to kill Thursday,
he's working on Goliath's latest plan to exploit BookWorld.
Apparently, palimpsests (old manuscripts erased and written over)
hold the key to the mystery of "Dark Reading Matter".  Meanwhile,
Aornis Hades continues to torment Thursday and her family.
Previously, Aornis had implanted a Mindworm in Thursday's head -
i.e. that idea that she had another, non-existent, daughter.  Aornis
raises the stakes, and takes turn implanting the Mindworm in the other
members of Thursday's family.

Any reservations about the series becoming stale quickly evaporated,
and I'm looking forward to the next novel in the Thursday Next series.

3. "Doctrines and Visions" by Noam Chomsky

This book in the Penguin 70s series comprises two essays by MIT
linguistics professor, Noam Chomsky.  But what Chomksy is more
widely known for is his poilitcal activism, in particular,
critiquing bad behaviour by the world's governments.  The two
chapters are companions to his full-length book, "Hegemony or
Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance".

Chomsky applies a blowtorch to the foreign policy objectives of
various United States administrations and those of their allies.
In particular, the essays in this book he focus on the buildup and
early execution of the Iraq War.  The US and allies fabricated
evidence, overstated the threat and manipulated public opinion to
prosecute the war.  Chomsky argues that modern Western democracy
has evolved to be largely about giving its citizens the illusion
of having a voice, while actually using fear and the threat of
terrorism to distract and manipulate public opinion.

The book's cover has Orwellian overtones: the top photo shows former
US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, shaking hands with former BFF
Saddam Hussein.  The bottom photo shows a soldier and an American
flag covering the face of a statue of the newly-deposed Iraq leader.

What you get out of this book depends on where your political
viewpoint.  It would be easy to characterise Chomsky as a radical,
anti-US propagandist.  But, in the aftermath of the "weapons of mass
destruction" deception perpetrated by the then, neo-conservative led,
US government, Chomsky has something valuable to contribute.