Sunday, 31 August 2014

Turnabout Is Fair Play

So Fliss and I have a deal; every time I make her read a Horus Heresy novel, she can select something from her extensive collection of books for me to try. So far nothing has sprung out as being worth an entire post, but here are some postage stamp specials on the first three selections.

Hunting Party - Elizabeth Moon

Transplanting the English gentry to a sci-fi setting isn't automatically a bad idea, but doing it so utterly uncritically causes exceptional problems. Moon's twin obsessions with the military and British toffs rub uncomfortably against each other, and in fact only work together in the sense that they paint a rather distasteful, retrograde viewpoints.  The fact Moon turned out to be an Islamophobe convinced we try too hard to allow Muslims to believe things that make them unfit to live in "our" society is some distance away from surprising.

The Painted Man - Peter V Brett

An incredibly standard fantasy with a central conceit (demons arise each night and terrorise those unable to draw the wards necessary for defence) that's nowhere near as original or smart as it thinks it is, this story starts poorly, becomes mediocre, and yet legitimately finishes strong as we finally arrive at the point. This has the odd effect of making the books first two-thirds or so read like one of those awful prequels fantasy writers put out to delay getting on with their core series or to make a quick buck, completely failing to realise that there's a reason they started their stories where they did, and that the prequels are therefore mere exercises in dot connecting.

Oh, and it's sexist, has an entirely too stereotypical depiction of an Islamic-style civilisation for comfort, and features (off-page) an entirely unnecessary and unpleasant gang rape which violates the three rules of having a main character sexually assaulted: 1) don't do it unless it's narratively essential, 2) don't do it unless you are quite convinced you can deal with the fall-out plausibly and sensibly, and 3) maybe don't do it anyway?

King's Dragon - Kate Elliott

This is rather more like it. There are proper things to say here.

In several ways this is once again familiar fantasy fare - a medieval society with added magic finds itself invaded by Orc analogues, in this case slightly snake-like Vikings with a commendable love of dogs.  Complicating this is a rebellion by the King's half-sister Sabelle, which again is far from unfamiliar, as well as perpetuating the standard fantasy problem of inviting us to somehow give a toss about which scion of a family who murdered their way into a dictatorship gets to perpetuate that dictatorship.  Remember that time Kim Jong-Il had to decide which of his sons would next be directly responsible to the immiseration of millions? Remember how hoping he'd choose the least unpleasant option was entirely not the point?

What sets this book apart is Elliott's religious system, a brilliant simple reinvention of Christianity that replaces the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit with the ...Duonity?... of Lord and Lady. Every part of Elliott'  Unity faith spills from this central precept of God manifesting equal male and female forms.  Gender roles in Elliott's kingdom of Wendar and Varre are far more fluid as a consequence; not only are women no less likely to hold titles than men, but parents are free to choose from their children who will make the best heir, irrespective both of their children's age and their gender. Even in areas where gender roles are still separate - bishops (biscops, as they're called here) and city majors are (almost) always female, generals are usually male - there is no implicit superiority of masculine roles. There is I suppose a criticism one could mount here about whether Elliott is suggesting "separate but equal" is actually a viable approach in gender relations, but I'm not inclined to make it. It seems more likely that Elliott is exploring the best-case scenario of a powerful state religion in a period when gendered roles may have seemed an inevitable result of manual labour and "strength of arms" (a phrase in itself implying the importance of muscle mass) would perhaps have made any attempts to suggest men and women could be considered universally interchangeable on the job market difficult to credit. By making so few concessions to the differences between the genders, Elliott is not only criticising the degree of Christian tradition that springs from nothing but ugly misogyny, but reminding us that fantasy writers developing their own societies have to choose to bake in cultural sexism (and there are good reasons to make that choice), they can't just put it in automatically on the grounds that "that's how things were back then".

This being a fantasy novel, it is inevitably the first in a series, in this case one of seven (Green 1/7, in the FlissRic system). Elliott again reaches for a standard approach here, giving her protagonists one problem to successfully solve (Sabella's rebellion) whilst another (Vikings! Who are snakes!) gets increasingly worse. Which is fine, I guess, though the pacing is rather strange; we spend forever getting to any action regarding the rebellion, and things wrap up completely within a few pages. In part this is because of the noticeably passive nature of our protagonists Alain and Liath. Neither do much but watch and worry for most of the book until they can act of visions they receive from saints and use them to save the day/avert total catastrophe.  This is deeply unsatisfactory, of course, about as ex machina as a deus or two can get, but hopefully there's more going on here than there seems to be.

Given I slapped around Favre for his use of rape in his novel, I should talk a little about the same being used here. I'll be as circumspect as possible, but even so the following has attached both a trigger and a spoiler warning. One of Elliott's characters is explicitly as passive and removed as she is because she spent time (which we witnessed) as a slave, who was repeated sexually assaulted by her master. Elliott deserves credit for how she handles this in general; she is both as vague as possible about the specifics of the situation and gives plenty of time to the emotional fallout from it. If you feel the need to put a character through that sort of horror, this definitely seems to be the way to go.

The problem here, and it's a small one, is that Liath's passivity rubs directly against the rest of the novel.  If a rape survivor needs to disengage from the world in order to process what they've been subjected to, that's obviously none of my fucking business. But the structure of the text is such that we're being encouraged to engage fully at the same time as Liath is pulling back. The result is to in some sense present Liath as an obstacle to plot development, which is what happens when you try to run a deeply personal traumatic story alongside a large-scale tale of war and deception.  You can use more general horror for a backdrop, indeed doing so has a long and noble history, but there's a low ceiling on how much you can push reader interest in the particulars of that backdrop on its own terms, as oppose to as a mechanism for complicating the protagonists' lives.

Or at least, so it seems to me.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Pictures To Prove It: Peloponnese Edition

Because you failed to demand not it: some of the pictures of our time in Nafplio.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Five Things I Learned In Nafplio

1. A thorough familiarity with Greek letters from a career in maths is actually very helpful in pronouncing - albeit very slowly - words written in Greek. Of course everyone we interacted with in this tourist town spoke English, and pronouncing a word almost never meant understanding what the hell it meant, but still; proof that my last sixteen years haven't been completely wasted.  The fact that this took sixteen years to demonstrate in the first place, required travel to a foreign country four hours flight away, and ultimately resulted in practically no actual benefits to communication, is something I choose to ignore.

2. Swimming in the Ionian Sea is wonderfully relaxing, even when the beach you're just off has had a speaker system installed to boom out pop music whilst you splash around. That said, there are a few too many fried-egg jellyfish floating about for comfort - hearing them described as having the second-least painful sting in the Mediterranean isn't as reassuring as one might think when actually faced with them - and it turns out that even the smallest and friendliest of saltwater fish can start to freak you out if they spend enough time lazily circling you as you tread water.

3. Greek Orthodox weddings have a lot to recommend them, whether it's forcing the happy couple to smooch a book, or waving a large sparkly whisk in their faces which is then separated into two circlets for them each to wear.  Further fun can be had by requesting an English translation, which the young priest at the church attempted very gamely, but with desperately little success. I don't blame him for a minute; I haven't a clue what a "celebrant" even is, still less the first idea as to how to pronounce it in Greek. The ceremony concludes with the throwing of rice, which is encouraged irrespective of one's aiming skills nor one's proximity to the bride and groom.  Friendly fire was a real problem; thank God Fliss and I were standing at the edge of the congregation, as far from the crowd's firing solution (and, you know, God) as possible.

4. The Greeks have a local delicacy - which we were utterly unable to pronounce - that consists of a triple-sized Tunnock's teacake with the marshmallow replaced with chocolate mousse, chocolate sauce, and chopped nuts.  It tastes a bit like Death by Chocolate studded with Ferrero Rocher, and look far too much like chocolate boobies for us to call them anything else.

5. Speaking of local delicacies, like Slovenia, Nafplio has precisely two local beer options for the weary traveller.  There's Fix, which is a very light lager with a bit of sweetness to it, and Mythos, which is an entirely respectable lager that I basically drank for the name alone. I like to think every bottle consumed gains me further favour with Cthulhu and his dark kin, which is obviously why I so disgustingly abused the open bar on my first night there. Sure, I could have remained sober to drink in my first experience of Grecian life, but would that have saved my skin when the stars are finally right?  It would not.

Completely unaltered, obviously

Friday, 22 August 2014

Pictures To Prove It

Since Fliss was lovely enough to put all our Scottish photos into a single folder, I've finally found the time to sift through them and offer up some favourites.

What? Taking pictures on a boat is hard.

Our first white-tipped tailed eagle.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Dawkins Go Home: Jesus No, Eugenics Yes

I didn't want to be doing this.  I wanted to find a nice quiet few minutes so I could organise some photos of my trip with Fliss to Scotland, and to fill you in on our exploits in Greece.

Instead, we have to deal with Dawkins.  Again.
Abort [the Down's Syndrome baby you are pregnant with] and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.
There's just nothing left of the man who wrote The Blind Watchmaker any more.  He's been eaten from the inside out by the worst kind of smug, gloating internet troll, a spiteful ghost haunting better people's feeds, grinning from ear to ear as he announces the Logic of Dawkins defeats your puny, thoughtless feelings.

But it isn't the initial tweet I want to talk about. It's so obviously actively vile-going-on-evil that there's nothing to pick at.  It's Dawkins' reply to his critics that we can gain something other than nausea by reading.
Apparently I'm a horrid monster for recommending WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS to the great majority of Down Syndrome fetuses. They are aborted.
This is the worst kind of bad faith goalpost-moving. Dawkins didn't recommend something, he said not doing it is immoral. That's like saying The Smiths called their second album "Meat is Murder" in an attempt to recommend goat's cheese salads. We should also note that just because something does not become moral just because it is common. More to the point, just because something isn't common does not make it immoral, as you'd think a man dedicated to furthering the cause of atheists in strongly religious societies would find easy to comprehend.

I have no intention of discussing the moral quandaries involved in making this sort of decision.  That's not my place.  I've never discovered my partner is pregnant with a baby demonstrating signs of Down's Syndrome.  Even if I had, I'd still not be in the driving seat, for obvious reasons. What I will say is that it's possible to support both sides of a binary decision. You can defend the morality of those who choose option A without calling those who choose option B immoral. You just have to be, you know, a fucking human being about it all.

But it isn't just the sheer awfulness of Dawkin's position and the objectively terrible argument he's using to defend it, it's what the interaction between the two shows: a complete disinterest in the responsibility of people with platforms to consider how they are used.  In Dawkin's world, it would seem you can state that in a world with total information/abortion access no people with Down's Syndrome should exist, and not think it's worth ensuring your accompanying argument survives the most casual inspection.  Because why would that be worth it? Just toss out your fifteen seconds of thought on the subject and move on.

It doesn't matter how many people (Dawkins has one million followers) will be infuriated, enraged or made miserable by his incoherent bumbling. It doesn't matter that when you put so little thought into so emotive a topic and start spouting off about it, you are telling people no more thought is needed and those seeing greater nuance are simply wrong.  It doesn't matter that there are still many people who look up to you and might take your definitions of immorality to heart. All that matters is that you can say whatever you like, whenever you like, because you're Richard Dawkins, and to silence you is to silence SCIENCE!

I really don't think that's a bad definition of a monster at all.

Update: Dawkins has no clarified that he is not telling pregnant women not to do, only saying that if they disagree with him, they are immoral.  Good to have that cleared up. 

He's also whining that he isn't advocating eugenics, because Down's Syndrome apparently contains little in the way of hereditary aspects.  Which, fine. That seems like using pedantic definition-quibbling to side-step an entirely fair general accusation, but perhaps we shouldn't suggest Dawkins is embracing eugenics.  Just, you know, mass extermination, a fact that does not become palatable simply because he doesn't want the end of Down's Syndrome people to be applied retroactively.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Weir Awl Doomed

I'm a bit behind in reading my letters from America, what with all that eagle-chasing/bear-impersonating I've had to do [1]. So I'm only just getting to this, via Elon James White over at Balloon Juice,
"I had to look up the word" Woodger said, according to the account Torkildson published on his personal blog, "because I didn't know what the hell you were talking about. We don't teach this kind of advanced stuff to our students, and it's extremely inappropriate. Can you have your desk cleaned out by eleven this morning? I'll have your
What did Torkildson do to get himself fired as an English teacher in a Utah language school?  He wrote about homophones online. Because what a word!  So provocative, what with those nasty dirty syllables hanging around the start, causing a ruckus.  True fact: homophone is actually a homophone for homosexual! All right, so it isn't!  But you didn't know that! You thought homophone meant homosexual, you filthy-minded fool!

Woodger, for his part, was kind enough to confirm this to the Salt Lake Tribune, just in case anyone took the otherwise entirely wise step of assuming this was all nonsense:
"People at this level of English," Woodger told the Tribune, "may see the 'homo' side and think it has something to do with gay sex."
So I guess that's OK. It's not that Woodger has no grasp of his own language, it's that he's worried all those immigrant-types won't get it and kick off a fuss. You can't trust foreigners to look up words in dictionaries, like he had too! They're too busy flying off the handle when they read about being homo sapiens, or the homogenous nature of humus. I once saw a Spanish statistician shiv his colleague for asking if he'd checked his residuals were homoscedastic!  This is what we're facing, people!

Every day I become more convinced we are doomed as a species.  Every day I become more convinced that being doomed as a species is exactly what we deserve.

[1] I would have thought a hungover academic, even a bearded one, would not be easily confused with an ursine aggressor, but my friends' three-year old son begs to differ; I'm either a bear or "a big dog"; ironically he thinks actual big dogs look like moles.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

It's Basically Bird Racism

Obviously this - via Friend of the Blog Llama God - is brilliant in every way.  The absolute tip-toppymost of "fanwank" (a disgraceful term for so rewarding a hobby). I'm not sure where the idea comes from that there are enough Great Eagles to take on the Nazgul, and it's not like Mordor didn't have any ranged weapons or the ability to put trolls at every entrance to Mount Doom, but as an answer to "why not use the eagles?" it's supremely well-crafted.

Except...  why is everyone so dead set on the eagle flight idea in the first place? To me the response to why it was never tried was always obvious: the Great Eagles are sentient creatures just like men, Dwaves, Elves and Hobbits. Why on Middle Earth would we assume they'd be any more resistant to the One Ring than Boromir or Saruman were? Hell, everyone was pissing their chainmail boxer shorts over the idea Sean Bean might grab the Ring and start causing trouble. Can you imagine how screwed Middle Earth would be if a giant flying predator with talons that could rip an elephant into steak tartare decided it was time to become an invisible master sorcerer?

"Hey Gandalf, I just realised we could have flown eagles to Mount Doom and saved us months of exhausting travel and dangerous encounters!"
"Hey Frodo, I just realised the brutal dictatorship of an unstoppable flying magic bird of prey would fucking suck!"

It's a much less pretty theory than the one at Tickld, I grant you, but it has the advantage of treating animals smart enough to speak both English and Moth (and man would I have loved to see that scene - "What's that, Mothie? Little Gandalf's trapped up a tower? SQUAWK!") and show up to battles for the freedom of civilisation as something more than glorified private planes. Talking animals deserve our respect, even if in this case I'm asking that we respect them enough to be terrified that they might succumb to temptation and become our ruthless avian overlords.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Five Things I Learned On Mull/In The Trossachs

1. Walking around Tobermory I quipped that Mull's signature pop song shouldn't be "Mull of Kintyre" but "Everyday is Like Sunday" because it seemed so quiet and closed up so much of the time. Thinking back, though, it occurs to me that it was Sunday, or a bank holiday, for the only two days we were there, so I'm probably being rather unfair. In any case there's some great places to eat  - Cafe Fish combines award-winning and delicious seafood with a non-existent dress code - and some curious shops that offer amongst other things two-pint ale flagons carved from cow horn, which is now my favourite possession.

There's also an exceptionally rare postbox just off the main street which features the legend E VIII R; the locals having flat-out refused to go to the bother of changing it just because, in our host's words "The bugger up and abdicated after six months".  Apparently this postbox is a big hit with Japanese tourists, which is further proof that this world is full of delightfully different cultures and almost everything is wonderful to someone. For my part it was just somewhere to stick my postcard to my parents complaining that we didn't get to see any otters.

(Seriously, otters, what the hell? We went on two trips to spot the little bastards and got bupkiss, after spending the whole week's holiday last year failing to see the family that actually lived on the beach outside our cottage door, and when we went to Blair Drummond to see otters in a zoo they still didn't make a showing, which means I've now seen more tigers in Scotland than I have otters. Otters: almost as bad as leopards).

2. Eagle chicks are all kinds of awesome.  For just £8 each we got to spend two hours staring through telescopes at a juvenile white-tailed eagle who was a week late in fledgling, which meant firstly that it was bigger than any other bird that had lived in the nest (a ridiculous eight-foot wooden bowl you could sleep in yourself if you'd thought to bring enough blankets) and secondly that it spent the whole time leaping onto nearby branches and spreading its wings, in the hopes that this somehow would count as flying.  During the same trip we also got to see an adult white-tailed eagle and a golden eagle doing their best to ignore each other in the sky, and a trio of red deer grazing on the horizon.

3. Whilst geology as a subject is awful and wrong, there are places in the world where I must accept that rock looks very pretty.  The island of Staffa is one such place. Fliss has taken her camera off with her to a hen weekend so I can't show you any of our pictures - I might put some up next week - but Staffa looks like it's been slapped together by three different Gods with absolutely no interest in paying attention to each other.  It also contains Fingal's Cave, which is an absolutely beautiful chamber of green-tinted rock and blue water, in which pink jellyfish float (or possibly lie dead, it was hard to tell).  Even an unfortunate outbreak of screaming rahs couldn't ruin the experience, though to their credit they gave it their very best fucking try.

4. If you are on a quest to see red deer, one can do worse than to get lost in the Trossachs and start arguing about how exactly such a disaster has happened.  Nearby deer will become embarrassed at hearing the domestic and flee for a less awkward area.  This can allow remarkably close encounters, and as an added bonus shift the disagreement onto the subject of the best way to indicate map-searching should be abandoned because there are fucking deer now.

5. A male tortoise sounds whilst mating like an old man reaching orgasm whilst chewing a kazoo.  The female tortoise, for its part, can continue to stuff her face with grass whilst her lover gets on about his business. Reasonable minds can disagree as to whether our chelonian friends have received the better deal.

Recommendations: the quite cheap Eagle Watch experience, though it's probably best to book on the day and check online as to whether there are chicks about - if the chick we watched had fledged when she was supposed to, we'd have spent two hours looking at an empty nest. Our bed and breakfast Cuidhe-Leathain was lovely, with a great room, tasty & inclusive breakfasts, and pairs of Scottish Bearded Collies and Maine Coon cats for stroking/decompression opportunities (John Cole is right; Maine Coons are just the best). The Lunga/Staffa tour was pretty good, with plently of seabird spottings (the puffins will happily sit within ten feet of you, which is rather nice), though for £65 a pop it's maybe a bit risky should the heavens open halfway through. The previously mentioned Cafe Fish is delicious, and whilst it's not cheap, it's definitely less expensive than its reputation suggets.  Moving to the Trossachs, the Lade Inn has phenomenal food and an attached ale shop that came close to reducing Fliss to tears of joy (and entirely succeeded in reducing her bank account; if I'd been driving a larger car I suspect she'd have tried to buy up the shop's entire stock).