No peace for the wicked

Victorian-London
Victorian London, with St Paul’s Cathedral

Genevieve Cogman The Invisible Library Tor 2015

Take a love of books, add a dash of fairytale, blend in some steampunk, season with distinctive characters, add essence of danger and top it off with a garnish of wittiness and voilà! we have The Invisible Library, the first of a projected trilogy featuring the extremely resourceful Irene. She is a Librarian in an extremely unusual library, one which exists out of time and place. From its rambling corridors and innumerable rooms lined with shelved books one can access any number of alternate worlds in different dimensions. The purpose of the library is to acquire, by whatever means, one copy of every book of fiction published in those alternate worlds, even multiple versions of a book where, due to variations in developments in those worlds, the resulting editions may only differ in a word, a paragraph or a chapter.

To complicate matters, the mix of magic and the mundane in each world will be different, and the magic wielded by the Librarians of a different order again. The two worlds that we are introduced to in The Invisible Library have many of the tropes of steampunk embedded in them: technology largely operated by steam power or Victorian mechanics, quasi-Dickensian costumes, detectives and shady characters roaming streets blanketed in smog, structured if sometimes fluid class divisions and, woven through all, the red strand of danger and the blue thread of magic.

Continue reading “No peace for the wicked”

Evolution or revolution

Fred Gambino Foundation trilogy cover art for Voyager Books
The planet Trantor: Fred Gambino Foundation trilogy cover art for Voyager Books

Isaac Asimov Foundation Voyager 1995 (1951)

‘A great psychologist such as [Hari] Sheldon could unravel human emotions and human reactions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future.’ — Salvor Hardin in Part II: The Encyclopedists, Foundation

I was first introduced to Asimov’s Foundation trilogy in the 1970s when listening to the BBC Radio dramatisations (possibly in 1977 when the 1973 series was rebroadcast, though maybe earlier). Though I at first liked the concept of psychohistory which underpins the storylines I became less enamoured of it in time after reading other fictional future histories, such as H G Wells’ 1933 classic The Shape of Things to Come which, though it successfully predicted war (beginning in 1940 and ending ten years later), thereafter got it spectacularly wrong in prophesying the demise of religion, the rise of a global benevolent despotism and a subsequent universal utopia. If short-term prediction (albeit by just one individual) could go so wrong, what chance another fiction-writer postulating any more reliably a future history in millennia to come?

And yet — as I had hoped — a re-read, even one as long delayed as this, has helped me revise some of my first hasty opinions.
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Outsiders and Samaritans

SS Normandie 1932-46
A passenger liner The Samaritan features in Jon Walter’s novel Close to the Wind (photo shows SS Normandie, 1932-46)

Jon Walter Close to the Wind
David Fickling Books 2015 (2014)

Dominating this book — on its cover and in the text — is an ocean liner. The first part narrates the hopes and fears attending her boarding, the second part narrates the trip and the third the aftermath. As a metaphor for refugees in transit it has taken on added resonance these days, what with the crises over migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa, the Channel Tunnel from France and through Turkey into Europe from Syria (and we mustn’t ignore other international situations, such as the boat people struggling to get to Australia). In truth of course the situation with regard to refugees is that — as with the poor in the Gospel accounts — they are always with us: to humankind’s perpetual shame there will always be migrants (whether branded as economic or illegal) as also asylum seekers fleeing persecution or war in hopes of a safe haven.

The refugees in this story are fleeing a volatile situation in an unnamed country, perhaps in Eastern Europe or the Balkans (maybe somewhere like Albania), at an unspecified period but in relatively recent times (perhaps the 1990s). The narration largely focuses on Malik Kusak (with his mix of Arab and Polish names) and, for a while, his grandfather (whom he calls Papa, perhaps because that’s what Malik’s mother called him). They have fled from home to a sea port; here they are hoping to meet up with Malik’s mother and travel to safety on board the last humanitarian ship to leave the country, fittingly called The Samaritan. But as is the way of things — especially during conflicts — not all goes according to plan, and Malik finds he is sailing dangerously close to the wind even before he sets foot on deck.

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Topographical diversions

Part of Tabula Peutingeriana, Konrad Miller´s facsimile from 1887
Part of Tabula Peutingeriana, Konrad Miller´s facsimile from 1887 showing the heel and toe of Italy; east is at the top of the map

Of course, books aren’t the only things that we can read. Anything with written or printed words count, naturally, but if you are musically literate you’ll also be familiar with notation, the ‘dots’ that singers and instrumentalists can transform into sounds as much as letters do for speech. And there’s more. There are maps.

I love maps. I love the virtual reality they offer for those who like wandering around landscapes or streets, for the bird’s eye view one can gain of an environment.

Now I know that not everyone gets on with maps. It’s occasionally said that dyslexics can have especial difficulties — our son has some dyslexia and so prefers to use satnavs for road journeys, for example — though this seems to be a problem to do with spatial thinking, with creating a mental picture of that space, a cognitive map. Topographical Disorder or Disorientation may be the wrong diagnosis here, because that condition appears to result from some damage to the brain. Maybe it’s more to do with easily confusing left and right, which many if not most of us experience to a greater or lesser degree.

But I digress. Continue reading “Topographical diversions”

Fair tax town

Image www.walesonline.co.uk
Image http://www.walesonline.co.uk

I avoid going Political on this blog, except with a small ‘p’. If you sense a ‘But’ coming — you’ll be right.

But there’s a sense that the UK is gradually going down the tubes thanks to the directions taken, first, by the Coalition government in 2010, and now by the Conservative Party. ‘We’re all in it together,’ famously trumpeted a certain Prime Minister, except that we’re not. Too many big earners and big corporations don’t pay their fair share of tax as their profits are lodged offshore.

So one small Welsh town, Crickhowell — to which I’ve drawn attention before and which prides itself on its independent shops free of links to chain stores and the like — has taken a stand to expose the unfairness of present government policy that’s hitting the disadvantaged, the poor and the sick, as this short video shows. Do watch and, if possible, share widely.

There’s also a website, Fair Tax Town: http://fairtaxtown.com/

Borrower or lender?

books.png

I’m a great believer in libraries, as you may have noticed. Not just the idea, you understand — though I know many people do love the idea of a place where books are on tap, just because it’s a Good Thing. (Have you noticed, by the way, that whenever there’s a threat to a library locals get aerated about it? Even though it’s often the case that it’s been years since they last entered one?)

No, I’m a great believer in libraries, and not just as places where I can get free wifi, or shelter from the rain, or get my food recycling bags but as somewhere I can actually borrow books. Funded by council tax (what some still quaintly call ‘rates’) libraries are a wonderful resource for accessing fiction and non-fiction, and taking it away with you. And reading it in your own time. Or not, as the case may be.

However, there are times when I think borrowing books is a Bad Thing.
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Training manuals

Forest-Path

This post was part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors on Emerald City Book Review which this year ran from October 31st (Halloween) to November 6th (following on from Guy Fawkes). This year’s theme was New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. Lory, who hosts the Week on her review blog, introduced Don’t Bet on the Prince as a “groundbreaking collection of feminist fairy tales and critical essays”.

“Nearly thirty years ago,” she writes, “the work of editor Jack Zipes paved the way for a veritable explosion of creative and scholarly activity in the field since — and yet, as we’re seeing in so many ways today, we may not have come all that far on our journey toward true gender equality. What do stories, old and new, have to teach us today? Can we make out of them workable “training manuals” for the challenges we all face, in what we share as fellow human beings as well as in our differences?

Jack Zipes Don’t Bet on the Prince:
Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England
Gower/Methuen 1986

Fairy tales are never static: they’re always changing according to the teller, the medium, the audience, the prevailing culture. What we call ‘classic’ fairy tales are products of the early modern period, edited and retold by men (or women within a male-oriented or male-dominated culture). Marcia K Lieberman succinctly calls traditional fairy tales “training manuals for girls,” telling them the acceptable ways to behave and what to expect out of life. But these narratives – culturally determined dreamscapes peopled with archetypes – can and should change to reflect our awareness that all is not set in stone. As Jack Zipes, the editor of this now historic collection of tales and essays, writes, feminist fairy tales “explore new possibilities for gender rearrangement”. Continue reading “Training manuals”