Monday, November 30, 2009

John Scalzi - The Ghost Brigades

John Scalzi, The Ghost Brigades, Tor, 2006.

Spoiler warning!

This is the sequel to Old Man's War. It expands our understanding of the world presented in the first book, and presents a more multi-layered perspective.

On one level, it echos part of the story of Old Man's War, which described the training and combat activities of a CDF soldier. The story this time describes the origins, training and combat activities of a Special Forces soldier. To me, it was immediately obvious what the term "Ghost Brigades" meant when it was first mentioned in OMW. This level of the story provides a first-person report of what that experience is like.

On another level, the main character is not, or not entirely, what he believes himself to be. He has the memories of another person, which take a while to emerge into his consciousness. He finds that his whole existence is aimed at discovering these hidden memories and acting upon them.

Despite his unenviable origins, Jared Dirac becomes an interesting person in his own right, and serves his purpose in an unexpected way. The memories that rise up in him are those of a scientist, Charles Boutin, who has turned against the Colonial Union and plotted with other races. Unfortunately, he comes across as a caricature of a mad scientist type villain, despite efforts to explain his choices.

This is a story about identity and humanity. Can people created as super-human fighters, trained from inception for warfare and survival, become fully human? The answer here is a resounding "yes".

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Michael Chabon - Gentlemen of the Road

Michael Chabon, Gentlemen of the Road, Del Rey, 2007. Illustrated by Gary Gianni.

Spoiler warning!

This short novel tells the story of two Jewish mercenaries around the year 950 C.E. One is a former soldier of African descent, the other Western European with medical training. They embark on adventures in the Khazar Empire, a Jewish state in the Caucasus (about which little is known).

The story involves wars, elephants, an orphaned prince trying to reclaim the throne, and clashes between Jews, Moslems and Christians. It is a wide-ranging adventure story with insightful treatment of the main characters. There is a twist in the plot that makes it all the more interesting.

Chabon is a gifted writer, and the high literary style serves the story well. Each sentence is beautifully crafted, and the story-telling is masterful. The story is accompanied by charming illustrations, reminding readers that not only children's books can benefit from a visual interpretation.

Vernor Vinge - Rainbows End

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End, Tor, 2006.

Spoiler warning!

Poet Robert Gu is given a new lease of life. He emerges from the confusion of Alzheimer's healed and rejuvenated, in a teenage-looking body. But the world has changed while he was ill, and now he must learn how to use the new technology, so he goes back to school. He is helped by his young granddaughter Miri and some of his new school friends. As he adapts to his new situation, he realizes he has lost his gift for poetry, but acquired some technical skills. He also realizes that he used to be a selfish and nasty person and pushed away his family.

Meanwhile, we learn that a senior intelligence agent is planning to release a "You Gotta Believe Me" virus, which will brainwash the world's population. Several intelligence professionals are trying to prevent this from happening, but who can they trust?

The plot converges on a university library, where the books are shredded and then scanned. The library is restored as a VR version of its former physical self, with haptic feedback so users can feel the images they see. This raises questions about the importance of books. Readers will already be in one camp or the other (to some extent), depending on whether they are holding the dead-tree copy or reading an electronic version of the book. My own opinion is that no matter how we value our physical books, eventually most information will be purely digital. This makes sense in terms of saving the environment and more efficient usage of space. I still read most of my books in physical form, and have overburdened bookshelves. I expect to read an increasing proportion in electronic form in coming years. The content matters more than the form.

This is a complex, thought-provoking and entertaining work, with many levels and sub-plots. One that interested me was the fate of Robert's ex-wife, who is suffering from an incurable disease. The time will soon come when some medical conditions can be reversed and some people can be rejuvenated, but at first this will only be available to a few people, with particular diseases and enough money to afford it. The first to receive these treatments will be in an unenviable position. They will have to accept that some of their contemporaries will suffer and age and die, while they live on, perhaps for many more decades. They will be viewed with jealousy and perhaps feel survivors' guilt. Their life experience will become worthless in a rapidly changing society. This will be a transitional generation, and there will be many lessons to be learned before rejuvenation becomes universally available.

This is a story of ideas, but it also has interesting characters, a vividly depicted near future, a thrilling plot and moments of humour and emotion.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

New online SF magazine - Lightspeed

In this week's Sofanauts podcast, Tony C. Smith interviewed the two editors of a new online SF magazine to be published soon, Lightspeed. John Joseph Adams is the fiction editor, and Andrea Kail is the non-fiction editor.

Lightspeed will start publication in June 2010. It will publish exclusively SF stories, unlike most magazines (both online and printed) that also feature fantasy and sometimes also horror. New material will be available free on the website each week, but a monthly e-book will be available for purchase at the beginning of the month, for those who don't want to wait or prefer to get it all in one issue. At the end of each year there will be a printed fiction anthology collecting the short stories. There will also be a podcast, but the editors were unsure about the details of this.

One interesting feature is that the non-fiction articles are supposed to be related to the stories. This will provide some factual discussion of the science ideas mentioned in the stories. This combination seems to hark back to the times when science fiction was perceived as a way of providing the public with some science education.

Readers of this blog will know that I read a lot of SF novels. I also read and listen to short stories, both in Interzone magazine and in various online magazines and podcasts. I usually prefer novels, with their wider scope and greater depth, but short stories can also be thought provoking and inspiring, and I wouldn't like to see the short form disappear (as some people sometimes predict).

I find the announcing of a new short fiction magazine at this time encouraging, and hope their business model works out so they can live long and prosper! I look forward to reading Lightspeed when it arrives.

Saving electricity and water

Two initiatives have been announced here recently, aimed at encouraging people to use less water and electricity. Israel has a serious water shortage, and water could be a reason for war in our region in coming years. Israel is also near its capacity for electricity production, and plans to set up new power stations, using gas rather than coal, keep being delayed.

The first plan is a "drought levy" on water usage over a certain level, determined according to the number of people in each household. Everyone has had to declare how many people live in their household. Some friends of ours declared their dog, but we didn't list our cats, since they drink negligible quantities of water and don't use water to bathe... This levy is supposed to apply mainly to families with gardens, and we don't expect we'll have to pay it. However, it has been very controversial, and there is now a plan to postpone it until April, but to raise the basic cost of water significantly over the next few months, so in the end everyone will be paying more. I just wonder why they are targeting home users while still giving much lower water rates to agriculture and industry. I think efficient water usage should also be encouraged in these sectors. One of the aims of this levy is to raise funds to build desalination plants, which should have been done years ago. I hope to see this achieved soon.

The second plan means that households that manage to reduce their electricity consumption by 20% over the winter will receive an additional 20% discount to their electricity bill. The newspapers published some recommendations on how to reduce electricity consumption. These include using energy efficient light bulbs, not leaving equipment on stand-by mode, and so on.

Many of the things people are now being encouraged to do to save water and electricity are things we have always done. We have never had a dish washer or a dryer, and have always washed dishes by hand and dried clothes on the washing line (and on the few rainy days, indoors on a clothes horse). I always use the washing machine on a low temperature and a short program. Of course, we always turn off lights in rooms we're not using. We also keep our use of the air conditioner to the bare minimum. Most of the cooking is on the gas stove rather than using the electric oven. We have always had dual-quantity flushing toilets to save water.

These new plans make us feel a bit like the prodigal son - we are now not going to receive the benefits that people who were wasteful all these years will receive if they start doing what we have always done. On the other hand, we know we have been doing the right thing all along, and that is its own reward.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Alastair Reyonlds - The Prefect

Alastair Reynolds, The Prefect, Gollancz, 2007.

This novel is a stand-alone story set in the same universe as the author's previous novels, Chasm City, Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap. I haven't written here about these books, and will do so in the future when I re-read them, but they are among my favourite books and I highly recommend them. I was also thrilled to hear recently that Reynolds has received a contract for his next ten books, to be written during the next decade, worth one million pounds. As a reader of all his published books, I consider him worthy of this sort of financial security, and look forward to his next books.

The Prefect is set in the Glitter Band, a society occupying thousands of habitats orbiting the planet of Yellowstone. The political structure is a demarchy, where citizens can vote on all public issues. They are constantly online and connected to the system through their nanotech implants.

The protagonist is Tom Dreyfus, a Prefect in the Panoply, a sort of police force responsible for maintaining the demarchy. Along with his deputies, Thalia Ng (an expert programmer) and Sparver (a hyperpig), he investigates an attempt to overthrow the demarchy and form a dictatorship. The plot thickens and involves members of the various groups readers encountered in the previous books: the space faring Ultras and the advanced, almost post-human, Conjoiners. There are also the familiar themes of beta-level simulations of human consciousnesses and advanced AIs. A grim future has been predicted for the Glitter Band (which readers of the other books understand), and the misguided attempts to avert it create new risks.

Reynolds excels at creating a vivid, rich and convincing setting, and I enjoy the time I spend in his universe. This novel fills a gap in the chronology of the previous works in the series, and although it can be read alone, readers already familiar with the other stories will appreciate many aspects that new readers might miss. The characters are sympathetic, the story maintains its tension and reaches a satisfying conclusion which is not really an end, since the universe continues developing in the ways readers can see in the other books.

My recommendation to readers is to read all the novels more or less in order of publication.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

StarShipSofa Stories Volume One

Tony C. Smith (ed.), StarShipSofa Stories, volume one, 2009.

Available in several hard cover and paperback formats from print-on-demand sites and also as a free e-book.

One of my favourite podcasts, StarShipSofa (available on iTunes), has brought out an anthology of 15 stories that have been narrated on the podcast.

StarShipSofa is a weekly science fiction magazine. Each podcast features an editorial, a poem, flash fiction, short fiction and various fact articles. It is presented by Tony C. Smith, whose Newcastle accent takes some getting used to. His charm and enthusiasm pervade the entire podcast, and especially its sibling-podcast, the Sofanauts, a weekly science fiction round table, where Tony discusses SF issues with two or three guests.

This volume contains a varied selection from the stories featured in the podcast. It is designed to look like a pulp-era SF magazine, and contains images of old advertisements. The attention devoted to the visual aspects of the volume complements the quality of the writing, making the book into more than just a short story collection. It has character.

I won't review the various stories here. Some of them I have heard on the podcast, while others were probably featured before I started subscribing. The wide range of styles and subject matter means that there should be something for everyone, and this book could serve as a good introduction to short SF for new readers.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Further thoughts on gender

After the Jasmine conference last week, where there was much discussion of the social and psychological barriers to women's equal participation in the economy, I have been thinking about the spectrum of attitudes towards women in different societies.

At one end is the sort of paternalistic, or patronizing, consideration displayed by the old-fashioned English gentleman. The behaviour displayed includes opening doors for women, helping them with their coats, walking in front of them down the stairs, or behind them up the stairs, in case they fall, and walking on the side closer to the street so they don't get splashed by passing vehicles. The assumption behind these behaviours and others is that women are weak and vulnerable and deserve protection and assistance. Some of these specific behaviours may have arisen when women wore really unpractical clothing - or alternatively, they were able to adopt such clothing knowing that they would be given this sort of assistance and not expected to move as freely and confidently as men.

At the opposite pole is the macho attitude, where women exist to serve men. This approach is prevalent in societies that take for granted that men are superior, and women's inferiority is no reason to be considerate towards them. Men can comfortably expect women to take care of their needs.

It seems to me that it's easier to reach equality from the considerate but patronizing attitude than from the male superiority assumption. It seems that the assumption of male superiority can lead to either the sort of generous consideration displayed in the first type, or to contempt and exploitation, as in the second type of society. The generosity is probably why western societies have achieved greater equality, moving from protecting and respecting women to treating them more as equals, while the more traditional macho approaches are still deeply entrenched in large sectors of Israeli society, for example.

Here in Israel, I am aware that many men can express sexist opinions without fear of criticism (for example, regarding women drivers), and the emphasis on the importance of families does hold back many women's careers.

Personally, I try not to make this the focus of my attention, and just get on with my own life. Being self-employed means I don't have to deal with the stresses of the work place, with the potential for sexual harassment and the problem of unequal pay for males and females doing the same job.

It seems to me that people with full confidence in themselves and their place in the world are free to treat all others equally, with respect (unless this proves misplaced) and with consideration. The people who feel superior and therefore have to treat others (women, minorities or anyone different) with contempt are just compensating for deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. A man who feels superior to women just because he has an XY chromosome (like 49% of the population), rather than feeling fully confident of his own individual self, is missing something.

Ultimately, I would like to think that the individual differences between people are more important than their gender.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

John Scalzi - Old Man's War

John Scalzi, Old Man's War, Tor, 2005.

Spoiler warning!

Imagine a future where the human race must compete and fight with other species for planets to colonize. The Colonial Union takes colonists from third-world countries, and recruits soldiers from wealthy countries. But these are no ordinary soldiers. The recruits are all 75 years old, and they volunteer for ten years' service in exchange for the chance of a new lease of life as a colonist afterwards.

The story follows John Perry, who joins the Colonial Defense Force at 75. He is taken to a space station, where his consciousness is transferred into a new, improved, young body, cloned from his own DNA, but with some significant changes. He is now stronger, faster, and green-skinned. He goes through basic training and then fights in various battles, gradually learning more about the wider reality beyond earth.

The story is told from a military point of view, where there is no choice but to fight the enemy. This black-and-white attitude may upset some readers, but has to be taken as part of the world-building of this series. In one case, diplomacy is attempted with disastrous results. The life and experience Perry had on earth is hardly relevant to his life as a soldier.

Questions of identity are raised, but not answered: If you are given a new body, and your memories, experience and personality are no longer relevant to your new life, where you must change and adapt to new circumstances, and you can never return to your home planet, then in what way are you still the same person?

I have already read one of the later books in this series, Zoe's Tale, and now plan to read the next two. The only thing that bothers me in my reading of the series so far is the relative paucity of visual descriptions. The many alien species are given a few key features, but not enough to imagine them clearly in my mind.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Jasmine conference for business women

On November 4, 2009, I attended the annual conference of Jasmine, the Association of Businesswomen in Israel . Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I also attended this event last year. It was held at the Dan Carmel hotel here in Haifa, the conference venue I have been to more times than any other hotel.

The conference was presented by journalist Iman Elqasem Suliman, who introduced the speakers and made announcements in Hebrew, Arabic and sometimes English, very competently and calmly, even when there were changes to the schedule.

The morning started later than scheduled. First there were thanks to the sponsors and organizers of the event and of Jasmine, including the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, and Bezeq, Israel's largest telecommunications company. Particularly interesting among the opening comments were some statistics quoted by Dr. Lars Hansel of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. He spoke briefly about the importance of the growing role of women in politics, particularly relevant for Germany, where the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is female. He noted that among countries with elected parliaments, ten have no female members of parliament, and fifty have 10-15% female representatives. In the Arab states there are 9-10% women, and in Israel 15%.

Then there was a panel about small and medium-sized businesses in Israel. The panel was led by former MK Nadia Hilou (who also spoke at last year's event). She mentioned a government debate last week that focuses on small business and the employment of women, and also noted that the Minister of Minorities, MK Avishay Braverman, is investing in promoting women's employment in the minority sectors. Then Hilou interviewed the panel members.

Galit Hemi, editor of Calcalist, one of Israel's leading daily economics newspapers, spoke about the problems of under-reporting of both small businesses and business women in the media, and stated that she supported positive discrimination in order to increase the media exposure of both sectors.

Dalit Raviv from Bank Hapoalim, Israel's second largest bank, spoke about the increasing role of women in banking. 70% of Bank Hapoalim's staff are female, but only 50% of management level staff, and only 30% of board members are women. In the banking sector in Israel, there are two female CEOs of large banks, who are among Israel's most influential business people.

Daniel Mazliah from the Israel Small and Medium Enterprises Authority spoke of the suitability of entrepreneurship for women, since they can work at something they love, enjoy flexible work hours and work from home.

Iman Sef from the Arab Sector Economic Development Authority described plans to invest in business projects of Arab women. A new fund is being set up to support businesses in the Arab sector, with a fund of NIS 160 million, half from the Authority and half from private investors. He also announced plans to require Israeli government tenders to guarantee fair representation of the Arab sector.

After this panel, there was a presentation by Tareq Bashir, manager of the Sulam Loan Fund, on obtaining loans. He noted that the Arab sector has difficulty in getting credit, and presented the Sulam Loan Fund, aimed specifically at businesses owned by Arab entrepreneurs, or by a 50-50 partnership of Arab and Jewish business people.

Nissim Douek of Unik spoke about public relations and how to promote businesses and products. Then Yair Carmel of Agent Interactive spoke about Internet marketing. Unfortunately, as time was short, he was given less time than originally scheduled, but managed to provide useful information about promoting websites and search engine optimization.

Then we had lunch. Even though the conference was already behind schedule, the lunch break took longer than expected and it was difficult to get participants back into the lecture hall.

The afternoon session started with some success stories. Sara Shemer, founder of the Arcaffe chain of coffee shops, described how she applied what she termed "female values" of quality, relationship with customers, intuition and creativity, into her business model, and hoped that women would introduce new management styles instead of adapting to the existing "masculine" model. Liat Timor, a journalist and editor in Maariv, suggested it was important to start with one product, but make it the best product possible. Three short films about women's success stories were screened, including the story of Iman Zuebi, owner of the Al-Mutran guest house in Nazareth, who spoke last year.

The organizers then launched the new Jasmine portal, a website covering all the activities and services of Jasmine, where members can build their own mini-sites. Since many businesses in Israel still have no websites, the provision of this free service to Jasmine members is very useful, and I plan to build my own mini-site there soon.

The main panel of the afternoon included Jasmine president
Ofra Strauss, Chair of Strauss-Elite, Israel's second largest food company, the VIP guest Cherie Blair, in her capacity as founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, and Rim Younis of Alpha Omega, a Nazareth-based company producing electrodes and neuroscience technology. This panel was conducted in English, and simultaneous interpreting into Hebrew and Arabic was available. The presenter was television anchorwoman Dana Weiss of Channel Two television.

Cherie Blair mentioned the current economic crisis, and hinted that it was caused mainly by men. She then spoke about the importance of women for the world's economy. She noted that 70% of illiterate people are female, and 70% of children who do not attend school are girls. Women are always among the poorest people. The aim of her foundation is to change this situation. She mentioned a recent statistic, that Israel is in the 45th place out of 130 countries in the gender equality ranking. The barriers facing women include: not receiving equal pay, low representation on boards of directors (only 10% in Europe), and low political representation. The keys to changing women's role: education, economic participation, confidence, supportive partners and children. She also noted that men are changing too.

Ofra Strauss spoke next, explaining that women in the work place are a global issue, and focusing on diversity in businesses. Although her company, Strauss, is one of the largest in Israel, she is a supporter of women setting up small businesses and considers this to be one way of overcoming the recession. She said, interestingly, that women's employment is important for men, so that both partners in a relationship are equally responsible for supporting the family.

Rim Younis seemed nervous to be in the company of these famous women, but spoke passionately about the importance of following one's dreams and the support she received from her family. She noted that the traditional extended family in Arab society can be an advantage to business women, as there will always be someone available to help with the children.

When this panel finished, there was a rush of reporters to photograph Cherie Blair and Ofra Strauss with some of the other participants, and this delayed the start of the final lecture.

Hava Doron of Copyhouse explained how participants could build their mini-sites on the Jasmine portal. Unfortunately, there were a few technical problems with the presentation, and some people had to leave as the conference was already running late.

During the conference, there was a trade fair in another room, with stalls presenting some of the businesses, mainly those related to arts and crafts. These included jewellery, natural toiletries, basket weaving, fabric weaving, bags and various artists.

Participants in the conference received, in addition to user names and passwords for the free mini-site on the portal, a free book written in both Hebrew and Arabic about setting up a business, with very useful practical information and also success stories to inspire the readers.

Unlike last year's conference, when the schedule was changed by many cancellations, this time there was only one cancellation of a planned speaker, the Minister of Industry, Trade and Labour, MK Binyamin Ben Eliezer.

The conference suffered from delays in the schedule, which was somewhat unprofessional and forced some speakers to cut their presentations short. One reason for this was that many participants were more interested in networking than in the lectures. The seating arrangement, around round tables, encouraged people to talk during the lectures, and there was an almost constant buzz of background conversation and of other people trying to silence it. Some people kept their phones on, which was annoying. Also, despite the provision of simultaneous interpreting during the English panel (into both Hebrew and Arabic), very few people took the headphones, and many seemed to rely on their neighbours at the tables to explain what was being said, which I considered rude both to the speakers and to the interpreters (one of whom was a personal friend), as well as contributing to the background noise level.

I believe that future conferences could be better organized in several ways. First, the seating in the lecture hall should be in rows facing the stage rather than around tables (though, admittedly, the table seating made it easier to take notes). This would contribute to the audience concentrating on the lectures. There could be different sessions aimed at new businesses and at more experienced business women. Also, since there seems to be a great need and desire for networking, there should be structured networking sessions conducted in another room. The organizers should make every effort to start on time, and to get the audience back into the room after breaks on time.

I enjoyed this conference and found it more useful than last year's event. I will read the book I received and set up my mini-site. I look forward to seeing how Jasmine develops over the coming years.

Update (November 23, 2009): Here's a short video clip about the conference.