Monday, January 25, 2010

Iain M. Banks - Against a Dark Background

Iain M. Banks, Against a Dark Background, Orbit, 1993.

Spoiler warning!

This stand-alone novel certainly lives up to its title. The subject matter is dark, and reading it can feel like an ordeal. However, this is one of the best books I have read recently, in many ways, and I recommend it to readers who consider themselves tough enough to overcome the darkness and suffering presented here.

The story starts, setting the tone for the whole book, with an assassination of a woman and her bodyguard. She manages to save her infant daughter at the last moment. This child grows up to become the main character, Lady Sharrow, and we soon discover that the religious group that killed her mother is trying to kill her too, for obscure religious reasons.

The narrative alternates between the present day, when Sharrow is trying to evade death, and flashbacks to her past life. This gives the reader a comprehensive life story, and the flashbacks can serve as relief from the tension of Sharrow's current situation, while also providing insights into her past and personality, and introducing some of the other characters in greater detail. The reader learns about her relations with her half-sister and cousin, and with her former army colleagues.

Sharrow's persecutors are given a year in which they are legally permitted to kill her, unless she provides them with an ancient weapon, which they believe her ancestress stole from them. She embarks upon a quest to find the Lazy Gun, accompanied by her team members, who had previously served with her in a war. The team is supposed to have some sort of personality attunement, enabling them to act as one, but this was not very evident in the story. This point was the one weakness of the narrative, in my opinion. I was expecting this attunement to play a larger part in the quest.

During their adventures, Sharrow finds that she is under another threat. Someone has infected her with something that enables them to induce terrible pain throughout her body remotely at will. This is used to blackmail her. This concept was very upsetting. I can imagine even very strong people suddenly feeling helpless and vulnerable knowing that this pain could happen at any moment.

Despite the dark nature of the story, the time spent with the characters is entertaining. Sharrow is strong, obstinate, and has grown up with a sense of entitlement that leads her to endanger her closest friends on her behalf. Her personality is not always sympathetic, but her circumstances make the reader identify with her and hope for a happy ending, which seems less and less likely as the quest progresses. The journey around the planet Golter and its system is full of rich, varied settings and people. The team encounters various challenges, hints and setbacks. There are are captures and escapes. They meet others and have to decide whom to trust.

I enjoyed and appreciated this novel thanks to the vivid and engaging characters, the detailed world-building, and the high stakes of the mission, which maintained the narrative tension throughout. Many aspects of the story, the characters, and even minor incidents, will remain in my memory for a long time, and I hope to read this book again many times.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

BNI Israel 2010 Leadership Conference

On January 4th, 2010, I attended the annual Leadership Conference of my networking organization, BNI Israel. It was held at Pitaya Conference Center in Kfar Saba (the town where I grew up from age 12). For the first time, this conference was open to all BNI members, instead of just three representatives of the leadership team of each chapter. There were about 250 people there from Israel's 37 existing chapters, and a few from the new chapters soon to be announced. The theme for 2010 is Local Business, Global Network, which may be particularly relevant to non-physical businesses like mine.

The conference started with an hour of networking. I spoke to many members I already knew from other chapters, and met many new people. I discovered that a former customer from 15 years ago had become a member, and we became reacquainted and may work together again soon. There is a type of coincidence that makes me think "it's a small world", and this was demonstrated by the following story: I was talking to someone who heard I was a translator and told me his wife was also a translator. It turned out that I had met his wife at last year's Israel Translators Association conference and talked to her without knowing that her husband was a member of BNI! I also met a few translators and translation agency owners who are members of other chapters. My profession is getting a stronger representation in BNI every year.

Yarden Noy, the Co-National Director, gave us a review of 2009. BNI Israel has 37 chapters, with a few more on the way, and 850 members. Worldwide there are 5,570 chapters with nearly 125,000 members. The reported income from referrals in Israel increased in 2009 by 17% compared with 2008, which was quite an achievement for a year considered as a recession. When the chapters with the highest reported incomes from referrals were announced, I was pleased to hear that my chapter, BNI Haifa, was the second most profitable chapter.

Itai Plaut, the Regional Director for the North of Israel (and a former member of my chapter), gave a fascinating lecture on decision making and the irrational nature of human decisions. For example, people prefer to choose the middle of three options with different prices. He stressed that people distinguish between social norms and business norms.

We then had group discussions around the table on BNI issues, and tried to help each other find referrals and contacts. I managed to connect one person at my table with a member of my chapter, and hope they will collaborate.

We had lunch, and then there was a ceremony giving awards to the outstanding members of each chapter for 2009. I received this award for 2007, so I know what it feels like to go on stage and receive the chapter's cup.

There was a short comedy show, followed by a panel where four former or current chapter presidents shared their experiences. Our president spoke about the Mastermind meetings he has been providing for our chapter.

The conference ended with a prize draw among the participants' business cards. I was very pleased when the first prize, a hotel vacation, was won by the outstanding member of my chapter, Danny Weiss, who deserves both the recognition and the prize!

I really enjoyed this conference, which was well-organized and had a good atmosphere. But my experience was slightly diminished by having a bad cold which made it difficult to talk to people, as I kept losing my voice! This has also prevented me from writing my blog for over two weeks, but I now hope to resume normal blogging.