Archive for November, 2012

At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

November 30, 2012 2 comments

At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson (Small Beer Press, 2012) is a wonderful collection of stories. It’s pointless to try categorising them as fantasy, science fiction or horror. The clichés of labels are irrelevant here. All we have are bare bones of stories that speak to us of weightier matters like life and death, love and hate. They are sly and slip through your defences before you know they are even in the same room as you. Before you can think of excuses, they are snapping at the heels of your thoughts, provoking you into internal dialogues with yourself, helping you see where you failed or whether you can make a better shot next time. I was entranced!

“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is like the joke that starts, “Have you heard the one about the monkeys who disappear from the bathtub?” It’s simple, elegant and has a punchline to die for. More importantly, it has a warmth about it that carefully avoids sentimentality and feels completely natural. That’s no mean trick in these cynical times. “Fox Magic” is a story of wish fulfillment for a “person” in love. There’s no rationality of choice in love at first sight. If it happens, it happens and you have to deal with the consequences. In this case, it takes a little magic but then, for a while, everything is as she dreamed. When the dream is punctured, does that mean she must give it up? Such is the tragedy of life that not everyone can have what they dream could be theirs. “Names for Water” is reassurance that, on occasion, all we need to get through a challenge is the sense there’s someone who cares at the end of a telephone. “The Bitey Cat” encapsulates the childhood trauma of parents divorcing. When your world lacks emotional security, perhaps a pet will keep you company. “The Horse Raiders” captures a moment of change. Out of expediency, a group of raiders kills all but two of the tribe travelling with their herd of healthy horses. When the dust has settled, this will probably be a futile gesture to save a way of life. A plague is killing all horses. In the end, the humans will have to adapt. But that does not mean there cannot be atonement for the initial wrongness in the taking. What was taken might have been given if the tribe had been asked. Out of such “might”s, hope is born.

“Dia Chjerman’s Tale” is a pleasing oral history of how a distant Empire took exception to one of its vassal planet’s behaviour and sent a ship on a punishment mission. Such memories, passed down through the generations, encourage the development of survival strategies as each new situation emerges. “My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire” is a nice joke as a long-suffering wife escapes the oppressive indifference of her husband by transforming herself into a perhaps not quite extinct bird. May be she should have someone say prayers over her. “Schrodinger’s Cathouse” continues in the faintly humorous line with a man who somehow manages to end up in the box and then either is or is not, if you see what I mean. In “Chenting in the Land of the Dead”, a man imagines the perfect place to take up residence in the afterlife. Unfortunately not everyone else shares his optimism.

Kij Johnson defying genre expectation and focusing on simple storytelling

“The Empress Jingu Fishes” plays with time as perceived by a person blessed or cursed with the power of divination. Today she knows what happened yesterday and has seen what will happen tomorrow. She has already lost a husband and seen her son become emperor. Knowing she will lose her husband, she marries and loves him as best she can. Then she obeys the gods’ instructions and conquers a land she has never visited before, and prepares to give birth to the son who will one day leave her to join the dispassionate gods who dictate how the future shall unfold. On reflection, such foresight is only a curse for women. “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” ponders the nature of the relationship between an owner and either an animal or an uncountable number of insects. There are two quite different questions posed. The first is what makes you want to be with an animal. The second is why you might choose to give your animal to another. Rather like the first story with the 26 or so monkeys, we need to clear our heads and think clearly about where we are as human beings. Too often, we grow sentimental and this gets in the way of making the decisions best for us or best for the ones we love. Perhaps this is more sad than the monkeys which finishes with fringe benefits for the humans. This self-sacrifice is all for the good of the animal(s). It’s redemptive through loss. “Story Kit” deconstructs the emotional loss following on the ending of a relationship. A writer can use surrogates in the story, describing their suffering as a way of trying to achieve objectivity on her own pain. Except this distancing is only temporary. A writer is driven to write. So after one story is ended, there’s another to begin. That means reliving the loss all over again.

“Wolf Trapping” is a way of reexamining the themes from the last two stories. A serious researcher may follow a pack of wolves as a disinterested observer. It would not occur to him to interfere with nature if one of the wolves was injured. He will allow it to die. She will run with the pack and become so familiar to them, they will accept her. If one of the animals is hungry, she will trap a rabbit to feed it. If one is injured, she will help it heal. Who’s to say who is the more responsible or gets the better understanding of what it means to be a wolf. If such a man and woman should meet, would he have the right to judge her? Her behaviour would distort his scientific observations. Would that give him the right to have her removed from the wilderness? They both have relationships with the wolves that may be lost. She may die of exposure. Is that not her right if that’s how she would choose to die. Is that not the man’s view of nature? That the weak perish and the strong survive? “Ponies” is a nice allegory asking just how far you would go to fit in. Socialisation is usually an all-or-nothing event. Once you start, there’s a price to pay if you stop. “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles” is a quiet meditation on what’s it’s like to lose your home. Although you can carry an oral history with you wherever you may go, home is always more than a place to live. It always requires another with whom to share the history. “Spar” is also about a couple unexpectedly forced into making a home for themselves while awaiting rescue. After a while, they might become so interdependent, they might resent the rescue when it comes.

“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is a wonderful flight of fancy about a man who finds himself dissatisfied with himself and the place in which he finds himself. He would rather build a bridge so he can go elsewhere and, in so doing, find a new way to a relationship with another person. Yet, sometimes, the physical process proves more achievable than the social equivalent. It’s ironic. Because humans cannot read each other’s thoughts, there’s a kind of mist in the air between them. They can only vaguely see each other. They have to reach out in ways that will give them a better view. In crossing over to that other person, there’s always the chance you may catch sight of monster in the mist. Quite what your reaction may be is uncertain. You may feel exhilaration you have seen something no-one else has ever seen, or you may collapse in fear. “The Evolution of Trickster Stories” is another fine allegory which thinks about the relationship between superior and lesser beings. For example, for millions of years, human bred dogs to be man’s “friend”. Yet this was just another word for slavery. Humans felt they owned their dogs and could do whatever they wanted to them. But suppose the dogs could be emancipated, even learn to speak. How would man react when a former slave could look him in the eye and tell him a few home truths?

This collection is strongly recommended!

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

This collection has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.


Act of Faith and Jimmy’s End

November 29, 2012 Leave a comment

The question to start us off is what makes an image or sequence of images interesting to the audience. It could just be the content. No matter what the quality, if the mind invests the image with significance, it will be considered important. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter what form the image takes. It could be photographic or line-drawn, in oil paint or acrylic, old or new. It could be in a book or tattooed on to the skin. It could be spray-painted on to the wall of a public building or held in an encrypted file on a computer. The significance given to it is all that matters when the individuals with access come to judge it. Alternatively, the content may be invested with greater meaning because of external attributes. So we might consider preserved dead animals achieve a meaning that transcends their inherent reality simply because of the person whose name appears as an artist and the place where they are displayed. If the bodies were in an abattoir, not even Damien Hirst’s name could save them from being turned into food. But if they are designated an art installation and displayed in Park Avenue, they can take on a greater significance if that’s what the viewers want. Calling the whole, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” is also seeking to provoke thought. Whether it actually needs the pickled sheep to make us think about death is a different matter. Turning to erotica or pornography, Umberto Eco suggests that a sign can be used as a substitute for something else. All we have to do is accept a social convention that an image of, say, a banana can stand in for the penis. This is a convenient process because it allows a discussion about normally “prohibited” issues by using a code. Language can be too obvious, crude if you prefer. Equally, images can be too explicit, i.e. they do not lie about their content but show it for what it is. So exploiting connotative meanings in words or images allows greater freedom to deal in shades of significance so long as all the viewers understand the process and can decode the intended meaning.

Siobhan Hewlett going through her ritual preparations


Having set the scene in typical academic fashion, we come to two short films made by Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins. The two are linked by a common character, Faith Harrington played by Siobhan Hewlett. In the first, Act of Faith, we have an autoerotic asphyxiation potentially going wrong. The question, “What happens to faith?” is of course, theological. But an answer of sorts is provided in the second film, Jimmy’s End, where she appears in a distinctly different club environment which lurks as a kind of flytrap for people like James Mitchum (Darrell D’Silva). What makes this pair of short films so interesting is that this is Alan Moore setting out to use film as his medium of expression. He’s been remarkably dismissive of the various attempts made by others to translate his printed work into a cinematic experience. In a gesture of semi-anarchic purity, he’s resisted all efforts to associate him personally with the film-making, asserting it is pointless to take static images created as a comic book or graphic novel and recast them as moving images. For him to take his own money, write this pair of script for filming, and oversee production is therefore brave. It’s asserting his own aesthetic is superior to Hollywood directors and cinematographers.

Darrell D’Silva not quite at wit’s end but close


In part this comes from the content. He’s not competing directly. Mainstream Hollywood does not so overtly deal with the erotic. In the first, we’re shown a woman who’s stepped away from social life with her colleagues at work, who distances herself from her father. For her weekend entertainment, she prefers something a little more exciting. This, of course, begs the question why people do push beyond the conventional. It’s important in this to recognise the ritual being performed. The choice of clothing, the way in which the different items are put on, the style of makeup, and so on, are an essential part of the experience. Only when viewed as a whole do the parts come together to enhance the final climatic moments. This scenario forces the film-maker to play with the conventions of soft porn and voyeurism to establish the mind game being played. More importantly, the title shows the ironic intention because, by timing her arrival in that particular position, she’s literally putting herself in the hands of another. It’s a real act of faith because we all know how unreliable other people can be.

Alan Moore, Mitch Jenkins and Siobhan Hewlett coming together in the cutting room


Switching to Jimmy’s End we have a similar theme played out from the male perspective. Come the evening, a certain type of man goes out to a succession of pubs. This can be treading a well-worn path or an entirely random journey from sobriety to a state of mind in which he feels comfortable in going to a different part of town where he can find a different form of entertainment, perhaps involving women. He’s not a roué. In some senses, he may be debauched, but he’s not leading a life of sensual pleasure. There’s a form of self-imposed degradation about each night’s outing. The result is our “hero” accepting an invitation into a demimonde “club” environment in which he’s plied with free drinks, introduced to Faith and comes into the ballroom for the main event. He’s free to leave at any time but elects to become the main focus of the night’s entertainment. What’s clever about this is, first, that it’s understated in its depiction of shades of sexuality, while the subtext is that life can become as monotonously boring as all the catchphrases and jokes that are recycled into meaninglessness. What might have been fresh the first time we heard it, becomes tiresome and then part of the wallpaper. All the people we see in the club are bored, going through rituals out of habit and not in the expectation of enjoyment. We can speculate on why any one them is present. For the majority, it’s as if participation is not wholly voluntary. This behaviour has been woven into the fabric of their lives over time. For the few movers and shakers, there’s profit to be made from the needs of others. This may be malicious exploitation, a kind of louche sadism in exposing the vulnerabilities of the majority. Or the relationship may be more complex.


Without being overly “arty” or trespassing too far over the boundaries of good taste, both films represent a pleasingly idiosyncratic view of sex and sexuality, using the conventional signifiers to make some interesting comments in the subtext on the potential for boredom in the routine of sexual behaviour. Although some of the cinematography is slightly static and posed, this is partly because we’re not engaged in a classic narrative being told through the usual visual conventions. The camera is being used in a more dispassionate way to record events and to comment on behaviour by highlighting features of significance. It’s very successful at this length, but more stylistic variation would have to be added if a full-length feature film was to avoid creating its own clichés. That said, both films are a testament to a different eye being brought to bear on film-making conventions. Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins are to be applauded for demonstrating real professionalism in all aspects of the film-making process. If Hollywood was prepared to trust Alan Moore, it would be interesting to see what kind of film would result.


Both films are available to view on Youtube:
Act of Faith
Jimmy’s End


Warrior Baek Dong Soo or Musa Baek Dong Soo (2011) episodes 1 to 5

November 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Well, here we are back in sageuk territory with Warrior Baek Dong Soo or Musa Baek Dong Soo (2011) as I start another binge on Korean drama. This time we’re in the 18th century Joseon with the real-life story of Baek Dong Soo (1743–1816) who’s shown as the protector of Crown Prince Sado (1735–1762) and his son Yi San (1752-1800). The history is slightly complicated. After Prince Hyojang died in 1728, Sado was born the second son of King Yeongjo. The reason for his failure to become king is unclear and somewhat controversial. At the time, he was considered erratic to the point of mental illness and was killed by his father, leaving the way open to his son Yi San to become King Jeongjo in 1776. However, he has been reappraised and is now thought to have been the victim of a conspiracy by his political opponents from the Noron faction of the Western (Seo-in) faction. As a result of this historical revisionism, he and his wife, Lady Hyegyeong, were designated Emperor Yangjo and Empress Heonyeong in 1899. During King Jeongjo’s reign, there was a positive attempt made to avoid any hint of favouritism between the different factions but, despite this, the Noron faction was able to maintain pre-eminence without obviously resorting to violence. But conflict reappeared when King Yeongjo murdered his son.

Kim Kwang-Taek (Jeon Kwang-Leol) exchanges pointers with Chun (Choi Min-Su)

Much of the debate between the different factions concerned the succession, with each group looking for political advantage from the candidate for the throne they supported. When the murder occurred, the ruling Noron faction split into the Byeokpa and Sipa, forming groups that cut across the earlier factions. This sageuk version bends the history by having the Crown Prince killed by assassins paid by the Noron group, but the body is left in a way suggesting the son died while undergoing punishment ordered by the king. This matches up to history in result. We then have the interregnum as the old king continues and the heir apparent has to survive further Noron attempts to displace him. So this series spans several decades and deals with a number of court conspiracies which are variously frustrated by key players from the martial arts scene. We’re to focus on Baek Dong Soo who’s one of the men who wrote the definitive Korean Martial Arts for Dummies manual. His life was fictionalised in a comic written by Lee Jae-hoon and this forms the basis of the television version.

Prince Sado (Oh Man-Seok) looking suitably regal

So to set us off, we have another of these extended back histories with Crown Prince Sado (Oh Man-Seok) upsetting the Noron group. To save his life, there’s a complicated deal to sacrifice Baek Sa King (Uhm Hyo Sup) and his family. Kim Kwang-Taek (Jeon Kwang-Leol), Hook Sa-Mo (Park Jun Gyu) and Jang Dae-Po (Park Won-Sang) combine their strength and save the heavily pregnant widow. To escape detection, she delays the birth. As a result, Baek Dong Soo is born deformed and his mother dies. To save the child’s life, Kim Kwang-Taek sacrifices his left arm and sets off to take the child to safety but, when attacked by In (Park Cheol-Min) and assassins from Hiksa Chorong, he’s separated from the child. Hwang Jin-Gi (Sung Ji-Ru) is passing, hears the child and takes it to safety with Hook Sa-Mo. To help the child grow up more strongly, the decision is taken to splint his arms and legs in the hope this will straighten them. Kim Kwang-Taek searches in vain for the lost baby and grows depressed, eventually entering a monastery. Over time, he grows interested in the monk’s style of self-defence using a staff. He begins to train, relearning how to fight one-handed. Another of Crown Prince Sado’s supporters, Yeo Cho-Sang (Lee Kye-In), becomes father to Yeo Woon but, from the date of birth and alignment of the stars, he’s convinced the boy will be a killer.

Yeo Woon (Park Geon-Tae) already looking threatening

We now have one of these time jumps as twelve years pass. The leader of the assassin group Hoksa Chorong, Chun (Choi Min-Su) recruits and trains Yeo Woon (Park Geon-Tae). When he’s fully competent, Chun sends him as an undercover agent in what’s to become the Crown Prince’s private defence force. Yeo Woon quickly meets up with the young Baek Dong-Soo (Yeo Jin-Ku) and Hwang Jin-Joo (Lee Hye-In). The two boys become immediate competitors but, in these opening stages, Baek has no skills and is always beaten. They also meet Yoo Ji-Sun (Nam Ji-Hyun), daughter of a family holding a vital military document for the Crown Prince. The two boys then go off to the warrior’s training camp run by Jang Dae-Po and Baek finds himself confused by the lack of differentiation in training between a warrior and an assassin.

Baek Dong-Soo (Yeo Jin-Ku) trying to think of a suitable boast

The problem with watching all this is that there’s no incentive to get interested in any of these characters because, although all the supporting actors will age gracefully (or not as the make-up artist dictates), we’re going to get an entirely new cast of young heroes and villains. As the bridge between the two age groups, we have an attack on the training camp where Chun kills Jang Dae-Po and wounds the young Baek Dong Soo, but fails to go on to kill the Crown Price. The assassin In attacks the Yoo family, killing everyone except Yoo Ji-Sun who survives with the vital map tattooed on her back. Now fast forward to three young heroes sent off on their first mission as warriors and caught up in an ambush. Now fully grown Baek Dong-Soo (Ji Chang-Wook) and Yeo Woon (Yoo Seung-Ho) await their destiny meeting the two women, Hwang Jin-Joo (Yoon So-Yi) and Yoo Ji-Sun (Shin Hyun-Bin) who will feature large in this serial version of history.

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
Warrior Baek Dong Soo or Musa Baek Dong Soo (2011) episodes 6 to 10
Warrior Baek Dong Soo or Musa Baek Dong Soo (2011) episodes 11 to 15
Warrior Baek Dong Soo or Musa Baek Dong Soo (2011) episodes 16 to 20
Warrior Baek Dong Soo or Musa Baek Dong Soo (2011) episodes 21 to 25
Warrior Baek Dong Soo or Musa Baek Dong Soo (2011) episodes 26 to end

Zeuglodon by James P Blaylock

November 27, 2012 2 comments

Zeuglodon by James P Blaylock (Subterranean Press, 2012) takes me back to the world of my childhood where I cut my reading teeth on adventure books by Enid Blyton. As a word of explanation to those not lucky enough to have discovered series like the Famous Five when young, the books are about children in danger: the titular five are Julian, Dick, Anne and Georgina (George) and their dog Timothy. They were always having adventures and catching criminals, hopefully always being back home in time for tea. To get this current team changed around so they can participate in this homage to Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Charles Fort and others, picture yourself standing on a sprung wooden floor in a thick fog — I know it’s a challenge to imagine adverse weather conditions inside a building, but bear with me. This is the game being played in this book. You can hear the movements of anyone in the room but cannot see them. You now hear ten pairs of footsteps so, naturally, you assume five people are approaching you. Imagine your surprise when it proves to be three children and a dog. It’s this kind of intensely logical and utterly convincing analysis that appeals to both young and old readers who want to experience a kind of affectionate nostalgia. A view of a past full of gentle wonder as filtered through fantasy rose-tinted spectacles.

James P Blaylock aka Perkins


So let’s meet the cast of characters. This is a first-person narrative by Katherine Perkins. She’s twelve and already an expert in everything but most especially in cryptozoology. She has two younger cousins, Brendan and Perry. The dog is called Hasbro (which is presumably a reference to his love of games with the kids or the Langdon St Ives’ valet — your choice). With mother missing in acton, Katherine is in the care of John Toliver Hedgepeth. He’s a genius, a member of the Order of St. George, and an inventor in the Heath Robinson style, being able to make a radio out of the junk laying around in his attic. In distant LA, Aunt Ricketts is convinced this is an unsuitable arrangement: a nutty eccentric man in charge of three children. So she gets Child Services on the job to see whether she can bring the children to a safer, more caring environment. To that end, Ms Henrietta Peckworthy appears on the scene to investigate the quality of care the children are receiving. Unfortunately, her arrival coincides with unusual weirdness so the whole issue of custody has to be shelved while the adventures move into high gear as one or more villains kidnap a mermaid (well, that’s not quite right but close enough for these purposes) and make demands. That gets our team on to the SS Clematis and off through the fog to the rendezvous with one or more of the bad guys. Yes, I know this is confusing but half the fun of all this is not knowing who’s on which side and what their motives are. After all, when you’re observing the world through the eyes of a twelve-year-old cryptozoologist in the making, you can’t expect her to know everything (including how fog gets out of glass jars so quickly even though you put the lids on as fast as you can). So think of her as an unreliable narrator or as a reliable narrator in an unreliable world. In such a story, lacking one for a Blyton full house, we’re off to Morecambe Bay and nearby Lake Windermere (which has a big fan installed to keep the fog away).


As a novel, Zeuglodon fits into the same story cycle as The Digging Leviathan with a shared villain Hilario Frosticos, and we’re ultimately in ERB land. As a pair, it fits into a broader set of novels which are called the Narbondo series, featuring Ignatio Narbondo and Langdon St Ives in a steampunk version of history rewriting Victorian events for comic effect. The essence of these stories is that much of what Verne, ERB, Fort and others described is actually real and, using new technology, hero and villain fight over Earth’s future, even travelling through time when necessary. Because of its point of view, Zeuglodon is actually a rather ingenious way of adding to the mythology and showing a different view of how the Victorian inspired future is working out. It’s not quite as steampunkish as earlier books but compensates by trespassing into fantasy dreamscapes where the zeuglodon or basilosaurus might put in an appearance should you be able to penetrate through to the hollow Earth. James Blaylock has managed something rather clever, maintaining a childlike point of view which, by implication, deals with some rather adult issues about relationships and responsibilities, about the difference between the real and the places we see in our dreams, and whether it would ever be right to disturb the world’s understanding of itself by collecting evidence of a different reality.


For a review of another book by James P Blaylock, see The Aylesford Skull.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes twenty-one to end

November 26, 2012 Leave a comment

We now come into the endgame in Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011). With So-Yi (Shin Se Kyung) and the other court ladies sent out of the palace to spread the word about reading, King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu) and Jo Mal-Saeng (Lee Jae-Yong) set out to split Milbon. This has become possible as many of its members in senior political positions are disturbed by the murder of the Crown Prince. However Mr Big Root (Yoon Je Moon) has worked out the point of hiding the release of the women into the countryside and sends out all his men to find them. Meanwhile Lee Shin-Juck (Ahn Seok-Hwan) as Right Minister finds his Milbon allegiance wavering. He’s looking to establish a new faction to protect the original aims of their secret society but marginalise Mr Big Root for killing the Prince. He makes a deal with the Chinese secret service to help him while, on the ground, Milbon begins to split into two. These leaves the King’s men running round the mountains looking for So-Yi.

So-Yi (Shin Se Kyung) and Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) distributing the letters

Within Milbon, a power struggle emerges for the soul of the organisation. The opposition to Mr Big Root is led by Sim Jong-Soo (Han Sang-Jin) who believes the leader has sacrificed the primary aim of the organisation through his obsession with preventing the release of the letters. It’s put to the leader he should step down. Meanwhile the King takes Lee Shin-Juck to one side and offers him amnesty if he will give up Mr Big Root, take over Milbon and enter into a debate about the structure of government. This will potentially give Milbon what it wants but, of course, Lee Shin-Juck is reluctant to trust the King. On the mountain, Mr Big Root now has So-Yi and two other ladies in his hands while Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) runs around looking for clues. He thinks Gae Pa-Yi (Kim Sung-Hyun) may lead him to Milbon’s secret base but his attempts to contact him fail. Things grow tense.

In the last two episodes, all the immediate plot lines are resolved. There’s some fighting. Not as much as you might expect and the fights we have are not showy but functional to get the job done. And this leads me to an interesting issue to discuss in these final paragraphs. Korean drama in general and sageuks in particular have unresolved issues. Straight history is boring. Indeed, when Korean television first got into historical dramas and did literal versions of the records preserved from past eras, the initial popular interest and excitement quickly evaporated. No matter how fascinating such images may be to scholars, television cannot sustain a purely academic ethos. It’s primarily there for entertainment (although this does not deny the possibility of educational themes in the subtext). It’s the modern bread and circuses to distract the masses.

King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu) steeling himself for the endgame

So here we have a drama about the King’s desire to lift the people from ignorance by giving them a phonetic rather than ideographic system of writing. So for those of us interested in semiotics and postmodernist debates about the function and power of the discourse, this is a classic period of history to examine. Here we have a feudal hierarchy with the King at the top, a corps of noble families, scholars to run the administration, a very small middle class of merchants, a massive class of peasants, and an underpinning of slaves. At this point, I need to mention a “new” suggestion from Gerald Crabtree, a geneticist at Stanford University in California, in two articles published in Trends in Genetics. He offers the opinion that early humans had to be intelligent to survive. Or if they were stupid and made mistakes, they would likely end up dead and not spread their genes. So if we apply this to early Korea, we have a potentially very intelligent group of survivors and the only thing holding them back is the inability to write down their thoughts. By giving them an easy-to-learn notation system, people can suddenly record their thoughts, pass on their experience, and preserve their innovations for future generations. Oral histories can only go so far, depending on the willingness of people to talk to each other. But once ideas are written down, they become more durable. Technology and knowledge can develop and consolidate their hold in society. Of course the written form of discourse is just as open to manipulation as the oral communication route. Those with power have always had control over the official publication process and have been able to use words to deceive the people. But, over time, the people learn to distinguish the real from the unreal. More importantly, they can develop their countercultural information printing facilities to parallel the official discourse. In the West, pamphleteering and broadsides distributed or posted on walls became a thorn in the side of many governments. Anyone can write on a wall in Korea.

The moment Mr Big Root (Yoon Je Moon) realises he’s lost

So for the King to be developing this system is playing with social dynamite. As Milbon puts it, the letters could open the door to Hell, bringing anarchy and destruction. Or it can just begin the slow process of reversing the direction of flow in their society. When the King plans this, the lives of the peasants and slaves are essentially worthless. Centuries after the release, the lives of the Korean people have more equal value and there’s less exploitation. If the development of the language was revolutionary, it has taken a long time for the social wheel to turn. Which leads me to this final thought. Many characters in this drama sacrifice themselves for a cause for and against the language, but the King sails serenely on. Essentially people are disposable tools for getting things done. He can be fond of individuals (including his son), but everything has to be subordinated to achieving what he perceives as the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He’s a walking embodiment of utilitarianism.

Finally, I think the way the series concludes is slightly too obviously didactic. This takes noting away from the central performances by Han Suk Kyu, Jang Hyuk and Shin Se Kyung. They are magnificent throughout albeit Shin Se Kyung doesn’t quite get the role I think she deserves given her importance to the language development program. But the script becomes a little preachy. Yes, the ideas are powerful but, for all the weepiness surrounding the heroic sacrifices made, things could have been neatly tied up without all the moralising. This does not change my view that this sageuk is outstanding and should be seen by as many as possible. But the slow shift in tone as we reached the ending did slightly take me down a notch at the end. Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) is somewhat sad.

For other reviews of this series, see:
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — the first four episodes
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes five to eight
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes nine to twelve
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes thirteen to sixteen
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes seventeen to twenty

Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes seventeen to twenty

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Well, as we come into episodes seventeen to twenty of Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011), the “big secret” is out as King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu), Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) and Moo Hyool (Jo Jin Woong) end up in a Mexican stand-off with Mr Big Root (Yoon Je Moon) himself plus Yoon Pyung (Lee Soo-Hyuk) and Gae Pa-Yi (Kim Sung-Hyun) — that’s Mr Invincible to everyone since so far no-one has been able to compete with him in the martial arts stakes. Were it not for the presence of So-Yi (Shin Se Kyung), the epitome of common sense, there would have been major bloodshed and the series would probably have juddered to a halt. As it is, everyone took a step back to consider the situation.

Han Suk Kyu, Shin Se Kyung and Jang Hyuk take a quiet moment before the storm

So how did we get into this mess? It all started off so well with Ddol-Bok doing his undercover infiltration of Milbon while the King moved forward with his plan to get the letters released. Except it all came unstuck (as you would expect in this type of Korean drama). A Milbon agent finally found out where the Prince was hiding and this exposed Ddol-Bok’s lie. However, this spooks our terrorists and expecting a raid, they begin preparations to move their HQ. Into this situation comes Lee Bang-Ji (Woo Hyeon) with a major new piece of the backstory trailing behind him. I won’t go into the detail of it but, suffice it to say, he was originally a bodyguard for the last Big Root but, because of his divided loyalties, he was not where he should have been courtesy of Jo Mal-Saeng (Lee Jae-Yong). That meant all but the current Mr Big Root were wiped out in King Taejong’s raid. On a massive guilt trip, he picked up Ddol-Bok as his disciple and, between them, they reached new heights in martial arts. He also trained Yoon Pyung but he’s nowhere near as good. However, he’s now old and has been beaten but not killed by Gae Pa-Yi who’s lining up to be the final big match contender for world champion when he gets to fight Ddol-Bok. While we wait for this fight, there’s a major political debate about the King’s motives for pushing these letters on to the people and whether it would be a bad thing.

Yoon Je Moon nicely balancing rationality with fanaticism

Mr Big Root puts his finger on a fundamental piece of dishonesty from the King who had grown really fed up and annoyed because the people were so unwilling to help themselves. They just stood around acting helpless all the time and were not assertive, even when their lives depended on it. If the King was being honest, he would admit he lost his love for them and decided he would shove the responsibility for self-help down their throats by teaching them to read. That way they’d never be able to use their inability to read as a defence for their inaction. More importantly, if they wanted to complain about a corrupt official, they could just write the King a letter and he would deal with it. As it is, the bureaucrats are filtering all the news to ensure his majesty never gets to hear the bad stuff. But Milbon’s problem is that if everyone did learn to read, they could all learn basic principles of civilised life from the Confucian works. Literacy could be the way to lift Koreans into a new level of sophistication. Unfortunately, when Milbon tracks down the missing Prince, they discover the first book to come of the printing presses will be Buddhist — a large chunk of the population used to be Buddhist before the nobility and scholars got all fired up about Confucianism. Outraged by what they see as a direct attack on their beliefs, they kill the Prince and send his body back to the King. Not surprisingly, the King is upset and it’s up to Ddol-Bok to tell him a few home truths.

Jo Mal-Saeng (Lee Jae-Yong) finally declaring for the King

Does a farmer love the animals? No he herds them and, when they are needed for food, he kills them. This is the unsentimental way of farmers. Is the way of the King any different? He calls the King a hypocrite for saying he wanted to transfer “his” responsibilities to them. Does he not know the slaves and peasants were already weighed down with the responsibilities of getting through life having enough to eat and without being arbitrarily killed? How can giving them any more responsibilities make their lives better? Yet if the King disliked or even hated his people, he would not care what happened to them. He would not fight to give them an education. So he must actually love them enough to democratise them through the opportunity to learn. So, after some thought, the King decides the rationale for his new writing is that it will be the “righteous voice of the people” and through a complicated plot involving Jo Mal-Saeng, So-Yi and her three female helpers are sent out into the countryside to do their thing under the watchful eye of Ddol-Bok. As we leave this quartet of episodes, Mr Big Root has just twigged that he’s been outmanoeuvred and sends out all his men to find these plague carriers before they can infect too many people.

It was sad to see Lee Bang-Ji die in the arms of Ddol-Bok but at least he had the satisfaction of a warrior’s death. Lee Jae-Yong as Jo Mal-Saeng has finally declared himself on the side of the angels, while Jang Hyuk and Han Suk Kyu continue to shine. Their relationship has lifted Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) out of the ordinary as a former slave now gets to tell the King hard truths when they are needed. Yoon Je Moon is also developing into a good antagonist as Mr Big Root. Without his thoughtful opposition, this series would have ground to a halt.

For other reviews of this series, see:
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — the first four episodes
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes five to eight
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes nine to twelve
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes thirteen to sixteen
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes twenty-one to end

Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)

November 24, 2012 10 comments

Cold War or 寒戰 (2012) shows the film-making talents of Hong Kong at their strongest and weakest. Sadly, the weaker elements win out and, although this is a not unsuccessful film, it’s a clear failure. So what’s it about? Ah, now that’s a very good question and the primary cause of the failure. We have the screenwriting and directing credits shared between Lok Man Leung and Kim-ching Luk. A partnership can work very well because it ensures the script appears on the screen in its most polished form. Often an independent director can take a different view of the script and make changes, sometimes for the better. In this case, the first half of the film bowls along with interest high. This is inherently exciting both in physical and political terms. A bomb goes off, diverting police resources and focusing attention on the district of Mongkok. During this time, a mobile response unit arrests a drunk driver who is probably a judge’s son. He has just written off a high-end car and has to be physically restrained. It’s never explained what happens to the arrested man nor what consequences flow from the incident. All we can say is that the five officers in the unit are later taken hostage and their van “disappears”. Since the judge’s son is not taken hostage, there must have been a handover to other police units but this is never mentioned or explained. This suggests the only reason for this action sequence is to allow Kim-ching Luk to demonstrate the experience he has developed as Second Unit Director on sixteen films including the recent Korean hit, The Thieves.

Tony Leung Ka Fai confronts his own demons


Anyway, once a ransom demand is made, the responsibility for the “incident” is seized by Waise Lee (Tony Leung Ka Fai). In the absence of the Commissioner who’s out of the country, he declares a state of emergency and mobilises all Hong Kong’s finest in an operation he code-names “Cold War”. This is actually a breach of operational guidelines because his son Joe K C Lee (Eddie Peng) is one of the five hostages. There’s supposed to be no emotional tie between the senior officer in charge and any significant person involved in an investigation. The next most senior officer, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) therefore organises the votes among the key senior officers to depose Lee and assume the responsibility as the next in line. This is the difference between Old and New School. Waise Lee represents the tradition of the police force. Although his father was a senior policeman, he started off on the streets as an ordinary officer and worked his way up on merit. Sean Lau is the new breed. He’s highly educated and has been fast-tracked up the management hierarchy as an effective administrator. This is the source of resentment from the Old School officers and although his style is very inclusive and has produced a more efficient force, there’s a faction that would prefer the street-smart Waise Lee to become the next Commissioner. Thus, during the initial stages of the film, we can see the investigation as a crystalisation of the fight over the future of the force. Should it become “professionalised” with outsiders parachuted in as senior officers based on generic management expertise, or should it retain the career path for any officer to get from the beat to the top on merit?


As the investigation proceeds, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) receives a tip-off from an unknown person in the police force. It alerts them to the fact this crime could not have been committed by an outsider. It requires specialist insider knowledge. The young Billy K.B. Cheung (Aarif Rahman) takes on the task of investigating, but quickly comes to focus on Waise Lee and Sean Lau. The alternative scenarios are that Waise Lee is masterminding the hostage drama to enhance his own reputation, or that Sean Lau is corrupt and doing it for the money. In due course, four of the five hostages are recovered, a senior officer dies in a shootout, and a big slice of the ransom money is taken. Billy Cheung interviews both officers but neither of them are impressed, calmly pointing out there’s absolutely no evidence of their involvement. It’s at this point that the film falls to pieces. Forensic evidence suggests several lines of inquiry, a car bomb kills the Treasury Officer who was responsible for signing out the ransom money. There’s a big police raid with lots of explosions and massive firepower from the SWAT team. The casualties are mounting. In the end, there’s some kind of explanation and an arrest is made but, to be honest, I’m still unclear about the motive. My gut tells me this was just a criminal who was in it for the money. Any other side effect was window-dressing used as a pretext to recruit the right people to make the whole thing work.

Aaron Kwok finding it can be tough when you take the responsibility


Frankly I despair of Hong Kong film-makers. They seem to favour lack of coherence as a virtue. All the majority do is cobble together a general idea to start themselves off and then think up justifications for fights and explosions. There’s little regard for credibility as one thing leads on to the next. Stuff happens until we get to the end and then there’s a vague explanation as if no-one in the cinema really cares what was going on so long as there were enough fights and explosions of increasingly destructive power. This is a tragedy. The initial set-up of the political infighting in the police has great potential but it’s completely wasted because, at the end, I have absolutely no idea why some officers were killed. What makes all this even more frustrating than usual is the propaganda asserting the Hong Kong justice system as the pinnacle of perfection, relying on the common law system, with the best police force in the world making the city a completely safe environment. This is after we’ve seen terrorist bombings, shootings and explosions. Hardly the best advertisement for a safe city. All the principal actors are excellent with Tony Leung Ka Fai and Aaron Kwok outstanding. As you watch, there’s a wealth of talent on display in what proves to be a very good ensemble performance. If only it had been in service to a credible plot, I would have been cheerleading from the front. As it is, I left the cinema deeply disappointed. The fact Cold War or 寒戰 is left with a cliffhanger showing the team expects to make a sequel is all the more dispiriting. It seems optimism is alive and well and living in Hong Kong.


Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010) also featuring Aarif Rahman
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012) also featuring Eddie Peng
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012) also featuring Eddie Peng


Edge of Black by J T Ellison

November 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Edge of Black by J T Ellison (Harlequin, 2012) is the second book featuring Dr Samantha Owens, another of these feisty forensic pathologists who’s quite happy to literally track down killers with the help of her current man, Xander Whitfield. Although this introduction sounds fairly disparaging — after all, we do seem to be developing quite a run of books with academically-inclined women who straddle the police procedural and thriller divide — this is actually rather good. Oh oh! I pause as I type this because, an uncountable number of moons ago, my long-suffering English teacher introduced me to the notion a critic could damn a book by offering only faint praise. It’s the grudging implication. In these days when marketing hype surrounds us, the moral for critics seems to have become either fulsome praise or complete silence. This reflects the new norm that, when asked for an opinion, we choose words representing the highest level of praise we believe justified. Should we only write half-hearted words, it implies there’s nothing better to say. Well, on the scale which starts with “unreadable rubbish” and ends with “should win an award”, this is a genuinely interesting puzzle to unravel, with a satisfying amount of charging around the landscape defending self and saving others, and not too much romance to slow things down for us old male readers who prefer thrillers to be as platonic as possible. In my vernacular that means a pretty damn fine book, but not one of the best!

J T Ellison


So where to start with this review? Having lost her husband and children in the first book, our heroine is settling in with a new man and starting a short-term teaching assignment when she becomes involved in the investigation of an act of terrorism. A toxin is released into the Washington Metro. Several hundred are hospitalised and three die. This immediately sets off alarm bells. Homeland Security has been caught on the hop with no advance chatter or other signs of an impending attack. Yet, by one of these coincidences much loved by thriller writers, our heroine’s new man was tipped off there was an attack coming. Oh dear! I appreciate this contrivance is necessary to set up the ending but, if you start off the journey on the wrong foot, it can take much of the enjoyment away. One of the reasons for reading puzzle books is for the reader to be a tabula rasa, i.e. to have the same level of ignorance as the investigator. We can then look over his or her shoulder as the evidence comes in and watch to see how the little grey cells process the data to arrive at the Eureka moment at the end. It’s hardly fair when the live-in lover turns out to have a backdoor route to solving a federal case. Although I concede it does force our pathologist into considering her legal and ethical position, this is scant compensation. What makes it worse is that, for this scenario to work out right, the key detective must also join in the conspiracy when he has every reason not to.


Fortunately, these crass contrivances do not detract from the essentially ingenious nature of the puzzle itself. If we ignore Xander’s role, Dr Sam and her detective buddy Darren Fletcher prove a good team. Working from different ends of the case, they both arrive at a good understanding of what’s actually going on, albeit seeing different aspects which fit together to make the final picture. It makes a pleasant change to have the detective credits shared so evenly. Normally, when we have one of these high-powered women as the lead character, none of the men around her get to share much of the limelight. But Fletcher is allowed to hold his head up and deliver some good results (although this is often building on Dr Sam’s work). If I could have stopped here, I would have been heralding this as one of the best books of the year. The backstory is beautifully worked out and the way some of the details of the immediate plot are resolved is outstanding. But J T Ellison is determined to write a thriller and so grafts on this pathetic subplot involving Xander. Is the writing of a high standard throughout? Yes, the prose style is excellent! As written, does the plot show good construction and maintain the pace until the end? Yes, at a technical level, everything about this book is excellent! It even obeys the unity of time constraint which is always pleasing. This makes the final result a complete tragedy. I have no problem with my heroine staggering around in remote forests being menaced by deranged killers. This is in the nature of thrillers and, if done well, I’m the first to jump up cheering and applauding. But this heroine only ends up in the expected danger because of woeful coincidences and contrivances.


So there you have it. By my standards, Edge of Black is a great police procedural or pathology-led investigation, but a thriller whose inner workings depend on unjustified coincidences. On the other hand, you may feel Dr Sam and Xander should be destined to have an adventure and don’t care about the fortuitous way in which she can meet his parents and save his life in the same package. If so, pick this up. This is just your kind of romantically-tinged book.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks

November 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks (Orbit, 2012) is the ninth Culture novel. For the record, although there’s an internal chronology, it’s actually largely irrelevant to the enjoyment of individual books. You can more or less read them in any order and still understand what’s going on (and enjoy them, of course).


Most of the species in the Culture are humanoid but, even when they are insects, there’s a fairly pervasive laid-back quality about them all. Yes, some are militaristic and competitive, particularly when they are still relatively young, but in this galaxy where no-one ever experiences poverty or is denied the opportunity to work (if that’s desired), the active pursuit of individual satisfaction is the main dynamic. This means, for most practical purposes, the business of running the galaxy has been handed over to the Minds, the AIs who look after the shop while the native species play at being adults. They are a combination of quartermasters and police officers with powers comparable to the gods of Ancient Greece or Rome. As with those gods, the machines are capable of great deeds but equally capable of amazing disasters. They epitomise the old paradox that an AI may have access to a vast amount of knowledge but that does not, of itself, make the machines wise. They are just better informed when they fuck up.


This leads to a more general question. If a society claims to be liberal, how far will it go to defend the liberties of its citizens? The answer, of course, is that the AIs have a kind of militant agenda but they long ago decided they should apply a set of moral principles as a limit on their interventions. In a modern context, they are somewhat similar to the United Nations which is only allowed to act when there’s a consensus. But like the individual species, the Minds game the various political and practical systems, and often decide to intervene in real-world affairs simply because they are bored by just floating around not being involved. After all, sitting with all this fire-power at their virtual fingertips and never having the chance to pull the trigger is deeply frustrating. Even if only to satisfy themselves the guns are still working, they have to fire them every now and then.


In almost every society at some point during its development, religion becomes important. It reflects a need in those societies. Usually, it’s a way of fostering a greater sense of security. Fear can be reduced and happiness encouraged if the people form and maintain illusions about the benefits to come in the next life. As Karl Marx says, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature. . . It is the opium of the people.” i.e. it’s a form of escapist fantasy that can relieve people who are in distress and/or take away their pain. Except, of course, if you take opium as a medication, it does not cure the injury causing the pain, and religion does not actually remove poverty in societies that often care little what happens to the economically disadvantaged. Indeed, societies that are heartless exploit religion as a distraction. Without it, there might be revolutions with the powerful deposed.


The Sublime is a different dimension to which individuals or, if desired, entire civilisations, can relocate. They end up in a state which we cannot understand, more or less out of contact with those who remain in current reality. One of the Minds who has been there and come back says very little about the experience, but describes being back in reality as an extreme form of asceticism. The Gzilt civilisation has a Book of Truth that, uniquely in the history of the galaxy’s religions, has been found an accurate prediction of events through time. As this civilisation prepares to enter the Sublime, a ship bearing information about the Book is destroyed. This suggests the possibility of a conspiracy and the AIs interest themselves in an investigation. In a parallel move on Gzilt, Vyr Cossont is called out of her retirement from military service where she’s trying to master the titular Hydrogen Sonata, and tasked to go off in search of an ancient survivor who may be able to shed light on how the Book of Truth came into existence.

Iain M Banks looking out at the world


Thematically, the book is about how we decide what represents personal fulfillment. The Hydrogen Sonata is a metaphor for the Sublime. Vyr is trying so hard to play an essentially unplayable piece of music, she’s even had an extra pair of arms added to give herself the best chance of being able to play it, note perfect. We can see this is only personal fulfillment because everyone with ears agrees the work has no intrinsic musical merit. Why then does she pursue this? A part of her motivation comes from having heard an Avatar of one of the AIs play it without error. At first this was demotivating. As merely a competent musician, she felt she could never hope to recapture the level of perfection achieved by a machine. But as she winds down her life in the real and prepares for the transition into the Sublime, the struggle to replicate that perfection gives her remaining days shape and meaning. She has heard perfection. Now she wants to get there through her unaided effort. This is an ironic endeavour because it’s essentially futile. There’s no-one around who will appreciate or understand the extent of the physical challenge to play the instrument, let alone enjoy the resulting performance.


If we now scale up to the Gzilt decision to enter the Sublime, the people could be seeing this as the next logical step in their progression to perfection. The Book of Truth has been guiding them but it has run out of predictions (or prophesies if you prefer). This silence in their holy book has been one of the factors moving the debate forward. If the Book says there’s nothing left for them to achieve in the real, it must be time to transition. But let’s hypothesise that the Book of Truth is a fake, perhaps sent by another race as a joke or some kind of social experiment. Would revelations of manipulation by another race affect the decision to transition? With only a few days left and the majority of the population already in storage to ensure everyone makes the transition at the same time, would the need to suppress this debate be a motive for murder? If so, it would be the final gesture of a heartless society that knowingly plans to move its people to a different dimension even though there’s no guarantee such a move will be an improvement on their “living” conditions. When they do relocate, the scavenger races will come to homestead on the now vacant planets and take such of the technology as they can understand. There’s no sense in letting all this good stuff go to waste. And then the final question: suppose the AIs find out the truth and the Book is a fake, do they tell the people? How far should the Minds go in interfering in the lives of a people that have decided to move on into the Sublime?


Hydrogen Sonata is not one of the best Culture novels but, ranking it against other science fiction books published this year, it’s still very good. In the main, this is due to the quality of the ideas which are outstanding. The problem comes in the more general lack of pace. Those of you who are Culture addicts will find a lot of new information to collate and enfold. But the ordinary reader is likely to find much of the information supplied is irrelevant to understanding the plot. It’s Culture background and not essential to advancing the story.


For other Culture novels, see:
Surface Detail.


This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.


Merge and Disciple by Walter Mosley

November 21, 2012 1 comment

The allegory is one of the most difficult of all literary forms to write. When an author writes in factual terms, we have well-established tools to use in judgement of the quality of the narrative. We can decide whether the facts resemble real-world experiences, whether the behaviour shown would be expected of real people in comparable situations. Credibility is a hard task-master, but if what you write purports to capture truth, then it’s a fair yardstick. But what if your text is intended as an extended metaphor? Suddenly all tests seeking to measure truth are redundant. What the author intends as the allegorical message is not mentioned in the literal meaning of the words used to form the text. The intended meaning is hidden in the silences between the words or lines of words. This makes the text enigmatic. In a simile, we’re given a pointer because we’re told what the meaning is “like”. Metaphors lack such a signpost to guide us. We’re forced to intuit or infer the meaning using our intelligence and, in a sense, that’s where the problems start. If the meaning is pathetically obvious, we curl our lips in contempt. We may even suggest we’re being patronised if something has been so dumbed down. Move to the other end of the scale and many will scratch their heads in confusion or even anger that the meaning is so obscure. We bitch the author has failed to make the message clear. We rant that perhaps the author has no message and is simply hiding his lack of inspiration behind the obscurity.

So here we come with two more contributions to the Crosstown to Oblivion series (Tor, 2012) by Walter Mosley. The first is called Merge. An African American who’s not very bright is sitting quietly reading a self-improvement set of lectures when he suddenly becomes aware his world has been invaded. Sorry, that’s both literally and metaphorically true. In the sense of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, a being has come to Earth. Perhaps, fortunately, the intention is not to replace the human as in the novel, but as a trailblazer hoping to merge with humanity. In the metaphorical sense, our human hero has almost completely withdrawn from the world. He has lost his two real friends and the girl who slept with him has gone off with another man. He then won millions on lotto and could passively insulate himself from other people. So when this odd thing appears in his room, he’s not so much frightened as puzzled. His space is invaded but he doesn’t feel threatened. When it asks for food, he offers it fruit which it happily absorbs. So begins a gentle mutual exploration.

Walter Mosley without the usual blue backlighting

The question, of course, is what meaning we’re to draw from this man’s ultimate decision to merge with the alien. We could look back at the history of slavery and wonder whether the modern African American is still subservient, yet the reality of the merger is an equal partnership between the species. This is not a return to the yoke as such, but there’s an amazing quality of humility and forbearance on display. He endures torture at the hands of angry white Americans. Even the Islamic warriors held beside him in Guantanamo Bay sympathise with him. To that extent, this stereotypes the whites as aggressive in the defence of what they perceive as their own interests. By this, they sacrifice their chance of access to the benefits of the merger. I suppose we could be playing “the meek shall inherit the Earth” game, but this lacks the more general trappings of a Christian allegory. Or we could have an immigration debate story. An African American citizen “marries” an illegal alien except, because he becomes an alien (in part), he’s one of the people the GOP thinks should self-deport. That’s why the military inquisitors chop bits off him in Guantanamo. Indeed, when you look at which human groups actually go through the merger process, almost all of them are marginalised outsiders. These are the people who see little or no future for themselves in the current America and are hoping for something better when they merge. It’s ironic because if America was a better place with a fairer society, everyone might feel like merging or no-one would (in the latter case, everyone would perish). In many ways, Merge could be read as quite an anti-American novella taking aim at some of the worst aspects of current society. Or it may be signalling the possibility of some hope for the downtrodden if they embrace opportunities for change. Given all this, I remain undecided what the intended message is. However, this does prove to be one of the more interesting allegories, managing to maintain a good pace and developing a good set of variations on the theme. No matter what it’s supposed to mean, I found it enjoyable all the way to my arrival at the end.

Disciple, on the other hand, is less successful. From my stance as an atheist with only limited knowledge of the detail of Christian beliefs, I take it to be a kind of parable, loosely based on Abrahamic traditions. An alien contacts one of life’s losers and, after offering proof of an ability to see into the future, persuades the man to become its servant. At an early stage, the alien uses our “hero” as an instrument of death. For his obedience, he is rewarded with wealth and as much freedom as he can create for himself. The only problem is the guilt. He takes responsibility for being the immediate cause of a few dying so that many can be saved. It’s an application of utilitarianism and Mosley invites us to consider what degree of responsibility should fall on the shoulders of the “innocent” agent. The man had no idea what effect would result from following a simple set of instructions, yet he was the direct cause of transmitting an infectious disease. Because he infected a high level politician, it was detected far earlier than would otherwise have been the case. His actions saved millions of people.

Once the disciple understands his role, he can never be innocent again. He knows that following the instructions given to him by the alien could be the cause of more deaths. So now he has a choice. Does he abandon the alien? Does he follow instructions to take Isaac to Moriah? Will he actually sacrifice the animal trapped in the bushes? That’s why this is not strictly Abrahamic. In this case, our hero is not substituting a ram. He’s substituting a smaller for a larger number of people. Either way, people die. It’s simply a question of how many.

I’m inclined to give this pair of novellas the benefit of the doubt. They avoid some of the preachiness that has blighted earlier efforts in this direction. Merge is clearly better than Disciple but both are interesting and, in these superficial times, you can’t ask for more than that.

For reviews of other books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
Blonde Faith
The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin
Jack Strong
Known To Evil
Little Green
The Long Fall
When the Thrill Is Gone

%d bloggers like this: