Book review: Thirteen by Richard K Morgan

ThirteenThirteen by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When society stops being violent someone will try to genetically re-engineer violence.

Carl Marsalis is a specialist bounty hunter. Genetically engineered and indoctrinated from birth to be a dangerous weapon, he now hunts others like him. After landing in prison in the wrong part of the former USA – Jesusland – he is seconded to track down someone who is killing his way across the former USA after eating his way through the crew of a Mars-to-Earth flight. But the cannibal seems to be a step ahead of the game and not picking targets at random. It’s as though he has help and is possibly working for someone as their hitman.

After recently finishing the Altered Carbon series, I decided to see what other Morgan novels I could get my hands on. Thirteen promised to be similar to Altered Carbon. The setting was similarly cyber-punk, the mystery/detective narrative is front and centre, and Marsalis likes to get violent and have sex with any and all female characters.

But where Altered Carbon used those elements in a compelling way, Thirteen was too indulgent with them. The novel feels padded out and runs far too long. This leads to pacing problems, with some sections really bogging down. The charisma of Kovacs is not present in Marsalis, despite their similarities, so you don’t feel the same thrill from him dispatching a bad guy or having the love interest* throw herself at him.

I think I could have forgiven those aspects a bit more if it weren’t for the “conversations” between characters about genetics. These were long discussions that bashed the reader with the point. I’d have had less of a problem with them if they weren’t quite so wrong on the science. The “conversations” amounted to telling us that we are essentially only our genetics. That’s not only nonsense (GxExM is how we discuss genetics in science) but is pretty much spouting modern-day scientific racism.**

That point is particularly ironic given the obvious analogies for racism and backward thinking being drawn. “Look at how backward these religious bigots are. Look at how badly they treat black people. Hey, check out my thinly veiled racism disguised as science!” I don’t know if I missed something, but this really did read to me as admonishing racism whilst justifying it as not something we can get over. If that was Morgan’s point, then it would have been great if he could have done it in about 150 pages less.

With all that said, this was still enjoyable and I am looking forward to reading more from Morgan.

* I’m being overly flippant and critical here. Sevgi Ertekin is a fairly well-developed character but her role does appear to be just the love interest and character motivation.

** Yes, scientific racism is back. Modern-day phrenology comes in many forms. Often it is IQ studies and hereditarianism, sometimes it is labelled Human Biodiversity (HBD), other times it will be straight up eugenicists and white nationalists. Reading about its insidious creep into academia and mainstream discourse is sickening.

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Book vs Movie: The Wizard of Oz – What’s the Difference?

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A cinematic classic versus its literary classic in this month’s What’s the Difference from CineFix.

The Wizard of Oz movie is definitely a film that I think is deserving of being called okay. With the list of highly memorable song and the amazing use of colour, you can see why this film is so perfectly adequate entertainment for a rainy Sunday.

Return to Oz came out when I was young. Unlike its predecessor, it was more faithful to the books and kept their much darker and nastier tone. This, of course, meant that reviewers and other opinion havers* thought it was terrible and not suitable for children… Despite being more faithful to the kids’ books it was based upon.

I never really got into the Oz books as a kid. They were no Magic Faraway Tree, so they lost my interest almost immediately. I feel as though I should revisit them now as a sleep-deprived parent to give them a more fair assessment. Or maybe I’ll just see what land has arrived at the top of the tree this month.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, and neither was the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. The 1939 classic turns 80 this year, so it’s time to look back at Dorothy and Toto’s journey from the pages of L. Frank Baum’s book, to the glorious technicolor screens of the movie. So gather your courage, you Cowardly Lions, open up those Tin Man hearts and pick your Scarecrow brains because it’s time to ask, What’s the Difference?!

* Ha-ha, I did an irony.

Book review: Game of Mates by Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters

Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the NationGame of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation by Cameron Murray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t want to see the final season of Game of Mates, I’ve heard the entire thing falls flat.

Cameron Murray and Professor Paul Frijters set out to expose the inner workings of the Australian economy in Game of Mates. Through a series of case studies, they outline how a few (the Jameses) take from the many (the Bruces) by blurring the line between business and the regulators. Then, knowing that their readers will be suitably gobsmacked and annoyed, call for the masses (Bruces) to make a change.

As with any book about real-life grifting in the halls of power, this book made me annoyed and disillusioned. There is nothing more galling than to have someone show you how the grift is endemic and then realise you kinda knew. We kinda all know. There is no surprise here. And that means there is no “justice”. Cue scene of me staring out the window as rain drips down it.

Murray and Frijters conclude with some ways to stop the grift:

1) Reclaim the value of grey gifts for the public.
Essentially, when the grifters rig the system they gift themselves advantage/money/power. We have to tear that down. One example was Public-Private Partnerships on infrastructure developments, which essentially end up being a gift of public assets to private businesses with a guaranteed profit underwritten by the public.

2) Disrupt (James’) the grifters’ coordination.
This is fairly obvious, stop the revolving door between public and private interests, put in oversight, make sure the oversight isn’t part of the problem, etc.

3) Bust the myths (James) the grifters use.
This isn’t just about addressing the claims cherry-picked “experts” will make, such as promoting projects that aren’t needed (examples are given, there are plenty). This is also about reclaiming the narrative from these grifters. In Australia, this is particularly difficult as many of the media outlets are either owned or have close links to the same people grifting.

4) Fight back.
Disillusion can lead to apathy. That’s what keeps us on the losing end.

Speaking of the losing end, the costs of this game are:

  • New Housing – 70% of the gains from rezoning;
  • Transportation infrastructure – 68% of the investment;
  • Superannuation – 27% gobbled up;
  • Mining – 48% of the profits;
  • Banking – 60% more expensive for the masses;
  • Taxes – 23% extra taxation borne by the masses (I’ve seen a figure suggesting this is a global issue and sees the average person taxed proportionally more);
  • Pharmacies, medicines, and health – 10% more expensive;
  • Higher education – 100% more expensive…

Okay, so clearly this book hit the mark and is enlightening. Why only three stars, I hear someone say? Well, while I appreciate your question, I’m wondering what you’re doing in my house.

I think the problem I had with this book was the polemic style to it. We are told. I listed the figures above, and whilst those numbers are backed up, they are big claims that require fairly solid evidence. I felt the evidence was a bit flimsy. Not wrong, but maybe selective, or misrepresentative.

Another example was around how to stop the revolving door which amounted to banning people from getting a different job in the same industry. That’s probably not as well thought out as it needs to be.

Game of Mates is worth reading but it felt underdone.

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The limits of imagination

Many would think of authors as having limitless imaginations. We can imagine amazing futures, fantastical worlds, utopias, dystopias, magics, stuff that we call science that is actually just more magic, but we can’t imagine a rich person as wealthy as actual rich people.

That’s right when it came to thinking of massive piles of money that a fictional character would go swimming through, it didn’t amount to as much money as our actual wealthiest people.

Fictional 15 richest

  1. Scrooge McDuck – $65.4 billion
  2. Smaug – $54.1 billion
  3. Carlisle Cullen – $46.0 billion
  4. Tony Stark – $12.4 billion
  5. Charles Foster Kane – $11.2 billion
  6. Bruce Wayne – $9.2 billion
  7. Richie Rich – $5.8 billion
  8. Christian Grey – $2.2 billion
  9. Tywin Lannister – $1.8 billion
  10. C. Montgomery Burns – $1.5 billion
  11. Walden Schmidt – $1.3 billion
  12. Lara Croft – $1.3 billion
  13. Mr Monopoly – $1.2 billion
  14. Lady Mary Crawley – $1.1 billion
  15. Jay Gatsby – $1.0 billion (Source: Fictional 15, 2013) Total = $215.5 billion

Let’s compare that to the real-life Richie McRiches.

Real 15 richest

  1. Jeff Bezos – $131 billion
  2. Bill Gates – $96.5 billion
  3. Warren Buffett – $82.5 billion
  4. Bernard Arnault (and family) – $76 billion
  5. Carlos Slim Helu (and family) – $64 billion
  6. Amancio Ortega – $62.7 billion
  7. Larry Ellison – $62.5 billion
  8. Mark Zuckerberg – $62.3 billion
  9. Michael Bloomberg – $55.5 billion
  10. Larry Page – $50.8 billion
  11. Charles ‘f@#k the environment’ Koch – $50.5 billion
  12. David ‘f@#k poor people’ Koch – $50.5 billion
  13. Mukesh Ambani – $50 billion
  14. Sergey Brin – $49.8 billion
  15. Francoise Bettencourt Meyers (and family) – $49.3 billion (Source) Total = $993.9 billion

On the fictional list, we have a literal 350-year-old blood-sucking parasite who had several lifetimes to accumulate his wealth. Another is the image we conjure up when we think of rich people. One character even has rich in his name twice. Yet for all of their billions, they aren’t matching it with the real-life billionaires.

It says something that the richest fictional character has half as much money as the richest man in the real world. And the total worth of the Top 15s couldn’t be more different. All of the world’s authors couldn’t come up with a list of the wealthiest characters with as much money as their real-life counterparts ($215 vs $994 billion!!).

But the worst part is the real-life billionaires. Do we see Jeff Bezos swimming in a giant vault of money? Does he even own a giant vault? What type of pathetic billionaire is he? Too busy stopping his workers unionising to enjoy a swim in his money is what he is. Bill Gates has not once tried to scare dwarves away from his mountain of gold, on the plus side, he isn’t a gold hoarding dragon. And will we ever see the Warren Buffet spanking a college newspaper reporter sex tape, and will that be hotter than the 50 Shades of Grey movies?

What about superheroes? Zuckerberg isn’t donning a cowl and fighting crime, he’s too busy selling elections. Tony Stark was fighting to save the planet, the Koch brothers only seem to have time to see the planet burn. Would it kill them both – or at least one more – to try to build an arc reactor?

Authors may not be able to imagine ridiculous levels of wealth for their characters, but billionaires seem equally unable to imagine doing something worthwhile with their billions.

Book review: The Three Secret Cities by Matthew Reilly

The Three Secret Cities (Jack West Jr #5)The Three Secret Cities by Matthew Reilly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The world is only days away from destruction. Again. Again.

With only a few hours rest after winning The Great Games, Jack West Jr is thrown back into the fray. The secret ruling elite’s world has been thrown into disarray with only a few days to save the world. They don’t think they need Jack’s help, so they send a secretive order of assassins after him. But without Jack and his team, the chances of saving the world are close to zero.

I finally got around to reading my Xmas present. I have a standing order for Matthew Reilly books that my parents dilligently fulfil. Ever since picking up my first Scarecrow adventure, I’ve been hooked on Reilly’s fast-paced thrill-rides. The Three Secret Cities was once again a fast-paced thrill-ride.

But…

After thoroughly enjoying The Four Legendary Kingdoms I was excited to see what else would happen in this three-part Jack West Jr adventure. One of my earlier criticisms of the Jack West Jr series was that it often felt like stuff just happened, that you were reading a series of explosions without the peril and tension. The Four Legendary Kingdoms didn’t have that feeling. But after finishing The Three Secret Cities that sense of stuff just happening was back.

This left me with a troubling thought: have Reilly’s books always been heavy on the explosions and light on the peril of those explosions, has Reilly lost a step, or am I just not as entertained by Reilly as I once was? I noted in my revisit review of Ice Station that several things suddenly annoyed me and were suddenly distracting. So it is possible that I’m not enjoying Reilly’s novels like I once did.

While this does sound like strong criticism, The Three Secret Cities was still solidly entertaining. I just hope the next instalment has plenty of peril. Suddenly.

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Book review: Whispering Death by Garry Disher

Whispering Death (Inspector Challis, #6)Whispering Death by Garry Disher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cat burglary seems like a career that should involve more standing near open doors deciding whether to go out.

Inspector Hal Challis is reaching the end of a chapter in his life. A new relationship, a career he’s frustrated with, a dying car, and a finished hobby. But the town of Waterloo has become the scene of a series of sexual assaults by a man disguised as a copper, a bank robber is making the rounds, and a cat burglar is making her presence felt. A great time to tell the local press exactly what you think about budget cuts.

If I’m remembering correctly, this is my third Garry Disher novel and second Challis story. Disher is to Australian crime writing what Ian Rankin is to the UK and Michael Connelly is to the US. He is respected, consistent, and knows how to tell a tale. Whispering Death is one of those solid and consistent crime novels.

I’m writing this review a few days after having finished reading Whispering Death. And I think my characterisation of this novel as “solid and consistent” is also partially a criticism as well as praise. It’s an entertaining read and I think many will want to read more about Grace the cat burglar in a future instalment (or spinoff). But I’m also noticing that even though it has only been a few days, I can’t really think of anything that memorable about the book to mention here.*

That said, Disher continues to entertain and I look forward to reading more of his Challis (and Wyatt) series.

* As my wife pointed out to me, this could be a factor of my age. I’m no longer a twenty or thirty-something. A solid book has plenty of other solid books to blend in with in my increasingly fuzzy memory (having kids ruins your brain) compared with a decade or more ago. So as I age and read more, the harder it will be to entertain me. The fewer thrills I will receive from even great authors with great books. Until finally, no longer able to find joy in the simple pleasure of reading, I commit suicide by Dan Brown.

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Book review: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Communist ManifestoThe Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only thing you have to lose is your car keys. And chains.

“The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”

The Communist Manifesto was part of my reading project to have some actual knowledge about the current bogeymen of cultural discourse. How could it not be? Various (sarcasm alert) intellectual giants, including Canadian self-help gurus and fake universities, have blamed Marx personally – poor Engels, always the bridesmaid, never the bride – and communism generally for every malady of the last 150 years. Obviously, they would know this after having studiously analysed the Manifesto… oh, and all of the hundreds of other texts on the subject.

What struck me about this text is how it captures a few essences of society, both then and now, with an insight that resonates. But it also manages to feel immature and underdeveloped compared to the later writings from Marx and Engels. From my further reading, this appears to be a common criticism.

There were interesting insights into women’s and workplace rights. These ideas from Marx and Engels’ have had to be implemented in our society. They realised that a capitalistic society couldn’t function the way it did. So those changes have been implemented. And it took social and union movements to make our society function, but not the communist revolution Marx and Engels expected.

Another interesting aspect was the definition of bourgeoise socialists. The idea of people advocating for small manageable changes to gradually improve society sounded an awful lot like centrist liberals or socially conscious millionaires/billionaires. They will admit the system is rigged and that it is unfair, but do you honestly expect them to sleep on less than 800 thread count sheets? Who is the real victim here?*

That isn’t to say there aren’t valid criticisms of the Manifesto. As an example, people like Sloterdijk have criticised Communism for channelling rage from their life in the direction of an “other” – in this case, the rich/capitalists. This rage is channelled by the ruling class of the communist movement and used to empower themselves. I.e. it becomes just another control mechanism, exchanging one oppressive power for another.

But it is clear from the Manifesto that this is/was not the intention. Something many critics miss.** Marx refused to speculate in detail about the nature of communism, arguing that it would arise through historical processes, and was not the realisation of a pre-determined moral ideal. Maybe this was a fatal flaw in his thinking, such that if he had been more prescriptive his writings wouldn’t have been used by authoritarian/totalitarian people to seize power.

There has been a lot of academic and scholastic work on Marxism since The Communist Manifesto. But this short work still remains a worthwhile read.

* See my review of Winners Take All.

** And let’s be honest, it is deliberately missed. Communism is the “other” of the 20th century. They were the evil we could rally together to defeat. So actual understanding of communism has been deliberately negatively framed. “Look at all those starving people under communism! Ignore all the starving people under capitalism!”

See my review of Socialism a Short Introduction.

Further reading: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/

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