21 December 2009

Review: Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks. Orbit, 1987/2008

The Culture is Banks' future post-human Utopia, of sorts. People in the Culture can change their gender at will, secrete a variety of drugs from genofixed glands, don't use money, and have hyper-intelligent machines. The Culture's machines, unlike those in, say, Terminator, are fairly benevolent, and the Culture's people are happy living under them, in their hedonistic paradise.

The Culture's spaceships are controlled by Minds, one variety of the hyper-intelligent AIs.

Consider Phlebas looks at the Idiran-Culture war, which is a war of principles. The Idirans are a war-like species (think the Klingons, except tripedal beetle-lizards) who are immortal religious zealots and consider the Culture an inferior species. The Culture sees the Idirans as a threat to their lifestyle and expansion throughout the galaxy.

Bora Horza Gobuchul is a Changer who works for the Idirans. Changers are a subspecies of human, who, as their name implies, can alter their appearance at will, to resemble someone else. He doesn't like the Culture's reliance on machines and thinks their plan for life is too sterile, and inhuman.

Perosteck Balveda is an agent of the Culture's Special Circumstances division, a sort of spy, who is trying to stop Horza.

A Mind escapes from an Idiran attack and hides itself on a Planet of the Dead: a place where the people wiped each other out millenia ago. Planets of the Dead are guarded by Dra'Azon, a highly advanced species. The Idirans want to get their hands on the Mind, because it's Culture, and they want to control it. The Culture wants to get their hands on it, because it's more advanced than anything else they'd had before.

Horza used to live on Schar's World, so the Idirans task him with going there. He joins up with a hapless troop of mercenaries, and he sets about his task, with misadventures befalling him along the way.

The text is quite long -- 515 pages -- but it doesn't drag. Banks is good at dropping hints and picking them up chapters later. It ends on more of a downer than I prefer for books I read, but it fits the story, so I won't complain.

I've also read The Player of Games (more game theory than I cared about, so it was kind of boring) and Excession (wherein the ships take center stage, and I enjoyed it greatly.)

If you like space operas on a grand scale (where the ships travel kilo-light-years per hour), pick up some Banks.

20 December 2009

Disney World!

I went to Disney World with the in-laws for winter holiday festivities and togetherness time. I hadn't been since winter 95 or so, and the park has expanded a lot since then!

I won't go into excruciating detail here, since there's no easy way to cut text on Blogger, so you just get the highlights.

- We stayed in the Treehouse Villas at Saratoga Springs. They were nice, and recently renovated and updated. They were a bit further from more social things than I may have liked (the restaurant in the main house and pool were a bit far to walk), but they were comfortable and quiet.

- The Disney Dining Plan is more trouble than it's worth. It meant that one was limited to choosing certain items, when one may have preferred something else, so as not to waste the pre-paid food options.

- We ate at Marrakesh (Morocco pavilion, Epcot), Jiko (Animal Kingdom Lodge), Kona Cafe (Grand Polynesian), the Rose and Crown (UK pavilion, Epcot), the Electric Umbrella (Epcot), Columbia Harbour House (Liberty Square, Magic Kingdom), and a place in The Land whose name I forget. The Dole Whip float was awesome: soft-serve pineapple ice cream in pineapple juice. Hit the spot!

- The new Everest ride goes backward in the dark, and I don't recommend it.
- Space Mountain is still fun.
- Kilimanjaro Safari is best early in the morning, when the critters are active.
- The Jack Sparrow insertions into Pirates are subtle and well-done.
- Haunted Mansion is still cheese-tastic.
- IllumiNations is best viewed from Norway.
- Spectromagic is as much fun as it was when I was 6, even if they changed it a lot (and don't call it Mickey's Electric Light Parade anymore.)

- I got my picture with Thumper, Donald, Lilo & Stitch, and Aladdin & Jasmine.
- I got an Eeyore plush in safari costume, with a detachable Velcro tail.

11 December 2009

Book review: All the Shah's Men

All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, Stephen Kinzer. Wiley 2003, 2008 (additional preface)

When Kinzer first published this book in 2003, GW Bush had started a pre-emptive war in Afghanistan and was preparing to start a second pre-emptive war cum nation-building exercise in Iraq. The average American couldn't have told you then that the US had aided Saddam Hussein in the early 80s, during the Iran-Iraq war. They probably still couldn't, today.

This book is a history of the 1953 US- and British-led coup in Iran that overthrew the first democratically-elected ruler of the country, Mohammed Mossadegh, and reinstated a corrupt Shah. The average American doesn't even know this happened. It wasn't covered in my history classes in high school. The US government didn't even acknowledge their part in it until 2000: almost 50 years after it happened (and, for the record, 2 years after I graduated from college.)

Kinzer begins with a brief overview of Iranian & Persian history, starting with Darius, touching on Mohammed and the Arabic/Islamic conquests, and discussing the unique version of Islam practiced in Iran, Shi'ism, which combines some aspects of Zoroastrianism into Mohammed's teachings. (The differences between Sunni and Shia Islam are more complex than that. I'm not qualified to go into detail on it.) There was a fight over succession, between Mohammed's grandson Ali and someone else. The Shia believed that Ali was the rightful successor, and he fought -- and died -- to maintain his position.

Ali's sacrifice, going against overwhelming odds, to fight a corrupt regime is a cornerstone of Iranian culture (which stems from Zoroastrian belief, I believe). Iranian history is filled with revolutions against corrupt dynasties.

He goes into great detail on the story of the coup itself. He begins with Mossadegh's fight to nationalize the oil company. Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was controlled by England, and they gave a meager fraction of the profits to Iran. Mossadegh wanted to see the books, and he went to the world court in the Hague to get England to treat them fairly. It didn't work. Then he was elected prime minister, and he decreed AIOC to be fully Iranian.

The British treated them horribly, as they did all their colonies. The Iranian workers at Abadan refinery lives in squalor, while the British had luxurious houses and servants. The colonialist attitude they expressed is appalling.

The British didn't want to lose their oil, so Churchill pestered Truman to help them overthrow the government. Truman thought it was a really bad idea and refused. Then Eisenhower was elected, and the Dulles brothers because CIA chief and Secretary of State. They had a Goal, and they wanted to overthrow Mossadegh, damn the consequences. They used the spectre of the 1950s - communism - to convince Eisenhower that it was necessary (because the USSR bordered Iran, and there was an active communist party there.)

Western politics in the Middle East are a sordid tale of nation building and colonialism, founded on access to oil. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.

After a year of politicking in Iran, Kermit Roosevelt (Teddy's grandson) instigated a coup. The first attempt was unsuccessful, but a second attempt several days later worked. The Shah was reinstated, and he became increasingly dictatorial, until 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters declared the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The CIA's success in Iran (they were warned that it was a bad idea, but the Dulles brothers were single-minded) led them to believe that coups and nation-building exercises carried out covertly were a good idea, and the US went on to overthrow governments around the world.

Iran has been in the news recently, especially since the election in June. For anyone who wants to understand better what's happening there now, and why they took the American embassy hostage in 1979, and why we're the Great Satan, I recommend this book. Actually, everyone should read this book.

I knew a couple guys in high school who came from Iran. One of them, Sepehr N, must have come fairly young, because he didn't have an accent at all. The other, Soheil M, came in 8th or 9th grade, and he had ESL classes for all of 9th grade. (They both graduated at the top of our class.) I vaguely remember Soheil mentioning why he'd left; I want to say he had family in the military? I don't know. I wish I did. I wish there had been some class where history other than the Glorious American Society was discussed. That would be a good thing.

09 December 2009

Double-barrel review: Two Regencies by Georgette Heyer

Lady of Quality, 1972; Sourcebooks reissue 2007

Annis Wychwood, age 29, is "on the shelf," as they say. She enjoys being single, but finds her brother irritating, so she moves to Bath with a chaperone. One day, she meets a pair of teenagers in a broken carriage, who end up changing her life. The girl is an orphan, left in the charge of her aunt, who keeps her in an overprotected life. Her uncle (on the other side), Mr. Oliver Carleton, is rude and generally wants nothing to do with her, not being particularly interested in raising a teenager.

It's no surprise that Annis and Oliver meet and cross their verbal swords, exchanging set-downs and the like in the Regency style. It's also no surprise that they end up falling for each other, somewhat inexplicably. (You can deduce that simply by reading the back of the book.) But half the fun of reading a romance novel, whose outcome you can generally foresee when you meet your protagonists, is how the characters get there.

I liked this one better than the next one, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on.

The Grand Sophy, 1950; Sourcebooks reissue 2009.

Sophy is sent to live with her aunt and uncle while her father is on a diplomatic mission to Brazil. Her mother died when she was young, and she spent far too much time (for the mores of the period) around soldiers. She's headstrong and generally fabulous. She's only 22, which I kept forgetting.

While at her aunt and uncle's, she resolves to "fix" some bad matches in her family, starting with her cousin Cecelia, who's fallen in love with a poet. Her second target is her cousin Charles, who's taken up with a rather dull character, who's marrying him for the money and is against Fun.

Naturally, Charles and Sophy take to each other like cats and dogs. I'd forgotten that it was common (or at least not taboo) among nobles during that period (indeed, up until the early 20th century) to marry their cousins, or I wouldn't have been quite as surprised when Charles' reaction indicated he was going to marry Sophy.

A Heyer novel typically includes manners and nobles and a romance starting with mutual dislike. It also includes a list of things writers are told not to do: synonyms for said, infodumping characters' life stories when they're introduced, jumping POV without warning. Once you get used to these things, which have fallen out of modern publishing conventions, it's OK, but it takes a bit.

That said, after reading them, I wanted to find something more akin to what I'm working on, to get my mind's gears working in that direction. So I picked up a book that's been on my shelf for months. I'm currently in chapter 3.

06 December 2009

Book review: The New Space Opera 2

The New Space Opera 2, eds. Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan. Eos, 2009.

I love space opera. CJ Cherryh's Foreigner and Alliance-Union series rank highly in my favorites, as does Lois Bujold's Vorkosigan series (especially Memory and The Vor Game.) so, clearly, an anthology of 20-ish space opera novellas by some people I'd heard of and some I hadn't was right up my alley.

I'm not going to review each story. Some I liked better than others; that's generally the case in anthologies.

I really enjoyed Elizabeth Moon's "Chameleons," a story about a man hired to protect a pair of pampered children on their way to school, for whom everything that could go wrong, does. There's a look at what it means to be human, as well as classism and prejudice, when they encounter the chameleons.

Another story I liked was Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Defect," about a spy who tried to come in from the cold, and found it harder than she expected.

Justina Robinson's "Cracklegrackle" is compelling and heartbreaking, the story of a man's search for his daughter, lost (kidnapped?) from a mining expedition.

Scalzi's "Tale of the Wicked" was enjoyable, with the ships having a mind of their own.

Mike Resnick's "Catastrophe Baker and a Canticle for Leibowitz" was funny -- if you read it in the style of an old west tale, with the storyteller being at least half full of shit.

Overall, it's enjoyable, and I only skipped a few stories after failing to get into them after a dozen pages. I won't say which ones they were.