Thursday, June 02, 2022

Review of The Definition of Death

The Definition of Death by Eric Wolf

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If you're looking for detective fiction where the hero expertly separates the clues from the red herrings while twirling his iron, and always gets his man, this isn't it. Too much real life. Why, Zack even has a fear of actually using his gun! But it's the "real life" that makes this book a winner. 

While the town of Aguas Calientes is fictional, the culture and the social landscape are very real - heavily influenced by Spanish, Mexican and Pueblo culture. It is home to many, has a lot to love about it, but it's dying due to the drug trade, greed and corruption. Eric Wolf writes as one who lives in that part of rural New Mexico, as well as having a background in nursing. 

When we're not following Zack through the sleazy parts of town doing police investigation, or in the double wide mobile home that he shares with his wife, Eric shows us the hospital where Zack's wife, Liz works as a nurse with some of the other characters like Joe, a male nurse, and a doctor of questionable character, Dr Surabian. Quite a lot of the plot unfolds in that hospital, and Eric's nursing experience lends its authenticity. 

Also in the hospital is the comatose Gilbert Garza, maybe suicide victim, maybe murder victim - or not - depending on what's the Definition of Death. Dr Surabian, for reasons of his own, has chosen to keep him going on a ventilator, though he's brain dead. 

Gilbert Garza, who lived next door to the doctor, was a drug dealer, an addict, and a general troublemaker. Any of a number of people could have had a motive to murder him - if he was indeed murdered - and not many are sorry to see him go. But he was found unconscious after an unsuccessful attempt to hang himself, and is in the ICU, brain dead, but being kept alive for whatever reason. Zack and the detective begin by searching his adobe hovel for links to the drug trade, but the case develops into much more. 

In fact, the dead-but-not-dead man in the ICU is the lynchpin to a lot of the bad things happening to that town. There's a lot to love about rural New Mexico, as well as a lot to despair of. Eric Wolf skilfully brings it to the surface.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Darkling Wind - The Surreal Climax

 The Darkling Wind by S. P. Somtow

It's the last in the series of sequels, but don't fret - still some prequels to go, some yet to be completed. It is quite a climax. The Throne of Madness makes its presence felt in all it's - well - madness, adding a surreal quality, what with a winged boy and other manifestations randomly appearing in various scenes. If you've been keeping up with the series, putti made their appearance in The Throne of Madness, which is also where Kelver comes into union with that side of cosmic reality - the side the other Inquestors choose to ignore - the side that will bring the fall of the Inquest. 

But this is not Kelver's story, as much as it is Jenjen and Zalo's, whom we met in the third installment, Utopia Hunters. Zalo, the playwright, plays a minor role in that one, but here, he takes one of the leading roles, as he leads a planet in resisting the will of the Inquest. The two remain on the front line as more evil is done in the name of good, in the final game of Makrugh to end all Makrugh. 

Besides the Throne of Madness, two other forces to be reckoned with are the mind of the Delphinoid (the brain that drives the ships through the Overcosm) and Shtoma, the sentient sun, who has been maintaining the one Utopia that is the bane of the Inquest. As in every good story, there are also the ultimate "good guys" and ultimate villains - but watch carefully as some of them trade places. 

So, it comes to a climax. I suppose it wouldn't be a spoiler to say the Inquest falls - after all, Davaryush and Varuneh have been saying it since Book One. But is there life after the Inquest? Millenia later scholars doubt there ever was an Inquest.

So… a great climax to a great series. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

Review of Another Avitar


Another Avitar by S P Somtow

Not only do Superman, Wonder Woman and Bat Man have secret identities, but so, apparently, do the entire Hindu Pantheon. Krit's identity was unknown even to himself. As far as he knew, he was only an orphan boy living in an orphanage in middle of Klong Toey, Bangkok's largest slum community. Then, fellow deity Ganesh in the guise of his English teacher enlightens him. 

On one hand, he's awakened to some new powers; on the other, he's just a kid, and an orphan one at that, with a propensity for mischief. He fumbles around, enables his fellow orphan to win money in the lottery, and other antics, until the English teacher cum banana-scarfing elephant god begins to teach him a few things, starting him on the path of what promises to be a series of novellas spanning his new career - set in seamy Bangkok, sprinkled with humour and irony. 

Bangkok is a fascinating place, as I can attest as one who has lived there much of my life. I've even worked for a short spell at the children's institution in Klong Toey that sort of inspired the setting. 

I expect great things from this series. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Review of Somtow's The Utopia Hunters

Utopia Hunters


It's a collection of stories, each casting its light of meaning on to a bigger story; that inhabited by a young female artist named Jenjen. Through the stories, each told by the Rememberer, Tash, she slowly comes to understand the particular point in history in which she finds herself; namely, the beginning of the fall of the millenia old empire of the Inquest.

Those who have been reading the Inquestor series already know some of the characters of the stories: the Inquestor Ton Elleran, Sajit, Veruneh, Siriss, Aryk; some appearing both in their stories and in the overall story - Ton Elleran in particular. 

From the collection of stories, we can now piece together Elleran's life history. They help Jenjen discover what made Hokh Ton Elleran into the sad, tragic old man she meets as an eight year old in the opening chapter. 

Some of the stories confuse her further, revealing the cruel side of the High Compassion, casting Ton Elleran as no better than the rest: but they also show the view he has from the inside, and his conviction that the Inquest must fall.

Jenjen realises her part in it, as an artist, and she fulfills her role.

In the same way, this book fulfills a unique role in the Inquestor series, following the logical progression of the bigger story, but at the same time, creating a diversion by sprinkling in the smaller stories, some of which have been published in various Scifi journals during the heyday of classical science fiction.

A good read...

Saturday, July 04, 2020

A step into Uncharted Scifi

S P Somtow's Light on the Sound 

After reading or watching so much space fiction, when it seems like all the possible scenarios have probably been used at some time or another, and space warriors remind you of the US Marines, and the future of the galaxy is English speaking white, from S P Somtow's Inquestor Universe comes a breath of fresh air. 

Light on the Sound is the first in the series, though it's the third one I've read and reviewed. It begins with a piece of prose describing a feature of a habitable planet like nothing ever imagined by the aforesaid works of space fiction, a gigantic covered crater with a dense atmosphere, in which swim - or fly - the delphinoids. These are a giant fish-like (or bird-like) creature with giant exo-brains (is that a word?) that give them a consciousness of the overcosm - that network of logical lines that links every part of the galaxy, enabling faster than light travel. Only the delphinoids know how to navigate the overcosm, but they don't. They just fly about their massive "sunless sound" singing about it, emitting both light and sound that would drive ordinary humans mad for their sheer beauty. 

A delphinoid, connected to the right technology, is useful for enabling a space ship to navigate the overcosm. The only ones that are able to catch them are a race of deaf and blind humans, who have been doing this for many millennia , as part of their culture. The sunless sound is their whole universe. 

After the opening prose, the world opens up further through the eyes of 14 year old Kelver, a common peasant boy, whose life begins to take a totally unpredicted turn. That has to do with his meeting the second main character in the story, a girl from the other side of the "sky wall", the great dark area where the delphinoids live. 

Her people have been innocently hunting the noble creatures which they can neither see nor hear for millennia, thinking they are guiding them home. However, Darktouch has a "birth defect"; she can both see and hear. She hears the song of the delphinoid on her first hunt, and realises something is very wrong. 

So, there's that proverbial question, "How do you describe colour to one blind from birth?" Somtow skilfully describes her sensations through her point of view in a world where there are no words for sight and hearing, and she thinks something is wrong with her. Even for the seeing, it's a dark world, so the difference isn't as profound as it would be outside. But there's enough to start her on her journey. 

The third main character (actually the second in order of appearance), is the Inquestor, Ton Davaryush, who has just been appointed King of the planet. Through him, we discover the ins and outs of the Inquestral universe, the Dispersal of Man, the god like status of the Inquestors, and their guiding philosophy of High Compassion. However, Ton Davaryush has also known something is badly wrong, ever since his encounter with a sentient star. 

Then, there's Lady Varuneh, an equally interesting character. All their paths cross, and they set out together, determined to right all the wrongs. Their path twists and turns, they discover things… 

But the reader also discovers life beyond warp-speed and planetary colonisation. Even in listing the concepts involved in this story, I've only scratched the surface. This is certainly a worthwhile read, and a first step into a new world of hitherto uncharted science fiction.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Being Two: a review of P Somtow's Homeworld or rhe Heart

If you've read any of the others of Somtow's Inquestor series, you'll remember Sajit as the wisened musician, a character as only a virtuoso as Somtow Sucharitkul could invent, who  under the patronage of the Inquestor Ton Elloran, has creat a music lover's paradise. In those earlier stories, we learn only enough about him to wish we could learn more. And now, here's our chance to do just that. We meet Sajit as a ten-year-old. 

However, my advice here is, don't rush headlong into this one unless you've read at least one of the earlier books in the series. Any of the first two or three will do. They're ok as stand-alone narratives. Things are sufficiently explained in those that you need to know before beginning Homeworld of the Heart - things like, what is an Inquestor? Why their obsession with utopias? Their cosmic game of makrugh, child soldiers with their deadly laser eyes, that vast habitable shell surrounding the black hole in centre of the galaxy, where whole stars are pulled through the gaps at the poles of the sphere; and other things. That's not a criticism. To go through the whole explanation yet again would be tedious. Time to get on with the story, but do your homework first if necessary. It will be well worth it. 

Somtow's multicultural upbringing has left him with a profound ability to understand yet other cultures, and he uses that to full advantage in the inquestor series. I particularly appreciate that aspect, as I'm a bit that way myself. It is good to see science fiction that doesn't assume that the future of the galaxy is Anglo white. 
Because of the name, I tend to picture Sajit as Indian. The cover (painted by Somtow's protégé Micky), however, pictures him more Thai looking. The name could be either - or Khmer. 

The culture, in this case, is both primitive and highly advanced. People travel about via displacement plates (for teleporting), and use other equally advanced devices on a daily basis; and yet they share a taboo with some of the most primitive tribes of earth: twins are considered an abomination. When they're born, one of them must be killed at birth. 

Sajit has something worse than a twin, a "dopple". It was cloned for him by someone very high up, who has an interest in Sajit's future, so that it could be sent in his place when it was time to be drafted as a child-soldier. But Sajit awakens his dopple prematurely, without anyone else knowing, and they bond. He names his dopple Tijas. 

The story of not-one-but-two Sajits takes many an intriguing turn. There are expectations of Sajit's future that run contrary to his own longings; there's a planitary crises that's the result of the great game of cosmic chess - complicated by a bureaucratic error (and of course, the gods don't make mistakes); there are relationships complicated by time dilation; and more. All the while, Somtow keeps us glued, all the while imparting to the reader the aspirations and longing of the two boys for each other. Love does what love requires, even if it's fighting each other to save the other's life.

He weaves it all to a climax, but their story isn't over. There's more to come in another sequel. 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Where do I stand on abortion?

An answer that's likely to displease both sides of the issue...

The root problem is the unequal treatment of the genders. Of course, you say, that's sort of obvious, isn't it!

Yes, there are aspects that are obvious on the surface, but I don't think we understand how deep it goes.

From the beginning of history, people have taken advantage of each other. The strong and dominant rise to the top. If it's at the expense of the weak and vulnerable, that's always been considered par for the course. We have always tended to think of those at the top as superior to those at the bottom. Kings are superior to the gentry, who are superior to the peasants; Masters are superior to the slaves; the rich are superior to the poor, bosses are superior to their employees - and yes, men as superior to women. That's on the surface.

If we look at what actually happens, we get a different picture. Often, we see the strong standing on the shoulders of the weak (in which case, who's actually stronger?). In ancient times, it wasn't uncommon for an illiterate slave owner to have a well educated slave whom they set to work tutoring their children, or other tasks requiring up to date know-how. Aesop, famous for his fables, was a slave. To this day, we often see bosses and team leaders who are less skilled in key areas than their employees.

In too many cases, we see people who were good at their job elevated to the position of a boss, and find they make a bad boss. They were better at what they were doing before, because that was their skill set. The previous boss was actually good at being a boss, though he didn't have the skill of the first person. Now, he’s also been promoted beyond his level of ability.

Different skill sets, yes, but who's superior? Who is higher on the social ladder? Who gets use of the executive lounge? Why?

And how do you explain to your neighbours, or to your mother-in-law that you turned down a promotion because you've already got the job you're good at - without sounding like you're making an excuse?”

I think it has a lot to do with having eaten of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil.

Now, if we look at the world of women, we can also find a lot more below the surface. Throughout our male dominated history, we do find a few outstanding exceptions to the all too pervasive meek and dependent role of the female. In the Bible, we have Moses’ sister, Miriam, and the four daughters of Zelophehad. And what about the prophetess Deborah? Even the Apostle Paul, who on the surface seems to favour a male leadership in the Church, yet highly praises such female leaders as Priscilla, Junia and Phoebe. In his instructions to Timothy and the Corinthians, Paul was only dealing with facts on the ground; women who are illiterate, and have hardly ever been outside their home (like most women of his time), don't make good leaders. Paul was simply being pragmatic, not speaking ex-cathedra.

In secular history, there's Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth the First, Victoria… And look at recent history: some of the most male dominated societies in the world, like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, have had female prime ministers, while the “most modern country in the world” hasn't had a single female president”. The two female prime ministers UK has had were anything but the “slap-your-face-with-my-bra” types.

Often, the very fabric of society,  even the most male dominated, has been held together by the women, the mothers. They handle the family finances, keep the family in line. The men have the positions, the power, the salaries; but they spend their money before they get home, leaving their wives to come up with the extra money to feed the kids, keep them in school, and keep the world from falling apart.

So who's really superior? How are we equal, or unequal? Does equality mean uniformity?

Can we be free to take a good look at the strengths and weakness of either gender (or of any other classification, for that matter) without offending the social justice warriors?

Fathers are different from mothers. At their best, each adds a different aspect to the stability and quality of a family. Women bosses add something to a company or a team that men bosses don't, and vice versa. The same with women heads of state.

That's in a perfect world. The world at its worst?

Women are more responsible than men. Why? Women get pregnant, and are stuck with the kids, while the men are free to run off anywhere they please and make more babies. That's the very factor that has always made women weak and vulnerable, and it's also the source of their strength.

So, how do we equalise things? Do we try to enforce uniformity where it doesn't exist? Do we say to the women, “You don't have to go through with this pregnancy”? That will only make women just as irresponsible as men. Equalising by dumbing down is not the answer.

What if we didn't choose the easy way out? What if we put the same expectations on men as we do women, and make them just as responsible for a pregnancy as the woman? What if a woman's maternity leave were at the expense of the child's father? We now have the technology to prove who the father is.

This would have to go far beyond the legal issues. It requires a cultural change. What if it were just as much an insult to call someone a “playboy” as a “slut”? What about adding a few mandatory titles to men's names to alternate with “mister”, the same as women have Mrs, Miss, and Ms? What if a man's reputation were just as tarnished by how many children he's fathered (by as many women), as a woman's is by how many times you see her pregnant?

Can we hope for a society like that?

Okay, my opinion on abortion: I believe it's wrong. I believe it's murder. By allowing it, we're taking the easy way out, enforcing equality by forcing uniformity where it doesn't exist.

On the other hand, by campaigning to make abortion illegal, without giving equal attention to the other issues I've described above, we Christians become nothing more than a bunch of hypocrites. Had we been fulfilling our mandate all along - the mandate that was pushed forward by the likes of Hannah
Moore, William Wilberforce, and others, that gave birth to the the women's suffrage movement, the abolition of slavery, child labour laws and other reforms - we could have led the way towards equality of the genders, thereby preempting the excuse of legalised abortion as an equaliser.

On the other hand, if we now deprive people of the legal avenue of abortion, while keeping them from state aid to enable them to support the children we're trying to save, we place ourselves as the target of Jesus’ condemnation: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23:4)