Ares Express

By Ian McDonald, 2001, Earthlight, ISBN 0-684-86151-8

Any book with a protagonist named Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th has got to be good, especially when she knows she’s in a story.

In Ares Express, Ian McDonald returns to the rather dreamlike distant future Mars of his earlier Desolation Road (1988). This is a welcome return for all those who enjoyed DR, and AE will not disappoint, although AE is a separate work and only one character makes the crossover between the two.

It’s a fantastical romp through a richly detailed and surreal landscape, strangely believable for all its magical touches. Martian humans are little changed from ourselves, living ordinary lives beneath the barely understood gaze of the Artificial Intelligences that drove the terraforming of the planet. Sweetness is the child of railway engineers, the pilots of the vast fusion-powered trains that link together the disparate cities and communities of the planet. She’s a dissatisfied child for all the pride and arrogance of her clan, for females do not pilot the trains, instead it looks like she’s to be married off into the Stuard clan and a life in their stainless steel kitchens.

Fortunately for the reader, Sweetness isn’t likely to take to this particular destiny without some rebellion, and when she realises that she’s featuring in her very own story, she’s off at right angles to the tracks and into a series of mishaps and lucky escapes that lead her into a search for her dead twin (who lives in mirrors) and ultimately a struggle to save the very fabric of her universe…

McDonald writes vividly. His prose in itself is reason enough to read the book, bringing the strange world to life and entrancing the reader at every step. Sweetness’ own knowledge that she’s living a story might put off those who are not fond of such indulgences, but on McDonald’s Mars, where reality itself is subject to manipulation, it fits right in among all the other weird and wonderful events and beliefs and magical technologies.

Delightfully written, pure escapism – this is one of the best books I’ve read for quite some time. Go and lose yourself among the vast trains, uploaded demi-gods, reality-twisting AIs and insane Cults on McDonald’s Mars.

Wandering thoughts on blogging

Earlier this week I was feeling a bit frustrated about one thing and another, and decided that some of these frustrations might have made an interesting post. On reflection, I decided not to write the post, primarily because I blog under my real name (although I don’t make my surname explicit, it should be easy enough to find from the data available on this site, plus there’s plenty here to identify me to anyone who actually knows me).

I made a conscious decision not to conceal my identity when I started this weblog. It was quite a tempting idea, but ultimately I felt that it might encourage me to be a little more thoughtful when it came to writing stuff to put here if I knew that it would be associated with me directly. Not that I ever envisiage writing anything that at the time I’d feel uncomfortable about being associated with – the reason I decided against posting my frustrations this week were pragmatic rather than anything else. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be associated with them, more that I felt that the consequences of making them public might be detrimental to me.

But it got me thinking about the whole issue of blogging anonymously/pseudonymously. I reckon that this must be an issue which has met with some discussion across the blogosphere at times, and I’m sure that I’ve come accross such debates in the past. Fortunately it is, and a quick google brings up a debate from last summer between people like Instapundit, Steven Den Beste and Demosthenes. This particular debate focuses mostly on those who are pseudonymous and comment upon political issues; another blogger, moxie, points out that anonymity/pseudonymity is something that might be useful if you intend to comment more on your everyday life, rather than on the affairs of the Great and the Good and what we should think and do about them.

I found it quite gratifying to plonk “anonymous blogging” into google and get such an interesting selection of posts on the first page. I have to admit that I didn’t delve any further, there were something like 18,000 results for the search. I did wonder though what the results would have been like if I’d been searching on a topic which hadn’t attracted the attention of relatively high profile bloggers. I suppose I could have refined the search string a bit more, and perhaps spent some time searching wthin my results; it’s difficult to tell without some serious effort into researching the issue. I can’t help but think that standard web searches are a difficult way to bring up old blog posts though. It will be interesting to see what Google do now that they have acquired Blogger – will we see some kind of equivalent to google groups, a web gateway to searching the archives of everyone signed up for a blogger blog? Will there be an equivalent of X-No-Archive? Does anyone care?

This is interesting because of the problems of finding stuff in the blogosphere. Googling is always going to bring up the large, high traffic blogs like Instapundit, and unless you are particularly interested in a subject that’s what you’re going to see. If you want to know what a specific blogger has said on a subject, for the most part you are left with the almost impossible task of picking your way through their archives, unless they offer a search facility for them. For most of us, blogging is currently an ephemeral source of debate and information. Once posts drop from your front page, they’re difficult to find again once you’ve been writing stuff for a while. Given the steadily increasing numbers of blogs and the sheer amount of information and comment that this implies, is this ever going to be something about which anything can be done?

Possibly. The concept of the semantic web seems to offer some hope of solving this sort of problem. It’s something that I’m barely aware of right now, but it looks interesting, and the networking of blogs and similar sites with technologies like trackback, rss and rdf look like steps towards a web where finding related information might become easier. I’m going to continue looking and maybe write a bit more about this. In the meantime, any pointers to good, entry-level discussion of this type of thing are more than welcome.

Busy Busy Busy…

I haven’t had time to do a lot of blogging lately, due to lots of reasons that are probably too boring to elaborate here. I’m just going to chill out tonight and watch Dr. Strangelove, and hopefully tomorrow I’ll get around to posting a couple of half written things that have been sitting around. Then it’s off to Amsterdam on Monday for a few days. If I get the chance I’ll post something from there, too.

The Gurkhas

I note that today seven test cases by ex-Gurkhas alleging unfair treatment by the MOD began. This issue has cropped up in the news from time to time but is probably easily forgotten by most of the public.

Nepalese Gurkhas have been a part of the British Army for many years now but do not qualify for compensation or pension payments equal to those awarded to their British counterparts. Instead their pay and conditions are set by an agreement between India, Nepal and Britain dating back to 1947, the “Tri-Partite Agreement”.

According to the article on the Guardian linked to above, the cost of equalising conditions and service will be somewhere in the region of £2 billion. A lot of money, to be sure.

But is money really the issue here? The Gurkhas fought in the British Army during the Second World War, and many suffered alongside their British comrades in the Japanese POW camps. More recently they have served in the Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor. They form a part of our army and risk their lives for us.

It seems to me that the only honourable thing to do is to reward these men as we reward any other person who puts their life in danger in the service of our country. I feel ashamed that the Gurkhas are reduced to bringing their case under the European Convention on Human Rights – this should have been settled long since.

A memorandum by the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen’s Organisation, submitted to the Armed Forces Pension Scheme Review and the Joint Compensation Review, can be found here. It outlines arguments to support the case that the Gurkhas put forward.

Images from IMB

A guy called Chris Lynas used to host a website called Excession that had lots of graphics inspired by the work of Iain M Banks.

Feli Vitrouv from Look to Windward

This disappeared from the net a while ago, but it’s now found a new home – at www.fastness.co.uk. There’s some of his older stuff there (including the version of the Salwowski cover of “The State of the Art” (pictured below) and a couple of new bits too, and he promises to keep it updated a bit more often.

Version of Mark Salwowski's State of the Art cover

His images are available in various sizes – suitable for use as desktop wallpapers – and he is fine about use of the images for personal use – details are on his front page.

Demonstrated

Everyone must have seen the pictures from the demo yesterday. Somewhere around 1 million of us shuffing slowly through central London in the freezing cold. It took the best part of four hours to get from Bedford Square to Hyde Park, surrounded by people from all walks of life and all parts of the UK.

I saw no touble, and many high spirits despite the crush and the cold. Although the vast majority of the placards on site were of the mass-produced variety, there were plenty of home made ones too, often with funny and ironic slogans. Respect to the guy on the phone box at the bottom of Shaftsbury Avenue holding aloft his which said “All your bomb are belong to us”, to the utter mystification of many of my fellow marchers.

As is always the case on large demos like this, there were plenty of groups present hoping to get their various messages heard along with the more general anti-war message that the majority had come to support. I was a little troubled by one or two of these, but I don’t think that this is important – the sheer volume of people ensured that no one group could wholly hijack the march for their own agenda. The proliferation of left wing splits reminded me of an incident in Ken Macleod’s The Stone Canal, where the characters are on a similar Peace March (p.82, UK Hardback edition):

My father spotted a young woman carrying a bundle of papers whose headline – no, it wasn’t even that, it was the actual masthead – read “Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!” and asked her in a tone of polite curiosity: ‘Why don’t you fight capitalism, for a change?’

But none of this really matters. What matters is that somewhere between 750,000 and 2,000,000 people were on the streets yesterday to show their disapproval of the coming war on Iraq. Tony Blair suggested on Friday that we ought to think about those in Iraq who would be supressed if they tried to do such a thing, and yes, we should, but that shouldn’t stop us doing it if we feel that it is the right thing to do, whether or not we believe that it will make a difference.

Demonstrate

I’ll be attending the anti-war demo in London this Saturday. Although I’ve posted the odd war-related piece I’ve been shying away from politics a bit lately, but I thought that the time had come to post some of my thoughts.

One of the reasons that I’ve been avoiding the subject is because I hadn’t quite made up my mind on the issue. That’s not to say that I haven’t been entertaining a healthy dose of cynicism about the whole exercise, just that I wasn’t quite sure what the hell I really felt myself.

I regularly read blogs by people on both sides of this debate. That’s one of the things that attracted me to the blogosphere in the first place – it’s a great place to find the views of regular people – not pols, or campaigners, or journos, though some bloggers either are those things or else have pretensions in those directions. I’ve read things on all sides that have made me nod in approval and things that have made me shout in anger. All this has been contributing to my own internal debate on the matter. (I’m not going to bother posting linkage here, this post is about what I think.)

This is going to be a bit of a rant, not a particularly reasoned argument, but this is my blog and I’ll write what I want to. OK?

On balance, I feel that the case for war has not been made. I cannot see that the west is in any clear danger. Saddam is not about to become a hegemonic power in the Middle East, and nor is a country crippled by over ten years of sanctions ever likely to develop a nuclear capability likely to directly threaten us. If our governments truly have evidence that this is the case then they should put it before us whatever the consequences. We are democracies – how can we choose without the facts? Handwaving is not enough, and I don’t buy the “trust me and I’ll fill you in later” approach, not when hundreds or thousands of lives are at stake.

As for the charge that Saddam and bin Laden are in cahoots, we all know what a pile of stinking excrement that is. Do me a favour, I wasn’t born yesterday and nothing that has been put forward as “proof” of this has convinced. Even if Saddam was foolish enough to support people like bin Laden, he’d soon find himself rising up their hit list too – Ba’th “socialists” weren’t flavour of the month with Islamic fundamentalists last time I looked, and bin Laden will use Saddam like the opportunist he is.

So Saddam flaunts UN resolutions. So do other countries, and where’s the invasion force? What about North Korea? They’ve practically been jumping up and down over the last few weeks waving their half-built nukes in our faces and very little seems to be happening there, so the argument about standing up to those who laugh in the face of the UN doesn’t hold much water really.

Nor do I believe that the plight of the Iraqi people figures particularly highly in the minds of Our Glorious Leaders. They’ve been screwed for years – so why the sudden concern now? Puh-lease.

This war is what bin Laden wants. Surely this is enough in itself to make us stop and think for a minute. He doesn’t care about the people of Iraq, he just wants to unite the Islamic world in some sort of jihad against the west and we’re going to help deliver the silver platter to his door.

I stand up and say this not because I want to see Saddam remain in power, or because I’m anti-American (I’m most definitely not), but because I cannot see a clear case for an invasion, and I can see a whole lot of reasons why we should be being a lot more cautious about this. The whole damn thing stinks, and it’s liable to cause far more unrest and chaos than it cures.

The Infant Universe

NASA today released the best “baby picture” of the Universe ever taken, which contains such stunning detail that it may be one of the most important scientific results of recent years.

The new cosmic portrait — capturing the afterglow of the Big Bang, called the cosmic microwave background — was captured by scientists using NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) during a sweeping 12-month observation of the entire sky.

(Via skimble, who also makes a good point.)

ugh

Devon was great, but unfortunately I’ve picked up a bug from somewhere and don’t feel too good right now. Ugh.