Archive for January, 2011

Or R Scott Bakker, as he’s also known – author of The Prince of Nothing (The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior-Prophet and The Thousandfold Thought) and its sequal trilogy, The Aspect Emperor, which began a year or two ago with The Judging Eye.

While the books listed above are high fantasy – extremely good high fantasy, actually – Neuropath is a techno-thriller, a science fiction murder story. Actually, there’s not much mystery involved, as the main character, a psychology professor, is presented with the true identity of the killer when the FBI visit him at work and show him a video of a missing porn star cutting herself with broken glass whilst in the throes of ecstasy. The killer is his best friend.

Many of the crimes described further on in the book are just as disturbing – worse, in fact – and the point is that the killer is simply illustrating that all human emotions and concepts – lust, love, justice, spirituality – are nothing more than functions of the brain’s electro-chemical processes. The killer opens up his victim’s skulls to manipulate these processes directly. It becomes apparent that the killer has a personal mission involving the protagonist and his family.

The novel is perfectly readable, very well written – it moves along at a quick pace and is not especially long. Although it’s set in the near future, there are plenty of references to contemporary popular culture. Much of the story is taken up with the main character explaining to others the facts and implications of recent neurological research – for instance, the fact that free will is an illusion. Experiments have shown – and I’ve seen this on TV – that brain activity spikes shortly before a person makes a conscious decision, indicating that its the brain that actually makes the decision and simply informs the conscious mind of the fact as the decision is put into action. The protagonist – and, indeed, the author – state that consciousness is only a tiny slice of the brain’s full functioning and may, in fact, be completely irrelevant to its efficacy.

While such discussions are fascinating – and I have little doubt as to their truth – they bog the narrative down a little, but, more importantly, they make the main character come across as a mouthpiece for the author’s ideas, and the secondary characters always listen obediently, prompting further didactic spiels with their disbelief.

The conclusion of the story is far from happy, and feels inconclusive – probably quite deliberately so. Neuropath is supposed to be a profoundly disturbing novel, one where the true victim may not be a character on the pages, but the complacent self-regard of the minds reading those pages. As such, I highly recommend this book to anyone honest or brave enough to countenance the idea that their very thoughts, feelings and experiences may be illusionary figments of a mind that is both less and more than it thinks it is. It’s also not too shabby a story.

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After five enjoyable days on Panglao, it was time for us to pack up and leave for Cebu preparatory for our flight back to Korea. We’d dropped off some laundry at a place in Alona a couple of days earlier, but the following day they were closed due to torrential rain. That left us with an anxious morning on the final day wondering if we would have to leave without most of our clothes. I went to the laundry service office – and it was closed again. But then someone arrived and told me our stuff had been delivered to our hotel.

The taxi driver who took us to Tagbilaran to catch the ferry to Cebu was quite chatty and told us a little about the country. A lot of Korean kids, if their families can afford it, spend a few months in the Philippines to learn English. The driver described his puzzlement that the Koreans he meets never speak English.

The ferry trip was uneventful, but once we arrived back in Cebu we had to get a taxi – which was an unnecessarily stressful process. The first driver offered us a price that sounded far too much. I flagged down a taxi and then Habiba didn’t want to get in as it basically stopped in the middle of the road beside other stationary taxis; I shouted at her – something I never do – and we ended up taking it even though it was also not on a meter (which is illegal).

The hostel we stayed at, Cebu Guesthouse, was not the nicest. The ground floor bathroom had no light the first night. Our room was right next to the kitchen and dining area, which were housed in a large, shed-like annexe.

The first evening, concerned about our funds we headed out to a supermarket to buy groceries for our next few meals. On the way up the road, we passed a family camped on a small patch of ground by a bridge over a miserable trickle of a river. There was a naked baby boy who, when he caught sight of us, flung up his arms with an expression of joy on his face. Cute, but desperately sad – the family probably rely on the child’s cuteness for their income. We hurried past.

The following day, we decided to get some more money. Banks were closed so we went to a moneychanger with some Korean won. As we waited for our pesos – the guy had to check with someone on the phone – a group of young children gathered outside. One small girl came in, stretching out her hand. Once outside the kids wouldn’t leave us alone. They were constantly touching us trying to get our attention and sympathy – and when that didn’t work, their hands started reaching into our pockets and bags. One girl nearly had my camera out of my pocket. Habiba scolded them to no effect, then she hailed a taxi and we escaped with our money and possessions intact.

We went downtown to Magellan’s cross – a replica of a cross set up by the explorer, and which apparently contains frangments of the original. The place was literally just a cross inside a little building in the square opposite the city hall. Behind the cross was the Minor Basilica of the Santo Niño. We went into the compound – through a security checkpoint – and had a look in. There was a mass on and the place was packed, so we couldn’t really look around much. From there we explored the nearby Carbon Market (not ‘carbon’, the English word). The area was pretty crowded, dirty, smelly, hot. Habiba wasn’t terribly happy in the wake of the earlier child-mob incident, so we went back to the hostel.

There were a couple of other places that we could have visited – a Spanish fort and a Taoist temple – but, on the whole, what we’d been told turned out to be true – Cebu wasn’t really worth visiting.

In the evening – it was the 31st of December – we went out with some acquaintances of Habiba’s. As we walked back up the road past the supermarket, we were accosted by the same group of kids again. This time, we were travelling light – all our money was in a pouch hanging under my top. They didn’t bother us so much. We had a mediocre meal on plastic tables and stools on a car park outside a bar next to what was apparently one of the best places in Cebu to hang out – a mall. People let off bangers all evening.

Then, around eleven o’clock, we went to a nightclub. I didn’t enjoy this part of the evening. Awful, thought-drowningly loud dance music played, and I was feeling a little tired and sick and didn’t want to drink too much alcohol. The others seemed to enjoy themselves dancing. There was a countdown at midnight, introduced by a yelling cliché of DJ. Then, with the formalities out of the way we headed back to the hostel.

The next day, we took a taxi to the airport with one of our companions from the previous night. Once there, we – Habiba especially – bought piles of packets of dried mango and similar souvenirs and gifts. Then we got slightly screwed as we tried to head through Security and Immigration – we needed an exit fee and none of us had the money. So we had to change more cash.

The flight back to Korea went a little more smoothly than the one on the way out. When we got our bags back, we all put on extra layers of clothing. It had snowed while we were away – and that snow is still on the ground nearly a month later.

So the Philippines was fun – lots of sun, sea and sights. Even coming under attack – mild as it might have been – by street children in Cebu was an interesting adventure. In a couple of days we’re off to Malaysia for the Korean holiday of Seollal – aka Chinese New Year.

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There’s a blog post up for the non-fiction prize of the British Science Fiction Association Awards about Robert Jordan’s now legendary The Wheel of Time. In it, the writer talks about how terrible the series became after a moderately good start. I love TWoT, but it’s not an unconditional love – the books are full of cheesy details about the patterns on the women’s skirts, the female character tugging their braids and so on.

The degradation of the series – which in some ways was a masterpiece of world-building and epic high fantasy tropes – highlights that all too common phenomenon of the fantasy series – the law of diminishing returns. Too many series start off extremely promising, but don’t quite live up to that promise. In a trilogy, such as Robin Hobb’s Farseer books or Sean Russell’s The Swans’ War, maybe this isn’t such a terrible thing, but when a series drags on for fourteen books, even beyond the author’s death, the returns get smaller and smaller and smaller.

None of which is going to stop me reading Towers of Midnight in the near future, or A Memory of Light in a year’s time.

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I read a little about Korea before the first time I came here and have subsequently picked up a reasonable amount of disjointed information through visits to museums and such like, but this book, which covers pretty much the entire history of the peninsula, was long-overdue reading for me. I was looking forward to getting a stronger grip on Korean history, but that hope was thwarted in large degree by the dryness, obscureness and incohesiveness of the text.

Korea has a long history, and for much of that history has regarded itself as the little brother of China – even in Korean, the name for China is ‘middle land’, referring to its place at the centre of the world. In recent centuries though, it has also been terrorised by the upstart Japanese (which culture, the author asserts, lagged behind Sino-Korean culture for a long time) – the Japanese tried and failed to use the peninsula as a staging post for an invasion of China in the late medieval period, and later occupied Korea until the end of the Second World War.

Pre-war Korea is the first main part of the book, and the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Shilla, Baekje, Goryo, Goguryeo and so on are described in fairly brief detail. The Korean War takes up a fair amount of space, and the development of modern South and North Koreas are gone into fairly comprehensively. The last two chapters are a tangential look at Koreans in America and a more relevant exposition of Korea’s place in the world. This last chapter is given over quite a lot to criticising American media coverage of North Korean affairs.

I’m sure I learned a lot from this book, but I can’t really remember most of it. I found the writing style to be the enemy of comprehension on various levels. Firstly, it’s written in a strange amalgam of, on the one hand, a very dry academic style full of difficult vocabulary, fact and figures and references to writers I’ve never heard of and world events I know little about, and on the other, what seems to be a deliberate attempt to get the reader to love, or at least forgive, the Koreas, both North and South, despite all the atrocities that have been committed on either side of the border since the war, and which the author freely describes.

Another stumbling point is the disjointedness of the narrative. Some of the chapters are thematic – so a pair of chapters describe South Korea’s economic development and politcal development during the same period. But even within these chapters, the author refers forward to things I didn’t know about and backward to things I’d forgotten about – or didn’t know about either. Part of this, I’m sure, is an editing problem. For instance, one apparently relevant writer is mentioned a couple of times before he is actually introduced. There are many minor typesetting problems early in the book. It also used the old-fashioned McCune-Reischauer system of Romanisation, which was continually distracting.

Some of the specific incidents described are quite fascinating. The chapter on the Korean War was particularly interesting. Apparently, some in the US military – MacArthur, in particular, if I remember rightly – wanted, in the wake of the success of nuclear weapons in precipitating Japan’s surrender, to drop atomic bombs all along the North Korea-China border, thus preventing both the DPRK army’s escape into China and China’s forces entering the peninsula. After the war, it was mere indecision that led the Allies to divide Korea between American and Soviet administration, thus allowing Kim Jeong Il to establish the Democratic People’s Republic.

And after the Korean War, Syngman Rhee (or Yi Seung-man), the South’s first president, was a wily manipulator of competing US interests (military, intelligence, diplomatic etc), and was, apparently, continually champing at the bit to provoke the North into attacking and therefore force the US to lead a war of reunification. Rhee was the head of a police state just as brutal as anything the North. Such regimes only ended in the Republic of Korea in the late eighties, and it was only in the nineties that truly independent reformers were elected to the ROK presidency. Modern South Korea is painted as a land of capitalist aristocracy, where a handful of powerful families run the all-encompassing jaebol (Korean for zaibatsu) and the government, marrying off daughters to form alliances like the medieval yangban (Korean aristocracy).

As I mentioned before, the author lays into western coverage of Korean affairs, stating that American broadcasters and newspapers simply parrot hysterical reports from South Korean government bodies about Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il’s psychopathy. In the chapter on North Korea, while the author doesn’t neglect to mention famine and brutal re-programming camps for dissidents, he does imply that the country is a pleasant, quiet, well-run and egalitarian society. He asserts that if it weren’t for the controversial 2000 presidential election requiring Bill Clinton’s presence in the US, a major breakthrough might have occurred leading to a groundbreaking warming in relations with the ‘Democratic’ People’s Republic of Korea.

It is undoubtedly part of the contemporary American grand narrative that there are evil countries in the world that need combating and that are unrelentingly demonised in the popular media – which leads to great ignorance about the truth about such countries. The corollary of which is that the US is the heroic good guy righting wrongs across the globe, bringing the white light of democracy to benighted regions. North Korea does itself no favours by being so eccentrically isolationist, still less by the ruthlessness with which it punishes dissidents and perceived dissidents.

In the end, this was an interesting but disappointing book. I wanted more of a blow by blow narrative, but the book was almost random in its continual back and forth and in what it included and what it left out. I also would have prefered something less polemic, but the book was full of loaded vocabulary implying the greatness of both North and South Korea. I have no doubt that Bruce Cumings loves Korea – both Koreas, the whole historic nation – and that comes across, but it didn’t help him construct an easily comprehensible narrative of the thousands of years of history in the Land of Morning Calm. Now, I feel that I want to read more books that focus on specific eras – the Three Kingdoms, or the Korean War – to really get a strong feel for Korea’s history.

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All along the strip of shops and bars on Alona beach, but mostly at the junction of the road inland, were men with laminated sheets bearing photos of the two tours that everyone seemed to operate. They’d ask you if you were interested in a boat tour, and if you said no, they’d flip their card and ask you if you wanted the inland tour of Bohol.

On our way back from the beach one afternoon after we’d done the Chocolate Hills, tarsier sanctuary etc on the mainland Habiba and I took up one offer. The guy showed us his laminated flyer and explained that there were four things on the tour, dolphin- and whale-spotting, snorkelling, lunch on one island and a visit to a ‘virgin island’. He asked for 1,800 pesos, but I offered him 1,500 (about £21) and he accepted that readily enough.

Unlike our Bohol tour it was just going to be the two of us – except that, when we found the man again at dawn the following morning, there was another person joining us on our boat – a Filipino tourist and relative of either our guide or the boat’s pilot.

As the sun rose over the sea, our narrow boat, slender outriggers like spider legs to either side, chugged out into open water. Along with several other boats carrying tourists doing exactly the same thing.

The first thing on the itinerary was the dolphin and whale spotting. We spotted lots of the outrigger boats, but not so much in the way of sea-going mammals. There were a few black specks to be seen in the distant water every now and then, but it was a case of blink and you missed them. The guide explained good-humouredly that the dolphins were scared of all the boats in the water.

After another journey across the water we arrived at a small island – Balicasag, I believe – with a broad coral shelf stretching a hundred metres from the beach until dropping off sharply. We landed on the beach and rented flippers for an extortionate 300 pesos each or something. Then a lad rowed us out to the edge of the coral where we went snorkelling (we’d brought our borrowed goggles and snorkels with us). The other tourist in our boat gave us some small bread rolls with some sort of pink filling to feed to the fish.

Once we got into the water and opened up the plastic bag of bread we were swarmed by plenty of small tropical fish who would dart in to snatch bites of the bread in your fingers. And then a much larger fish would swoop by and grab the whole piece.

The drop-off at the edge of the coral was quite impressive. Below you, the coral would simply end and beyond was the rich, deep tourquoise of the empty sea.

After maybe an hour enjoying this experience, exploring the coral, watching tiny fish go about their lives and trying diving down in the deeper water, it was time to leave. Back in the outrigger boat, the guide said something to us about visiting another island tomorrow, but we said we weren’t interested.

And then we were back at Alona beach and confused. What happened to the rest of the tour, the lunch island (which, to be fair, we’d also said we weren’t interested in) and the virgin island. Maybe that was part of the proposed tour the next day. Anyway, we paid up feeling short-changed, but still happy about the snorkelling experience.

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Scientists in Nottingham (which is pronounced NOT-ting-um) have engraved the periodic table of elements on a human hair – for a birthday present. Which is possibly a complete waste of resources, but is still pretty interesting. The best thing about the video below is the narration provided by the hair’s recipient and original owner, Martyn Poliakoff. Watch.

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According to the Wertzone, there will be a new series of Red Dwarf filming later this year to be screened next year.

This is good new and bad news. I love <i>Red Dwarf</i>, of course, but it pretty much ran its course back in the last millennium. The recent three-part mini-series was mediocre and strangely conceived – visiting Earth wasn’t unusual, but the extensive Blade Runner pastiche and the retread of the despair squid plot didn’t really seem like genuine Red Dwarf. Maybe a bona fide series will provide a better structure for a return, but TV programmes and comedians don’t really get funnier as they get older. We’ll see, anyway.

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