Archive for October, 2012

The Hydrogen Sonata (not to be confused with The Seth Rogen Sonata) is a Culture novel – a tale of Banks’s trademark galaxy-spanning meta-civilisation. This one focuses on the end days of the Gzilt (a civilisation that passed up the opportunity to be a founder member of the Culture ten thousand years ago) as they prepare to ‘Sublime’. Subliming is a process that involves an entire race (usually) deciding that they’ve had enough of reality and transporting themselves to mind-boggling, paradisiacal higher dimensions.

The thing about the Gzilt is that they have a holy book that – unique in galactic history – has turned out to be correct in its prophecies. The story kicks off when a ship arrives in Gzilt space with a message from the Zihdren Remnant (the remains of a long-Sublimed civilisation called the Zihdren) that may shed light on said holy tome’s provenance. This ship is destroyed by a Gzilt faction. As inveterate galactic busybodies, the Culture – an ad hoc committee of interested ships, at any rate – decides to investigate.

Much of the cast consists of the vastly capable artificial intelligences that control Culture ships – Minds. One Gzilt woman, Vyr Cossont – artificially four-armed because of her desire to master an almost unplayable piece of music on an almost unplayable instrument called the Antagonistic Undecagonstring – is recruited to recover the stored memory of a man (a ten-thousand-year-old Culture citizen) who may know the truth. A Culture woman is similarly (well, quite dissimilarly, actually) recruited to find the man himself. A Gzilt politician schemes with increasing desperation. A Gzilt general battles with the Culture and wishes he were a machine.

If you’ve read any Iain M Banks, you know what you’re getting with these characters. The book’s heroine is particularly reminiscent of the main character from Banks’s previous Culture novel – a non-Culture woman rescued and guided by a Culture ship. She doesn’t have much of a personality herself and is mostly a foil for what’s going on around her. Her limited human capabilities are rendered pretty much pointless by the hi-tech puissance of her ship mentor. The ships are the usual quick-talking, perceptive, cocky bunch. The politician is a fairly two-dimensional, unscrupulous smooth-talker.

The most interesting characters were some of the non-viewpoint characters. Like the Gzilt artist Ximenyr who conducts body modification. When he’s first encountered, he has dozens of penises grafted all over his body (and multiple hearts to pump enough blood to get them erect) and he conducts regular self-centred orgies. Or the android Eglyle Parinherm who is brought online to protect Cossont but who believes (because the technicians haven’t had time to reprogram him) that he’s in a simulation; he informs Cossont at one point that her reactions are unrealistic and advises the simulation designers (who he assumes to be listening) to have a rethink. Both are sadly underused. Sadly overused is Cossont’s sentient but stupid flying scarf, Pyan, which interjects nuggets of less than funny comic relief.

The previous Culture novel, Surface Detail was an examination of the idea of Hell – an idea that could be made real by uploading prisoners’ consciousness to gruesome, eternal simulations – while this book supposedly looks at Subliming. Except that it doesn’t – you don’t really get any insight into what it’s like except that it’s indescribable. When, at the end of the book, the Gzilt finally take the plunge, they do so (the humans, anyway) using basically the same method that Dorothy used to get home from Oz. This is certainly a joke on Banks’s part, but not a very satisfying one. (Humans declare their intent to Sublime and are transitioned to the higer dimensions by beings already there; AIs can do it for themselves.)

All of which may make it sound as if I didn’t enjoy The Hydrogen Sonata – I did, actually. It’s highly readable, if a little confusing in places – the various Minds and what they’ve been up to blurred together a lot. But it’s also pretty much more of the same, albeit from a great writer.

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Isn’t it great when one of your favourite things references two of your other favourite things?

Sheldon: What kind of tea would you like?

Amy: I think I’m gonna try … green tea mixed with Lemon Zinger.

Sheldon: (doubtfully) Two tea bags in one cup. (acerbically) You’re not at a rave.

Sheldon: Now, imagine this: you and I, entering Stuart’s party, and all eyes turn to see America’s most beloved and glamorous couple …

Amy: Yeah?

Sheldon: R2-D2 and C-3PO. Dibs on Threepio.

Amy: Sheldon, when I said couples costume, I meant, like, Romeo and Juliet or Cinderella and Prince Charming, not two robots from some silly movie I don’t even like.

Sheldon: (shocked) OK. Now, I’m gonna let that slide because I know you’re hopped up on teabags.

‘The Holographic Excitation’, The Big Bang Theory.

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I’ve had two job offers lately – a nice upturn in my jobhunting fortunes. One of them was for a place at a hagwon in Cheonan working 2:00 to 9:30 and teaching elementary and middle school students. The other was for my previous place in Bundang, 9:30 to 5:00, kindergarten.

Each had its pros and cons. Cheonan is quite a way outside Seoul; it’s not even in Gyeonggi-do, the province surrounding Seoul, but is just to the south of it in northern Chungcheongnam-do or South Chungcheong Province (confusingly, North and South Chungcheong lie east and west of each other, rather than north and south). The city (which has the same name as a South Korean ship that was sunk with the loss of all hands a year or two ago, apparently by a North Korean torpedo) is about half an hour from Seoul on the KTX bullet train, over an hour on a normal train or two hours on the subway.

The Bundang position, on the other hand, would not be a legal position – I would be working there on a tourist visa and have no health insurance and no free flight over there. But it would be closer to Seoul and could improve my chances of getting a job starting in February – by which time my police subject access letter would still (just) be valid for getting a visa.

I talked to a couple of my friends in Korea about this and they helped me to decide that the latter would be the better option – it fulfilled both of my priorities – it was close to Seoul and it was a kindergarten position.

I sent various messages to the same recruiter who got me the job in the first place, asking if the school would provide my airfare or part of it. At first it seemed they would, then they needed time to think about it, then no, but they might pay for a third of it, and then it turned out they’d hired (if that’s the right word) someone else.

So that left me with the Cheonan job – which I’ve accepted.

It wasn’t easy to accept it. I mean that quite literally. I didn’t hesitate in making the decision – I had a glowing report on the place from a previous teacher (although she was ambivalent about the accommodation) – and I think I’ve spent more than enough time out of work.

I’d always used DHL for sending my documents over to Korea in the past. When I tried it this time, the website didn’t accept the postcode I’d been given. I sent an e-mail to the recruiter, but didn’t hear anything back quickly. So I used Interparcel (who, in turn, used FedEx). The driver came while I was still printing out the four shipping and address labels (using slow colour printing because the black and white isn’t very good), but it turned out I only needed two shipping labels.

So that was that. The recruiter reckons it’ll take three weeks or so for my visa application to be processed, and I’ll be starting work in mid- to late November.

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Although this copy – a Shambhala Dragon Edition, translated by Thomas Cleary – is pretty sizeable, the original (or traditional original – it dates from probably the fifth century BCE and is difficult to definitively attribute to a single historical figure) text by Sun Tzu (or Sunzi or Sun Wu) is not a lengthy screed.

Each of its thirteen chapters deals with some aspect of ancient warfare – sieges, manoeuvres, espionage, fire attacks and so on. Sun Tzu’s words are presented in segments of varying lengths – from a sentence or two to a few paragraphs – and are interspersed with similar excerpts from a traditional set of commentators who expanded upon the original in the centuries after its composition. ‘Master Sun”s words are in boldface and set in wide margins to distinguish them from those of Cao Cao, Li Quan, Du You et al.

The great attraction of The Art of War is because it’s a legendary textbook of warfare that has been interpreted as having relevance for other areas of life – particularly business in the modern era. Which is fine. If you’re reading it for this purpose – applying it to some other form of human endeavour – then it becomes a kind of exercise book in which you can figure out analogues for the various concepts describes. It actually works reasonably well as a military handbook.

Not that well, though, I feel. It’s pretty vague, preferring to express ideas as aphorisms rather than detailed, visualisable examples. It also tends towards the blindingly obvious: ‘If you can strike few with many, you will thus minimize the number of those with whom you do battle.’ It’s also often repetitious, with the commentators reiterating the basic idea communicated by the original text. Sometimes it reads like this:

Master Sun

It is important to do something important.

Zhang Yu

Doing something important is important.

Wang Xi

Important means being of importance.

The way the commentators chip in has a kind of Greek chorus feel to it. Usually, they offer useful clarifications to the often Gnomic primary narrative. Sometimes, they explicitly contradict each other:

Du Mu

If your forces are not equal to those of the enemy, avoid their edge for the time being, waiting for a gap; then make a determined bid for victory. To be able also means to be able to endure anger and humiliation, not going out to meet the opponent’s challenges.

Chen Hao

That is not so. It just means that if the enemy’s soldiers are more than yours, then you should run away from them, thereby making them haughty and using this in your future plans. It does not mean enduring anger and humiliation.

Although it’s the only version I’ve read, I’m not a huge fan of the translation. I’ve compared a few passages with the more famous and much earlier translation by Lionel Giles and find the latter to be generally more fluidly phrased and more congruently written. Thomas Cleary’s version includes some modern (19th century, actually) terms that stick out like sore thumbs – ‘slack off’ and ‘bushwhacker’. Where Giles uses ‘benevolence’, Cleary prefers ‘humaneness’; where Cleary talks of ‘weather’ and ‘terrain’, Giles speaks of ‘Heaven’ and ‘Earth’, better evoking a sense of ancient Chinesiness. Here’s an example including a famous quote that is nearly unrecognisable in the Shambhala version:

A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective.

When you are going to attack nearby, make it look as if you are going to go a long way; when you are going to attack far away, make it look as if you are going just a short distance.

And here’s the Giles:

All warfare is based on deception.

Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

Even Cleary’s grouping of verses is a bit suspect.

The book is not without merit of course. In most places, the translation is perfectly fine. And the advice offered by the ancient Oriental sages is quite straightforward and sometimes quite interesting. It does make you wonder how, if studying The Art of War was de rigeur, Chinese armies could ever overcome one another, given how wary of battle it cautions one to be.

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Coming home, I made a list of things I should do while I was back in the UK. It included things like learning to drive and getting a job. I’m not sure that I’ve done any of them – I haven’t even looked at the list since I returned. Blogging about my trip is at least complete – and getting up to date shouldn’t take too long because I haven’t really done that much. Selecting and uploading photos is another slow work in progress – at least it’s in progress. Driving lessons would have taken out my remaining savings in one fell swoop, so I knocked that idea on the head and I’ve been too comfortable to look for work.

My sister has been very kind to me, allowing me to stay here. It’s been good to be able to relax and have no responsibilities for a time. Hanging out with her kids has been great (I make them play Magic: The Gathering and other card games with me – they prefer Korean flower cards) and her youngest is at the cutest stage of life, so that’s a bonus, too.

I sent off for my police subject access request within a week or two of getting back; as soon as it came – a little earlier than I was expecting, given past experience – I made a copy of my degree certificate, got it certified as a true copy, sent the pair to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and received them back quite swiftly. Then I started looking for work. That hasn’t gone so well so far – I’ve spoken to a couple of recruiters; I’ve even been pretty much offered my previous job back, but they’re not going to spring for either a flight out or a proper E-2 visa. I may need to start broadening my search.

I had a dark moment a couple of nights ago when I started thinking that I would never get a job in Korea, that I would never get any worthwhile job again, that I wouldn’t get another girlfriend again, that I wouldn’t do anything with the rest of my life. I’m feeling better now, and today I sent off ten e-mails to recruiters asking after specific jobs or jobs in general. The jobs market is tighter now than in previous years, so getting a job could take a while, but if I don’t try then I certainly won’t get anything.

I’ve been focussing on kindergarten work, because that’s been my favourite work so far, but I have scope to broaden my search to the typical after-school type of hagwon, or even to public schools; and I could also look at other cities than Seoul and its satellites and Daegu, where my friend Peter lives. And then there’s China, if I’m really stuck, or other parts of Asia. I could even look for random where around Europe. But I find it difficult to imagine myself living and working in the UK.

At the same time as getting all the Korea visa documents, I applied for a new passport. I asked my retired friends from Runcorn, Liz and Roger – two of the most respectable people I know – to countersign my application. This was only necessary because my appearance has changed a lot in the past eight years – well, I no longer have long hair. Although I thought I may have screwed it up by not using black biro as specified, but a different kind of black pen, it turned out to be fine and I got a brand new, jumbo-sized passport back within two or three weeks. It feels a bit flimsier than the old one, and (apparently controversially) the identity page is at the front rather than the back; but the BBC-style weather symbols and British landscape on each page are a nice touch.

I’ve been staying in a lot. Went through a phase of playing video games – Halo Something-or-other, Fable 2 and Fable 3; within the last few days I completed Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II. Also been helping my sister with housework and stuff – I put loft panels in the central part of her attic; recently we put shelves up in her dining room.

I went to Runcorn to retrieve stuff from my parents’ attic, go through it and stack it all neatly in my sister’s loft. Opening the boxes was kind of like getting a load of birthday presents – from my past self. There were clothes that I’ve happily taken to wearing again (and some I’ve given away to charity); my previous collection of coins and bank notes – that I’ve combined with the new; a few unread books – mostly editions of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I like having collections of things.

Runcorn really is a hive of scum and villainy. Not including when I visited with Habiba, it’s been a few years since I was there. The kids who live there can be little scumbags who hate anyone who doesn’t look like them. I assumed, with my no-longer-long hair (actually, I’d recently given myself a very short haircut with my sister’s clippers), that I wouldn’t attract any untoward attention. Walking along a street near my parents’ place, one of a group of three or four boys said to me, ‘Are you Polish?’ I said, ‘No. Are you?’ He asked his friend, ‘Am I Polish?’ I’ve repressed whatever he said to me next, but I ignored him. It wasn’t explicitly insulting or malicious, but it wasn’t exactly respectful.

Back at my sister’s, she dug out my collection of Magic: The Gathering cards. I’ve been making and remaking decks – I’ve even bought a handful of specific cards for this purpose – with a view to playing with them in Korea (not that I played with them much last time; I could never get Habiba to have a game with me).

I remember, last time I stayed with my sister, buying lots of CDs on the internet, I’ve tried to restrain myself this time, but I did get a handful of novelty dice – a nice pair of d7s, a somewhat disappointing set of 12 polydice including the unusual d3, d5, d14, d16 and d24, and a d100. The latter – a so-called Zocchihedron, after its inventor – was broken when it arrived (simply receiving the package cost me £12 in customs duty and Post Offices charges), but the company in the States is sending a free replacement (that arrived today). I also got a pack of 200 blank cards with a view to making a card game of my own.

Having sold my old massive suitcase back in Korea, I’ve bought a smaller one to use as a carry on bag, while my large backpack will serve as my check-in bag. For their first time in their lives, I washed both of my backpacks. Exciting times.

I spent a very pleasurable week in the south-west, staying alternately with my friends Lawrence (and one night at his girlfriends’) and Alex. Last time I saw them (with Habiba), while great, was only for a fleeting visit. We hung out a lot more this time. Lawrence, Yi-vei and I ate out at a couple of good restaurants; we played table tennis on a public table tennis table at St James Barton Roundabout.

Alex and I played Magic. A lot. We went to Forbidden Planet in Bristol and each bought a box of 285 card; Alex later bought specific cards on-line and updated his decks – finally removing his printed off, poxy proxies. We dipped into a couple of Xbox games (including the MtG one). We saw Dredd 3D, which I thought was pretty bloody brilliant (the Slo-Mo sequences were also pretty bloody and bloody pretty); Alex wasn’t so impressed, for some reason. Watched a DVD of a strange, French sf film called Eden Log.

After getting half-way through Salman Rushdie’s Grimus before returning home, I stopped reading it for a few weeks. More recently, I’ve been trying to crack on with my reading; I’m reading my biggest books first so I don’t have to take them with me to Korea. Which hopefully won’t be too far into the future. Better get a move on with The Art of War and The Hydrogen Sonata, then.

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As with my last reviewed book, Robert Rankin’s The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age, this is one that I only got hold of and read shortly before the release of the author’s next book. Banks and Rankin are two of my favourite authors and I usually get their novels as soon as they come out; this past year, I’ve been a bit preoccupied with travel. In fact, The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks comes out tomorrow.

Unlike the novels released with the M middle initial in the author’s name, and unlike Iain not-M Banks’s last book, Transition, this is not science fiction, but rather a crime/romantic drama set in a Scottish coastal town, the eponymous Stonemouth (often referred to as the Toun by the characters).

Five years ago, Stewart Gilmour fled his home town in fear of his life – or at least in fear of a vigorous beating – after betraying his fiancée, Ellie Murston, the eldest daughter of the scarier of the two local mob leaders – and now he’s back for the funeral of his erstwhile wife-to-be’s grandfather. The specific details of what happened five years previously are doled out in a non-linear series of extended flashbacks, along with flashbacks of other incidents, most notably the death of Stewart’s schoolmate, Malcolm (‘wee Malky’).

The novel is written with all the ease and confidence that you expect from Banks. His attention to details are one of his strongest traits in his non-sf guise. Scenes are described evocatively (though some passages edge into the over-written); and there’s a certain cinematic realism to the way his characters behave – if British TV drama were as good as American, it would be like an Iain Banks novel.

Several and long flashbacks are a Banks trademark – and a technique that I’m not that keen on. Some of them here are very good – like the moment when we learn how people found out about Stewart’s fling – but flashbacks rarely drive the narrative forward – they’re like listening to a more or less tedious anecdote. The ones regarding Malky, while adding to the tone of the piece, don’t appear to contribute anything to the actual story.

For the most part, the book is beautifully written, but there are moments where the narrator, Stewart, suddenly kind of realises he’s in a novel and does something proactive and plot related – but, unlike everything else we see through his mind’s eye, he doesn’t elaborate or explain what he’s doing. You generally have a good idea of what he’s about, but I forgot a few details of names and suchlike and found it occasionally confusing.

Like many of Iain Banks’s other books, it is very concerned with families and their various hang-ups and skeletons in the closet. The difference here is that Stewart’s own family is of no particular interest – it’s his ex-betrothed’s clan that’s the problem. However, because the narrator is not of them, is, in fact desperate keep all but one of them at barge pole’s length, you don’t end up learning as much about them as you’d like. As a result, Stonemouth is either more subtle or more slight than earlier works such as The Crow Road or Whit. Also, I felt throughout this book that it just retrod the ground broken by those previous volumes.

I enjoyed reading Stonemouth – Banks’s facility with words, characters and setting gets better and better; but, plot-wise, it was a bit weak and had none of the stunning originality and bravura plot twists that made him one of my very favourite writers. Still, The Hydrogen Sonata will be in shops by the morning – it’s a Culture novel, and they’re always the best.

Stonemouth was on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime a while ago and was read by David Tennant. You can listen to it on YouTube.

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