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Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Language surrounds us, defines who, what and where we are.
Language has developed beyond a mere capacity for communication of information to providing a vast array social and cultural functions. The idea that a certain symbol has a defined meaning enables language to be a written and not solely a verbal communication. Our language has developed so that we quite often don’t mean exactly what we say but use similes, hyperboles and figures of speech to describe what we may mean in a non-literal fashion.

How we would communicate with aliens if we did ever find them has long been a subject of debate, perhaps not as esoteric as might be thought. In the 17th century before the invention of the radio schemes for drawing giant triangles in the Siberian tundra or by setting light to channels dug into the Sahara to create different shapes every night. With the advent of the radio a handful of messages, based on mathematical and scientific symbols have been sent to different star systems over the past 36 years. Although the first one won’t reach it’s destination until 2022 and the last one will arrive in approx 25,000 years.

For any of these communications to be successful there will need to be a basic agreement on what language is. In Embassytown our human protagonists are dealing with a species that have a very different idea about what language is and how it works. They speak with two voices at once and they are only able to communicate with the ambassador ‘twins’ who able to think and talk as one. Any deviation they either can’t hear or sends them crazy. There is also an inability to lie, even to the extent that speaking metaphorically is a near impossibility. So they have to create the metaphor in reality before they can speak it. Having established this strange world and the weird interactions the story leads to the arrival of a new type of ambassador, who both challenge the established order. As the world falls apart and decays the role of language becomes key to the battle for liberation and a new way of speaking.

I was given a short time to review this book but I raced through it voraciously, struck at every turn by the fantastic mastery of language and the inventiveness of new words. At times I was tempted to reach for a dictionary to find out whether the word was truly new or just new to me, the strength of the imagined world seeming totally plausible. As inventive and intriguing as Mieville’s Bas-Lag series, I was hooked to the last sentence.

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Science fiction offers alternative futures and sometimes also explores how the past might have played out if something, trivial or not, was different.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 novel, Years of Rice and Salt, takes this onto a large scale, imagining that the plague of medieval Europe wiped out 99 percent of the population instead of 30 percent.

In Lucky Strike the arena is the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, where a different crew goes out to drop the bomb and the man with his finger on the trigger has doubts about the necessity of the mission.

Lucky Strike is an excellent short story that takes you directly into the heart of a world-changing event through some individual characters that would never be counted, whichever history played out.

This novella comes with a short essay deconstructing alternative histories of that day and an interview with Robinson. The essay is interesting but the interview is somewhat disappointing, reading like a standard set of questions from a magazine journalist with little interest in either the politics or the fiction.

The price tag seems a bit steep for this slight book. Instead, why not pick up another Robinson novel and dive into some great science fiction which puts the questions facing humanity in the 21st century under a sharp spotlight? The Mars and Science in the Capital trilogies come highly recommended.

Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson, PM Press, £8.99

Published in Socialist Review February 2011

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Through his research over the last 30 years, Ilan Pappe’s investigations have challenged the Zionist historiography of the Nakba of 1948 and questioned the mythology surrounding the foundation of the Israeli state.

As a lecturer at Haifa University, Pappe supported a student who researched the fate of villages around Haifa by conducting in-depth interviews with both Jews and Palestinians who had witnessed the occupations during 1948. The student’s thesis was picked up by a journalist and forced a response from the army brigade responsible for the deaths of over 200 villagers. The veterans decided to sue for libel and Pappe encountered the might of a state uniting to cover up uncomfortable truths.

Unable to hold conferences or debates, he attempted to run a home university to educate fellow Israelis. Just as he felt he might be beginning to change perceptions, the 2006 Lebanon conflict occurred and any progress was washed away in a tide of jingoistic rhetoric.

Unable to survive as a critical academic within Israel, Pappe accepted a post at Exeter University and now plays a significant role in arguing for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

Pappe has contributed to the overturning of much of the mythology surrounding the beginnings of the state of Israel. This memoir explains why he can no longer carry out this role inside the country itself.

Out of the Frame by Ilan Pappe, published by Pluto Press £14.99

Published in Socialist Review December 2010

 

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First published five years ago this reissue brings together both parts of the story of Satrapi’s childhood and of her return to Iran. Satrapi’s adolescence was in some ways like many other girls growing up in the early 1980s – jumping around her bedroom singing, making friends and lovers, trying to establish who she is. But for Satrapi the question of identity becomes crucial. Sent out of Iran, during the confining years of the Islamic Revolution, she arrives in Germany at the age of 14.

Descended from the last emperor of Iran and born to Marxist radicals, Satrapi draws herself as a lovely, precocious child with a vivid imagination. She talks to god and her grandmother as she tries to figure out what has happened as her world is turned upside down by the Islamic Revolution.

Suddenly thrown into a world of strange customs and laws, Satrapi’s teenage rebellious nature hits out at the authorities around her. Her parents are distressed and decide that her adolescence would be better spent away from the religious strictness.

Ironically, the first place that Satrapi ends up in Germany is a boarding house run by nuns. Moving from place to place she does indeed manage to find drugs, boys and all the fun of being a teenager – but nowhere ever feels like home.

The simplistic black and white style of the graphic novel belies a richness of emotion, creating an absorbing narrative.

Persepolis byMarjane Satrapi, Vintage, £7.99

Published in Socialist Review April 2008

 

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