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The Dark Tower Volume II: The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King (1987) 400 p.

In my review of the first volume in the Dark Tower series, I commented that, while it was a good book, it was somewhat sparse and very obviously a foundation for a greater story to come. I don’t think it’s such a hot idea to start your 22-year magnum opus heptalogy (yeah, I went there) with a weak book, but fortunately, The Drawing of the Three makes up for what The Gunslinger lacked.

Having found himself on the shore of a turgid grey sea, tasked by the man in black with “the drawing of the three,” Roland is attacked by a lobster-like monstrosity that severs two of his fingers and leaves him with an infected wound that will soon kill him. Dragging himself along the beach with the last of his strength, Roland comes to a doorway standing alone on the sand – a doorway into another world.

Entering the doorway, Roland finds himself inside the mind of an inhabitant of that world, a man named Eddie Dean, who is sitting on a plane from Nassau to New York with two bags of cocaine strapped to his armpits.

The subsequent story is an example of Stephen King at his best, as Roland attempts to bring food and medicine back from our world to his, and to prevent Eddie from being arrested at customs. The point of view jumps from Eddie to Roland to a flight attendent to the pilot to customs officers and more besides, and yet never throws off the pacing or flow. One of King’s finest talents as a writer is to look inside his characters’ heads, to establish their motivations and make their behaviour and reactions perfectly understandable. Consider this scene, where Eddie has locked himself in the plane’s toilet and the flight crew knows damn well he’s smuggling cocaine:

Deere, the co-pilot, suggested Captain McDonald ought to lay off pounding on the door when McDonald, in his frustration at 3A’s lack of a response, began to do so.
“Where’s he going to go?” Deere asked. “What’s he going to do? Flush himself down the john? He’s too big.”
“But if he’s carrying-” McDonald began.
Deere, who had himself used cocaine on more than a few occasions, said: “If he’s carrying, he’s carrying heavy. He can’t get rid of it.”
“Turn off the water,” McDonald snapped suddenly.
“Already have,” the navigator (who had also tooted more than his flute on occasion) said. “But I don’t think it matters. You can dissolve what goes into the holding tanks but you can’t make it not there.” They were clustered around the bathroom door, with its OCCUPIED sign glowing jeerily, all of them speaking in low tones. “The DEA guys drain it, draw off a sample, and the guy’s hung.”
“He could always say someone came in before him and dumped it,” McDonald replied. His voice was gaining a raw edge… something was not right about this one. Something inside of him kept screaming Fast one! Fast one! as if the fellow from 3A were a riverboat gambler with palmed aces he was all ready to play.

McDonald – who had never put anything stronger than aspirin into his system in his entire life and then only rarely – turned to Deere. His lips were pressed together in a thin white line like a scar.

With only three throwaway lines nestled amongst the narrative, King establishes exactly why the captain is so determined to apprehend Eddie, without disrupting the flow at all. It adds a lot to the story, and proves that King can write quite well when he wants to.

After the “drawing” (recruitment) of Eddie Dean, we follow the formulaic drawing of the other two. All three of them are natives of New York City in various different periods of time, and the vast majority of the book is set there, with only brief interludes on the long, bleak beach in Roland’s world. The second recruit is probably the low point of the book; I found her particular quirk to be somewhat annoying. The third, however, brings us back to the excellent storytelling of Eddie Dean’s segment, with Roland going on a gunslinging shootout across New York City in his final desperate quest for antibiotics.

The strange thing is that, while this book is much better than The Gunslinger, it too is clearly a set-up for a greater story to come. The Gunslinger gave us the hero and the quest; The Drawing of the Three gives us his posse. While I enjoyed this book a lot, I find myself wondering whether Volume III will advance the quest and give us more of Roland’s world, or busy itself with yet more set-up. Once again, King himself acknowledges this in the afterword: “This longer second volume still leaves many questions unanswered and the story’s climax far in the future, but I feel that it is a much more complete volume than the first… and the Dark Tower draws closer.”

Unfortunately, we’re in early ’90s territory now, so King’s inevitable decline in quality also draws closer…

The Starry Rift by Jonathan Strahan (2008) 525 p.

I was quite surprised, when I began reading this book, to reach the end of the introduction and find that it was signed off: “Jonathan Strahan – Perth, Western Australia, 2007.” It wasn’t so much that I was surprised to discover a sci-fi anthologist based in my hometown, but rather a sci-fi anthologist who pulled names like Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds and Ian McDonald.

Strahan’s intention with this anthology was to recreate the golden age of sci-fi, to feature stories that would “offer today’s readers the same kind of thrill enjoyed by pulp readers fifty years ago.” He carefully avoids mentioning “children” or “young adults,” but many of the authors have chosen to interpret his mission statement as such, so the majority of stories in The Starry Rift feature teenage protagonists. Only a few of them try to recreate the space opera feeling of Heinlein juveniles, which I think is what Strahan was going for.

Neil Gaiman was the only author whose work I’d read before, and so the stories in this book offered an excellent sounding board to see which big-name sci-fi authors are worth further investigation. Stephen Baxter earned himself an immediate toss onto the rejection pile, with a poorly written space opera jaunt called “The Repair Kit,” full of wooden characters and the apparent belief that every noun must be preceded by at least two adjectives. I was ready to throw Cory Doctorow there too, as his smugly-titled story “Anda’s Game” featured an Australian stereotype on the very first page (I wonder what Strahan thought of that?), but he surprised me by telling an entertaining and thought-provoking story about MMORPG economies.

Kathleen Ann Goonan’s “Sundiver Day” was a story about human cloning that featured beautifully visual writing but did not particularly grab my attention. “Orange” by Neil Gaiman confirmed by belief that he is a fairly talented writer who is simply not my cup of tea. “Lost Continent” by Greg Egan was a thinly-veiled attack on the astonishing vitriol Australia treats refugees with, the politics of which I strongly agree with, but which was obviously shoehorned into the science fiction genre.

“The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice” by Alastair Reynolds was a promisingly creepy story about a kid hitching a ride of a vessel crewed by cyborgs where all is not as it seems, but which fell apart in the final act. “Infestation” by Garth Nix was a fairly interesting story about vampire hunters in which the vampires are actually insectoid aliens. By far the best story on the anthology is Ian McDonald’s “Dust Assassin,” set in a futuristic India with cyberpunk technology and evocative descriptions reminiscent of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. McDonald is the one author from this book whose other works I will most definitely be seeking out.

The rest of the stories are somewhat interesting but largely forgettable. Overall, The Starry Rift is an easy science fiction read and a good way to sample the works of some well-known authors in the genre, but if you die without reading it your life wasn’t neccesarily a waste.

It’s Remembrance Day, which marks the biannual ritual of the media going through the usual hollow, jingoistic motions and patching together new editorials and opinion pieces from previous years, the same old talk about sacrifice and freedom and courage and blah blah blah. I don’t mean to belittle the experiences of soldiers serving in any war, but I’m getting pretty fucking tired of watching commentators attempt to wrangle WWI combatants into the paddock marked “died for our freedom.”

Australian troops weren’t dying for our freedom, they were dying for the British Empire, they would have gladly said as much, at the time they considered themselves British subjects, and the entire retarded myth was created retrospectively. I’ve ranted about this before, so I won’t bother doing it again, but I did want to comment on something I found particularly stupid. In a column by Rod Moran (who resembles a cartoonish circus ringmaster) in today’s West Australian 8-page liftout to COMMEMORATE THE TROOPS, LEST WE FORGET, HOO-RAH, he makes the completely empty assertion that “much was at stake for Australia” (literally nothing was at stake for Australia and I challenge anybody to prove otherwise), and he quotes the Australian journalist and historian C.E.W. Bean, who spent much of the war embedded with Australian troops:

“Nearly every symptom that marks the Nazi return towards international chaos and permanent war was observable in the methods of the German leaders in 1914-1918… There can be no question which side then, as today, offered most hope for humanity, of which the mass of humanity favoured.”

What a load of shit. Apparently it was as fashionable in the early 40’s as it is today to assume that Germany was the evil bad guy in World War I as well as in World War II. It was not. The German state at the time was a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary government and an overseas empire; essentially a Continental counterpart to the British Empire, with both parties responsible for their fair share of reprehensible atrocities in the name of imperialism. Germany did not initiate World War I; Austria-Hungary did, and Germany was dragged along as its ally. The entire war was the result of a regional squabble that escalated due to a complex web of military alliances. This is common knowledge to anybody with a high-school level of education.

Germany fell into a whirpool of fascism and military expansionism as a direct result of its loss in World War I, with the Nazi Party exploiting the bitter sense of wounded national pride that would have instead existed in Great Britain had fortunes been reversed. Bean argued that the German people were naturally more inclined to violence, aggression and the support of a totalitarian state because he was as influenced as anybody else by the Allied propaganda and jingoism of the time. Rod Moran quotes him because it provides neat support to the DEFEND FREEEEEEEDOM theme of the West’s Remembrance Day liftout. I don’t chalk this up to mere journalistic laziness; Moran has also dabbled his toes in denying Aboriginal genocide in articles for Quadrant Magazine, the white blindfold publication edited by racist shitbag Keith Windschuttle, and I have no doubt that he truly believes this ludicrous caricature of the Hun.

Both men are peddling a view that is not only stupid but dangerous. To believe that one particular nation or race is more susceptible to becoming a fascist state, to surrendering its freedom and unleashing a hellish war, is naive in the extreme. To provide a much milder example, I have watched with dismay over the last ten years as my fellow Australians have, under the administration of John Howard, grown increasingly racist, nationalist and belligerent. It is the height of arrogance to assume that good ol’ Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking subjects of the Crown are exempt from the power of our leaders to shape our opinions and sway us towards their own goals and desires, to gently lead us down a road that culminates in war crimes or other horrific acts of barbarity. There was nothing remarkable about the German people or any other race of Europe that resulted in the foundation of Nazi Germany. Given enough time, and the right circumstances, any nation in the world can morph into a totalitarian state, and it is our duty – especially the media’s duty – to be forever vigilant against it.

Now that is something that we should never forget.

I’m getting to the point where I’m thoroughly disillusioned with Kevin Rudd. These things build up over time – his generally arrogant nature, his proposed Internet filter, his feet-dragging on the republic and gay marriage – but what’s really pushed me over the edge is his stance on asylum seekers.

Let’s recap the history of this in Australia. We have a long, long tradition of xenophobia that I won’t bother going into – the treatment of Chinese immigrants in the gold rush, attitudes towards Southern Europeans after WWII, the White Australia Policy, etc. Even today it is evident in the charming young men and women who drape the flag across themselves on Australia Day and write “Fuck Off, We’re Full,” on their chests (for the record, Australia has the third-lowest population density in the world). Most Australians are racist pricks who don’t like brown people, a sentiment that our leaders rarely neglect to take advantage of.

In 2001, a sinking boat full of several hundred Afghan asylum seekers was picked up near Christmas Island by a Norweigan cargo ship, the MV Tampa. With the boat severely overloaded, the captain requested to dock at Christmas Island. The Australian government promptly refused him. With many of the refugees needing medical attention, and some becoming aggressive at the prospect of returning to Indonesia (where they would subsequently be sent back to Afghanistan, as Indonesia is not a signatory to any refugee conventions), the captain took a stand and entered Australian waters anyway.

John Howard promptly responded by dispatching the SAS, who seized control of the vessel in order to protect Australia… from helpless, sick, desperate refugees. I think it was around this point that, with John Howard’s careful nurturing and a little help from 9/11, we experienced a paradigm shift in the Australian mindset. We went from vaguely disliking the brown people who came here and ate funny food and didn’t speak English well, to seeing them as an active threat that required military intervention; a yellow Sword of Damocles right above us, lurking in the jungles and ports of Indonesia, assaulting us with wave after wave of leaky wooden boats. Flooding us, even! We started using words like border “protection,” a “tough stance,” worried that Australia was becoming a soft “target.” We didn’t talk about refugees and asylum seekers; we talked about “illegal immigrants” and “queue-jumpers.”

Flash forward eight years. John Howard is gone, and in his place is Kevin Rudd, who leans further and further to the right with every passing month. A similar situation has occurred, but instead of a foreign cargo vessel, an Australian Navy ship was first on the scene. 78 Sri lankan asylum seekers were rescued from a sinking ship in Indonesian waters, transferred to an Australian customs vessel, and taken to the nearest safe port in Indonesia. They now refuse to leave the ship, and the stalemate has dragged out for weeks. They refuse to step onto Indonesian soil for the same reason the Afghan refugees on the Tampa did: they will be returned to where they came from, where they have every reason to fear for their lives, and the lives of their children. It is a perfectly understandable response. If I was in their shoes I would do the exact same thing.

I’m sure John Howard was quite pleased with how he dealt with asylum seekers. It was politically popular, and the Tampa alone was responsible for winning him the 2001 election. It was also desirable on a personal level, because Howard was a racist. Not the kind of racist who would spit on an Asian in the street, but certainly the kind of racist who orchestrated policies and legislation designed to limit immigration and keep Australia as white as possible.

Kevin Rudd, on the other hand, is somewhat torn. I’m sure that he personally sees the need to be more humanitarian towards refugees. He recognises the insanity in demonising the world’s most wretched, hopeless, pathetic groups of people, the ruthlessness in painting them as a threat for political gain. Such is evident from his general relaxation of the Howard-era policies: the disbandment of the Pacific Solution, speeding up processing of protection visa applications, and the guarantee of permanent residency to successful applicants.

But, because of the kind of man he is, Kevin Rudd is allowing his political instincts to overpower his compassion. He wants to appear TOUGH, just like John Howard was, and ignore the fact that this was never an issue that needed “toughness” applied to it. That big ball of hatred that Howard carefully crafted is too difficult (and useful) to just get rid of, so he’s done his best to transfer the loathing to people smugglers – a strategy that is both blatantly transparent and no more ethical than Howard’s.

A real left-wing politican would try to undo Howard’s legacy. A real left-wing politician would try to convince the Australian people that refugees are not a threat, not a danger, not a problem to be solved but rather people to be helped. A real left-wing politician would make us look at refugees and see human beings, mothers and fathers and their children, rather than “illegal queue-jumpers.”

Unfortunately, Rudd is not really a left-wing politician at all.

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November 2009