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A few weeks ago I was pleased to notice that Lonely Planet quoted me when discussing what a terrible place Seoul is. I was even more pleased to notice today (although it’s from back in January) that the Korea Times quoted me in turn while getting its knickers in a twist over Seoul’s harsh branding in Lonely Planet’s Least Favourite Cities list:

A harsh review of Seoul from Lonely Planet, the world’s largest travel guide book and digital media publisher, has drawn mixed reactions here.

Recently, the travel book’s Web site posted a list of the world’s nine “least favorite destinations,” and Seoul was rated third on the list, after Detroit in the U.S. and Ghana’s Accra.

The Web site describes Seoul as “an appallingly repetitive sprawl of freeways and Soviet-style concrete apartment buildings, horribly polluted, with no heart or spirit to it.”

Officials are casting doubt on the basis and criterion of the selection.

According to a recent BBC report, the list was based on comments from netizens and travelers.

A Seoul City spokesman said Wednesday that the list was compiled from a total of 42 comments to the question “What are your least favorite cities?” posted on the Lonely Planet Web site.

Seoul’s position is that the survey is biased and groundless, as only two of the 42 comments were related to Seoul. The criterion, number of respondents and the exact margin of error of the survey have not been disclosed.

“We believe that the list was initiated as a tool to generate a buzz and controversy,” said Cho Won-joon, an official in charge of tourism promotion with the Seoul city administration. “Foreign tourists are increasingly satisfied with their stay in Seoul,” Cho said.

Don’t worry, Korea. You’ll make it to California someday!

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (2009) 431 p.

For somebody who hates science fiction so much, Margaret Atwood sure does write a lot of it. The Year of the Flood is a novel set in the same world, and involving many of the same characters, as her 2003 novel Oryx & Crake. Featuring a bio-engineered apocalypse, a dystopic corporate state and rampant genetic engineering, it’s science fiction whether she likes it or not, and she should take heed from Michael Chabon and embrace the term rather than staring down her nose at it.

Oryx & Crake was a fantastic piece of writing. Snowman, a hermit clad in a baseball cap and bedsheet, lives a lonely and melancholy life on the American eastern seaboard, apparently the only survivor of a cataclysmic plague. Nearby is a society of humanlike beings called Crakers, who revere Snowman as a prophet or god. The bulk of the story is told through flashbacks detailing Snowman’s former life as Jimmy, growing up in a hyper-commercialised world ruled by corporations. In high school Jimmy befriends a boy called Glenn, who nicknames himself Crake, and who grows up to become a brilliant bioengineer. Disillusioned and disgusted by humanity, Crake creates a new race of people, and releases a plague to wipe out the old ones. He vaccinates Jimmy against this plague beforehand, allowing him to survive as the guardian of the Crakers.

One might wonder what he is guarding them against, but at the climax of the book Jimmy discovers three real humans camping on the beach nearby. As he ponders his role as a guardian and agonises over what he will do with them, the novel ends.

The Year of the Flood isn’t really a sequel; it takes place chronologically alongside Oryx & Crake, featuring two characters instead of one, but again utilising the flashback method of following them as they grow up. Ren and Toby are both former members of a religious group called God’s Gardeners, a peaceful vegetarian sect that cultivates a rooftop garden in the middle of the otherwise bleak and grimy city. Eventually they both leave the sect, but are reunited after the plague.

The problem with this book was that I couldn’t help but compare it to the much better Oryx & Crake. For much of the novel, I felt like I was reading a book that I’d already read, because essentially I was: same themes, same world, just different characters. (Ironically, the book improves quite a bit in the second half, when Jimmy and Crake enter as supporting characters; it is, after all, their story.) One of the things that made Oryx & Crake so great was the perfect sense of crushing loneliness, the feeling that Jimmy was the last true human being left alive, something that was only slightly compromised by the sudden arrival of others in the very last chapter. The Year of the Flood, on the other hand, has a post-apocalyptic world that seems scarcely less populated than it was before the plague, with strippers and ex-convicts and artists and scientists and nearly all of God’s Gardeners crossing paths, shooting at each other, and spying on Jimmy. It kind of spoils the sense of Snowman’s miserable solitude in Oryx & Crake to know that a bunch of random characters from The Year of the Flood are living just down the road. I’m not even talking about Ren and Toby; there’s a group of ex-scientists they meet who are living in some huts and farming sheep who warn them to steer clear of the crazy guy who sleeps in a tree and talks to himself. Lame. We also never get any indication how these seething multitudes of humanity managed to survive the plague.

The Year of the Flood is not a bad book. I don’t think a writer of Atwood’s talent is capable of writing a bad book, and if you read it without first reading Oryx & Crake perhaps you’ll really enjoy it. But it’s an unnecessary book, and one that, to some extent, dilutes the quality of an earlier and much better one. Atwood already told the story of this world: the story of Crake, who tried to remake the human race, the story of Snowman, who was left behind to protect this new breed, and the story of Oryx, the woman who was a symbol, or perhaps even a catalyst, for the failings and desires that set these events in motion.

Why, then, bother telling the story of a bunch of unrelated nobodies? If Atwood writes more novels set in the world of Snowman and the Crakers, perhaps this one will slot in better in retrospect. If not, it’s an odd and unwieldy companion to a superior book.

The Year of the Flood at The Book Depository

Sabriel by Garth Nix (1995) 491 p.

Garth Nix is one of Australia’s most well-regarded writers of young adult fantasy, and the Old Kingdom trilogy is apparently considered one of his best works. I’ve been meaning to read more young adult fiction lately, so I picked up the first book in the trilogy, Sabriel.

A disappointment. Sabriel follows the titular protagonist through her adventures as she leaves the nation of Ancelstierre, analogous to early twentieth century England, and ventures north into the Old Kingdom, a dark and mysterious land of magic. Her father, a sort of reverse-necromancer titled the Abhorsen who is tasked with laying the dead to rest in the Old Kingdom, has been imprisoned in the land of the dead and now something evil is heading south to Ancelstierre.

I dislike reading about magic. I like fantasy, I like made-up stuff, but reading about the mechanics of spell-casting is like reading about chemistry or physics – it just isn’t interesting. From Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, I’ve never been anything but bored by novels that make magic a centrepiece of the plot (with the notable exception of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, because she focuses more on the world and the political and social ramifications of magic than on the magic itself). Unfortunately, Sabriel is virtually overflowing with magic. Every main character is a magician or magical creature, and we’re treated to long and tedious passages where Sabriel uses spells and wardings and blah blah blah to fight creatures of the Dead. That was another thing – the Old Kingdom lies in ruins, a post-apocalyptic winter wasteland ravaged by horrible undead monsters. Yet Nix fails to instil any sense of horror or dread, and not through lack of trying.

There was nothing absolutely terrible about this book, but nor was there anything that rose above mediocre. The characters were bland. The world was uninteresting. The prose was unremarkable (and good prose is not too much to expect of a young adult novel; Philip Pullman and Philip Reeve both have an excellent command of visual language). I don’t recommend Sabriel, and I doubt I’ll bother reading the sequels.

I’ve learned some valuable lessons reading the news in the last few days. If you are a Muslim and you use violence for ideological purposes, you are a TERRORIST. If you are a white Texan with an Anglo-Saxon name, and you use the exact same kind of violence for ideological purposes, you are not. This is good to know!

American Journeys by Don Watson (2008) 326 p.

America holds a fascinating sway for Australians – for foreigners in general, certainly, but more so for an English-speaking nation with little history and a feeble culture. I grew up watching the Simpsons, eating at McDonalds, reading Calvin and Hobbes, going to see Hollywood blockbusters and playing Grand Theft Auto. For me, names like “California” and “New York” are on par with “Narnia” and “Oz,” equally fantastic and unreachable.

And yet there is a vehement anti-American streak running through Australian society; perhaps a kneejerk reaction against our children being bred as quasi-Americans, or a way to compensate for our own inferiority complex, or simply the fact that most of the world, by and large, dislikes America. This creates a paradox, one which Australian journalist Don Watson tasked himself with exploring:

On The United States of America my senses swing like a door with no latch. They are moved by fierce gusts and imperceptible zephyrs. Love and loathing come and go in about the same proportion. But then, one rages about one’s own siblings from time to time, and one’s own country: it is not rational, in the main. Yet there had been a time when anti-Americanism took on a gleam of reason. As earnest student radicals in the late 1960s, we saw the thread that joined the vicious white mobs of the South to the very foundations of the republic – because we learned that such founders of American democracy as Washington and Jefferson took slaves. We learned what we took to be the real truth about the Indian Wars, the Mexican Wars and the Monroe Doctrine, and it persuaded us that Vietnam was part of a pattern which, when you looked at it hard, revealed IMPERIALISM.

But just as we were thinking it was in the “nature’ of America to be brutal, racist and imperialistic, a paradox appeared. The Freedom Marchers had been American. Martin Luther King was American. Sidney Perelmen was American. Mark Twain was American. Portnoy was American. Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, William Appleman Williams, Herbert Marcuse and Robert Crumb were all American. Our jeans were American. The most articulate critics of America – the most articulate people on earth, and the most liberal – were American. The America of my most avid anti-American phase was the America of my first rational adult heroes. The paradox, greatly modified though it is, animates me still.

America itself is a paradox. It is a country responsible for the lion’s share of the great technological and scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, yet a country where evolution is widely disbelieved and the vast majority of the population is religious. It is a country that, in spite of its Christian values, executes convicts by the truckload and craves a war every twenty years or so. It is a country full of people who call for “smaller government” while supporting the erosion of civil liberties. None of this is this a new phenomenon; the phrase “all men are born equal” was coined by slaveowners.

It is on this paradox that Watson bases his book, part travelogue and part social commentary. His journey took place in 2005 and 2006, beginning in Katrina-devastated New Orleans and spanning a very respectable chunk of the country, crossing back and forth almost as much as Jack Kerouac in On The Road. There are several recurring themes – race relations, the plight of America’s underclass, the pervasive influence of Christianity, the political polarity. Watson is a fine writer and an intelligent scholar, and while American Journeys can be tedious at times, one is never short of food for thought.

For a book supposedly about the Great American Paradox, however – which would mean both the good and the bad – American Journeys paints a very bleak picture. Black Americans continue to occupy a low socio-economic rung. The prison-industrial complex leaves penitentiaries overflowing with inmates. Violence seems ingrained in the history and the culture. There is no universal healthcare, the state values the rights of employers over employees, and the minimum wage is appallingly low – many people live day-to-day, dollar-to-dollar, teetering above the poverty line. The political sphere is rife with slander, pettiness, and unebelievable ignorance.

Watson mentions only two arguments in favour of America. The first (and minor) one is the kindness and friendliness of its individual citizens, which I’ll come back to in a moment. The second – a major theme which he bases his entire conclusion around – is American freedom.

Freedom is such an old chestnut of American rhetoric that it does not impress outsiders as perhaps it should. The more the president speaks of it, the less meaning it registers… And yet, when one travels in America, the chestnut sheds at least some of its shell. You come to see that, to Americans, freedom means something that we incurable collectivists do not quite understand; and that they know freedom in ways that we do not. Freedom is the country’s sacred state. Freedom is what must be protected. All over, they will tell you what is wrong with America, but freedom is the one thing they think right. And whatever the insults to my social democratic senses, that is what I find irresistable about the place – the almost guilty, adolescent feeling that in this place a person can do what he wants. He can grow absurdly rich; he can hunt a mountain lion; he can harbour the most fantastic ideas; he can shoot someone. He can commune with God and nature, buy anything he wants, pay anyone for any service and at any fee. He can be a social outcast or even a prisoner and yet, being American, believe that he is free.

If I am American, I am as free as a person can be. If I am free, I can do – or dream of doing – all the things it is in my nature to do or to dream; no other place on Earth need interest me. So long as I am guaranteed this freedom, I will forgive the things my country does that are not in my nature or my dreams. I will be “spared all the care of thinking about them.” This is, of course, unless my country or some other place threatens freedom.

This comes completely out of the left field in the afterword, as though Watson suddenly realised he’d written a comprehensive tome detailing every one of America’s flaws and felt compelled to balance it out somehow. It feels quite hollow when he has been told numerous times throughout the book, by taxi drivers and barmen and retirees and countless others, that America is a unique stronghold of freedom – and which he counters every time with the plain and simple fact that dozens of other countries are equally free. More free, perhaps, given the current American penchant for trading in civil liberties for security.

The lasting impression I got from the book (one which I mostly already held) was that America is, among Western countries, an extremely dysfunctional nation. A fascinating place, yes, when held at arm’s length and viewed through the lens of movies and video games, and a place which I already have plans to visit. But not a place where I would like to permanently live, or raise a family. Not a healthy society.

I probably shouldn’t cast judgement on a country I’ve never been to, only experienced (a lot, mind you) through popular culture. But I’ll do it anyway. I think that, under my personal definition of “great,” America is far from being the greatest nation on earth. I think it is nonetheless the most interesting nation on Earth, by a long shot. I think it’s important to separate people from their governments; I’ve met many Americans in my time, and found, as Watson did, that they’re quite friendly and likeable. I have nothing but disdain for Australians (invariably, Australians who’ve never actually met an American) who accuse American citizens of being arrogant and rude and stupid – without a shred of self-awareness. It’s one thing to criticise the sweeping history of the American nation/government’s brutality; quite another thing to generalise 300 million people.

I think that while America has many flaws, there are plenty of great things about it… but that none of those great things are absent in the other nations of the Western world.

I think that while these other Western nations may not seem to have as many severe flaws as America does, that may just be because we are smaller and quieter and less populous. I think that Australia or Europe or Canada would be equally liable to sabre-rattling and imperialism, were any one of us the most powerful nation in the world.

I think that, while my beliefs about America may be naive or uninformed, at leas I’m fucking consistent and lucid with them, unlike Don Watson.

American Journeys makes a lot of interesting arguments about aspects of America, but ultimately fails to make any kind of cohesive statement on the country as a whole, other than the bizarrely uncharacteristic afterword that suggests Watson felt a book about America would be incomplete without a big stirring speech about trademarked American Freedom – a myth he has previously debunked. (A myth that is self-evidently debunked, for that matter.)

That’s okay, I suppose. America has been the defining cultural, political and economic juggernaut all over the world for nearly a century, and will remain so in the English-speaking world for a long time to come. You can’t wrap your head around it by taking a few train rides and writing a book, let alone by reading that book from your distant home in suburban Australia. I doubt I’ll ever understand a place as powerful, dynamic, intense and loud as America, but if my life goes to plan I’ll be arriving there sometime next year, and I’ll see things for myself.

When the Republican Party harps on and on and on about how the United States needs to “cut government spending,” they are of course referring to the government spending money on stupid, useless things like education and health. Money spent on anything related to the military is money well spent, as seen last week when Boston Dynamics was awarded a $32 million contract to develop a prototype robotic pack mule:

Within the next three years, the U.S. military will test the feasibility of sending a quadruped robot out into the field as a trusty pack mule to carry supplies for its troops, wherever they go… The military already uses unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance or to attack enemy targets, and DARPA has sponsored several contests in recent years to determine the feasibility of developing autonomic ground transportation. Automation has been much more difficult to introduce to the infantry, however, because of the need to traverse rough terrain where robots operating on wheels or tracks cannot go.

Maybe you could, I don’t know, use actual mules? Crazy!

The Dark Tower Volume VII: The Dark Tower by Stephen King (2004) 1050 p.

When I started reading the Dark Tower series last year I expressed concern that, because the series spans Stephen King’s entire career, its quality would drop correspondingly. That turned out to be pretty much on the money.

Where did it all start to go wrong? When did the Dark Tower series, an interesting and original fantasy epic with well-developed characters and a fascinating world, become a rambling masturbatory tale of Stephen King’s delusional writing career?

Was it in The Waste Lands, the best book of the series, but also the one where Jake discovers the rose in the vacant lot that opens the door to a tidal wave of cosmological bullshit? Was it in Wizard And Glass, the book where the quality starts to level off, featuring a gigantic emerald Oz palace in an alternate dimension Kansas, giving you the sinking feeling that King is just starting to pull stuff out of his ass? Was it in Song of Susannah, the worst book of the series, where King spends an entire novel developing a plot thread that ultimately goes nowhere, and inserts himself into the story on the side?

It was in real life, actually, on the 19th of June, 1999, when King nearly died in a car accident. This brush with mortality knocked the procrastinating jackanapes right out of him and he scrambled to finish the last of his life’s work, either not caring how they turned out or labouring under the delusion that you can produce three books in less than a year without a drop in quality. Fuck that fucking car accident. Without it, the final volume in the Dark Tower series probably wouldn’t even be finished yet, but at least it and its predecessors would actually be good, rather than the mediocre-to-shit excuses for fiction the last few volumes are.

I had no problem with Roland’s ultimate fate upon reaching the Dark Tower; I think it was fitting, and I liked the tiny detail that suggests he might finally manage to break free of his fate. (I was also spoilered well in advance of even beginning The Gunslinger, which may have helped.) I had no problem with the deaths of several major characters, which was heavily foreshadowed as far back as The Drawing of the Three – with how they died, perhaps, but death was certainly coming to them.

What I had a problem with was the death of Randall Flagg, an awesome villain from much better Stephen King books than these, dying a completely pointless death at the hands of the new villain Mordred, to make the new kid on the block seem more impressive (an old, weak and cheap trick). What I had a problem with was Mordred meeting his fate in an equally inane and anticlimactic way, shitting his pants for several chapters because of food poisoning and then blundering into Roland’s camp and being promptly put down. What I had a problem with was the cheerful cottage on the road to the Dark Tower inhabited by an evil insect disguising itself as a stand-up comedian who ensnares Roland and his few remaining companions with fits of laughter, their salvation only delivered because Stephen King left a note warning them about an anagram in the insect’s bathroom medicine cabinet (Oh God, how I wish I was joking). What I had a problem with was the stinking, vile flood of deus ex machina that overflows from the pages of this book (and the series in general), King just making shit up to move the story along whenever he feels like it – and then acknowledging it through metafiction as though that somehow makes it okay. What I had a problem with was that King seemed to think the series was being divinely beamed to him by God and that if you don’t like it you can either put up or shut up because he’ll be damned if he’s hiring an editor.

Even in this final volume there are pages and pages of bloat. Towards the end there is an entire chapter titled “Hides,” where the Roland’s posse stops to kill and skin some deer, being sure to take us through the finer points of stripping and tanning an animal. Because when we’re within sight of the Dark Tower after seven books, thousands of pages and more than thirty years, that’s what we REALLY WANT TO BE FUCKING READING ABOUT. Then I came to this sentence and was convinced that King was deliberately fucking with us.

They stayed three days in the camp by the stream, and during that time Susannah learned more about making hide garments than she would ever have believed (and much more than she really wanted to know).

This is the narrative equivalent of King snickering and shoving his raised middle finger in our faces. Fuck you too, man.

The capstone to the series is just so unsatisfying. I powered through the last third of this book in a single sitting, because I wanted to be done with it. I wanted to move on to something else, something good, delighted with the knowledge that I would never have to read the word “ka” again. The conclusion was bound to be gripping, after this long journey, but that’s not mutually exclusive with being terrible. We get all the characters we’ve known and loved for six books removed, and replaced with some fucking pissant mute artist who uses his magical drawing ability to defeat Roland’s terrible final foe (a deranged Santa Claus figure sitting on a balcony throwing Harry Potter hand grenades at him).

I won’t deny that the deaths of Roland’s posse or his arrival at the Dark Tower didn’t have an emotional impact – this was a long series, after all, and the first few volumes were actually good. There are a handful of poignant moments in this book, tiny islets of good writing and stortytelling girt by a turgid sea of shit. But God, why did it have to be like this?

There’s a better Dark Tower series out there somewhere, in an alternate world where King didn’t get hit by a car, or perhaps where King was a little less arrogant – there are not one but two notes from the author in this book condescendingly telling readers they can go fuck themselves if they don’t like the bizarre, rushed farce of an ending that he vomited out after a near-death experience. There’s a Dark Tower series where all the loose ends are tied up, where we learn properly about the key elements of Roland’s past rather than spending eight hundred pages on his holiday romance and then hand-waving everything else away. There’s a Dark Tower series where Walter/Marten/Flagg is the final villain, not Mordred and the Crimson King. There’s a Dark Tower series where, after killing off the secondary characters, King doesn’t shove in some kind of alternate-universe happy ending. There’s a Dark Tower series where, hallelujah, King doesn’t achieve the wankiest thing an author can ever do by putting himself in the story.

I say all this, with wistful regrets, because I found the Dark Tower series so frustrating. If it was all-out crap I’d just write a bad review and move on. But there was a lot of great stuff in there – the characters, the world, cyborg bears and malfunctioning robots and ruined cities and Randall Flagg and the awful truth at the top of the Dark Tower. But there’s just so much rubbish you have to swim through to reach those things. The carrot is always dangling juuust out of reach in front of the reader’s face. And, ultimately, the good stuff doesn’t outweigh the crap. Doesn’t even come close. My ultimate verdict on the Dark Tower series as a whole is that, unless you’re a die-hard King fan, they’re not worth your time.

As Sean T. Collins put it at the end of his blogslinging extravaganza, which I was enjoying throughout my own gruelling experience:

“Go, then. There are better books than these.”

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