You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2012.

Three years after you may have first read it on Grub Street, my short story “Homecoming” – the first of the Black Swan Stories, which doesn’t really mean anything yet – has been published in Issue #40 of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. Why not read it again! (Free, online.)

Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathon Lethem (1994) 262 p.

Book reviews can be difficult, which is why a lot of mine are so amateurish. A professional critic will, without fail, hold a book up to the author’s previous works, examine it through the prism of the zeitgeist, or compare it to works that examine similar themes. Ideally all three. I often wonder where some of these critics, who are often only in their 30s, found the time to have a thorough background in the classics and still speak with authority about the new field of fiction released every year. This is why, when I read a new author, I often feel like I should start with their very first book. I usually don’t, because most writers take a while to hit their stride (see: Peter Carey’s Bliss) but if the concept seems interesting enough – and if it’s an author I want to read, rather than one I just feel obligated to read – I’ll start with their first book.

Gun With Occasional Music is a surreal, genre-blending tale of a hardboiled private eye in a dystopian future California. Most of the populace is high on government-supplied, mind-controlling drugs, various species of animals have been evolved to a sapient level, and citizens are all issued with “karma” on their ID cards, which will land them in cryogenic freezing if they reach zero for various petty offences.

It’s clear that this is not, from the outset, a properly realised science fiction world. The sci-fi flairs have about as much substance to them as the average pulp detective story. Lethem definitely nails that part on the head, at least – his prose perfectly captures the cynical and depressing world of the private detective, and the protagonist, Conrad Metcalf, is an admirably pathetic loser who’s always ready with a flippant retort. It reminded me of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, in the sense that the familiar trappings served as a solid rock for the reader amid a more unfamiliar setting. It was just pulled off with less style and less sense of purpose. (To be fair, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was written at the height of Chabon’s career, whereas Gun With Occasional Music was Lethem’s first novel).

This is not a bad book, but it’s largely forgettable, and I spent a lot of it wondering why Lethem didn’t just write a hardboiled detective novel. His future dystopia is so thinly sketched out that I often felt like it was a tongue-in-cheek allegory for something, but I’m damned if I can figure out what. In any case, even if he wasn’t a prominent novelist nowadays, the gift for prose that he clearly exhibits in Gun With Occasional Music would be enough for me to read his next novel despite this one’s failings.

The Prime Minister has outlined the Government’s plan for an early troop withdrawal from Afghanistan which could see the majority of Australian soldiers return by the end of 2013.

The Government had been working towards bringing Australian soldiers home by the end of 2014, the date set down by the NATO-led international forces.

But Julia Gillard says security has improved in Afghanistan and it is likely the majority of Australian troops will leave next year.

“This is a war with a purpose, this is a war with an end. We have a strategy, a mission and a timeframe for achieving it,” she said in an address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

PM confirms expedited Afghan exit,” ABC News, 17 April 2012

The national discourse surrounding this announcement – surrounding this whole war – pisses me off. First is the assumption that anybody in Washington or London or Berlin or Kabul gives a flying fuck whether Australia’s meagre token force is there or not. The Taliban will see it as a symbolic victory, the ISAF as a symbolic loss. Australians should be questioning the fact that their contribution is considered merely ‘symbolic.’

Second is the Prime Minister’s rhetoric-laden speech about how this isn’t a defeat or a withdrawal, but rather a transfer of responsibility to Afghan forces, who will maintain the current status quo of peace, prosperity and stability for which Afghanistan is renowned across the globe. (Imagine what it will be like if they lose any further control.) But nah, I’m sure it’s fine, we’ve been training these guys for nearly a decade. They must be nearly ready now, right?

Third is the ludicrous notion that this is all according to plan, all going swimmingly, a perfectly reasonable and logical step in the itinerary. A five-year-old child born years after 9/11 could point out to our Prime Minister that this is actually a frustrated and hasty political manoeuvre, part of a grander tapestry of hubristic defeat for Western forces. Put quite simply: we are losing this war. Our aims are vague, our forces huddle inside fortified compounds, and our mission has gone from rooting out al-Qaeda to creating a stable democracy to withdrawal by 2014 no matter what the cost. Since Australia’s stake extends no further than supporting US foreign policy as part of the ANZUS alliance – no matter how fucking stupid, badly-planned and frankly naive American wars might be – it’s in our political interest to be the first to leave the party. I mean, hey, we did stick around for eleven years, which is pretty late. But, you know, we’ve got work in the morning, so we’d better get going. Nice seeing you, though!

Countless left-wing commentators will talk about how the military-industrial complex controls this (and every) war, and how it’s not supposed to have clear goals or resolutions, but exists merely to make money for certain sections of Western society. I have no doubt that the relationship between military manufacturers and the interior of the Beltway has been a prominent geopolitical force over the last decade, but right here, right now, in Afghanistan? Their calls are clearly no longer a priority. Our mission in that country has morphed into nothing more sophisticated than a frantic dash for the exit. There is no more damning indictment against our alleged noble purpose than hearing Julia Gillard, David Cameron and Barack Obama talk over and over and over again about how we will be sticking to our scheduled departure date of 2014, apparently with the iron-clad certainty that the security situation will improve by then. How do you think it makes Afghans feel to know that we’re bailing in two years, no matter what? How do you think it makes the Taliban feel?

Here is the plain truth. The public has grown weary of this war, the military has grown weary of this war, politicians have grown weary of this war, and it’s evident to everyone that if we stick around in this static misery we will be in precisely the same situation in 2022 – an endless baton relay, the Afghan runner sprinting ever further ahead of us, never willing or able to take the flame. We went into a foreign country with zero understanding of its culture, background or context, and we are paying the price of our own arrogance. Or, rather, the Afghans are paying the price, and will continue to pay the price. Western leaders never once cared about the people of Afghanistan. For John Howard, Tony Blair and George Bush, Afghanistan was an irritating nest of terrorists to be exterminated; for Julia Gillard, David Cameron and Barack Obama it’s an irritating geopolitical swamp to extricate our armies from. There’s a common viewpoint which says that national leaders care about nothing but getting re-elected, but even the most altruistic of national leaders observe the world through the prism of their own nation’s interests. Never ever forget that when you’re watching Gillard or Cameron or Obama banging on about “the people of Afghanistan.”

So, here’s what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. We’re going to hang out for two more years, get a bunch of Afghans killed, get a lot of our own soldiers killed, waste a lot of money, and leave with the South Vietnamese Army Afghan National Army being judged capable of handling its own security. Within the next 1-3 years, the government will be overthrown and the Taliban will be in control again, which will be an appropriate amount of time for the West to save face and argue that it was the Afghans’ fault. For however long the fall of the government goes on – likely no more than two or three weeks – it will feature between page 5 and page 10 of the newspapers, and receive third billing in the 6pm news bulletins.

Every soldier who died in Afghanistan – American, Australian, Dutch, Canadian, any of them – died for nothing. Don’t get on my case about that. Don’t accuse me of disrespecting the troops, who sacrifice their lives for our countries. It’s exactly because the troops sacrifice their lives for our countries that they deserve honesty. They deserve to know precisely why they’re sacrificing their lives, and what that sacrifice will accomplish. They deserve to know why we’re going to war, whether we’ve thought it through properly, and what difference it’s going to make. They don’t deserve to be treated like chess pawns, maneuvered throughout Central Asia in a 21st century reboot of the Great Game, paid off with the sickeningly childish refrain of “this is a war with a purpose, and a war with an end.”

Julia Gillard is making the right decision for the wrong reason. Whatever. We lost this war a long time ago. Bring our troops home, because they sure as fuck aren’t making a difference there. And if you really want to help Afghans, and save Afghan women from the brutal rule of the Taliban? Increase the refugee intake.

King City (trade paperback) by Brandon Graham (2012) 424 p.

I’m not a big comics reader – for me it was always something associated with superheroes, which I can’t abide – but it’s something I’d like to get into more. I heard about King City ages and ages ago, but only recently saw that it was published as a collected volume, and figured now was the time.

King City is quite obviously a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously; in fact, Graham mentions in the afterword that he started drawing it as an escape from unenjoyable paid jobs in the industry. It takes place in the titular King City, a bizarre and fascinating metropolis of indeterminate location where all manner of people, monsters and aliens make their home. The main character, Joe, is a “cat master” – a spy trained in the art of using a cat which he injects with syringes that can transform it into anything from a telescope to a defibrillator to a deadly weapon.

Yes, it’s that kind of story – but Graham achieves the necessary balance between not taking it too seriously, and not taking it seriously enough. There are poignant relationships and important moments here, and it never just rolls away down the slope as a gigantic oddball joke. The crux of that is the relationship between Joe and his ex-girlfriend, so that even while they’re battling unleashed demons or rescuing her new boyfriend from a secret medical facility, Joe’s reflecting on how he feels about her. It (loosely) reminded me of Dicebox, in that the characters are strolling through amazing landscapes without really being fazed by them – the inverse of most fantasy or science fiction. King City might technically be about a cat master and his allies fighting against a deadly threat to mankind, but it feels like a much more familiar story: being a twenty-something deadbeat hanging out with your friends and eating takeout food, watching TV, drinking beer, and simply enjoying life in the endlessly entertaining mess that the streets of any great big city are. It’s awesome.

And the city itself truly is the drawcard here. Apparently Graham was requested by his publisher to change the original title from Catmaster to King City, and I’m on the publisher’s side there. Like China Mieville or William Gibson, Graham is a writer who loves the concept of the city, of the compost layer of history, of thousands of people – thousands of stories – going about their lives every single day. (It’s a concept I’m equally fascinated by.) A city is more than the sum of its parts, and with his marvellous style of drawing – which crams in as many details, side-jokes, snatches of graffitti, strange characters, billboards, and overheard conversations as possible – Graham creates a living, breathing city that’s as much of a character as Joe the Cat Master is.

There’s so much of this town that I never think about. All this city going on all at once. You can spend forever in a place like this and still see hundreds of new faces every day. Face. Face. Face. All of everyone piled up on each other. I wonder how much is going on in all those windows.

Alan Moore mentioned on HARDtalk the other day that the most interesting stuff in any industry, but especially in comics, is usually going on at the margins. King City is a perfect example of one of those indie gems, a fun and creative story spun by a struggling writer who has deservedly found success.

My short story “Nullus” has been published in the inaugural edition of SQ Mag. You can read it online for free here. Yes, they did get my first name wrong, but that’s all part and parcel of the glorious toboggan ride of being a young writer!

Burning Chrome by William Gibson (1986) 191 p.

Burning Chrome is a collection of ten short stories by William Gibson. Of those, I would rank five (Johnny Mnemonic, The Gernsback Continuum, Hinterlands, New Rose Hotel and Burning Chrome) as “very good” or higher.

From me, that’s high praise. I don’t know why, but I just usually don’t enjoy short story collections very much. A while ago I stopped reading them in one hit, because that’s not how short stories are supposed to be read, and instead started reading a short story or two in between novels – but it didn’t make much difference. I just don’t think I enjoy short fiction as much as long fiction, and I’m not alone. I’m not going to try to find a link to back that up; it’s conventional wisdom in the publishing industry that short stories don’t sell, and every google hit for that phrase brings up an article trying fruitlessly to debunk it or arguing to self-evident point that commercial value doesn’t equal literary value.

Anyway, the point is that I usually shrug my shoulders when reviewing short story collections, but I liked Burning Chrome a lot. I think Gibson’s style suits itself to short fiction (and essays) as much as it does to long fiction. (Normally I’d say “better than,” but Gibson is one of the most important writers of the last 30 years and his long fiction is amazing as well). He’s a writer for whom style is as important as substance, a man who holds a mirror up to our culture, his fiction littered with the brand names and place names of an increasingly capitalist and globalist society. He’s like a Stephen King in reverse, predicting the zeitgeist of the future instead of capturing the zeitgeist of the past (and both writers have less mainstream recognition than they should, because they dared to write genre fiction). Burning Chrome is full of stories about flawed people living on the margins of society, alienated in enormous cities, forging connections with other losers, dystopic technology integrated into their grey and painful lives, governments virtually unmentioned but corporations everywhere.

Aside from a few melancholy clunkers (Fragments of a Hologram Rose, Dogfight) Burning Chrome sets a remarkably high standard, and proves why William Gibson is one of history’s greatest science fiction writers.

The Lucky Country by Donald Horne (1964) 256 p.

“The lucky country” is a phrase any Australian is familiar with, one often applied with beaming happiness to things like Vegemite advertisements or Australia Day speeches. Yet few Australians would be able to quote the sentence it originally appeared in: “Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.”

Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country in the early 1960s as a stark assessment of a nation he felt had lost its way. Australia possessed fabulous natural resources and enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world; yet, unlike other advanced nations, he felt it had done little to earn its success. It rested on its luck and was unimaginative, uninspired and unexceptional. It was almost a dependency, looking to Britain and the United States to tell it what to do and unable to shake the feeling that it was an unimportant backwater, albeit a pleasant one. It reminded me of an assessment by Ted Simon in Jupiter’s Travels, when he visited Australia in the early 1970s:

Like most people everywhere they spent most of their time just getting by, but there was no collective dream or mythology that told them what it was they were supposed to be doing.

Now, The Lucky Country was written half a century ago and much of it is irrelevant today – the influence of the Australian Communist Party, the White Australia Policy, and the tension between Catholics and Protestants, to name a few things. But a larger portion of the book is surprisingly relevant. The most striking thing to a modern reader is how little has changed. Horne knew Australia was at a tipping point in the 1960s, like much of the world, and that if it was ever going to seize its own destiny, that was the time. And indeed, the 1970s saw the election of Gough Whitlam, a prime minister who stood up to Washington, engaged with Asia, introduced universal healthcare and began the process of recognising Aboriginal land rights. But he was dismissed after only a few short years, and Australia sank back into a swamp of lazy complacency. And now here we are in 2012: still not a republic, still looking to America and Europe for guidance in cultural, political and economic matters, and still relying entirely on our natural resources to maintain our economy. Australia was renowned in 2008 for being the only OECD country which did not enter recession, but virtually the only reason this was so was because our economy is centred around selling ore to China. How lucky.

And our current leaders hardly inspire confidence – indeed, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott regularly poll in the 30% range as preferred prime ministers, among the lowest ratings of all time. Say what you will about John Howard and Kevin Rudd, but they were both titanic figures who led with vision (my vision of hell, in the case of Howard, but vision nonetheless) and imposed themselves mightily upon the Australian psyche. Gillard and Abbott, on the other hand, feel like understudies thrust into the spotlight. They might make able politicians, but in the grand narrative of history, they will never go down as great leaders.

So the Australia of today is strikingly similar to the Australia of The Lucky Country. It reminded me of what Nick Bryant, the BBC’s Sydney correspondent for many years, wrote upon leaving the job in 2011:

The anger and hostility [in Australian politics] is currently being compared with the mood in 1975 during the Gough Whitlam dismissal crisis. But it also has a late-60s feel – a post-Menzies, pre-Whitlam interlude when the country appeared to be treading water, and waiting for something to happen.

The curious thing when reading The Lucky Country is that Horne seemed to be optimistic, to believe that change really was around the corner, that the next generation – John Howard’s generation – would prove to be far less stagnant and conservative than their predecessors and lead Australia into a bold new future. (He seemed particularly convinced that a republic would happen any year now.) That didn’t happen. And while I myself am optimistic that Australia might grow up a little in the coming decades, in an era of global connectivity and an emerging Asia and a rising Green Party, I can’t help but feel that perhaps we’ll just see a repeat of the last 50 years.

The question is whether this time our luck will run out.

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April 2012