Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Neal Stephenson - Snow Crash

Snow Crash is one of the great works of science fiction that came out in the run up to the millennium. Alongside writers like William Gibson, Neal Stephenson pushed new boundaries that saw the potential for new technologies like virtual reality, but also recognised that society limited how those technologies would be used.

Snow Crash is notable for putting virtual reality at the heart of the story, and in some ways it probably works better now than it did in 1992. 25 years ago did anyone really think that it would be possible to enter a virtual world on your computer while travelling at high-speed along a motorway?

The brilliantly named Hiro Protagonist is sacked from his job delivering pizzas right at the start of the book. He's a hacker extraordinaire and quickly becomes involved in a complicated plot involving a corporate Mafia, a computer virus that can kill in the real world, and the interests of an extraordinarily rich private church. The characters are all larger than life and many of them poke fun at particular sub-cultures. The 15 year old Y.T. who is a kourier using her skateboard to surf through traffic via grappling hooks is brilliant. But even the minor characters, like the US President that everyone ignores, are well done.

The plot races along, in fact there are several dramatic chase scenes as Hiro and Y.T. try to get to the bottom of what is happening.

Despite being published in 1992 this dark comic novel of hacking and virtual reality set against a backdrop of a disintegrated United States has aged extremely well. In part that is because Stephenson doesn't spell out in to much detail the technology of the time. Technology has a way of developing far quicker than authors imagine and too much science fiction is blighted by characters using technology that sounded futuristic when it was written, but dated five years later. In fact the most fantastic technology in Snow Crash is the wonderful adaptive wheeled skateboard that Y.T. uses; and that's because its actually unworkable.

But what really makes the novel work today is that the trends that Stephenson has bigged up for comic effect in 1992 still seem eerily real. A United States were the Mafia have achieved corporate power and Fast Food delivery has become something done by low paid couriers racing against the clock, risking death as they go, doesn't seem that far off. The coding factory that Y.T's mum works in, where managers monitor every mouse click and time taken to read an email might have seemed like a dystopian future in the 1990s, yet today it's reality for millions of workers.

Snow Crash is a classic novel that retains much of its punch over a quarter of a century after its initial publication, but in someways seems even more relevant today. It would be churlish to compare this with Stephenson's absolutely superb Baroque Cycle, as they are completely different books, so whether or not you liked those as much as I did, you should try Snow Crash.

Related Reviews

Stephenson - Quicksilver
Stephenson - The Confusion
Stephenson - The System of the World

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Chris Harman - The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After

Rather like 2017, 2018 is proving to be a year of reading books associated with various anniversaries. But most importantly it is fifty years since 1968, a year of global rebellion, and Chris Harman's Fire Last Time is an excellent introduction to the period. I first read this as a student when I was a new recruit to the socialist movement and the accounts of massive student rebellion linking together with workers rising was extremely inspiring. Re-reading it today I was struck by Harman's ability to contextualise these struggles and highlight the dynamic of student and workers' revolt.

1968 saw the May events in France when the outbreak of student protest against de Gualle's government led to massive street fighting in Paris and, until then, the biggest General Strike in history. It also saw the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia to stop the Prague Spring, huge radicalism in the United States against the Vietnam War and an escalation in the Civil Rights movement. 1968 was the year Martin Luther King was assassinated and the Black Panther's became mainstream. It was also the year of student revolt (and massacre) in Mexico, and in Britain (where Harman was himself active) student radicalism, leading within a few years to workers struggle.

Within a few years, military juntas and fascist dictators in Greece, Portugal and Spain had also fallen, with movements that shared many similarities to those of 1968. Italy saw an explosion of workers struggle and in Portugal the spectre of revolution in Europe was raised for the first time since the 1920s.

Harman is brilliant at showing the dynamics of these movements, how they arose out of changes within the system but where also limited by existing organisations. In particular the role of the Communist Party in Western Europe was to limit struggle, redirect it and often to conciously protect the system in exchange for a seat at the Capitalist table. Take, for example, Harman's comments on the end of the French revolt. de Gaulle had described the situation as a choice between elections and civil war. But Harman points out that there was another way forward,
This would have meant encouraging forms of strike organisation that involved all workers, the most 'backward' as well as the most advanced, in shaping their own destinies - strike committees, regular mass meetings in the occupied plants, picketing and occupation rotas involving the widest numbers of people, delegations to other plants and to other sections of society involved int eh struggle. Everyone would then have had an opportunity to take part directly i the struggle and to discuss its political lessons. It would also have meant generalising the demands of the struggle, so that no section of workers would return to work before a settlement of the vital questions worrying other sections.
In other words, what was needed was a deepening of the struggle. No organisation existed that was willing to do this, and it wasn't certain that it would have been successful. But the Communist Party didn't try - it was to concerned with events getting out of control and threatening its own position. Instead they did the opposite - preventing student protesters meeting workers on strike for instance. The result was the defeat of the movement and de Gaulle winning the election.

1968 saw rebellion grow on a mass scale, and we get a real sense of the way that this transforms ordinary people. For example, this account, quoted by Harman, by a worker who was also a part time student, of a meeting in their factory in the midst of the Yugoslavian student movement.
I proposed the workers first familiarise themselves with the demands and problems presented by the students... The leaders of the meeting did not allow me to continue speaking. But with the loud support of the workers I climbed on a chair and read an 'appeal' to all workers written by the students... I would have to be a poet to describe the excited reaction of the workers as they learned of the students's demands.
There are countless other examples in this book, and while Harman apologises for focusing on key movements (particularly Western Europe) he does highlight many struggles that are not usually associated with 1968.

But his analysis stands out also for his ability to locate 1968 in wider contexts.
1968 was itself a product... of the way the pattern of capital accumulation on a world scale had caused a crisis of US hegemony, of the fragmentation of the Stalinist bloc, and of the fusing together of formerly submissive rural populations into powerful new groups of workers. Likewise objective economic changes had led to the creation of the vast new student populations, forced to try to learn sets of ideas which no longer made sense of a world that seemed to be cracking up.
He continues that without these changes, the
student movement along would have ended as it began, as a pressure group committed to university reform. The anti-war movement... would have been trapped in the politics of pacifist protest and moral indignation. Revulsion at the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia would merely have strengthened liberal ideas in East Europe and built Eurocommunist reformism in Western Europe. Even the strikes in France might have been experienced just as economic protests, without any great ideological significance.
This is important because it illustrates that 1968 was not a unique event but arose out of the internal contradictions of capitalism. While events will not repeat themselves, the contradictions have not gone away, and so 1968s lessons remain important. Crucial to this is the experience of the newly formed revolutionary, anti-Stalinist, socialist organisations. Harman devotes space to showing why many of these failed to grow and why others were successful. But he points out how, at key points, particularly in the aftermath of 1968 some of these groups were able to play important roles in the struggles that took place. Chris Harman devoted his life to building revolutionary socialist organisation. The First Last Time was an important contribution that helped a new generation understand that vital need. In 2018, as capitalism once again offers us war, racism, poverty and now environmental disaster, the book deserves to be read by a new generation of anti-capitalists.

The Fire Last Time has just been republished by Bookmarks Publications, with a new introduction by Joseph Choonara.

Related Reviews

Harman - Zombie Capitalism
Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century
Harman - Marxism and History

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Guy Gavriel Kay - Children of Earth and Sky

Having picked up Children of Earth and Sky on a whim in the library, I was extremely taken by Guy Gavriel Kay's writing. This sweeping alternative history is well written, engaging and doesn't suffer at all from the common fantasy troops that bedevil so much writing in the genre. In fact there is very little fantasy at all - some characters can talk to dead relatives, who advise, protect and seem to operate as a sort of sixth sense. But there is are no spells, teleportation or magical swords.

It took me a while to realise, that the obligatory map at the front is a lightly concealed plan of the eastern Mediterranean, and indeed the book is set mostly in what is now Croatia in the later medieval era. It deals with the clashes between city states of our Italy (principally a very thinly disguised Venice, called Seressa) and the Asharia empires to their east. While religious practice is completely different in Kay's world, the beliefs of the characters are analogous to Christian and Islam.

The characters are well rounded, believable and entertaining. I was particularly taken by Danica Gradek, a young woman archer who is determined to avenge her brother's kidnap by Asharia raiding parties. But the plot hinges on the mission of a young, and distinctly naive painter,  Pero Villani, who is travelling from Seressa to paint the Grand Khalif of the Asharias in the western style.

The author sets things up well for a thrilling denouncement, but there are several thoroughly enjoyable subplots and story arcs, as well as some brilliant characters. The lightness of the fantasy makes this more an alternative history, and I am already looking forward to returning to the author's writing.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Marek Edelman - The Ghetto Fights

This month saw the 75th anniversary of the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis. This prompted me to re-read this extraordinary account of the rising by Marek Edelman. Edelman was a socialist, a member of the Bund, an organisation of Jewish socialists, who, along with other groups, including radical left-wing Zionist organisations decided to resist Nazi attempts to deport Jews from the Ghetto to the concentration camps.

Hindsight makes it very difficult to read. We know what was to happen to those who were sent to Treblinka and other camps, but those in the Ghettos did not. Edelman's organisations began to get news from brave individuals about what was taking place, and they produced news sheets to explain to the thousands in the Ghettos what was happening. But it seemed to fantastic - as Edelman writes, "people who clung to their lives with superhuman determination were unable to believe that they could be killed in such a manner". When the decision to "liquidate" the Ghetto was made, the Nazis made the Jewish Council announce that all "non productive" Jews were to be deported, and ensured that the "Jewish police was designated as the agency to execute the deportation order". As Edelman explains this mean that the Germans "made the Jewish Council itself condemn over 300,000 Ghetto inhabitants to death".

It is hard to comprehend the callousness of the Nazis. But this deportation order came on the back of their systematic violence against Jews in the Ghetto - arbitrary killing and torture. The sections of the book that describe life in the Ghetto, with the constant threat from the Nazis, as well as the desperation of hunger and poverty of the inhabitants, are terrible to read. As are the accounts of the conditions in the areas were the Jews were gathered to face deportation:
The sick, adults as well as children, previously brought here from the hospital lie deserted in the cold halls. They relieve themselves right where they lie, and remain in the stinking slime of excrement and urine. Nurses search the crowd for their fathers and mothers and, having found them, inject longed for deathly morphine into their veins, their own eyes gleaming wildly. One doctor compassionately pours a cyanide solution into the feverish mouths of strange, sick children. To offer one's cyanide to somebody else is now the most precious, the most irreplaceable thing. It brings a quiet, peaceful death, it saves from the horror of the cars.
When the decision to liquidate all the Jews in the Ghetto is finally made, the groups of organisations that have come together to form fighting units eventually resist. With a handful of weapons, including a single semi-automatic machine gun, and homemade grenades they stop the Germans dead, killing dozens. Edelman rights that once the Nazis plan is clear, every house "becomes a fortress". In the midst of the horror, the resistance is inspirational, despite the fact that most of those fighting back are doomed by the German's overwhelming firepower.

At the same time heavy fighting raged at Muranowski Square. Here the Germans attacked from all directions. The cornered partisans defended themselves bitterly and succeeded, by truly superhuman efforts, in repulsing the attacks. Two German machine guns as well as a quantity of other weapons were captured. A German tank was burned, the second tank of the day. At 2pm, not a single live German remained int he Ghetto area.

Some of the fighters did eventually escape, some joining Polish resistance fighters, and their story did reach the world. After the war Marek Edelman wrote this book and it was published in Warsaw in 1945, then in English in 1946. It is an inspiration story, and demonstrates that contrary to many myths, Jewish people did not walk passively into the Concentration camps, but many fought back. Today we see the growth of the far-right across Europe, with a rise in racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. In Eastern Europe we see fascists and the far-right beginning to gain real traction. The Ghetto Fights is an inspirational story to help us build resistance today.

Related Reviews

Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution
Mazower - Hitler's Empire
Gluckstein - Fighting on all Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War
Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Frederick Engels - The Peasant War in Germany

This short work by Frederick Engels is rarely read, but it forms an important part of his contribution to Marxist historical works and theory. Dealing with the German Peasant War of 1525-1526, part of the enormous upheavals that shook Europe during the Reformation, Engels argues that this has it roots in the economic changes taking place in German society, combined with the class struggle between those at the bottom of society and the ruling classes. Engels explains that in contrast to Britain and France which were seeing the rise of "commerce and industry" a consequent political centralisation,

Germany had not got any further than grouping interests by provinces... which led to poltiical division...Uncertain of its own position, the imperial government vacillated between the various elements comprising the Empire, and thereby lost more and more authority... In these circumstances, the position of the classes inherited from the Middle Ages had changed considerably, and new classes had emerged beside the old.

These new classes were beginning to struggle for their own interests. It would be wrong to argue that these new classes were capitalists, or represented capitalism trying to break through. But they were traders, merchants and urban ruling class who were getting wealthy from the "growth of commerce and the handicrafts". They wanted more control over their ability to make wealth, and end to taxes and tithes that stole their wealth and while these "did not overstep purely constitutional limits" they wanted a larger share of power. At the same time there was a growing "plebeian opposition" which "brought together... parts of the old feudal and guild society with the undeveloped, budding proletarian elements of the germinating modern bourgeois society". At the same time, the peasant mass of Germany were struggling under the oppression and exploitation of society, desperate for more land, more wealth and an end to their poverty.

Because the dominant ideology in 16th century Germany was religion, the arguments and struggles played out through religious language, but were about much more than interpretations of the Bible or arguments about religious practice. As Engels explains:
It is clear that under the circumstances all the generally voiced attacks against feudalism, above all the attacks against the church, and all revolutionary social and political doctrines were necessarily also mostly theological heresies. The existing social relations had to be stripped of their halo of sanctity before they could be attacked.
The two key figures in this struggle were Martin Luther and Thomas Müntzer. Engels argues that both of these were shaped by the political and economic milieus that they operated within. Luther, he argues, rebelled within a safe set of boundaries:
When in 1517 Luther first opposed the dogmas and statutes of the Catholic Church his opposition was by no means of a definite character. Though it did not overstep the demands of the earlier burgher heresy, it did not and could not rule out any trend which went further... But this initial revolutionary zeal was short-lived. Luther's lightning struck home. The entire German people was set in motion. 
But Luther had to chose his position. And so
He dropped the popular elements of the movement and took the side of the burghers, the nobility and the princes. His appeals for a war of extermination against Rome resounded no more.
Engels writes about Luther becoming more and more the "vassal" of the princes who had the most to gain from the struggle against the nobility. Müntzer on the other hand was the voice of those at the bottom of society. Engels portrays him as anticipating much later political movements; "his political programme approached communism" writes Engels. Certainly Müntzer did have a Communist approach, along the lines of the ideas of Gerrard Winstanley a century or so later.
By the kingdom of God Müntzer meant a society with no class differences, no private property and no state authority independent of, and foreign to the members of society. All the existing authorities, insofar as they refused to submit and join the revolution, were to be overthrown,m all work and all property shared in common and complete equality introduced.
Müntzer set out to organise this. He preached, wrote tracts and travelled to the areas of greatest unrest organising and mobilising the masses. Engels claims Müntzer not just as an early Communist thinker, but an early vanguard revolutionary organiser, who "organised a party of the elite of the then existing revolutionary elements, which, inasmuch as it shared his ideas and energy, always remained only a small minority of the insurgent masses".

Unfortunately the mass peasant armies could not prevail against the organisation of the ruling class, though they has some impressive victories. Tens of thousands were killed, or executed or lost their lands for their rebellion. Müntzer himself is executed for his leading role.

Engels is writing in the context of the defeat of the 1848 revolution in Germany. He's trying to explain why during that Revolution the bourgeoisie was unwilling to carry through its revolution. In essence it is the same reason as why the discontent princes of Germany would not support the Peasants risings in 1525 - they were not willing to lose their own wealth and privilege and preferred to join the suppression of the masses.

The Reformation can be a confusing mass of shifting alliances and religious currents. In this short book, Engels cuts through all of this and highlights the real economic and political changes. He doesn't ignore the story of the war either, but puts it in the context of wider events. There are also fascinating parallels between this and other peasant risings, and looking at the 12 "articles" produced by the German Peasantry I was struck by the close similarities with contemporary risings in places like England - in particular Kett's Rebellion of 1549. This short book is a brilliant example of the Marxist method and is a classic of historical materialism. Few other authors have come close to Engels in their accounts of the period and this book should be required reading for students of the period.

Related Reviews

MacCulloch - Reformation: Europe's House Divided
Engels - Origin of the Family, Private Property & the State
Engels - Socialism: Utopian & Scientific
Engels - Condition of the Working Class in England
Marx & Engels - The German Ideology

Friday, April 20, 2018

Colin Dexter - The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn

One of the great things about the Inspector Morse novels is that they are relatively timeless. Morse and Lewis don't have mobile phones and communication suffers as a result, but by and large the books could be set in contemporary times. Reading The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn I didn't realise that it was first published as long ago as 1977 until I checked the front of the book. Amusingly the thing that made me look up the date was a part in the plot where a character travels back from London to Oxford first class instead of of the second class his ticket allowed. On admitting this at Oxford the staff member tells him it doesn't matter. Try doing that on Virgin Trains today!

As with all Morse novels, little details like this matter even though while you read them they seem somewhat inconsequential. The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn is finely crafted in this regard. It is set in the dusty atmosphere of the Foreign Examinations Syndicate. A rather fuddy-duddy organisation that allows foreign students to sit British exams and then potentially get into English universities. Unsurprisingly, given that some of their biggest clients appear to be royalty in oil-rich Gulf states, there is a sniff of corruption, and when Nicholas Quinn is murdered, the reader is won't be surprised in the slightest.

Quinn is almost completely deaf, and until I read up about the book, I didn't realise that the sections that deal with his hearing difficulties (and which form a crucial plot point) were based on Colin Dexter's own experiences. In fact its this aspect of the mystery which actually means that Morse makes a unusual mistake and accuses the wrong person.

This is only the third volume of the series, and Morse's character isn't quite as well rounded as he is in later books. I was surprised by Morse's sexism in this book. In fact, at one point, Dexter has the detective's side-kick Lewis describe Morse (internally of course) as "crude" following a comment made about a female suspect. While I've noted before that Morse isn't actually that likeable, I don't recall Morse being quite so aggressively sexist in other books (though he frequently thinks and comments on women's looks and bodies) and this volume does also involve a pornographic movie as part of the story which seemed slightly odd. One of the problems with the TV series of Morse is that it made him much more loveable, and a lot less sexist and rude, and viewers can be surprised at the Morse of the books.

Despite the sexism, the plot is entertaining, though I always feel you're reading Morse as much for the atmosphere as the whodunit. The ending is, as I said, unusual, in that Morse get's it wrong initially - but that helps round out his character a little more - he certainly isn't the infallible Holmes type. More interestingly, Dexter uses a sort of Agatha Christie Poirot denunciation at this, perhaps to increase the embarrassment that follows Morse's mistake - for the character and the reader.

Like all of Colin Dexter's novels, this is a tight read. It's not the best Morse book, but it fills in some blanks and has some memorable clever moments.

Related Reviews

Dexter - The Way Through the Woods
Dexter - The Dead of Jericho

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Ian Mortimer - Outcasts of Time

Outcasts of Time is a beautiful book. It tells the story of two Devon men caught up in 1348 in the horror of the plaque. John Wrayment is a skilled stonemason who has carved many of the statues in Exeter cathedral, including the faces of his beloved wife Catherine and his brother William Beard. William is more boisterous, interested in wine, women and song. John's attempts to do a good dead for a baby whose mother has died of the plague. His brother chastises him, arguing that it will bring them no good and only delay their perilous journey home. The good dead turns into its opposite, and in horror and anger, John question's God's purpose.

A disembodied voice offers the two brothers a choice. Return home, and die from the plague, or live six more days each day spaced at intervals of 99 years. The brothers take the second option and their journey through Devon's history begins.

It's a wonderful pretext for a novel. It's made better by Ian Mortimer's historical knowledge and eye for detail. There's plenty here on how the villages change, on how the improving fabric of the buildings themselves allow John and William to see that the country is growing wealthier, though neither brother is naive enough to miss the poverty in the backstreets. There are poignant moments, particularly when the brothers return to their home village and see places they know well, but ruined by age and decay.

John in particular, to William's annoyance believes he has a quest to full-fill. His attempts to do good, improve things take various forms - including simply doing a hard days work. But nothing seems to come of it. But the over-arching change, one that John finds particularly difficult, is the way his religion is taken from him and destroyed by the rise of Protestantism. He visits Exeter cathedral after the Reformation and is shocked to have to pay to enter, but even more shocked to see the destruction of the beautiful statues he has made. Later he comes to blame Henry VIII but he keeps his own faith close, despite it putting him and his brother in danger.

Mortimer does this transformation brilliantly. The brothers can understand technology - there's a touching scene in the 19th century when a clergyman explains steam engines - but they are more upset and shocked by the way that their religious framework has been dismantled. John is particularly troubled by this - if he is on a religious journey or quest, then why is his religion destroyed?

A friend of mine who read this said that they'd enjoyed it, but found it too religious. But for most of the last 800 years most people in England would have only understood the world through their religion. Mortimer's description of the transformation of England works so well precisely because he understands that the changes aren't simply technological, or political, but they are about how the whole ideological fabric of the country was remade. And he let's us understand what that might have meant to an ordinary person experiencing part of the changes. It is, after all, why many people took up arms to defend their communities and their faith during the Reformation.

It's a lovely original story, well told and deeply moving. I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Mortimer - The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England