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Archive for January, 2016

A Review of A Fire Upon The Deep

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 31, 2016

A Fire Upon the Deep (Zones of Thought, #1)A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A Fire Upon The Deep has got to be the most ambitious book I have ever read. Especially so for a book a little over 600 pages long. It’s monster space opera unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, with concepts so “out there,” so advanced and complex that they are mind blowing, consciousness expanding, perhaps even life changing. Yet, this isn’t close to being a perfect book. It has some very serious flaws.

This book was published in 1992 and won the Hugo Award, perhaps deservedly, perhaps not. As I said, very ambitious. In it, there are “Zones of Thought” (The High Beyond, The Transcend, The Middle Beyond, The Low Beyond, The Slow Zone, etc.) in which the galaxy is separated into distinct “zones,” each of which is identified by its relative location to the galactic core and its ability to support various forms of advanced technology and faster-than-light travel. Somewhere in the universe is the Slow Zone, where it’s impossible to create sentient AI computers, and it’s impossible for FTL travel to work. That’s where Earth is located. Outside of that is the Beyond, where all types of alien races with FTL-travel exist and are trading and blabbering on about all sorts of crap via the Net, etc. The Beyond is broken loosely into the Low, Middle, and High Beyond, where gradually more and more advanced technology functions. If one tries to fly a High Beyond spaceship down into the Low Beyond, its more advanced functions will slowly and gradually shut down. Further out is the Transcend, where entities who have ‘transcended’ into god-like Powers dwell. They must remain in the Transcend (for the most part) to function. It’s much more complex that how I’m describing and frankly, at first, it’s a bit of a mind fuck and it took me a long, long time to get used to, but eventually I began to adjust. It’s just a very advanced notion and somewhere a cross between advanced super hard science and complete and total fantasy.

In the book, a group of cutting edge scientists investigating a five billion year-old data archive on a newly discovered planet that is actually quite ancient accidentally unleashes “the Blight,” a malignant super-intelligence/super-virus that ultra-quickly learns how to infiltrate and take control of computer systems and even living species and complete civilizations. These scientists desperately send a couple of spaceships away at the very end of their existence before their destruction at the hands of this Blight, with some of their people and some type of information that may stop the Blight from controlling and destroying potentially all galactic civilization. The last of those two surviving ships lands and is stranded on a planet with a warlike, medieval-level society of intelligent dog-like aliens called Tines. Two of the young human children who survive are taken by opposing forces of Tines, which eventually in time leads to a major conflict. One of these Tines, in control of a nine-year-old boy, gets into contact with a human scientist, convinces her the boy’s in deep trouble, going to be under attack by other Tines, is being helped by this Tine and friends and needs her help and technology, which she strives to provide. Meanwhile, she and others start racing the Blight and its minions through the galaxy to get to the Tines’ planet to rescue the boy and find out if the stranded ship really holds the key to stopping the Blight.

While the children, Johanna and Jefri Olsndot, are struggling to deal with the Tines, the superhuman intelligence/virus awakened at the scientists’ research lab, which has come to be known as the “Blight” or the “Straumli Perversion,” (based on the location and group of people who created it) begins to spread, destroying entire worlds, enslaving populations and civilizations, and killing several other “Powers” (super intelligences that abide in the top Zone that are hard to conceptualize throughout the entire book) in the process. Ravna Bergsndot, the female scientist in touch with Jefri, along with Pham Nuwen, a man from the Slow Zone who was recreated from ancient human parts and inhabited by a Power, and two Skroderiders, intelligent plants that ride on mechanical “skrodes” that support memory and mobility for their riders, take on the task of rescuing Jefri (who they believe is the only surviving human – they don’t know of his sister’s existence; neither does he) and recovering the suspected “countermeasure” to the Blight in Jefri’s ship at the Tines’ world at the bottom of the Beyond.

The book is one third hard science that is SO complex and so difficult and so far “out there” that it simply boggles the mind. The author, after all, is a mathematician and computer scientist, so it makes sense. It’s beyond complex and it made me feel quite stupid. At times, I wanted to give up because the concepts were so hard for me to even grasp that much of it felt like nonsensical babble. This is without doubt, as I already wrote, the most ambitious book I’ve ever read.

However, while it’s one third nearly beyond comprehension, it’s also one third quite a compelling story. If Vinge is capable of making his story remotely believable to the reader, it’s very engaging. An all encompassing super intelligence/virus that destroys entire worlds and is taking over the galaxy racing after a single spaceship crewed by two intelligent plants and two humans, traveling to a medieval planet of warring dogs who have captured two human children and who have in their control the sole potential weapon against this super intelligence in the galaxy in the children’s surviving ship. It’s tension filled. It has action. It has a certain degree of technology, now pathetically outdated, which I’ll get to and which is shocking. It has some form of “science.” The Tines Vinge creates as his primary alien race are quite interesting, very detailed, and described in depth with excellent character development. They are one of the better alien races and societies I have encountered in my sci fi readings over the years. Somewhat.

That said, the final third of my analysis of the book is that it’s total rubbish. My wife, who is an avid reader, scoffs at sci fi due to its “unbelievability.” I have tried to explain to her and differentiate for her sci fi “believability” versus believability before, but it’s a difficult concept to convey. For me, if the science in the book strikes me as potentially realistic and the characters act realistically – even if they are aliens – and the military action, strategy, and tactics – if military sci fi – is sound, then it’s believable sci fi. David Weber and Chris Bunch are two examples of believable military sci fi authors. Jack McDevitt is another example of another good example of a “believable” sci fi writer. Meanwhile, one of my favorite “unbelievable” sci fi writers is Philip K. Dick, who writes so over the top it’s ridiculous, but in my opinion, that’s okay because he knows it and makes no pretense about it. He’s not trying to fool anyone into believing his work is “hard” sci fi and therefore actually realistic and therefore to be taken seriously. So, it’s fine to read and enjoy him because you can take his books with a grain of salt for what they are and that’s that. Vinge, however, takes his work seriously, or at least attempts to make the reader believe so, and tries to write his Blight as believably as possible, all the while while it’s an intangible concept. How, exactly, does it literally destroy entire worlds? We only find out after it has mysteriously done so when it has sent hundreds or even thousands of ships it mysteriously now controls to Ravna’s planet to destroy it, in part because it’s a large “Net” (Internet, millions of years in the future – I’ll get to this) gateway that thousands of civilizations use for constant communication, most recently about the Blight, and it wants to do away with it. More difficult are the Tines. As advanced medieval dogs, they are hive mind-like packs of four to eight dogs who amazingly can do just about anything a single human can do, but even trying to get me to buy that is stretching things pretty far. For instance, how can dogs build stone castles complete with huge thick walls, dungeons, torture chambers, tunnels, etc., as well as entire cities? How can dogs literally get stone blocks big enough to construct castles and their walls into place and do it? How can dogs build and fire crossbows, literally? Vinge tries to describe how one dog holds it in his mouth (That straight? That steady? Honestly?) while another “loads” it with an arrow or bolt and another draws the string back and another shoots it, etc., but even with that attempt at describing their doing so, it doesn’t make it very believable for me. Field hospitals? How do dogs put up tents? Well, maybe their field hospitals don’t have tents. But the rest of the army have tents as living quarters, so literally, how do dogs put up tents? Boats, ships. How do dogs sail ships in the ocean? I’d like to see it. Seriously. I don’t think it can be done, no matter how big the damn pack is or how well it works together. They don’t have fucking opposable thumbs! Damn it Vinge, paws can’t do this shit and you can’t make me believe they can! What about Johanna’s laptop? They figure out the basic password and start using it. Literally. How can paws press keys? Wouldn’t a paw be too big to manipulate a small keyboard key? Literally? It’s not fucking believable! It’s simply not believable and that’s my biggest problem with this book. What about the Skroderiders? Even with the help of their magical skrodes, how exactly do fucking plants fly a spaceship? I know Vinge writes about their fronds, but are we REALLY supposed to buy the notion that plant fronds can fly a spaceship, especially better than their human counterparts? It’s fucking stupid as hell and it’s not remotely believable, therefore this book is utter rubbish.

One other major “issue” I take with Vinge and this book is the so-called technology this is based on. This book was published in 1992, largely pre-Web, but supposedly millions or even billions of years in the future when there are untold zillions of inhabited planets with thousands of species and civilizations. Yet, millions of years in the future, everyone – all of the species – are on the Galactic “Net,” short for Internet I assume, and I assume translated technologically by his “software” so we can all read the messages he relays for us. Because that’s what it is. Everyone, millions of years in the future, uses Newsgroups and posts thousands of messages to tons of Newsgroups an hour. It’s Usenet news, an Internet feature I used to really love back in the 1980s and ‘90s and part of the Internet that comprised its major function (besides email) until the Web came along in the early 1990s. By the mid to late ‘90s, Usenet was largely ignored, and by the 2000s, most people using the Internet had never heard of Usenet news or newsgroups. It’s beyond obsolete now. Indeed, back in the ‘90s, when I got a new ISP, which I did frequently, one of my key questions in signing up was about the existence of their news server, which was important to me. Over the past decade, however, as more and more ISPs are actually cable companies and other types of broadband companies, whenever I have asked a company representative about their news server, I get silence on the other end of the phone before they stumble around, claiming they don’t know anything about what I’m talking about and they don’t have any such thing. And it’s true. These companies no longer have news servers and I don’t even know how to access Usenet newsgroups anymore, although I suppose if I seriously wanted to, I could research it and figure out a way. My point, however, is that the author wants us to seriously believe that he had the scientific and technological foresight to predict that millions or billions of years in the future, thousands of species would be using Usenet newsgroups to post tens of thousands of messages, which he so diligently copies as authentically as he can in this book, when he can’t even predict the fact that about one year after his book’s publication – one year! – the World Wide Web would render Usenet obsolete and 15 years later, Usenet would be a thing of the past and would be largely unknown to most of humanity. Yet millions are years in the future, it’s still so fucking cutting edge, it’s the technological medium of choice for communicating between people/aliens on various worlds/ships throughout the galaxy. He seriously wants us to believe that over millions of years, no civilization or species has come up with a better or at least different method of technology or technological communication than Usenet? Are you fucking kidding me? When the Web, just one year later, obliterates Usenet on its founding planet alone? Oh yeah, and Net access is so insanely expensive that most can’t afford it! Most people/entities can’t afford to watch an important 400 second encrypted video because it’s so expensive. Seriously? Millions of years in the future, bytes are so hard to come by, that it costs more than a spaceship you’re flying in costs to access the Net and check Usenet news messages? OMFG. So, how stupid is Vinge then, really? Is he the most insanely stupid sci fi writer who has ever existed? To make such a bold prediction of future technology when short term facts wipe his book out in one year? He’s a FUCKING IDIOT and I have no idea how the hell this book won a Hugo! This book, while inventive and complex, doesn’t even deserve two stars for this fact alone! It’s fucking technologically obsolete, not only as I write this in 2016, but in 1993, and certainly millions of years from now. Can’t anyone see that? Holy shit!

So, final thoughts. Big book, not in length, but in ambition and thought. It’s an interesting story, at times well told, at times complete and utter bullshit. It’s inventive and complex. I felt like I was either on or needed LSD to survive it at times. I’ve never read anything like it. And while, at times, I largely enjoyed it, I was so put off by the Usenet news obsolete technology DISASTER Vinge wrote and by the total unbelievability of the book that I’ve got to mark this down from, at best, a four star book to perhaps a two star book. It deserves more in one way, but its mistakes and errors deserve one star, to be perfectly honest, so I’m compromising. Even though I normally wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone and certainly not to anyone not well versed in sci fi literature, if you are a sci fi vet and want a unique experience, I would probably try this book out. It’s that unusual. But on the whole, I just can’t recommend it because it has too many problems. Therefore, not recommended.

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My Emancipation From American Christianity | john pavlovitz

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 30, 2016

Source: My Emancipation From American Christianity | john pavlovitz

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A Review of Bill, The Galactic Hero

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 28, 2016

Bill, the Galactic Hero (Bill, #1)Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This Starship Troopers/Catch-22 anti-military, anti-war satire is one of the most depressing, bleakest books I have ever read in my life. When I started reading it, I thought, how amusing. How over the top. How funny. Poor Bill. Poor hick. Drugged and forced to enlist as an imperial trooper. Forced to fight in a stupid war he knows nothing about, doing nothing, eating crap, doing useless crap, training for nothing, when in action accidentally saving his ship from obliteration, becoming a hero, getting a hollow medal, getting robbed, going AWOL accidentally, on the run, finding help, becoming an informer, everyone is, how fun, off to prison, on trial to be shot to death, off to prison camp, is there any point, is there any future, is there any hope, oh holy shit, there’s not, holy fucking shit, he’s a fucking monster, damn!!!

I know this book was published in 1965 when the Vietnam “conflict” was becoming an actual war, following on the heels of the failed Korean War and when men were being drafted, perhaps not too unlike in this book, as Harrison sees it. And perhaps it’s all too similar, per Harrison’s viewpoint. I won’t dispute that. And as Eager Beager, the Chigger spy says, we can’t be civilized if all we like to do is fight wars. True dat. But crap, to have Bill end up like he does is fucking cruel to him and the reader. It’s brutal. I guess that’s carrying things through to the logical viciously satirical conclusion though. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. At some point in the book, I found I enjoyed the humor a great deal less than I once did and therefore enjoyed the book a great deal less than I once did. It became more of an effort to read. It became a chore I had to get through. It became a tasteless task and I didn’t like that. Some people rave about this book. I guess I can see why some people might. These are the same people who like Catch-22, etc. I won’t deny the genius of Catch-22, but I can’t put this on the same level as that book for some reason. I just don’t think it matches up, but then it’s been so long since I’ve read that book, I really can’t remember. Perhaps I now have to reread it.

This book isn’t bad, per se. It’s certainly unique. There are funny moments, especially early on, like when all of the recruits have to stand and wait hours in the ship’s fuse room, ready to lift and replace 90 pound fuses in case of action, only to feel virtually nothing before being informed they’ve been in action and have destroyed the enemy with atomic torpedoes and they’re getting medals. They get medals for everything. It’s sad that Bill ultimately realizes that suicide is really the only way out. Sad because it seems to be the solution realized by so many of our current military servicemen and women, as well as our vets. It’s truly tragic. I wonder how much foresight Harrison truly had. He’s so over the top in skewering the military and makes the leaders out to be such blithering idiots, but how far from the truth is he? And the grunts just follow the orders upon pain of death. Yeah, it’s funny, but like I said, at some point, the humor wears thin and then it just becomes painful. During Bill’s trial, when the court just wants him shot regardless of evidence. When he’s sent to the prison camp, the second one, where no one escapes and everyone dies. And he does what he has to do. It’s fucking gruesome and damned depressing. I’m sorry, but that’s not funny. So, as much as I’ve enjoyed some of Harrison’s books and as interesting and unique and at times, funny, as I think this book is, I don’t think I can’t recommend it. Sorry to all the fans out there. Not recommended.

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A Review of The Excalibur Alternative

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 25, 2016

The Excalibur Alternative (Earth Legions, #3)The Excalibur Alternative by David Weber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Honestly, I initially had a hard time getting into this book. It was a struggle. But it was Weber and he’s usually quite good, so I kept slogging on and am I ever glad I did. By the time I was halfway through, I knew it was pretty good. By the time I was 75% of the way through, I was convinced it was damn brilliant. By the time I finished late last night, I was convinced I had just finished one of the best military sci fi novels I had ever read and I’m deeply disappointed there is apparently no sequel. I actually feel honored to have read such a masterpiece! This was a true work of art. Weber can tell a story like no other and while he can get bogged down in infodumps and can drive readers nutty with irritating habits, such as using stupid names and titles and reusing the same words over and over again (people “nod” and “shrug” and “bare their teeth” and “pinch the bridge of their nose” in most of his novels), it’s less frequent in this book than in most of his other books, for which I was grateful.

The synopsis of this book lies in a small fleet of 14th Century English knights and their army on their way to fight in France, fighting for their lives in a bad storm and losing the battle. With half the fleet having been lost and the remaining ships about to go down, an alien spacecraft from the Galactic Federation rescues Sir George Wincaster and his army of knights and longbowmen from certain death at sea and forces the Englishmen to act as slave/mercenaries to fight intergalactic battles against other “primitive” species throughout the universe on various planets where advanced weapons are banned. Sir George is a master tactician and is told by his “Commander” that he and his people will die if they lose a battle, so they have an incentive to win – every time – and they do. Over and over again. And they and their families go into “stasis” sleep during flights between planets, thus living hundreds of years while aging merely several years at a time, all the while hating their “demon-jester” Commander who kills their fellows as “object lessons” and has other alien species as guards and a godlike colleague named “Computer” who can monitor the humans’ conversations and converse with them virtually anywhere, but ensures that they must watch what they say at all times.

Apparently, there are 22 “civilized” races or I guess civilizations in the Federation overseeing hundreds of barbaric protectorics or other types of planets, all of which are subject to complete annihilation at the hands of the Federation with no qualms whatsoever, as the inhabitants of these planets, as barbaric uncivilized nonentities, are fortunate to even be allowed to live at the pleasure of the Federation. Earth, however presents a problem because it has and can develop technologically faster than most other civilizations and represents a long term potential threat.

Sir George and his people desperately want their freedom, desperately want to kill their ruthless and thoughtless and brutal Commander and to their surprise, some 350 years into their adventures, one of the alien species acting as guards on the gigantic ship they are on present a tiny possible way to do this, but they have to act quickly and decisively and if they fail, they all die. Additionally, Earth will almost certainly die and they will have to join this “dragon-man” species in finding a new planet to colonize and create a new human colony for the race to begin over again. It’s a very tense moment in the book.

I won’t describe what happens next, but it’s climactic, to a certain degree. But there’s more. Jump ahead hundreds of years. To Earth, which has been in contact with the Federation for over 100 years and which has been using antiquated Federation technology to build its own Navy as quickly as possible, knowing they can never match the Federation’s military capability. Fast forward to a Federation ultimatum put to Earth’s government which they are willing to meet, only to be told, off the record, by the local Federation fleet admiral that nothing they do will be acceptable, that they are to be exterminated. The human admiral is devastated, knowing the human race is literally about to be wiped out forever and ever, within hours. Can anything possibly save humanity? Can anyone or anything stand against the Federation?

It’s a quick, climactic ending to the book after a long, drawn out build up to this point, and that’s a little disappointing, but the duel ending, while short and sweet, does not at all disappoint and it’s pretty damn awesome. Could the Federation actually be in trouble and not even know it? Pretty awesome if that’s true. A lot of stuff is explained at the end of the book, classic Weber infodump which I actually didn’t mind for once, but what it amounted to was hope for the future and a personal hope and desire for a damn sequel, which I’m not getting. So that blows. But suffice it to say that the ending, again, while rushed, was eminently satisfying and partially mind blowing. No, completely mind blowing. I loved it! This isn’t Weber’s best book at all, but quite good, very good. But as a stand alone, especially, it’s quite excellent and very enjoyable and, for me, it’s a strong five star book and well worth the read. Definitely recommended!

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A Review of I Am Malala

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 24, 2016

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanI Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I finished I Am Malala a few weeks ago and have put off writing a review for it for quite awhile because I was so overwhelmed by it. It had so much information, was so well written, was so emotional. Malala herself was so impressive, had so much incredible courage, as did her father, both of whom are lucky to be alive, is such a wonderful ambassador of Islam, is such an incredible ambassador of women’s/girl’s rights’ to education the world over, particularly in Pakistan. And she wrote this book at age 15, right before she won the Nobel Peace Prize. She’s frankly a most stunningly impressive person, a person destined for a lifetime of greatness, someone who has already accomplished more in her short years than most people do in their entire lives. This book was an amazing read. It was all encompassing. It was stunning. It was revealing. It was damning and indicting. It was amazing. And I’m again stunned that both she and her father remain alive. Her whole family is very lucky. I wanted to write a comprehensive plot synopsis and review, but I found one on Goodreads that does as good a job as any I myself could write, so I’m going to post it here myself, giving full credit to the author, one “Jean,” written December 30, 2015, and say it’s a darn good synopsis and the only disagreement I have with the author is she only gives the book four stars. For me, it’s easily a five star book. Easily. I would give it six stars if I could. Hell, ten. Twenty. It’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read and I think one of the most important contemporary biographies one could hope to read. This is a book I’ve already purchased and given to others and my wife is giving a copy to her mother this week. Hopefully, she too will pass it on to another when she is done with it. Malala is a most impressive person, one of the most impressive people I’ve ever encountered. We saw her interviewed on a show a couple of years ago and that’s how we first came across her. We were impressed with her then and only now finally read her book. It’s a shame we waited so long. I hope she continues to make a global impact on young womens’ education rights and anything else she can influence. I wish her continued luck and success. And I hope to read another book by her in the future. It can only be excellent if it continues in this tradition she has established here. I can’t recommend this book more strongly. Most highly recommended. Five stars easily.

 

 

 

Dec 30, 2015 Jean rated it really liked it
Recommended to Jean by: Angela M
Shelves: non-fiction, auto-and-biography, religion-and-beliefs

A few days prior to her 18th birthday, Malala Yousafzai has returned to Oslo, to attend the Oslo Education Summit, insisting that all children worldwide have a right to education. Her defiant slogan claims, “Books not Bullets!”

Malala claims, “I measure the world in hope, not doubt” and “Pens and books are the weapons that defeat terrorism”. Last year in Oslo, Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with another child rights activist, Kailash Satyarthi. They were honoured “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”. At 17, Malala was the youngest person ever to receive this award; Malala Yousafzai is indeed a determined and remarkable person. In this book, I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban, she tells her incredible story.

The book is an absorbing read, an amalgam of Malala’s own memoir, plus a history of the troubled country of Pakistan. Most readers will have lived through some – if not all – of the times described, unlike the author, startlingly only 15 herself when she wrote it. To many of us this is not “history” but merely remembrance of current events happening elsewhere in the world during our lifetimes. Could she have a proper grasp of such complex issues of current affairs?

Malala is fluent in Pashto, English, and Urdu. She is articulate, brave, compassionate, informed, driven – and very focused. Growing up at the heart of an area targeted by the Taliban, she had a unique experience living under a developing regime of terror. When Osama Bin Laden was eventually discovered in hiding, it was, to everyone’s shock, just a few miles away from where Malala herself lived. Along with the guidance and influence Malala’s activist father has had on her, perhaps she was destined to become the person she is.

The book starts with a prologue, briefly describing the day when she was shot, from Malala’s point of view. The name “Malala” means “grief-stricken”. Malala was named after Malalai of Maiwand, a famous Pashtun poetess and warrior woman from southern Afghanistan. It was an unusual name, which many thought to be unlucky or inappropriate.

Reading her account, it is clear that her father knew from the start that there would be something different about this child. Malala was allowed to stay up at night and listen to all his political conversations with his friends, long after her two brothers had been sent to bed. She was encouraged to read and think; to have a mind of her own.

The Yousafzai family were part of a large Pashtun tribe in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Her family consisted of her father Ziauddin and her mother and two younger brothers. They were very poor, but part of a strong community in Mingora. There were comparatively few modern amenities such as running water and electricity; waste disposal and disease were a big problem, but the valley itself was lush and beautiful, and Malala thought her home was wonderful.

This first part of Malala’s story is entitled “Before the Taliban”. Malala describes her grandparents and parents’ history, how events had shaped each generation in her family. There was her father, an outspoken poet and education activist, who overcame his chronic shyness to learn public speaking to impress his own father. There was her more traditional, uneducated mother, who too began school at the age of six – but stopped before the term was over. Malala includes many family anecdotes, explaining the varying cultural mores as she does so, and interspersing the account with the troubled political history.

The section has 8 chapters, and is over a third of the book. It takes the reader carefully though all the difficulties Pakistan has faced since its creation on 14th August 1947. Malala relates the views of her people, who regretted the loss of Swat’s identity when it joined Pakistan. Additionally, the creation of a “home for Muslims” within Pakistan’s boundaries was established too hastily, inevitably resulting in other faiths such as Hindus fleeing across the border to India. Economic chaos ensued, and peace has never yet come about.

Since then, Pakistan has suffered under various regimes. There have been three Indo-Pakistan wars, several military coups, and numerous unsuccessful attempts at a military coup. The regime has lurched between military rule and democracy, between dictatorships and brief periods when a Prime Minister such as Benazir Bhutto was in power. She served two terms, but was eventually killed, clearly assassinated, although Malala carefully chronicles the muddled events. Pakistan has had varying degrees of both political and police corruption and is in constant turmoil.

It is remarkable that any normal life can survive such conditions, but the life Malala describes is a happy one. Her father’s greatest love apart from his family was the Khushal Public School which he established. The values of education ring clear and true throughout, having been instilled in Malala from a very early age. She also begins to develop her own opinions, drawing from her experience.

One shocking episode helped to crystallise her views. Malala came across some scavenger children, who lived inside a huge mountain of rubbish. They had matted filthy hair, were dirty, diseased and covered with sores and lice. Picking out cans, bottle tops, glass and paper from the rotting pile of rubbish, they would sell them to a garbage shop for a few rupees, barely enough to live on. Malala begged her father to take a couple of these starving children into his school without pay, and inwardly vowed that she would work as hard as she could towards a time when every one of those children would have an education by right. In the meantime she wrote a letter to God, and sent it down the Swat river.

Towards the end of this first section, it is apparent that the Taliban’s influence had begun to be felt in the Swat valley. Across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban had enforced a very strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. In horror folk learned of the massacres, the brutality towards women, the denial of food to ordinary people, the burning of homes, crops and land.

Malala explains that the majority of the Taliban were made up of Afghan Pashtun tribesmen, simple ignorant people who had always been looked down on by many educated people, including those poor themselves, such as Malala’s family. Recruits were resentful of any who had advantages, such as good jobs, and easily influenced by a fundamentalist idea of Islam. Seeing an opportunity to seize power, with weapons in their hands, they took it. There were many variations of interpretation of Islam present in Pakistan, not to mention other religions, but Malala’s people could see others fleeing for their very lives as the regime continued. They were equally suspicious of the US, thinking that they inflamed the situation, causing innocent casualties.

The local “Mufti”, a religious leader, was making decisions for the whole community. He was very critical of Malala’s father’s school; the girls should not be seen, they must be segregated. They should not learn certain inappropriate subjects. He made increasingly outrageous statements, such as that Ziauddin was running a “harem” in his school. Purdah was insisted upon for younger girls, and more strictly. The Mufti was determined to enforce his own brand of Islam; individual interpretation was quashed.

The section ends in 2005, when a massive earthquake in Pakistan killed over 70,000 people. Fundamentalists seized on this as a sort of punishment, a seal of approval on all their edicts.

The second part is entitled, “The Valley of Death. Malala is now 10 years old, and she describes the arrival of the Taliban in her village. A self-proclaimed Taliban leader named Maulan Fazlullah had risen to power, through a popular local radio station in Swat, appealing mostly to the ignorant and uneducated. In his radio broadcasts he offered instruction on how to obey the Quran. He soon had many followers – including Malala’s own mother. His demands became more strident and fanatical, calling for an end to televisions, DVDs, and other modern technology. The public humiliations began of anyone who didn’t obey his interpretation of the law, including women who did any work outside the home.

The 7 chapters in this section are primarily about the suppression of the people of Swat, and the growth of Taliban influences. Some of the episodes referred to – the beatings, the beheadings – are harrowing, despite this being seen through the eyes of a young girl. Malala’s education continues, but the reader is wondering for how long this can continue. Many girls have been taken away from the school and sometimes Malala is the only girl in her class. Very competitive, she has two close friends, equally clever.

As time passes it becomes increasingly difficult for Malala to study. Military tanks are in evidence everywhere. On one occasion, travelling in a relative’s car, the driver panicked, asking her to hide a CD of music in her clothes. Malala often began to feel afraid when on the streets, imagining that every man she met was a member of the Taliban. She and her friends stopped wearing their school uniforms and hid their books as they travelled to and from school. The beatings and beheadings continued. A nearby school was bombed during a prayer service in honour of a fallen police officer.

When Malala is 11, she is approached by the BBC who feel that a child’s viewpoint would be very significant. She is asked to write an anonymous blog about her life, and chooses the pseudonym “Gul Makai”. People she knows, including some of the girls at school discover it but she wisely keeps it secret. The Taliban’s powers are increasing. They have instructed families to send them the names of marriageable women, so that marriages can be arranged for them. They have announced a date in 2009, by which all girls’ schools must be closed, yet Malala keeps hoping that something will prevent this. She becomes bolder and more confident, being taken in 2008 by her father to Peshawar to speak at the local press club. She has written a clear and passionate speech, “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?”

Inevitably though, the final day of school arrives. Malala cannot believe it; her books are her proudest possessions. She is followed around by a camera crew from the New York Times, making a documentary. Her life seems empty without school, and increasingly the family are living in fear of their very lives. Malala compares their existence to a family of which she has just read, in “Anne Frank’s Diary”. Deciding they will have to leave their home, Malala’s family, like many others, flee to relatives. Others flee to friends, even though this means that in some homes the males have to leave. The Pashtun tradition of hospitality conflicts with the belief that an unmarried female should not reside in the same home as a male who is not her relative, but they respect both principles. Malala goes to school again with a cousin. She is now 12 years old, although everybody is living in too much turmoil to mark her birthday in the way they always had.

The third part is entitled, “Three Bullets, Three Girls”. We know what this section is going to be about, but now we also feel we know the girl herself; her history, and how her individual experience slots into the mess and bloodshed that is Pakistan’s inheritance.

It is three months later, and Malala’s family return home to find much of their village destroyed during the battles. The Taliban has gone, the Pakistani Prime Minister promises, but many people don’t believe it. Some return and eventually school resumes, but many stay away. During these 5 chapters, Malala’s beliefs become more fully formed. She wonders what it would be like to leave school at 13 to be married, just as one of her classmates has.

The climate of opinion changes. There are still tanks on every street corner, machine guns posted on rooftops, checkpoints all along a route, but now people blame the US. Why were they still there, 3 years later? There was even outrage at the American raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. The details were unclear. Why had the US conducted the raid on their own, without telling the Pakistanis or seeking help from them? Conspiracy theories abound. Had the Americans perhaps even actually killed bin Laden years earlier?

Clearly the Taliban are still present, carrying out atrocities very close to their home. On Malala’s 14th birthday, when she is officially considered to be an adult, the family learn that one of Ziauddin’s outspoken friends has been attacked. Malala agrees to follow her mother’s advice, and even though the school is so close, she takes a rickshaw to school, and the bus home.

The section ends with the shooting which made world headlines. On 9th October 2012, a Taliban gunman shot Malala through the head, neck, and shoulder as she rode home from school on the bus after taking an exam. Although Malala can remember very little about it, being preoccupied with her own thoughts, the masked gunman apparently shouted, “Which one of you is Malala? Speak up, otherwise I will shoot you all”. Her identity became obvious, at which point he shot at her. Two of her friends, Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, were also wounded, but survived.

Part four is entitled, “Between Life and Death”. It contains just 2 chapters, about a time of which Malala can remember very little. Immediately following the attack, she was rushed to Swat Central Hospital. There she remained unconscious, in a critical condition. The political machinations behind the scenes continued. The chapters give clinical details, and credit one doctor, “Dr Fiona”, for preventing Malala’s death when staff neglected to follow specialist procedures necessary for the brain and body to recover. She insisted that Malala be sent to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, UK for intensive rehabilitation. Her parents were not able to travel to see their daughter, due to protocol. What comes across to the reader is the ignorance apparent at every level, but also a sense that it is possible for individuals to overcome this, even when the odds seem stacked against them.

The final, fifth part “A Second Life” also consists of 2 chapters. Malala now tells of her recovery more from her personal experience. By 17th October, she had come out of her coma and begun to repond. She was terribly worried about the cost of her treatment, thinking that her father would have to sell his land. She still had not been able to see her father. Eventually everything progressed to the point where the Pakistani government paid for her treatment, she was able to be visited by her family, and best of all, she had no lasting brain damage, only nerve damage.

On 3 January 2013, Malala was discharged from the hospital to continue rehabilitation at her family’s temporary home. On 2nd February she had a five-hour operation to reconstruct her skull and restore her hearing. Since March 2013, she has been a pupil at the all-girls’ Edgbaston High School in Birmingham. Although happy there, she evidently misses her old life, and would love to go home some day. She realises that her new classmates regard her as a children’s rights activisit, but sometimes longs to just be the normal simple Pashtun girl of old, in Minora …

The co-author of this book is Christina Lamb, a British journalist who is currently Foreign Correspondent for the Sunday Times. Her credentials for helping to write this particular book are impeccable. She first interviewed Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in London in 1987. She then continued her work as foreign correspondent in Pakistan, journeying through Kashmir and along the frontiers of neighbouring Afghanistan. She has interviewed the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Always working in war-torn countries, she was even once deported back home. Commenting on the worsening devastation and destruction by the president Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front since she started reporting from Zimbabwe in 1994, she maintains that this has been her most harrowing experience.

In 2006, Lamb was reporting from Southern Afghanistan, meeting with town elders. The team were then supposedly directed to a safe route out, but soon after they had left, the British were attacked by Taliban fighters. Anyone who experienced running through irrigation trenches, with Kalashnikov rifles and mortar firing from all directions, for two and a half hours, is well qualified to co-author this book. Immediately after this book she wrote another about her many years in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She is critical of many missed opportunities by the US, to help resolve the long war, blaming the poor relationship US has with Pakistan for many of the continuing problems of terrorism.

Interestingly it is possible to see the seeds of that book within this one. Often the voice of Malala seems critical of the US, and their inability to be effective, even a mistrust of American troops. But whose is the underlying voice? It is impossible to really know.

Other parts of the book suggest the hand of an experienced foreign affairs correspondent. The indepth knowledge of both contemporary issues and the country’s history and political situation, as well as of the many different tribes, languages and customs within each region, is so very extensive. The issues are complex and quite difficult for the general reader, only aware of the basic schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims, to assimilate.

The roots of the split are ancient, originating in a dispute soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunni Muslims such as Malala’s family follow the orthodox and traditionalist branch of Islam, which takes as its precedent the actions of the Prophet Muhammad. Shia Muslims are followers of Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin, whom they claim as Muhammad’s successor, believing that only God has the prerogative to appoint the successor to his prophet. But there are massively complex distinctions between all the different factions within both Sunni and Shia. Could the complicated issues explored all be Malala’s work?

However Malala is an erudite speaker and writer. I have no doubt that the views, anecdotes, and probably the structure of the book are hers, and that the passion with which she explains her views is hers alone. It is well balanced, her own experience set within the ongoing political situation. But perhaps there is slightly too much input from history to make the memoir flow easily. Malala is a courageous, intelligent, indefatigable person. I would have loved to say this book merits 5 stars. It very nearly does, and I have a sneaky feeling that if she is ever inspired by events in her life to write a book again, it probably will.

The subtitle of the book is, “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban.” Malala insists that surviving being shot in the head is not what she wants people to focus on, but the issues of children’s rights, women’s education and world peace. Surely that is what we should take away from reading this book.

“Our people have become misguided. They think their greatest concern is defending Islam and are being led astray by those like the Taliban who deliberately misinterpret the Quran … We have so many people in our country who are illiterate. And many women have no education at all. We live in a place where schools are blown up. We have no reliable electricity supply. Not a single day passes without the killing of at least one Pakistani.”

 

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A Review of Edge

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 22, 2016

Edge (Josh Cumberland, #1)Edge by Thomas Blackthorne
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

In a word: stupid. The book. And myself. Let me tell you how insipid I am. I got sucked in by the cool book cover. As did a ton of other people, apparently. As Eh?Eh! said in their Goodreads review of 2/14/11, “knives!, duel!, blood!, hell!, legalised (because we’re in Britain) knife fights!, blood!, black!, endless winter!, two people!, save!, this is their story!” Yep, that’s pretty good. Someone named “Megan” wrote in her Goodreads review of 10/16/11, “I’m not going to lie, I bought this book for the cover. I didn’t read the blurb, I didn’t read the first page, all of the little steps that bridge the gap between a book and my bookshelves flew out the window in the face of that cover. Knife fights! Blood! Duels! Sounds most excellent to me. When the book arrived I dared to think I had been rewarded for my rash purchase. The back blurb promised a dystopic future Britain where knife fighting had been legalised and where a giant wall had been erected around the city. Sounds very awesome, yes? At the very least it sounds finishable, and yet I barely made it half way through.”

And yet, to continue quoting Megan, “Let’s start with the book’s main conceit: Knife fighting: it’s legal! Why? Pfft, we don’t need to know a silly little thing like that, do we? And honestly, I would have been happy with minimal explanation of why knife fighting (to the death, mind you) was legal, if we actually got to see some, you know, knife fighting. As I said, I made it to the midway point, and not once had anyone actually had a fight involving knives. There was a lot of posturing and ‘why sir, you have offended me! I demand satisfaction!’ going on, but actual knife fighting? Not so much. I’m not saying that nothing happened, but it did feel like Blackthorne (I vaguely recall that this is a well known author’s alias, but can’t for the life of me remember who…) completely wasted the potential of his world. Here’s this big brotherish dystopic future London, but not one of the events of the first half of the book couldn’t have taken place in a book set in current day London. What’s the point of cool futuristic setting if you don’t make the most of it? Or at least something of it?”

So, this book is supposed to be a sci fi book, I guess of a dystopian near-future Britain where knife fighting/dueling to the death has been legalized, although I have no idea why. Apparently, there is a giant wall surrounding either the entire island of Britain or London, it’s hard to tell. There’s really no mention of it in the book either than on the back cover. And one of the key characters is some type of therapist we meet early on, Suzanne, I believe. She has a unique ability to hypnotize anyone within seconds and cure them of practically anything and even improve them through this process. The author does this thing where she talks to her patients and somehow her words simply fix whatever is wrong with them, or make them think in a whole new way, seemingly like magic. She’ll say something like “you are no longer shy, etc.” and suddenly, no more shyness for that character. It’s completely unbelievable. Since Blackthorne has taken great pains to set this book in the “real” world, given the dystopian unreality of things, this strikes me as odd and hard to believe. Superhuman traits. Doesn’t make sense.

But then there’s the superhuman ex-soldier, Josh Cumberland, who is hired by a rich dolt to track down his missing son, Richard. Richard is “hoplophobic,” meaning he’s afraid of knives, which isn’t very helpful if you’re living in a society where people can challenge you to a knife duel at any moment. He goes missing after his first therapy session with Suzanne, who was hired by Richard’s father to rid him of his phobia. Suzanne and Josh team up to find Richard and things progress from there just like any romance/action movie.

A lot of people complain that Josh is simply a Jason Bourne clone. I don’t know. I don’t know because I gave up before I got far enough in the book to find out. I just thought the book was too stupid to continue. There weren’t any knife fights. Suzanne’s powers were too Justice League. Josh was an action figure. Britain was 1984. What was the point? I didn’t derive any satisfaction out of reading any of this. I thought the author was somewhat clumsy at writing this, as though his scenes were written hastily, going for shock value in lieu of something more solid. It’s hard to describe, but it felt a little amateurish to me. The cover looked so cool and the blurbs on the front and back made it sound so cool and I got sucked in by them and I feel like an idiot, because that’s not usually what happens to me. Oh well. Live and learn. I won’t be buying anything by this author again. Stupid premise, stupid book. Not recommended.

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