Monday, June 20, 2011

Tijuana Straits

Kem Nunn's 2004 book Tijuana Straits doesn't quite scale the heights I remember "Tapping The Source" and "The Dogs Of Winter" scaling a decade ago when I read them, but its still a worthy addition to the surf fiction genre.

Nunn does have a knack for building tension in his stories, with a grotesque gang of evil-doers enabling the redemption of another damaged surfer as he wrestles away the demons from his past in the strange borderlands between California and the polluted wastelands of Tijuana to the south.

Rick Kleffel at Trashotron has the best review out on the web :

On the border between California and Mexico, between land and sea, Kem Nunn finds Sam Fahey, a man who could have been a contender in the world of big-wave surfing, but was carried away by the white trash currents of his childhood on the border. In 'Tijuana Straits', Nunn brings readers his powerful novel to date, a compelling story of wasted potential and potential danger. The filth of our country runs down the rivers and slops into the streets of Tijuana, creating monsters of men. Nunn's powerful novel is blisteringly savage and painfully perceptive. We're poisoning ourselves. We may be dead and not even know it.

Long past his glory days as a young surfer, long past even his days as a drug runner and small-time criminal, Sam Fahey is now an older-than-his-age employee of the government who tends to the endangered species that manage to survive in Tijuana Straits, the small valley just north of the border. When he saves the beaten, bruised and almost insensible Magdalena from wild dogs roaming the sand dunes, he makes a spot decision to take her in. Magdalena is an activist from over the border, who is fighting the multi-national corporations that have created the toxic wastelands known as the maquilladoras. She's uncertain how or even why she arrived in Tijuana Straits. Both she and Sam are soon to find out.

Nunn keeps his story close and tight. His prose is evocative and lyrical but tough and to-the-point. He creates landscapes that are so intense as to be thoroughly immersive. The tiny ecosystem of Tijuana Straits, from the Outer Peak in the ocean where the Mystic Ridge breaks, to Garage-Door Tijuana, an intricate maze of trash and treasure comes meticulously to life in Nunn's prose. He also creates the hellish world of the maquilladoras in Tijuana proper. This bleak landscape of ruin, rust and toxic waste shambles to life and itself gives birth to monsters. Every terrorizing story about bad drugs and bad neighborhoods comes to fiery life as Nunn creates the compelling and ferocious Armando Santoya.

Santoya's stories -- and the stories of his comrades from the maquilladoras -- are intense, compelling stories of terror and horror. Nunn writes powerfully and passionately enough to evoke the supernatural dread within the natural world. He peels the skin off of an ugly reality and finds the deeper ugliness within, nestled next to a humanity so stepped-upon, so beat-down, so used that the terror is intimately mixed with sympathy. Nunn's monsters are ultimately human and ultimately frightening. And for readers, nothing is quite so bracingly enjoyable as glancing in the mirror and seeing your own scarred face, sheeted in the blood of others.

But Nunn's novel isn't merely a tale of terror. The horrific landscape of the maquilladoras borders on the beauty of the Pacific Ocean. And though Sam Fahey is damaged goods through and through, he's still a human being capable of greatness. Nunn's love of the huge, cryptic slab of ocean that washes upon our shores is borne out in passages that mine the power of nature, that excavate with a single man on a single board and find somewhere on the border a purity that evokes peace. It's the purity that brings redemption, that cleanses the filth from our veins and our lives.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

All watched over by machines of loving grace (part 2)

I watched the second episode of "All watched over by machines of loving grace" today and found it interesting but mildly annoying.

I'd noted the parallels in the first episode to Fred Turner's book "From Counterculture To Cyberculture", so I wasn't particularly surprised to see Turner make an appearance in this episode, along with Stewart Brand, and the tracing of these ideas back to Bucky Fuller.

What was new about this episode was the repeating of common misconceptions about "The Limits To Growth" and the strange line of reasoning that seemed to argue that the search for "equilibrium" (ie. a scenario where our overall impact on the environment is trimmed to the point where we don't end up having the population crash as we overwhelm the planet's carrying capacity) that "Limits" undertakes is really arguing for a form of political stasis where no radical change is to be contemplated.

While this may have been a goal of the Technocrats that preceded them, it doesn't ring true for the systems theorists.

Curtis even notes that Jay Forrester and the "Limits" crew explicitly said they weren't considering politics, but discounts this as a form of dishonesty rather than accepting that the book is just outlining scenarios around resource consumption, population and pollution rather than being a political manifesto (which would have been entirely counterproductive).

Where is does veer towards politics (in the section entitled "Transitions to a sustainable system", where it prescribes the changes required to make our global economy sustainable), the practices recommended are both positive and a change from the general status quo today - it doesn't read like a manual for perpetuating elite control and forbidding political change, with the non-technical recommendations including :

* poverty reduction
* nonviolent conflict resolution
* accurate/unbiased media
* “decentralisation of economic power, political influence and scientific expertise”
* “stable populations” and “low birth rates” by “individual choice”

Curtis' main point (like Turner's before him) - that the counterculture / hippie / cyberculture ideal of a world without politics is a fantasy - is valid, but he really goes off the rails trying to blame the systems theorists and ecologists for the problems of the world today.

The section about the colour revolutions in eastern europe, in particular, seemed wildly off base - he assumes that this genuinely was a case of leaderless uprising spontaneously organised via network culture - when instead they were orchestrated from the US to expand western influence at the expense of the Russians - and naturally enough faltered once the population realised that their interests weren't really being advanced at all by the changes (just as we'll most likely see with the current "Arab Spring" equivalent).

Cross posted from Peak Energy.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why The Car Isn't Going Away: What Makes Us Tick

I read Hugh Mackay's book "What Makes Us Tick?: The Ten Desires That Drive Us over the Christmas break and found it to be a reasonably entertaining piece of pop psychology.

Mackay identifies 10 driving "desires" that guide our lives (some good, some often bad):

- the desire to be taken seriously (which he identifies as the "primary" desire)
- the desire for 'my place'
- the desire for something to believe in
- the desire to connect
- the desire to be useful
- the desire to belong
- the desire for more
- the desire for control
- the desire for something to happen
- the desire for love

The section on "the desire for 'my place'" includes an interesting take on the role of the car in western society today:

The western world is characterised by speed, restlessness and motion (look at any major airport at almost any hour of day or night), so its hardly surprising that for many people in modern urban settings, 'my place' is neither a building nor a piece of the Earth's surface, but that somewhat ubiquitous mobile enclosure we call the car.
My very own space ? I'll tell you where that is - behind the wheel of my car. It's the only place I ever have to myself and it's the only place where I seem to get any real peace.

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard people say the car is the most comfortable place they ever inhabit; the place where they feel totally in control (helped immeasurably by the symbolism of the steering wheel in their hands and an accelerator pedal under their foot); the place that feels more like a personal space than anywhere else they spend their time...

Cars are for escaping into, for meditation, for thinking, for praying, for courting, for sex, for conversation, for eating and drinking, for sleep, for letting off steam and for generating unrivaled - and positively dangerous - feelings of power. Oh, and for driving too: cars are our most flexible and efficient means of transport, though at enormous cost to life and limb - to say nothing of the cost to the quality of the air we breathe and the health of the planet.

The role the car now performs seems (in my mind at least) to guarantee the success of electric vehicles in a post oil wold - for all the benefits of public transport, transit oriented development and walkable neighbourhoods, none of them offer a personalised space that people can take with them when they are on the move.

Cross posted from Peak Energy.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Zero History

Zero History follows in the footsteps of William Gibson's previous 2 books, "Pattern Recognition" and Spook Country", with the atmosphere in the novel remaining much the same as before.

Bruce Sterling provided a cool idea ("the ugliest t-shirt in the world") for the finale which brought together the full gamut of characters and macguffins in a satisfying way.

Boing Boing has a good micro-review of the book and Wired has an interview with Gibson about it.

William Gibson's latest novel, Zero History, is his best yet, a triumph of science fiction as social criticism and adventure. Continuing on from 2007's Spook Country, Zero History features a reformed, dried out version of Milgrim, the junkie anti-hero from Spook Country. He's been rehabilitated at the expense of Hubertus Bigend, the shadowy power-broker whom we first met in Pattern Recognition. Bigend has got Milgrim hunting for the designer behind a mysterious line of fetish-denim, in the hopes of remaking it as the basis for a lucrative US military contract; this being Bigend's idea of novelty-seeking good times.

Joining Milgrim is Hollis Henry, the former pop star from Spook Country, still reluctantly in Bigend's employ, but even more conflicted, and missing her ex-boyfriend, a thrill-seeking nutjob whose idea of a good time in jumping off tall buildings in a glidersuit. Milgrim -- and later, Hollis -- track the secret denim from South Carolina to London to Paris and back to London again, and very quickly find themselves embroiled in an intrigue involving US spooks, experimental UAVs, rogue infosec specialists, and a palace coup at Blue Ant, Bigend's legendary design and branding firm.

What makes Zero History into Gibson's best so far is how absolutely perfectly he captures the futuristic nature of the present day. Milgrim -- a junkie dried out after a ten year fugue of living rough and stealing to buy pills -- is well-suited to this task, emerging as if from a time-machine into the 21st century in full swing, able to narrate its essential strangeness without seeming contrived. But all of Gibson's characters are in the business of understanding how we got to this futuristic present, and on every page, there is a jolt of pleasant dissonance as Gibson does the conjurer's trick of making you look at your surroundings with fresh eyes.

Here is a book that is both contemporary, and futuristic -- and anachronistic, filled as it is with characters who long for simpler times, who fetishize antique computers and vintage memorabilia. It's a book that doesn't so much feel written as designed, cunningly filled with trompe d'esprit effects that fool your brain into staring at your own life from the objective distance of a Martian.


Moon is an entertaining psychological thriller with a slightly Gattaca'esque feel to it.

The movie is, unsurprisingly, set on the moon, and features Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell. Sam has two weeks left of a three-year stint overseeing the mining of Helium 3 from the far side of the Moon.

Sam longs to see his wife and daughter again, but in the meantime is cared for by an over-protective computer named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Before his stint ends, there is an accident, and when Sam re-awakes he is startled to encounter another Sam…

The movie got great reviews from At The Movies and an impressively high 90% rating at RottenTomatoes - and I've got to say I rate it highly as well, both for the acting and for some of the ideas explored (although I thought the ending was a little weak).

127 Hours

127 Hours was inspired by the true story of Aaron Ralstron, an adventurous young man in his 20's who went on a solo trip through Canyonlands National Park in Utah and, low on water and food, got his arm caught between a boulder and a wall of rock.

Ralstron wrote a book about his experiences (entitled Between a Rock and a Hard Place) and received considerable publicity at the time, so the story wasn't a mystery to me, however given that it was showing at the Open Air Cinema I thought I'd check it out.

While the venue was (as always) awe inspiring, the film itself felt flat - Crikey sums it up:

While 127 Hours impresses on a technical level the film’s bouncy aesthetics and restless energy don’t do its psychological depth any favours. The film lacks the emotional core it desperately needed for the story to resonate. It should have felt inspiring as a triumph over adversity human interest story but, sadly, it doesn’t.