Tuesday 29 December 2015

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers - Book Review

I've been seeing quite a few very enthusiastic book blogger reviews of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet lately, including this one by Books and Pieces, so I decided to give it a try even though I would not have picked it up based on its cover or plot description.

The book starts briskly. Rosemary is waking up just before the end of a journey in a single-person space cubicle, on approach to the Wayfarer, a big tunnelling ship where she is about to start a new life as a clerk. Meanwhile, on the tunnelling ship, the benevolently paternal captain deals with the hassle of inter-crew arguments, and gets a tip-off that a huge opportunity for his business might be just around the corner, now that he has an admin person (which indicates to the bureaucracy at the heart of the intergalactic alliance that he's taking his work seriously)...

The Wayfarer is a ship creating wormholes between star systems - basically, an interstellar road builder. Its crew is minimal: two techies, a pilot, a captain, an algae expert (the ship is fuelled by algae), a doctor who is also a cook, a navigator, and an A.I. (the ship's computer). Rosemary is about to be the ship's admin assistant / clerk / accountant.

It's a well-written book. The prose flows pleasantly, there is a sense of fun and joyfulness about it, and the story plods along from one feel-good scene to the next. Unfortunately, there isn't really much of an overarching plot. The story is episodic, with almost every chapter telling a different episode of their journey. It's a cheerful road (building) movie in space.

It is very obvious is that the story was inspired by Firefly and seemingly created from a wish list of themes and ideas that the people derogatorily called 'Social Justice Warriors' might have come up with. (Social Justice Warriors is a derogatory term for people who want a more equal world, with opportunities for all, and a more diverse, multicultural, multiracial, multisexual representation of life in fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy)

Kizzy Shao
The story creates its highly multi-faceted microcosm by making almost every character good-hearted and kind, missing out any real antagonists, and creating colourful backgrounds and interests for each. Kizzy, the mechanic, is a more cartoonish, hyper version of Firefly's Kailee, with two dads, a penchant for gaming, stimulants and junk food and a very extrovert, enthusiastic, child-like demeanour. Her best friend and colleague Jenks is a geek who is involved in a romantic relationship that is quite unconventional. Sissix is an alien reptile woman with a very different attitude towards love, physical affection, and family. Captain Ashby, too, is involved in a non-traditional relationship, and throughout the book I imagined him as a slightly less grouchy Mal from Firefly, which worked quite well. (He's also a pacifist, though, so none of the gun-slinging cowboy stuff applies).  Rosemary is fleeing from a secret in her past. Corbin, the grumpy algae expert, is racist, but not exactly evil, just very judgmental, stubborn, quick to lash out and not bothering with politeness. Doctor Chef is a six-legged alien who loves nothing more than cooking for people and healing them - he's a very mothering sort. Ohan, the navigator, is a devoutly religious alien bear who is worshipping the virus in his brain, which gives him special space seeing powers. And Lovey is the A.I. in the ship's computer, a very personable, tender personality caring for her crew.

It's a crew bursting at the seems with diversity and happy, kind coexistence (except for Corbin, who keeps himself to himself and growls at people a lot, and Ohan, who just keeps himself to himself).

Whenever the crew meet new aliens of indeterminate sex, they dutifully use gender-neutral pronouns and try hard not to be judgmental about cultural differences. Ohan is even always referred to in the plural because of his belief that he is two people due to his virus. Basically, it's the universe that feels most like a natural extrapolation of political correctness, only without any trolls.

At pit stops along the way, we get to meet more kind, goodhearted people who are not standard nuclear families. In fact, trying to think of any traditional relationships and couples, I can't think of any at all in this book. Maybe Rosemary's family background?

Ohan the Navigator
When it comes to the aliens, the book is quite refreshing in imagining aliens that are genuinely different from most modern human societies. Sissix' race has a very different attitude to childcare and families, Doctor Chef has a very different sexual genesis, and the aliens at the galactic core are perhaps the most different of all. Ohan is a bit of an Eeyore character - extremely introvert, constantly gazing outside windows, never really speaking much. The book takes great care not to judge any of the characters and their races, and to show them through the eyes of open-minded, kindhearted characters who constantly remind themselves not to judge, to respect, to live and let live.

The episodic nature of the plot reminds me of The Best of All Possible Worlds - another scifi novel with a heart of kindness. What made The Best of All Possible Worlds more satisfying to read is that there is a central character arc with a growing relationship at its heart. There is less of a sense of a larger plot arc in Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Neither book has much in the way of antagonists, but Karen Lord's novel shows us characters getting to know each other and adjusting to each other's foibles over time, whereas this one has the protagonist fit in within days on board, and everyone be a happy family for most of the journey. Long Way to a Small Angry Planet creates tension and excitement within its episodes, and even character growth and progression, but it does not have a strong through-line in its story.

I kept reading this book because I enjoyed it more than the other books I was reading at the time, but I did not find myself making time to read this. I was not so hooked that I would keep reading until the end of a chapter if I was slightly tired, for example. On the whole, it's a pleasant, but not spectacular novel, with a good heart and the best of intentions, but a little too fluffy for my taste.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday 19 December 2015

80 Days by inkle

Back in October, I read Strange Charm's review of 80 Days. The review made me buy the game immediately: it sounded like something quite special. And it is.

80 Days is not like most games I have played. It's basically a choose-your-own-adventure story, based primarily on text. The player is Passepartout, valet to Phileas Fogg, travelling around the world for a wager. In every city, you get to choose how and where to travel next, from the connections that are available and which you have been able to discover. (You may not discover every route out of a city)

During every movement from city to city, you choose what to do - look after Fogg (which boosts his health), talk to someone (to find out more about your destination and onwards travelling options), or read the newspaper (to find out about things going on in the world, and sometimes, travel options). In most cities, you can go to a market to buy and sell goods, to a bank to take out loans (which slow you down because you have to wait some day(s) before the funds are cleared), explore to find out onward travel routes and stay overnight. Sometimes, you don't have enough money to continue your journey and you have to find ways to earn it. Other times, Fogg may not have enough health to withstand a particularly arduous route, and you have to let him recuperate. On top of all this, there are a multitude of encounters, on transport and in cities, and adventures and sub plots that you may get embroiled in.
This makes it sound a little dry. It isn't. The characters you meet are a cornucopia of interesting people, of all races, backgrounds, sexes, occupations and opinions. You may meet pirates and royalty, engineers and slave traders, revolutionaries and soldiers. You may get embroiled with a notorious cat burglar or a quest for a robot soul. And the means of transport themselves are fantastically imaginative: this is a steampunk universe realised to its full potential, letting you travel by land, sea, air and, in some places, by even more esoteric means. Not to  mention all the little adventures en route: from murder mysteries to grand adventures in the best tradition of Jules Verne and 19th century explorers, this world is chock full of possibilities.

The first time I played the game, I was focused entirely on getting around the world as quickly as possible, so I picked very long, expensive journey legs. I soon ran out of money and ultimately failed to meet the 80 days deadline. The next few times, I played with more focus on balancing income (through trading profitably) with movement. It got fairly easy to get around the world within 80 Days. Then I started geting more and more interested in exploring the world that the creators have produced, and the sub plots. I'm still playing, after dozens of journeys, because I am trying to resolve different mysteries. In all the many, many times I've gone around the world, I have so far only found one way to find a different ending to the game - but that discovery in itself was highly rewarding. I still haven't figured out the Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery on one leg of one itinerary, and I have stumbled across different story paths related to an object you can acquire at a railway station in Western Europe, but I suspect there is a more exciting possible outcome somewhere, if only I could find it.

The plotlines you might stumble into have very different possible outcomes, both in what happens and what it says about the world. You may come into possession of things that some consider the ultimate abomination, while others venerate them, and depending on what you do with them, you may get lots of money or change the world...

At the same time, I'd lie if I didn't admit that some things are a little bit frustrating. As you travel, most circumnavigations will go without really connecting to most of the characters you meet. You may meet two dozen larger-than-life characters and glimpse their lives for the brief duration of the shared journey from A to B, and then never see them again. Sometimes you glimpse something in passing which hints at an intersection with another plotline, had you only chosen differently. Sometimes you read newspaper headlines that tell you about things you have passed. Then again, that is more or less what travelling is like, no?

It is those frustrations which make the game so addictive: I replay again and again because I want to know what I've missed, what I have passed by. When going around the world again and again, I start getting off at different stops, taking different branches, trying to find different routes. This can be hugely rewarding: having passed through an area and witnessed brutality in one journey, I came through the same town on a different route and got a chance to take part in a daring rescue. Another time, in a different place, I had to choose whether to help robbers or fight them, and the two outcomes were vastly different.

I absolutely adore this game. I can't praise it highly enough. Who'd have thought that a text adventure (accompanied by admittedly very nifty, pretty illustrations and a lovely globe) could be so addictive in the age of smartphones?

Rating: 5/5
Go buy it now!

Monday 14 December 2015

My Own Dear Brother by Holly Müller

Disclaimer: I don't usually specifically mention if I got a book via Netgalley, but in this case I didn't just get a freebie review copy, but I also know the author. Holly Müller is a writer of Austrian descent, but she was born and raised in Wales.  She studied on the same writing course as I, and I occasionally run into her in work. So: I got it via netgalley and the author is an acquaintance, but the review is nonetheless an honest one.

My Own Dear Brother is the story of Ursula Hildesheim, her brother Anton Hildesheim and Schosi Hillier, three youngsters in Nazi-ruled alpine Austria. The Second World War is heading for a conclusion, and in people's minds the oppressiveness of fascism is joined by the fear of the approaching Russian juggernaut. Basically, times are bad, and looking as if they might get worse.

Ursula, however, has more immediate concerns at the start of the novel. Growing up is a struggle, and life in a small, conservative rural community has its challenges. Then there is her brother Toni, whom she worships, but who has an unsettling fierceness about him. All too quick to hate, all too quick to lash out, her love for Toni can be quite isolating, as he viciously persecutes any friends she makes.

My Own Dear Brother is a very authentic story. This makes it a quite harrowing reading experience. Life in a small, very Catholic community is not easy at the best of times - and WW2 is not at all the best of times.

Everyone has their noses in everyone else's business. Pettiness and judgmental, malicious gossip are everywhere. People are oh-so-keen to have someone to ostracise or look down on. Deeply Catholic, rural areas are, on the whole, godawful places to live. Especially for anyone who is a bit of an outsider.

Ursula's family are outsiders. They are poor. The children run around barefoot until temperatures necessitate winter footwear. They wear patched-up hand-me-downs, their home is not spotless and neat but mildewy and worn, and they live in a farm cottage, outside of the main village.

When her mother starts receiving a regular visitor from Vienna, Ursula's family life to slowly derail. Anton hates the newcomer and town busybodies start to gossip, sniffing scandal in the air. The Hildesheims are shunned and publicly shamed, which proud and furious Anton cannot stomach at all.

Life under fascism is hard to imagine for people who never experienced anything like it. In this novel, the atmosphere is captured vividly. The way gossip and petty resentments can turn deadly, the way certain people gain a mantle of fear, the way people hush their voices and dare not talk of certain things, the way the unspoken gains power over everyone, the way everyone quietly ignores the unspeakable. And yet, the everyday continues. People go to work. People find ways to put food on the dinner table. People see even the most loathsome of their neighbours on an everyday basis, whether at church or at the grocer's. Anyone wondering what life in any authoritarian, ultra-conservative parts of the world is like right now could probably read My Own Dear Brother and get a good inkling.

The novel puts you right into that world, and it's a terrifying, dangerous and grim place to be. Take a young teenage girl who isn't quite aware of how dangerous her world really is, add a disturbed older brother to the mix, and put them at odds, and you get a book that is so much more than you might expect from the cover and the description.

At times, the novel is as tense and suspenseful as the most relentless of thrillers. At other times, the book is a microcosmic coming of age story, and the story of a teenager who feels like an outsider and struggles with self-loathing. Nazi rule is sometimes a backdrop, sometimes a very imminent danger.

My Own Dear Brother is a rich novel, handling difficult topics and weaving together different threads with masterful aplomb. There are a few scenes, a few half sentences, which in my opinion did not really fit properly, but it's quite possible these will be gone by the time it hits the bookshops. (The netgalley version I read was an uncorrected proof, so subject to copyedits)

Fascism, messed up relations, and puberty... they are all psychologically scarring in their different ways. This is a book that combines all three. It features psychological damage and horrors, with sections of page-turning tension, sections of trauma and sections of heartbreak. This is not a feel-good novel, and there is little relief from the darkness of its time and subject matter. As such, it is utterly authentic and utterly gruelling to read. I would say it's a great literary achievement, and a perspective on WW2 that I have not seen before. I would not, however, recommend it to readers looking for a feelgood novel.

Rating: 4/5

My Own Dear Brother vs The Book Thief

Inevitably, people will compare My Own Dear Brother with megabestseller The Book Thief. Both books are set in rural villages in WW2 era Nazi-land, both are about young girls on the cusp of growing into young women.

However, My Own Dear Brother is very different from The Book Thief.

If you buy this book expecting a Book Thief-like story, you will not have a very good time with it. It's not a comparison that will do either book any favours: The Book Thief is a feel-good WW2 story, which views rural Bavaria as a quaint, rough but wholesome world, where the children get their watschen and most people are, at heart, decent, even if they are quite generous with the wallopings they dish out to their kids and quite willing to look the other way when reality is unpalatable. It's a picturesque perspective, applying a golden sheen of quaint nostalgia and jolly affection to a people and an era. Very cute, a bit twee, and utterly alien to me. I grew up in Bavaria and barely recognised it. The Book Thief shows Bavarians in the same way as mainstream media often show Africa:

If the Book Thief had an African character...

(It's not an evil thing to look at Bavaria that way, and I'm sure the tourism office appreciates it. It's just not the Bavaria I know.)

My Own Dear Brother delves deeper, at the cost of being a harder novel to enjoy. There is tension and suspense and drama, but there is no comedy, no humour, and a distinct lack of joyfulness. It's an accurate depiction of life as it would have been. Victories for decency and humane-ness are few and far between. The world of this book is one where good deeds are hard work, risky and can have a high cost, while small mistakes and childish misjudgments can have far-reaching, terrible consequences.

The Book Thief had its little bittersweet Standover Man picture book inside. My Own Dear Brother has a different mythical taste - Krampusnacht is a recurring theme, shown not with playful abandon but out-of-control raucousness and overt sadism.

Both are books about people holding on to goodness even in evil times, but one has a romanticised view, while the other is all-too-aware of human flaws and limitations. One book was designed to be inspirational, the other tells of the world as it is. Which book you prefer will depend very much on what you are looking for in a novel.

Sunday 13 December 2015

The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

The Masked City is the second book in a series. If you've read my review of The Invisible Library, you might guess how much I've been looking forward to this. In fact, I re-read the first book in November, just to remember all the characters and be ready for the second.

The Masked City starts a few months after the events of The Invisible Library. Irene is solidly installed as Librarian in Residence in the slightly chaotic London we have come to know and love in the first book. Kai is still her apprentice and friend, and Vale, the intrepid detective, is very much a trusted peer. After acquiring a book at an auction, Irene and Kai find themselves the center of unwanted attention from hired werewolves and thugs. Things quickly get worse and when Lord Silver (an enemy) delivers a warning, they begin to wonder whether they've been underestimating the danger they are in.

When Kai is kidnapped, Irene has to rely on Lord Silver for assistance. The rest of the book is essentially a chase story, with Irene trying to get to Kai and save him before disaster strikes, all while delving deeper and deeper into the chaotic realms and machinations of the Fae.

The Invisible Library introduced the reader to a fantastical premise and world, excitingly mysterious and memorable characters, and, while involving them in a plot of intrigue and suspense, molded some of them into friends. The Masked City, on the other hand, plays Irene largely on her own, pitted against insurmountable odds in a quest to save a friend and a world, but with much less bonding and not much relationship forming.

This is not to say that The Masked City is boring - it is a funny novel. Not quite as rich in jokes as a Terry Pratchett novel, but on a par with a Ben Aaronovitch one. The adventures are good fun, Irene gets into trouble a lot and there's still a good dose of vim in the book. But there is less mystery (we more or less know who the villains are from quite early on) and less teambuilding, which renders the story a bit flatter. Irene is a fabulous character, but she really flourishes when we see her interact with (potential) friends and allies.

Being slightly less absorbed allowed my brain to get distracted by questioning the logic of the world in these books. I started wondering whether there was really that much difference between the magic of fae, the magic of librarians and the magic of dragons, and why there should be any conflict between them. Similary, the Library's neutrality (even though they strongly favour the dragons and are prejudiced against the fae) started to feel less convincing. I think it's that more than anything else which tells me that The Masked City is not quite on a par with The Invisible Library: when I start to chink away at the internal logic of a world (and my suspension of disbelief), then the story is not quite as compelling as it should be.

Still, for a light & fun read, I'd recommend it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday 6 December 2015

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith

Picture from http://thebookcastle.blogspot.co.uk/
Today I found myself in Waterstones. Near the entrance, there was a table presenting the 'Waterstones book of the year' - a beautifully bound, beautifully presented fairytale picture book. I assume it is meant for grown-ups, but it does not actually have any themes that are any more grown up than picture books for young children. This makes it and strange and unusual read.

As I read it, I felt very much like I was reading a book written for young children. All the hallmarks of children's picture books were there: the repetition, the sleepy rhythm, the playfulness with the way the text appeared on some pages... I have read very similar books with friends' five year olds. The only real difference is that The Fox and the Star is textile-bound, and a bit more grown up in its artistic sensibilities and love of patterns. This makes it a beautiful object, but one so posh that you probably won't want to give into the grubby little hands of young kids...

The book is basically continuing the infantisation of adults, much like the recent fad for coloring books. There are, of course, many picture books and graphic novels that are a bit ambiguous about the age group of the people meant to read them. Shaun Tan's picture books might - perhaps - appeal to some children, but seem to be much richer in some ways, so they resonate with adults in ways that children's books don't, usually. Emily Carroll's Through The Woods is a stunning work of art, utterly engrossing for adults and young adults, and probably far too scary for children. The Fox and the Star, on the other hand, is aesthetically grown up, but textually infantile. This, to me, makes it unsatisfying. There are maybe 300 words in the story, and they are not particularly evocative words. (If I had to choose between The Gruffalo and The Fox and the Star, I fear The Gruffalo would win out, hands down).  

There are more beautiful graphic and picture stories for grownups, with more depth and richer themes.

The Fox and the Star seems to be primarily a gift book. It looks beautiful, it'll be pretty on any shelf, but it's not satisfying to read for grown ups and too precious an object to be meant for children.

Rating: 2.5/5

Saturday 5 December 2015

Deep Water by Lu Hersey

A few weeks ago, I found myself in Penzance, Cornwall, trying to escape the everyday for a (rainy, blustery) weekend. I'd travelled there straight after attending FantasyCon, so I had a suitcase full of books with me. Nonetheless, when I spotted The Edge of the World Bookshop, I found myself irresistibly drawn to it. With a name like that, how could any bibliophile resist?

Inside the busy, crowded little shop, I browsed until I stumbled across Deep Water, a book I have not seen in shops elsewhere. A stunning cover, a blurb by Malorie Blackman, and a description that sounded very enticing made it hard to resist. I'm glad I didn't resist.

Deep Water is a young adult novel, at the more literary and atmospheric end of the genre. Our hero, Danni, lives with her mother in England. One day, her mother does not return from work, and Danni slowly begins to suspect something may be wrong. When her mom still isn't back in the early hours of the morning, she raises the alarm, calls her (divorced) father, and waits for news that can only be terrible.

While the police search for her missing mother, they insist that Danni has to be in the care of an adult, so her scatterbrained hippie father is the only palatable option. Danni temporarily moves in with him. He happens to live in Cornwall now, where he runs a new age shop. Her mom was originally from Cornwall, too, but has not returned there for many years.

There, Danni begins to investigate her own mother's history, while meeting the locals, some of whom are instantly, superstitiously hostile of her. And there's a dark history here, centering around the old chapel and a terrible deed that happened there...

Deep Water is an atmospheric novel, slowly building up tension and a sense of dread, but also a sense of mystery. It's very much a novel where place is a character - Cornwall is in the DNA of the novel just as much as a love of the mythical.

This isn't a cute little fairy tale - it's a thriller with mythical, magical elements, deeply invested in coastlines and landscapes, places and small community life. It's the sort of story that all too rarely makes it into cinema screens - perhaps the superb Ondine is the closest comparison in terms of atmosphere.

If you like Alan Garner's novels, you'll enjoy Deep Water just as much. It's really rather good.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Off-Topic Post: Thoughts about Paris and Syria

A fortnight ago, the world was in shock over the atrocities that had been committed in Paris. I have been mulling these events, and what follows may not always be coherent. I sometimes play devil's advocate when trying to decide what to think about something, and I pontificate from the comfort of being far away from events and not knowing anyone directly involved. Therefore, this blog post may well be insensitive and, when playing devil's advocate, outright offensive to some. If you were affected by events in Paris, or if you feel strongly about them, you may not wish to read on.


Let's start with the obvious. The attacks in Paris were reprehensible atrocities, committed by despicable human beings. Nonetheless, something rang hollow about the news coverage and all the statements issued by politicians in the aftermath.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that what rang so hollow was the outrage. The bereaved, the survivors - they have every right to be aggrieved and outraged. But, politicians? European leaders? Hollande, Cameron? Newspapers like the Daily Vile and The Scum?

It's not just disgusting how media (and politicians whose career is built on hatred and bigotry) instantly began to speculate (cough, assert, cough) that the attackers must have come to France among refugees, although that is certainly the most disgusting aspect of the popular outrage being peddled at the time. No, what felt really hollow and wrong is how different the reactions were compared to the reactions when atrocities happen elsewhere.

Worse, there is an outright taboo on saying, writing or thinking something that's very, very obvious, and very very true: the attacks did not come out of nowhere. They were not unprovoked. The murderers are guilty of committing the bloodshed, but Francois Hollande's government shares some responsibility for the attacks on Paris, just as Tony Blair is responsible for the 7/7 attacks on London. Yet to say both these things is taboo among leaders and politicians.

Let's take a step back. If I am saying something taboo, let's work out the logic of that statement. Let's play devil's advocate.

Our governments keep telling we're at war. We're not currently at war with Iraq, but we're at war with Islamic State, at war with Terror, at war with Drugs. But these wars are not like other wars in the distant past: they are certainly not wars where governments face other nation states with similar weaponry and similar might. Instead, stealth aircraft and drones do violence to targets below while being almost untouchable. So modern wars cost us nothing more than money, while whoever we're at war with does all the bleeding. We've become quite comfortable with that. So comfortable, in fact, that there is outrage when the people we are bombing have the audacity to fight back. There's something almost collectively sadistic about this - like a head teacher beating a pupil and expecting to be thanked, not hated, for the violence they dish out.

Now, the attacks in Paris were mass slaughter of civilians. That's not self defence - to us. But, for a crazy moment, let's think ourselves into the enemy's shoes. Drones and stealth aircraft are untouchable. Armies and soldiers are well defended and have overwhelming force. (Not that the reaction over here is any different when a soldier is killed when he's defenceless). So how to fight an invincible enemy? Is it really a surprise they target civilians? Isn't it, in fact, a logical conclusion of our nations being at war with them? Have Islamic State signed up to the Geneva Convention, international treaties on human rights, etc.? No, of course not. They don't believe in human rights for the people they claim to rule, so why would they have any more respect for Westerners' rights? How can our leaders feign surprise and outrage when enemies defend themselves, and don't play by our rules?

I use the words 'defend themselves' intentionally: it does not imply victimhood or blamelessness. When Britain declared war on Germany, they did not expect the Nazis to just take their lumps and not fight back. Any war is a two-way street of violence. To expect anything less is unreasonable.

The attacks on Paris were a logical and likely outcome of France's involvement in the fight against Islamic State / terror.. That doesn't make them less atrocious and vile, it does not absolve the attackers of blame, It simply means that France's politicians are partially responsible for them, and that all their outrage is hypocritical.

Islamic State

Every indication is that Islamic State is, essentially, a death cult. There are only two things they appear competent at: getting publicity and inflicting suffering.

Obsessed with violence and death, fuelled by hatred, vanity and insanity, they are filled with self-destructive urges. Their glossy magazine celebrates the gory photos of their dead fighters as much as it celebrates the violence they inflict on others. Islamic State is to Islam what the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda are to Christianity. As such, they are dangerous, sick, and it's pretty obvious the world would be a better and safer place without them.

I don't know enough about the Lord's Resistance Army (beyond their use of child soldiers and their mass abductions etc.), but it seems to me that the totally batshit crazy psycho cults out there (central American drug cartels, LRA, ISIS) have some things in common. According to some, much of ISIS was moulded into shape by going through a joint experience of suffering - being locked into an American prison camp - and used the resentment at their mistreatment to fuel a rage that would ultimately lead to IS. Similarly, drug cartel violence seems to be on an escalating cycle, which was only fuelled, not extinguished, by the War on Drugs and its more violent interludes and phases.

Basically, violence and abuse seem to create insanity, rage, revenge, more violence and worse abuse. I shudder to think what the populations currently under ISIS' gruesome rule might one day retaliate as.

At the same time, ISIS and drug cartels have other commonalities: ultimately, they are psycho creeps with guns. Do they have an armed vehicle or two, maybe some missiles? Sure. But when it comes down to it, all they need to be sources of terror is guns and swords. The Rwandan genocide was largely carried out by people with machetes - all it takes for genocide to happen is people willing to commit it, and relatively light weaponry against a comparatively unarmed population.

What good are drones, missiles and bombs against widely dispersed psychos with guns?


Syria has become a battleground for every nation with aspirations at exerting power in the Middle East. It's a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. Here's a history of events since the Arab Spring:

If you were a person living in Syria, what would you do? If you were a parent in Syria, which faction would you turn to? From outside, it does not look as if any of the armed factions are 'the good guys'. Being a civilian / unarmed person in Syria must be terrifying.

Bombing ISIS

Reading all the above, you might conclude that I am dead against bombing IS in Syria, or bombing Syria. I wish I could be that categorical. I am doubtful that bombing will have any positive effect. In fact, it seems to me it will only feed the cycle of violence, and has no way of replacing a mess with something good.

At the same time, the atrocities committed by IS are such that I can't be entirely opposed to our governments trying to get rid of them. Clearly, anything would be better than that lot. Well, anything except Assad's regime, maybe.

I do believe that voting to bomb IS effectively means voting for IS to retaliate against British civilians. The UK government has already joined the fight against IS in Iraq, so from that point of view, they have already voted to make the civilian population in the UK a target for more attacks by IS sympathisers. Expanding to Syria just makes us a bigger target. That isn't necessarily a reason to vote against intervention - if the UK could make a difference & genuinely improve matters, then some innocent British lives may be a fair price to pay for saving thousands of innocent lives in Syria. But can the UK make such a difference?

If the Western governments have a good, realistic, achievable plan (hah!) for how IS can be defeated, and Assad removed, and peace and stability brought to Syria, then I wouldn't be opposed to war / force being involved. Unfortunately, there is no indication that any plan, let alone a good one, exists.

Things Our Governments Should Do Instead

Here's a TED Talk:

It seems to me that there are much more effective things the UK and Europe (and America) could do than throwing more bombs and death into the Middle East. The first and foremost of these is to help people who have been fleeing from the chaos and violence.

Now, personally, I am not opposed to opening borders and letting them in, but I understand that there is significant popular resistance to that approach in most European nations. So, short of helping everyone fleeing the chaos and death to Europe, there are still things our governments can and should do.

1) Fund Refugee Cities, not Camps

Refugees who have fled the violence live in tent cities, in a permanent limbo. The UN, to some extent, looks after them, but they are critically underfunded and unable to offer people anything but the barest minimum of life support. Having millions of people live in poverty, with nothing to do, is a recipe for disaster. It's a recipe for letting people stew in their trauma, their anger at their misfortunes, and ultimately, it could be a recipe for turning people into our enemies because we did not help out when they desperately needed it. At best, it turns them into enemies of other Syrians, and ensures that grievances can fester and conflicts continue for more generations to come..

In this video, a Swedish economist points out that we spend £50 a day on refugees who make it to Europe, but only £1 a day on refugees who are stuck in Lebanon or Jordan.
Hans Rosling on the refugee crisis
Europe is getting its response to the refugee crisis all wrong. That’s the view of Professor Hans Rosling of Gapminder – watch him explain why.
Posted by Channel 4 News on Tuesday, 24 November 2015

It's perfectly within the powers of our government to spend more. It's overdue. Let's treat the Syrian diaspora the way we'd treat cities flattened by tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes and hurricanes. Let's pump in billions, and fund the building of permanent, viable cities. Let the refugees build their own futures - give them materials, work and opportunities and a sense of a sustainable future, and a chance to live, rather than expecting them to rot in limbo and stay there.

Also, from a purely strategic point of view, wouldn't it make sense to start building a (municipal) government from the ground (& grassroots) up, in those refugee camps? Perhaps a viable Syrian government-in-exile can grow, and learn the art of governing, co-existing, self-policing and, ultimately, once the bloodletting in Syria itself fizzles out, be in a position to help Syria reunite and heal? Where are Syria's future rulers supposed to arise from? Armed militias? How would that be any better than Assad's regime?

2) Strangle the Arms Trade

Where do the various factions get their guns & ammo from? Shockingly, the answer is "pretty much everyone". (This 2013 article precedes much of the rise of IS).

As long as arms are freely flowing into Syria (and Northern Iraq), and as long as every other nation with aspirations to exert control in the region keeps running a proxy war, the bloodletting won't stop, the trauma will continue, and we can only create more enemies.

3) Come up with a f***ing plan

Seriously, is "let's throw bombs on it" the only answer our governments can think of? Is this a matter of "if the only tool you have is a hammer, treat everything as if it were a nail"?


I mean, seriously, WTF?

Syria should be under a complete UN arms embargo. There shouldn't be efforts to get more nations to pile on and add bombs to the fire. All efforts should be towards getting Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the rest (including Western governments) to step back and take their military support with them.

Where are the diplomatic efforts to disengage all the proxy powers?

And where are the efforts for planning for a post-civil-war future? The trauma inflicted by this conflict will last for decades, even generations. What planning is there for overcoming that? Where are our governments' plans for preventing another Taliban, another ISIS, another Al Queda from forming ten, twenty years from now, from the ashes of this conflict (even if IS and Assad are defeated / erased)? If we want to defeat IS and Assad and fix Syria, how come our plan appears to be "let's bomb them and expect them to be grateful for our benevolent bombings"?

4) Anyhow

I'm glad Jeremy Corbyn is giving his MPs a free vote. I'm not in support of bombing IS in Syria, but I'm not opposed enough to join a Stop The War Coalition protest.

I just really wish our governments came up with complex answers to complex problems, rather than opting to try for simple solutions which don't stand much chance of fixing anything.

(For the record: I was in favour of intervention in Kosovo, moderately against intervention in Afghanistan, very strongly against the 2003 Iraq war, undecided about intervention in Libya, and I am moderately against intervention in Syria at this time)