Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Moxyland - a scary vision of the near future

The first few pages are always heady. The author invites you into the world he or she has created - will you like it or loathe it? Will it be convincing or confusing?

Lauren Beukes has created the latest in a line of dystopian visions. In part, we have the violent control of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four; but the underlying culture is closer to Huxley's Brave New World or even Jennifer Government by Max Barry. And for more commentary, see Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman or How Should We Then Live? by Francis Schaeffer.

It has a harder edge - commentators have muttered things like "Post-cyberpunk". I dodged Coupland, though I think he was recommended to me, so I can't really judge. But Beukes has certainly captured the zeitgeist and sharpened it. It is a world of recreational drugs, sex and sexuality, where corporations act as they see fit with little regard for the law - or more accurately, pretty much as the law - where the rich have got richer, and the poor have got poorer but have been rendered pretty much impotent through being disenfranchised.

We meet four characters, whose lives intersect - Kendra, Toby, Lerato and Tendeka. All have issues with the status quo on one level or another. From the history of dystopic worlds, we know that this is not a good situation to be in. Will they survive? Can they learn to love Big Brother? Or can they overthrow him?

This is good SF - the extrapolations are all too real, all too obviously deriving their heritage from the world we see around us. The language is - well, put it this way, if you are going to have a problem with the "F" word, I wouldn't recommend this book (even so, I think it's not a bad idea to get it off the cover ...). But the book should take an honourable place in the catalogue of dystopian visions.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Lauren Beukes ...

It's all possible, especially if we're willing to trade away our rights for convenience, for the illusion of security. Our very own bright and shiny dystopia is only ever one totalitarian government away.

Moxyland, afterword
I got a review copy of Moxyland, which looks like an interesting read. Beukes comes at the dystopic SF perspective via journalism in South Africa, so there's no guarantee she's read Aldous Huxley, Francis Schaeffer or Max Barry - though I guess two out of three are pretty common currency.

Looking forward to it. Shame about the F word on the cover; it does little to sell the book to those people who ought to read it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Devaluing British higher education in easy steps

1) Declare that, in the name of "excellence for all" (a catchphrase used without a trace of irony), 50% of the population should have a degree. Help to achieve this by declaring that all sorts of subjects merit "degrees" (Travel and Tourism, Golf Course Management).

2) Criticise the universities for taking on too many students. Cut their funding. Suggest that they can save money by reducing degrees to two years (when many have had to increase in length to four years to compensate that people are finishing A-levels functionally illiterate and innumerate).

3) Save even more time and money by not bothering with a university course at all, and just giving all 18-year olds a degree if they make it to that age without leaving school.

Monday, December 14, 2009

School governance

The burdens [school] governors are expected to shoulder are ludicrous. They are ultimately responsible for financial and personnel issues, buildings, the curriculum, admissions - virtually every aspect of a school's work. It amazes me that anybody volunteers these days for the role. The real problem, of course, is the vast web of regulation and bureaucracy the government has spun round schools.

Governors should be there to offer common-sense advice to the head and to represent the views of parents and the community the school serves, not to digest hundreds of pages of incomprehensible and largely irrelevant diktat.

Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools, in The Sunday Times

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"Shades of Grey", Jasper Fforde

From here.

It was not a month ago that I finished my last Jasper Fforde book, and was bemoaning the lack of further work by him to read. So I was more than delighted to have the opportunity to read his latest book.

This is the first book in another new series. I spend the first thirty pages of a Jasper Fforde series undergoing severe cognitive dissonance - or to put it another way, wondering what the heck is going on. The next thirty pages are spent thinking something like: "Hmm. Let's run with this a little further." And the rest of the book (and indeed, subsequent books in the series) passes by in an increasingly addicted scamper.

The plot of "Shades of Grey" moves Fforde firmly in the direction of Science Fiction, rather than the kind of literary fantasy that constitutes the The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next) and The Big Over Easy (Nursery Crime) series, and the scope of the work is also bigger. We find ourselves in a future world, in which people have limited colour perception, and this is what determines their social standing. Edward Russett, a young man who is yet to take his place in society, finds himself struggling to accept the status quo, and as the book develops, we start to learn some sinister facts. Think of "Nineteen Eighty Four", "The Matrix" or "Brave New World", but with a lighter touch.

It isn't hard to read into "Shades of Grey" a parable of modern societies - it is well worth thinking through the implications of intolerance, racism and the priority of the system above individuals as you read the book. It is populated by authentic characters - and as with the earlier series, the principle actors are extraordinarily sympathetic.

There are few writers who, to my mind, come up with such complex and coherent imaginary universes - as with the other series, the divergence with the real world is radical, and yet seemingly consistent on the deepest levels. Fforde has been compared with Douglas Adams and Lewis Carroll, but to my mind, although they have their place, he surpasses them on a literary level. I can't wait to see how this series develops. (And I'm looking forward to hearing more about Thursday Next, as well!)

Unfortunately, now I've finished my last Jasper Fforde book, and have no further work by him to read....