While writing my next novel in the Western Desert of Egypt (something I’ve discussed in several previous posts), I came across an interesting local landmark. Behind my campsite in Bahariya Oasis stands a grim heap of black volcanic stone called “English Mountain”. When I asked around about this unusual name, the local Bedouin told me that it was once home to an English soldier who kept watch for attacking tribes back in the days when Egypt was still a colony. I was told the ruins of his house could still be seen.
So of course I went up to see them!
But not before taking Ahmed Fakhry’s excellent book Bahariya and Farafra out of my backpack to see what he had to say about this. Yes, I travel through the Sahara with a bag full of books.
Written in 1974 but mostly based on expeditions the archaeologist took in the 1930s, Fakhry’s book is full of useful information and folklore. In it he says that English Mountain is actually named after a New Zealander named Claud Williams, who commanded No. 5 Light Car Patrol during World War One. Williams, Fakhry says, kept a lonely vigil atop that mountain for hostile Senussi tribesmen.
The destroyers came out from the desert. Palmyra must have been expecting them: for years, marauding bands of bearded, black-robed zealots, armed with little more than stones, iron bars and an iron sense of righteousness had been terrorizing the east of the Roman Empire.
Thus starts the controversial new history of the pagan/Christian transition by Classics scholar Catherine Nixey. Making a deliberate parallel between the early Christians and ISIS is a bold move, intended to shock and turn our historical and cultural presumptions upside down.
It’s only the first of many. For 250 pages, Nixey makes a full-on assault against the dominant narrative that Christians were brutally oppressed by the Roman Empire, before peacefully taking over by winning the debate against an exhausted and decadent paganism.
In Palmyra c. AD 385, a horde of black-robed monks swarmed out of their desert caves and crude shelters to break into the city’s temple of Athena. There they came upon a graceful, larger-than-life statue of the goddess. They hacked the head from its shoulders, then battered at the head where it lay on the ground. When they left, their rage satiated, the head lay where they had left it for centuries until uncovered by modern archaeologists.
All across the Late Roman Empire, this scene was played out again and again with increasing frequency as Christians grew in number and confidence.
Since the Arab Spring, there has been an upsurge in dystopian fiction coming out of the Middle East. The dashed hopes of that widespread popular uprising have found their expression in pessimistic novels such as Otared, (reviewed in an earlier post) and several other notable works of fiction.
One of the most lauded in the West is The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, an Egyptian writer and social activist.
In The Queue, we are transported to a strange near future where the civilian government has been taken over by a faceless entity called the Gate. The Gate issues a series of edicts that become ever more baffling and hard to obey. Companies are forced to changed what they produce, individuals need to get signed forms for even the most mundane matters, and little by little the Gate forces its way into every aspect of the city’s life.
The people rebel, in what the Gate refers to as the Disgraceful Events, which are suppressed with predictable police brutality. One of the casualties is a young man named Yehya, who is shot by a police officer. Yehya needs a form signed in order to have the bullet removed, but the Gate closes right after the Disgraceful Events.
As Yehya languishes, the Gate issues a continuous torrent of edicts, prompting more and more citizens to line up in front of the Gate hoping to get their forms filled out. The line soon stretches for miles, developing its own economy and culture. Street preachers rail against the citizens for their lack of faith in the Gate, shopkeepers try to make a living selling tea and snacks to the other people in line, and salesmen give away free mobile phones that are bugged.
The first thing you learn if you spend any amount of time living in Harar is that it is not a human town. It is a human town during the day and a human and hyena town at night.
This medieval walled city in eastern Ethiopia has been a center of trade for centuries. Situated in a temperate climate between the central Ethiopian highlands and the Somali desert, it spent much of its history as an independent city-state. The Hararis have a distinct culture and language confined almost exclusively to the town within the walls. The surrounding countryside is dominated by the Oromo, who have their own language and culture.
The Harari and Oromo share space with another language and culture, that of the hyenas. Not seen much by day, they come out at night to scavenge food and wander the labyrinth of alleys that make up Jugol, the old city. Humans and hyenas have become accustomed to one another and have developed a unique and close relationship.
Every now and then, fandom needs to take a good, hard look at itself. Considering the recent Hugo kerfuffle, I thought it a fine time to read Norman Spinrad’s famous skewering of fan culture, The Iron Dream.
First published in 1972, this is a masterpiece of metafiction. It is a book within a book, containing the 1955 Hugo Award winner Lord of the Swastika, written by none other than that famous science fiction writer, Adolph Hitler. We are informed that after dabbling in radical politics in Germany, Hitler moved to New York in 1919. In the 1930s he became a sought-after illustrator for pulp magazines and started writing fiction. He was popular in fannish circles for his fanzine work and for his witty banter at conventions.
His best-known work is Lord of the Swastika, a post-apocalyptic tale where the world has been ravaged by nuclear war and most people have become foul mutants. Luckily there is one nation, Heldon, where the Truemen struggle to preserve humanity’s genetic purity.
Enter Feric Jaggar, a Trueman whose family was exiled due to political machinations and forced to live among the mongrel horde. Lord of the Swastika is the tale of Jagger’s triumphant return to Heldon, where he unmasks a plot by the mutants to take over the country and sully the genetic purity of the last real humans. Jagger’s political star rises, the masses rallying around him as he first faces off against a corrupt government, then unites the nation around him in order to start a massive war to wipe the Earth clean of genetic inferiors once and for all.
The recent scandal over the killing of Cecil the Lion has once again brought big game hunting into the spotlight, with various websites outing rich hunters who go to Africa to blow away lions, giraffes, and other animals.
Here in Spain, we had an even bigger scandal back in 2012 when, at the height of this country’s financial crisis, King Juan Carlos went to Botswana and killed an elephant. He later apologized but this, plus rumors of extramarital affairs and numerous incidents of being apparently drunk in public, forced him to abdicate two years later.
There was a time when scandals like this would have never happened, when kings and commoners could empty their guns into beautiful animals free from the fear of criticism. Many wrote memoirs of going on safari, creating a genre that has all but died out today.
One of the classics of the genre is The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, by Lt. Col. J.H. Patterson and originally published in 1907. Patterson worked as the chief engineer building the Mombasa to Uganda railway in 1898. Managing a huge crew of Africans, Pathans, and Sikhs in adverse conditions to build a railroad through poorly mapped territory would have been hard enough, but soon lions started coming into the workmen’s camp at night and carrying off his workers.
It’s great when a book can be summed up by an equation as well as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
Like King’s The Stand, the world is wiped out by a flu virus that kills ninety-nine percent of the population; like McCarthy’s The Road, survivors travel by horse or foot and encounter grim realities of a decimated world. What St. John Mandel brings to the table, however, is an unusual structure and omniscient POV that shouldn’t work but somehow does.
Arthur Leander is a famous actor that dies in Toronto during a performance of King Lear. All of the characters the reader follows are in some way related to Arthur. Miranda, his first wife; Elizabeth and Tyler, his second wife and son; Kirsten, a young girl and King Lear actress; Jeevan, a former paparazzo-turned-EMT; and Clark, Arthur’s best friend. Even Station Eleven — the graphic novel that Miranda creates — becomes a character of sorts. On the night Arthur dies, an extremely infectious and thorough strain of the swine flu — called the Georgia Flu since it originated in the country of Georgia — descends on Toronto. This flu has a short incubation period (four to five hours) and quick course from onset of illness to death (less than two days). It turns out that Arthur is the lucky one, because most of the world’s population is dead inside a month.
The novel jumps between all these characters but spends the majority of its time on Kirsten, the child actor who joins a Traveling Symphony. The Symphony is a theater troupe and orchestra that travels from town to town to perform Shakespeare plays and classical music concerts. The tagline for the Symphony is “because survival is insufficient,” which they borrowed from an episode of Star Trek.
As the world marks the centennial of World War One, it’s in danger of forgetting that the year 1914 saw the beginning of one of the most ambitious Antarctic expeditions ever launched, the Endurance expedition led by Ernest Shackleton. A complex and driven man, Shackleton’s accomplishments were overshadowed by personal failures and a global war.
There hasn’t been a full biography of Shackleton since 1985, so to mark the centennial, Polar exploration expert Michael Smith has come out with Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. This detailed, 440-page study traces Shackleton’s life from his Anglo-Irish roots through his early years at sea and his first Antarctic expedition as a member of Scott’s Discovery expedition.
The Fuller Memorandum, by Charles Stross
Ace (320 pages, $24.95, July 2010)
Charles Stross is the technocratic heir to H.P. Lovecraft. While he is probably best-known for his Singularity-inspired science fiction and has been known to dabble in committing the occasional fantastic indiscretion with his Merchant Princes series, Stross is unequivocally at his best when he combines his techno-savvy competence with unadulterated occultic horror. The Fuller Memorandum is the third of his Laundry series, which centers around the deeds of a British agent named, significantly enough, Bob Howard, who works for a branch of the English Secret Service in confronting evils that are much more dark and dangerous than anything James Bond ever had to face.
Having triumphed over die-hard trans-dimensional Nazis and grandiose villains with master plans, Bob and his wife Mo are forced to confront an evil, world-threatening plan to awake and unleash the demonic Eater of Souls in The Fuller Memorandum. The plot is convoluted and the squamous horror is amped up to eleven, as the strain of being forced to deal with the implacable darkness beyond the borders of our universe as well as the soul-crushing bureaucracy of the agency are beginning to wear heavily on both of them.
King’s Blood Four, by Sheri S. Tepper
Ace (202 pages, $2.50, 1983)
I know Sheri S. Tepper primarily as a science fiction author. She tends to write sociological stuff, a little bit like Ursula K. LeGuin’s science fiction. I feel that she’s prone to having her message hijack her story, but I still read her books whenever I see a new one in the library. I wasn’t sure what to expect out of her fantasy.
As it turns out, King’s Blood Four might or might not be set in a fantasy universe. There is a strong hint that it might be crypto-SF. In a way, it doesn’t matter; fantasy or science fiction, it’s still a study of an alien society.
The story is narrated by Peter, a fifteen-year-old boy who lives at a boarding school devoted to teaching a peculiar chess-like game. In fact, it’s a training exercise for the deadly True Game. It seems that many people in this world have magic — or possibly psychic — powers, and the True Game forms a framework for their power struggles. It includes everything from dueling to intrigue to outright war, and children such as Peter are sent to the Schooltowns so that the True Game doesn’t chew them up as cannon fodder before they can come into their power. (We find out later that peasants — called pawns, in keeping with the chess theme — don’t ordinarily get this privilege, although at least one pawn’s mother found a way to manage it.) We also find out that Peter has been seduced by one of the teachers, a man named Mandor. The affair is forbidden, and one of the other teachers tries to warn Peter about it, but he’s convinced that he has it all under control.