Month: January 2015

Marko Kloos: Terms of Enlistment and Lines of Departure (Frontlines Series)

The setting of the Frontline series, so far, has been good old military space opera. Earth is overcrowded, has started to colonize other worlds, North America is at a conflict with the Sino-Russian alliance, and the protagonist enlists in the military to get out of poverty, hopelessness and public housing, and prove himself.

The first novel progresses quite slowly, and it’s way past the half-way mark before the plot has progressed past basic training.

The writing style is fairly distinctive, present tense and first person, and reads a bit like a diary or narration. The result isn’t the best prose, and there’s a distinct lack of structure to the story. Being old-fashioned space opera, there’s plenty of military jargon and gear porn. Some aspects of physics, like FTL communications, seem to randomly appear and disappear, and there are a few other niggles with fundamental science, but in general it sounds like Mr. Kloos has a decent grasp of the military, weapons and science. By the end of the second book, very little if any really original content in world-building has been presented.

The first novel ends properly, rather than at a cliff-hanger, although the larger story arc is only started. The second novel picks up a good while after the first one, and the intervening events are briefly summarized. The structure and prose are largely the same as those of the first installment, so you’re not left hanging and waiting for the next novel.

While the events are dramatic and exciting, generally everything goes well for the protagonist, and competency is rewarded, and this adds to the journal-style, where eventually you expect that things will work out. The characters never gain much depth. At the end of the day, the first two books can be summarized as daydream material for teenagers that want uncomplicated relationships and shiny military hardware and space ships.

The setting does introduce a number of issues on the role of the military and social organization etc. but in these respects the books don’t have much substance either. The protagonist reflects on some of the issues, but it all comes across as very academic and clean, rather than as experiences that shape an individual.

Despite all of these shortcomings, the books are actually surprisingly readable and great popcorn entertainment. They’re also affordable as Kindle versions.

Three out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Terrorism and Charlie Hedbo

A few disjointed words on my musings while reading the papers.

Trying to figure out what drives people to kill, to hate, and to extreme intolerance is hard. A lot of very smart people have tried to make headway for a long time, and yet we know little of practical use. Consequently, don’t expect me to change the status quo. It’s not (just) deprivation, it’s not your local church, it’s not your parents.

Calling the attack on the Canadian parliament, or the rampage in France, or similar attacks “Terrorism” or “Islamic” “Militant” etc. bothers me. France definitely falls in the terrorism category, Canada and some others less so. However (and this may change) we’re stirring mentally disturbed people, people clearly having difficulty being part of society, and radicalized criminals together with evil terrorist masterminds familiar from TV, and I don’t think that’s at all helpful. Terrorism has never been well defined — one man’s terrorist was another man’s freedom fighter, and today things are even more murky. Anti-IRS? Anti-abortion? KKK? Anti-semitist? Firebombing mosques? Bombing schools? Done by individuals, done by small groups, done by militias, done by people coming back from a training camp in the Middle East? Sometimes the line is clear, sometimes much less so.

The Canadian shooter was mentally disturbed, and there’s little need to go down any more rabbit holes with that.

The French perpetrators were criminals and drug dealers with pornography and dubious religious discipline. Yes, they were motivated by some fantasy version of Jihad and Islam, but from all we’ve learned so far they were thugs, and not particularly observant Muslims. This to me is at odds with the narrative that Islam is the driving force behind the massacres.

Another point to make is how rare these kinds of attacks in the West are. Considering the population statistics, they’re complete and utter outliers. If any sizable portion of the Muslim population in the US, France or Germany for example were radicals bent on violence, things would look completely different. There are bombings and similar attacks due to job grievances, racism or just plain mental illness.

One of the clerks in the kosher shop that was attacked in Paris was a Muslim, and he shepherded many clients to safety. One of the policemen either responding to, or guarding the newspaper offices was a Muslim. Obviously, then, there are Muslims, and Jews, and Christians and all kinds of believers that have figured out how to live and work together in France.

Reading the comments, both on FB and various newspapers, suggesting that the violence is inherent in Islam and by corollary all Muslims should GTFO or convert if we want peace in our countries is pretty painful. Yes, there’s a violent aspect to Islam and the Koran. Surprise, ditto for Christianity. Or, seen from a different angle, there are plenty of Muslims that are living amongst us. They run businesses, have families, have integrated in the communities, and want nothing to do with the hateful versions of Islam. To tell them that no, it doesn’t matter what they believe or do, they implicitly support barbarism is not only rude, it’s very disturbing, because it’s the textbook example of religious intolerance, and exactly the kind of thing that all the anti-discrimination principles are meant to combat. We live with Islam, and we will live with Islam, and that will not change. We better figure out a way to deal with it. You can be against ISIS and yet respect the religion of your neighbor doing database administration for the phone company.

Things are never as black-and-white as we’d like. Of course communities are responsible for doing something about hateful preachers or those advocating violence. But what exactly are Muslims in perfectly civil and nice mosques expected to do about things that maybe happening in another city? Maybe there are things that can be done. Maybe there are things that should be done. If so, they’re not obvious to me. There is media bias, and there’s whitewashing. Unless clearly overwhelming, cherry-picking one or the other as an anecdotal example doesn’t redefine reality.

Drawing a line between unhealthy self-censorship and healthy respect is no easier. Should you be able to offend a religious figure? Yes. Should you? Possibly not. Personally, I strongly believe that those in power must be held accountable, and parody is a way to do so; if history is any guide, there are no things that do not eventually require us to lampoon them. Making fun of a religious figure and making fun of a problematic interpretation or representation of said figure are two different things. The prophets pictured in many of the controversial caricatures are not those venerated by most Muslims, they are the prophets venerated and imaged by intolerant, destructive fanatics. To me, this difference is crucial. As usual with parodies, if you’re offended by someone’s depiction of things you hold dear, it’s always worth re-examining said things and just why you were offended.

There’s a virulent and extremely dangerous ideology in radical Islam. It appeals to people. The organized barbarism, as well as the individual criminals motivated by their visions of it define themselves in terms of Islam. This makes it very difficult to separate militant Islam from the peaceful, everyday Islam. Is there a media bias giving extra weight on the religion in headlines? I don’t know. Meanwhile in Africa, for example, there are utter atrocities being perpetrated in the name of Christ, but much fewer headlines about this. Is it because of the particular religion, or is it because we just don’t happen to care about that part of the planet currently? Then again, we’re also not greatly publicizing a lot of the Muslim-on-Muslim violence, all of which does suggest that what we see on the news is skewing our perceptions.

Terrorism in the modern era isn’t new. There were, and are, the Red Army Faction, Weathermen, Unabomber, (P)IRA, ETA, crazy American militias and many others. Some were driven by political grievances. (Although in the case of the IRA this was often dressed, simplistically, as Protestant vs. Catholic. Tell me there are not at least a few corollaries there.) Often these were movements that attracted people because terrorist life was exciting, gave a person a way to belong, a way to make a difference, to be famous, and get girls. Many of the same reasons seem to be drawing youth to fight in the Middle East as well, except now under the guise of Jihad instead of anarchy or communism. To think that somehow the threat of a bomb in a shopping mall was brought to us by Islamists is inaccurate.

The words we use to define concepts and the words we use in our headlines shape the way we think of things. I’m afraid the ones we’re using now don’t help us make sense of the world we live in, but I have no better ones to suggest.

Posted by Toivo Voll