Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Jailhouse Rock

A two part podcast story published by Variant Frequencies. Jailhouse Rock Part 1 and Jailhouse Rock Part 2. Written by James P. Hogan. Narrated by Rick Stringer. Voice acting by Will Hoffacker, Phil Rossi, Jan Dalton, Jack Ward, Lonnie Ezell, Ciaran O’Carroll, Neil Stringer, and Nobilis.

High above the stormy southern hemisphere of Mars, a routine cargo transport has turned into a high-stakes standoff between Skyguard soldiers and vicious mercenaries turned thieves.

This is the story of a formative moment in the early career of a new space gallant called Knight. Still wet behind the ears, Knight finds himself an unwitting victim of a mercenary troupe hi-jacking the weapons cargo he was accompanying. However, mercenaries find out that Knight has a level of daring and resourcefulness that is bound to make their plans go astray. All alone, without any weapons - what can Knight do?

This podcast story features engaging voice acting and convincing sound effects to evoke a spectacular sense of space adventure at its best. It is all about daring, quick wits and enormous cojones, chutzpah, sisu. There is no swearing, no gore, no aliens. I could imagine this story in the Firefly universe, or even Babylon 5 because both shows have a somewhat similar sense of cowboys in space.

I would very much like to see this story to continue into a larger adventure. As a short story, the focus was more on action rather than character building. Don't get me wrong, the characterisation of the protagonist was excellent, but I didn't feel like I got to know him very well. I didn't get the opportunity to care about him for reasons other than the fact that he was all alone against overwhelming odds.

I give this a solid 8 out of 10, and recommend it for any space adventure fan. I was hooked from the beginning of part 1 and gritting my teeth at the end of it when I realised I would have to wait for part 2.

One last comment: the title of the story is a sly pun which you won't get until the end of the story!

My Israel Question

My Israel Question by Antony Loewenstein, Melbourne University Press, 2006, 340 pp, rrp $AUS 32.95

ISBN-10: 0522852688 or ISBN-13: 978-0522852684

Antony Loewenstein's book is essentially about his staunch opposition to the actions of Zionist lobby groups who are determined to portray all criticism of Israel and its policies as Anti-Semitism, in other words conflating the terms Zionism and Judaism. This is the central, and most powerful, message in this book. Antony Loewenstein shows that because of the concerted lobbying of media and politicians by Zionist lobby groups in Australia, the US and UK, it is very hard to have honest discussion on the conflict between Palestine and Isreal.

I found this book very hard to read, and not just because my usual fare is more in the way of fantasy and science fiction. I felt drawn to this book, but I didn't like reading it and often put it down. This book is a polemic, the seed of which is a conflict so ingrained that a resolution seems impossible. The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories is an extremely divisive topic, and I am continually dismayed by stories of the unmitigated hatred that come out of this conflict every week. It is not unique; there are many other conflicts around the world that deliver stories of equally depressing portent, but this is the one I feel closest to, due to my name, my lineage: my own Israel Question.

This book has helped me understand what Zionism is, and how the relationship between Zionism and Judaism involves the longing for a home land - which is what the Palestinian people want too.

There are four main sections to this book, each of which show a different aspect of the same general theme. The first part outlines Antony's family upbringing and how his questioning of faith and politics affected his life. It explores in detail a telling event in recent Australian political history - Hanan Ashrawi winning the Sydney Peace Prize - which was a formative period for the author's own career as a writer. The second part is an excruciating exploration of Zionism and antisemitism, and how criticism of the former is portrayed as an act of the latter in so many different ways. The third part continues this thread, closely examining the role of lobby groups as powerful political motivators that warp this debate all over the world. The fourth part focuses more closely on how this lobby driven bias directly affects the media, making it so much harder to find equilibrium between Israel and Palestine.

There are almost 60 pages of notes and references in this book. They are as fascinating as the text, and show the wide variety of influences that went into what was written. My version was accompanied by a small booklet containing essays of a few selected respondents to this book: Julian Burnside Q.C., Justice Alan Goldberg A.O., Robert Richter O.C., Peter Rodgers and David Marr. Justice Alan Goldberg A.O. called the book diatribe, the others were more positive. Each essay gave a revealing glimpse into the author's history and politics, showing how they have affected and been affected by their Israel Questions.

Read this book to gain insight into the Israeli occupation and the wide ranging political and religious issues that drive the conflict. Read this to understand how critical it is that parties on both sides be able to debate as equals, and how this is perhaps the most difficult goal to achieve.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Send in the Clowns

As I was writing about the Union Dues stories, I was wondering when we would get the next one. Turns out, the next one came out three days before I wrote that article!

EP128: Union Dues - Send in the Clowns is written by Jeffrey R. DeRego and read by Dani Cutler. It is the fifth in the Union Dues podcast stories. In this fifth story, Send in the Clowns shows how hard it can be to be a super-hero and obey the Union's rules at the same time. As a super hero, you have to deal with the people on the ground, but the Union sets rules to do with image management that make it hard to work out what action is right sometimes. Even the Union's hypnotically embedded training cannot provide all the answers. The characterisations are relatively personal, and you care about Megaton and Chrome as super-heroes who care more about doing the job, but Chrome gets caught up in the rules. Dani Cutler's reading is good - but has she got a blocked nose or something? Her voice was very nasally, which was somewhat distracting.

This series is strong because it portrays super heroes in a very different light. It eschews the comic book mandate of super heroes battling super villains, showing off super powers and (literally) paper thin plots. Instead, this series focuses on the moral dilemmas that might arise in a world where super-heroes get organised into a union. A union that looks after the interests of super heroes as individuals (training, supplies, marketing) and groups (marketing, legal frameworks, deployment of super heroes where needed).

Iron Bars and the Glass Jaw reveals some of the dichotomy involved in trying to live as a super human among normal humans, and the notion of "super-hero as a job". Off White Lies gives a little hint about where the bad guys might be really coming from. The Baby and the Bathwater explores even further the dichotomy of being a super human among normal humans by showing one reason why the Union is needed and hated at the same time. Cleanup in Aisle Five explores how hard it is to manage the image of super heroes in a prejudiced, greedy and short sighted world.

In this fifth story, Send in the Clowns, which focuses again on image management, this time showing how the machinations of "the greater good" can affect the individual - and how important it is to still try and be yourself.

I notice two common themes in these stories which are worthy of note.

Big Brother. In order to look after the greater good, you need someone to make hard decisions, someone to take in all the ambiguity of real life and decide what "greater good" really means. Inevitably, this leads to decisions that will chew up and spit out, as easily (but hopefully less often) as adopt and nurture. Big Brother means more than that though - it also means ulterior motives, which comes down to whose definition of the "greater good" is really driving the show. This gives the series a touch of X-Files: you have plenty of super (natural/human) and just a few Cancer Man plot devices to keep you wondering.

Dichotomy. This is what I like most about the series so far. Being a super hero is hard. You have to leave behind your family and your community, because they become liabilities. You can't always protect them from yourself when you have powers that might kill as easily as save. You can't protect them from all the baddies that know who it is you love (thought the Union Dues stories have yet to explore this aspect). And you can't protect yourself from the fear many of them will have, fear of you. Being super means being different, it means having awe and jealousy inspiring powers. It also means being held up to a whole new set of double standards: you are not normal like us, but you still can't prevent every crime or catch every villain.

In my opinion the strongest of the series is still the first - Iron Bars and the Glass Jaw - because it gave me my first glance into this new vision of super hero-dom, of a society trying desperately to integrate supers and normals in a world where most of us identify ourselves with our job.

In further super-hero fiction news, another player has just hit the presses! Mur Lafferty is releasing her new superhero podcast novel, Playing for Keeps - look for it at http://www.playingforkeepsnovel.com and Podio Books. I have sampled the first chapter thanks to Escape Pod, and I am dying for more.