26 December 2020

Lost Horizon and Shangri-La

Lost Horizon

Lost Horizon by James Hilton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, first published in 1933, is a kind of throwback to the kind of late-Victorian and Edwardian adventure novels exemplified by those of H. Rider Haggard, but also includes, for example, The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It follows the convention of a story within a story, where several gentlemen gather for cigars or port after dinner in a club or restaurant and one of them tells a story of his own adventures, or those of a mutual acquaintance. The story often involves a far-away place with a society cut off, either partly or completely, from the outside world -- in this case a monastery called Shangri-La in a hidden valley in Tibet.

By the time James Hilton wrote this story, most such stories had already moved into the realm of science fiction, and had moved to other planets, other solar systems, other galaxies, or even other dimensions as most of the surface of our planet had been mapped.

This story is one of the better examples of the genre, and probably one of the last of those set on earth, so much so that the name of its hidden place, Shangri-la, has become part of popular culture, and has found its way in to pop songs and the names of holiday resorts and the like.

I've been reading this book in parallel with a couple of others on related topics, notably Orientalism by Edward Said, and Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel. I'll write more about those in their own place, perhaps with some reference to this one, but Lost Horizon is in some ways a very Orientalist book.

In Lost Horizon the protagonist, Conway, finds himself de facto leader of four refugees from a revolution, who are subsequently victims of a hijacking. Conway, we are told, unlike at least one of his companions, "...had no race or colour prejudice, and it was an affectation for him to pretend, as he sometimes did in clubs and first-class railway carriages, that he set any particular store on the 'whiteness' of a lobster-red face under a topee." 

But the youngest member of the party, Mallinson, was very much steeped in Orientalism, colonialism and "whiteness", and almost as soon as they had arrived at Shangri-La was demanding "porters" so they could get back to "civilization". And even the unprejudiced Conway seemed to think that "porters" would be a necessity to enable them to leave. It seems a curious demand, since they had been refugees and subsequently hijackees, and thus had no luggage to carry. 

So while Said's book gives a history of the growth and development of what he calls "Orientalism", Hilton's fictional account probably gives a better idea of how it worked in practice in its heyday. Sangri-La may be a fictional place, but it serves to project the image of the Western world and its attitudes in the 1930s, just before the rise of Hitler.

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19 December 2020

Even Steven (book review)

Even Steven

Even Steven by John Gilstrap
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book for the second time after reading Writing the Thriller by Tricia Macdonald Skillman. It was 18 years after my first reading, so I remembered very little of the plot or the characters, and. since John Gilstrap was mentioned in and contributed to Writing the Thriller as an established thriller writer, I wanted to see how well one of his books fitted into the genre, and how Skillman's advice was applied. My conclusion was that it wasn't applied very well.

Reading Even Steven therefore left me with a somewhat higher opinion of Writing the Thriller (my review here) as I think that if some if the advice in there had been consistently applied, Even Steven would have been a better book.

Spoiler Alert If you haven't read Even Steven, be warned that what follows constains spoilers

Even Steven seems to belong to three of the sub-genres mentioned in Writing the Thriller: Psychological suspense, and Women and Children in Jeopardy suspense. There is also a certain element of Action/Adventure Suspense.

The psychological suspense is seen mainly in the first part of the book, where the characters spend a lot of time worrying about what might happen to them. The danger they are in is largely imagined future danger rather than actual present danger.

The basic plot is quite simple: Bobby and Susan Martin are on a camping trip in a nature reserve trying to work through their grief at the loss of a stillborn child. A child who has escaped from kidnappers comes into their camp[, chased by one of the kidnappers trying to recapture him. Bobby kills the kidnapper in a fight, discovers that he has a police badge on him, and they return home in a panic, taking the child with them. Susan sees him as a heaven-sent substitute for their lost son Steven, and names the kidnapped child after him.

The child had been kidnapped by contractors to gangsters as an incentive for his stepfather to pay his drug and gambling debts and his mother, April Simpson, is unable to pay them. She pleads with the gangsters who don't care how she gets the money, and will allow her son to die in the wilderness if they don't get the money -- the debt, plus interest, plus expenses -- the fee paid to the sub-contractors who carried out the actual kidnapping, one of whom had been killed by Bobby Martin, leaving only his mentally defective brother, Samuel, who has now lost the child and must try to get him back.

There are several info-dumps of the backstories of the characters. The backstory is important in a psychological thriller to explain the motivation of the characters. The problem is that a lot of this psychological build-up is simply glossed over in the end. Throughout the story the reader is impressed with Susan's psychological need which leads her to see the kidnapped child as her own and her fear and refusal to give him up, but the reader is not told how this was resolved.

There are long descriptions of Samuel's mental state, and how he alternates between being more stupid and less stupid than he looks, but in the end we learn nothing of his fate. The daughter of one of the gangster leaders is injured in a scene in which her father is killed by a rival gang leader, but we learn nothing of her fate either.

The problem is that far more information is given about some of the characters than is needed to explain their motivation and behaviour. If we are told about them in that much detail we begin to care about what happens to them, but then the author simply drops them without explanation. The book either needed a couple of extra chapters to tie up the loose ends, or it should have been cut by about a third, sparing the reader the unnecessary psychological details.

I suspect that if I had not read Writing the Thriller I might have been a lot less critical of this book, but it can, as I hoped it might, also make me more critical of my own writing, even if I'm not writing thriller/suspense novels. And perhaps thrillers are just not my kind of reading. Perhaps lovers of thrillers will be less critical than I was. Many of the things that others see as genres (suspense, horror, action, mystery etc) I tend to see as story elements. If one of those elements predominates or is absent the story seems unbalanced to me. 

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17 December 2020

Writing the thriller (book review)

Writing the Thriller

Writing the Thriller by Trish Macdonald Skillman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I took this book out of the library and read it because I'm in the final stages of editing a children's book I've been writing, and I wanted a reminder of some of the things I should look out for in editing. I say this as a warning, because if you are setting out to write a thriller from scratch, my review will probably be less helpful to you than those of some other people, because the things I was looking for in the book would be different from yours.

The book begins by defining the genre: the thriller or suspense novel is primarily about danger to characters in the story. It also defines several sub-genres of the thriller: (1) action/adventure; (2) Legal thrillers; (3) Medical Thrillers; (4) Political Thrillers; (5) Romantic relationship suspense; (6) Women or children in Jeopardy; and (6) Techno-thrillers.

The focus is entirely on the USA, so it will be most helpful for people writing stories set in the USA which will be submitted to US publishers and intended for readers in the USA. This doesn't make the book useless for writers in other countries, though there are some things that they will need to be aware of. 

For one thing, publishers and booksellers in different countries have different ideas about the boundaries of genres and though there is probably a large overlap in the case of thriller/suspense novels in different countries, they don't always overlap completely. The same applies to the tastes and expectations of readers in different countries. I find the US categorisation of the various subdivisions of juvenile fiction particularly confusing.

The book also makes the point that thrillers are commercial fiction, as opposed to literary fiction, and so the primary concern is that it should entertain readers, fulfil their expectations of the genre, and sell well enough to turn a good profit for the publisher and author. These considerations for outweigh the literary quality of the work in question. The advice given on writing, editing and preparation for publication is therefore given with these considerations in mind. Some of the advice will be different, or at least differently weighted for other genres.

My interest was somewhat different from that of the intended readership. I've been writing a children's book, which most publishers regard as belonging to a different genre, though as some parts of the book involve action/adventure and suspense, a lot of the advice in the book can be applied. I found it most useful as a kind of check-list of things to look out for in editing -- things like pacing, tone, characterisation and the like. People looking for advice on how to write a book from scratch might see it somewhat differently.

The second part of the book is devoted to interviews with some successful published authors of thrillers, explaining how they write and what works for them, and recommendations of things to emulate or pitfalls to avoid. The main body of the book also contains examples from the writings of these and other authors. I found these useful because I had read some of the books mentioned, and thus could see how it works out in practice. Among these authors are Clive Cussler, Tess Gerritsen, John Gilstrap and Richard North Patterson.

The book will therefore be most useful to those writing thrillers for the US market, but it is still useful generally and has a lot of good advice, even though it may need some adaptation for other circumstances.

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15 December 2020

Requiem for YahooGroups

YahooGroups, one of the largest public mailing-list servers on the Internet, is closing permanently on 15 December 2020, marking the end of an era in computer communications.

Mailing lists are one of the oldest communications tools on the Internet, allowing easy many-to-many communications. They are a tool for online discussions whose potential has never been fully realised. The concept is simple: instead of sending an e-mail to a bunch of different people, and hoping that copies of their replies will all be seen of all of them, you send your e-mail to the listserver, which distributes it to all members, and replies are also sent to the list server, which also distributes them to all the members.

The snag was that you had to run a server to set up a mailing list, so most were run by universities or business firms that ran their own servers. But then some people started making public mailservers available. One of these was E-groups, which was eventually taken over by Yahoo! and became YahooGroups. Later GoogleGroups offered a similar service, but GoogleGroups has been plagued by spam, and many groups have been totally hijacked by spammers, which Google does little to discourage.

Yahoo! initially made some very useful enhancements to YahooGroups, providing ancillary web services, but unfortunately around 2014 some new techo-whizzkid tried to improve them. ignoring the old adage "If it ain't broke don't fix it" and YahooGroups lost a lot of functionality, but the core mailing list function still worked. Nevertheless many YahooGroups users migrated to a new public listserver, groups.io, which made some improvements to the original YahooGroups concept.

So now Yahoo!, which has a history of buying up new ideas, mangling them into uselessness, and then closing them down, has finally decided to close YahooGroups completely. 

As a result of the closure I have moved several of the groups that I used to run on YahooGroups to the listserver at groups.io, and invite anyone who is interested in any of these topics to join them:

  • Christianity and Society -- for discussing how Christians interact with society around them, including art, literature, philosophy, current affairs, politics, and mission, evangelism and missiology
  • Inklings - specifically for discussions of literature and theology, with special reference to the Oxford Inklings, and members can also discuss their own writing, especially in genres used by the Oxford Inklings
  • Orthodox Missiology -- mission, evangelism and missiology in the Orthodox Church
  • Off Topic -- for anything that might be off-topic in more specialised groups and general chit-chat with friends and friends of friends
  • New Religious Movements -- an academic group for those studying new religious movements (started in the last 200 years). It was started by Prof Irving Hexham and originally hosted by the University of Calgary.
  • Family History and genealogy -- there are groups for discussing families such as the Growdon and Ellwood families and also one for discussing African genealogy and family history in general -- the entire continent.

Click on any of the links above to learn more about that particular group and apply to join if you are interested.

Some History 

Back in the late 1980s some improvements were made to the mailing list format in BBS networks that used Fidonet technology. In BBS "echo conferences" as they were called, the poster's initials were shown, so in long multiway conversations it was easier to see who had said what in reply to whom. Unfortunately dial-up BBS networks transmission was inadequate, and it was replaced by the TCP/IP technology of the Internet, with a consequential reversion to the old mailing list format, where, in order to see who said what you have to count reply quote marks -- > is replying to >> who in turn is replying to >>>

Nevertheless, for longer multiway discussions are vastly superior to web discussion boards, like those on sites like Facebook, or blog comments.

08 December 2020

Will the trains ever run again?

 One of the little-remarked casualties of the Covid-19 epidemic has been passenger train services. And it seems doubtful that they will ever run again. 

Passenger trains stopped running during the lockdown, and the entire network will have to be rebuilt almost from scratch if they are to run again, because much of the infrastructure has been stolen or vandalised.

Hatfield Station 28 Jul 2014. Gautrain on left, |Metrorail on right  

Last time I looked the Gautrain still seemed to be running, but Metrorail trains were not. In the picture above, of Hatfield Station in Pretoria, the Gautrain tracks on the left are 4ft 8.5 inches, while the Transnet tracks on the right, with a Metrorail suburban train passing on its way to Mamelodi is on 3 ft 6 in tracks. On the far right are the Gautrain feeder buses. Will we ever see such a sight again?

Metrorail train in Kilner Park 6 August 2014

The Metrorail suburban train above was one of those that passed our house, just across the street from us, at least twice an hour throughout the day. But no more. Soon after the lockdown began, the overhead wires were stolen. Three or four times a week we heard the sound of gunfire when cops and private security company employees battled it out with cable thieves, and clearly the cops lost. 

Last year we saw mysterious new trains in blue livery, running around empty, apparently being tested. Then they about a year ago they appeared carrying passengers, so these were apparently Metrorail's brand new rolling stock in new livery. But when the lockdown started in February 2020 they stopped running, and now they can't run, because the wires are all gone. 

Brand-new Metrorail suburban train 11 Oct 2019

The new trains can only have been in passenger service for about 6-8 months, and now they have been rendered useless. How much did they cost? Who made them? Have they been paid for, or are we still paying for them?

What appears to have happened is that when the lockdown began at Level 5, all train services were cancelled, and no trains ran at all, so the current in the wires was turned off to save electricity, but that also made it easier to steal the wires, so that when the lockdown eased, the trains service could not be resumed, because the wires were gone. Now the goods trains are running again, drawn by diesel locomotives, but it seems that the "new normal" will be without passenger trains altogether. 

But that is not the whole story, because long before Covid-19 had been heard of or identified, back in 2019, much of the overhead wiring had already been stolen from the main Pretoria-Johannesburg line, at least from Kloofsig to Pretoria central station. But no one seemed to notice, and no one seemed to care. 

There was little mention of it in the media -- the most prominent article I could find about it was this Stripped bare: Looting till there is nothing left of Gauteng's Rail Network, and it doesn't seem to have caused much of a stir. The trade unions seem to have had little to say, but what has happened to all the Metrorail and Prasa workers whose jobs, apparently, have gone for ever?


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