Thursday, June 28, 2007

Book Review: "Use of Weapons" by Iain M. Banks

In general, there's a tendency in the world of literature to look down on science fiction books and other "speculative fiction" literature. True, most scifi/fantasy is escapism and offer very little in the way of beautiful prose or other literary devices, especially during its infancy in the 50's/6o's when they were little more than "cowboys in space" or at best an interesting concept burdened with workman-like writing. But its been a long time since the days of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein. The genre has matured. And few books showcase this fact better than Iain M. Banks' "Culture" novels. Banks, already an established writer of "normal fiction" turns his literary skills to science fiction, creating an interesting world inhabited by the Culture; an extremely advanced race of genetically modified humans and sentient machines living in symbiosis and playing caretaker for the rest of the universe. I've yet to read all the books, but so far "Use of Weapons" is my favorite by a long margin.

Zakalwe is a highly regarded and skilled mercenary soldier who is constantly being recruited by Culture agent Diziet for jobs considered too dirty for the Culture to undertake by themselves. Riches beyond his imagination is constantly being promised, yet Zakalwe always asks for one reward, seemingly trivial. A reward that intrigues Diziet to no end. A dark secret lies in Zakalwe's past and Diziet is determined to find out what it is.

The thing I most like about this book is that it stands well by itself even without the trappings of science fiction. Remove all the space ships, robots and other paraphernalia and you would still have a very good and extremely well written book. The most interesting aspect is Banks' use of two narrative streams. One, traditionally enough, follows our protagonist's adventures forward in time. The other stream flows backwards, gradually delving deeper into Zakalwe's past. The two streams alternating chapters. If you've ever seen the movie Memento (if you haven't, you really really should) then this device might feel very familiar. Yes it can feel confusing at first, especially when you're not expecting it, but it flows logically afterwards. Both lines culminating, interestingly enough, into the same climax (in two different time lines).

For people who enjoy interesting to read books I can't recommend Use of Weapons enough, even if they don't usually read science fiction.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ganging up on Saudi Vice

A few months ago there were troubling rumors making the rounds about turning the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (AKA Saudi Vice) into a full fledged ministry. As if these hard line extremists should have even more power than they already have. The prospect looked bleak to me. I saw what little hope I had of seeing this institution abolished withering in front of my eyes.

Then one day a brave brave lady dared challenge the mighty Saudi Vice. And suddenly the dam broke. That's the thing about Saudi society. Change takes a long time to come, but when it does come (usually triggered by a tragedy) it cascades through society at an amazing pace. It happened years ago when tragedy broke out in a Makkah school for girls and a lack of safety precautions meant that a simple fire cost the lives of many innocent girls. The tragedy and the rage brought down the Presidency for Girls Education, and prompted the long sought after merging with the (then boys only) Ministry of Education into one monolithic entity. For months after, the newspapers and the media hounded dilapidated schools all over the kingdom.

Now its happening to Saudi Vice.

When a conformist sad excuse for a newspaper like Okaz prints something like this article (translated and published in English by Arab News) you just know that change is in the air. Even the Shoura Council has taken up kicking the down on their luck Saudi Vice.

You could almost feel sorry for them.


The Saudi people have finally spoken up. We no longer want a Big Brother-like institution to tell us what is moral and what is not. Change now, or be brought down smashing into the ground.


Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Warning to Car Drivers in Jeddah

Calling all cars. Calling all cars. Well ... Cars in Jeddah anyway...

If at all possible avoid the intersection of Prince Majid (Sab'een) street and Rawdah street, formerly known as Meedan al Tayara.

Aside from the stifling traffic due to the reconstruction work and the hordes of water tankers waiting in line to get filled up from the water station, there's also the Mother of All Potholes.

Now Jeddites are no strangers to potholes, dodging holes in the ground is the norm here, but boy oh boy is this one a woozy. I had just escaped the traffic around the congested square, and happy with my release I accelerated towards the intersection of Majid and Tahliya when I fell into the worst pothole I have ever had the misfortune of experiencing. My whole car jumped. Then I heard that dreaded sound. The rumbling sound of a ruined tire.


A quick stop and a look confirmed it. Luckily enough there was a tire repair shop nearby, so with the tire making that awful bumpy noise I drove in. The prognosis? Worse than I thought. The pothole not only managed to give me a flat, it also ruined my expensive aluminum wheel.


And I wasn't alone! I counted three other cars at the tire shop with ruined tires and/or wheels during the time I was there. Hmmm. That tire shop must be making an awful lot of money from all these repairs. Hmmmm.

If you find yourself in the stretch between Meedan al Tayara and Tahliya Street, watch out for Potholezilla.

Thanks for nothing city of Jeddah!