Tag Archives: racism

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc Austral by Paul McAuley


The great geoengineering projects have failed. The world is still warming, sea levels are still rising, and the Antarctic Peninsula is home to Earth’s newest nation, with life quickened by ecopoets spreading across valleys and fjords exposed by the retreat of the ice. Austral Morales Ferrado, a child of the last generation of ecopoets, is a husky: an edited person adapted to the unforgiving climate of the far south, feared and despised by most of its population. She’s been a convict, a corrections officer in a labour camp, and consort to a criminal, and now, out of desperation, she has committed the kidnapping of the century.

I absolutely love this one. This first-person narrative by Austral grabbed me from the first page and wouldn’t let me go until the end. It very quickly becomes apparent that Austral is telling this story for the benefit of someone who she feels needs to know her family history, which is woven into this classic chase across the harsh peninsula as Austral and her kidnap victim try to stay one step ahead of those in pursuit – who aren’t necessarily the forces of law and order.

There is all the excitement and tension of their adventure as they encounter a number of memorable characters, some kind and helpful but most are nothing of the sort. This is a hard new land peopled by many refugees from a drowning world, which doesn’t engender soft fluffy feelings. I was waiting for the inevitable moment when the two fleeing finally bond – the huskie outcast and the rich, privileged child of a rising politician. But McAuley avoids that cliché. There is never a time when Austral can relax and feel her young companion will innately trust her.

Meanwhile, Austral’s unfolding story is one of abandonment of the promises made to keep Antarctica ecologically sustainable as once again, the vested interests of multi-nationals and capitalism trumps all else. The sub-species of huskies, whose DNA were edited to equip them for living and working on the land, are now no longer required for that prime purpose. Nor are they wanted by the normals, who fear their size, superior strength and stamina, so ensure the law enforces their instinctive reaction to keep them as far away as possible.

The other character that features throughout is the landscape itself. McAuley’s scientific background shows in the depth and detail of this harsh environment. I love the fact that mammoths have been brought back as a viable eco-system has started to be designed – until forest plantations swallow up the fragile landscape and inappropriate crops are grown to appease the appetites of a people with no appreciation or real knowledge of how this emerging landmass is being eco-engineered. It all sounds horribly familiar.

Any niggles? While I felt that Austral’s storyline about her own family history worked very well alongside the ongoing adventure, the one ongoing narrative thread I could have happily done without was the fairy story Austral’s young teenage companion was reading. It was the one part of the story that didn’t really convince me, both as something that would interest Austral, or its relevance to the other two plotlines and to be honest, I mostly skimmed over those sections. However that aside, this story has lodged inside my head since I’ve read it and notwithstanding that one false step, this is an extraordinary book. Highly recommended for fans who like hard science fiction and cli-fi (climate fiction). While I obtained the arc of Austral from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review.



Today Lillian at Mom With a Reading Problem is featuring Running Out of Space as part of the blog tour, including her interview – where she asks which breakfast cereal I’d like to be…


Film Review of District 9


district 9While my friend Mhairi Simpson was laid up after coming off her bike last week, we had the good luck to encounter this film, courtesy of the good ol’ Syfy channel. As Mhairi hadn’t seen it, I was very glad to have an excuse to watch it again.

Released in 2009 by TriStar Pictures and directed by Neill Blomkamp, this science fiction thriller is set in the very near future, when a huge space ship appears in the sky over Johannesburg in South Africa. And just hangs there. Three months later, a task force eventually breaks into the ship to find it contains around half a million sick and starving aliens. Transported to a camp on the outskirts of Johannesburg, the aliens are provided with food and the most primitive, rudimentary basics required for existence and left to get on with it. They do.

Living in squalor, they barter whatever they can for tins of cat food and pieces of meat. Inevitably, illegal interest in their technology is centred around their impressive weaponry. Despite the fact that humans cannot activate these lethal pieces of kit as they are keyed to alien DNA, a Nigerian crimelord based in the centre of District 9 is busy building up an arsenal. He is convinced that if he consumes enough alien body parts, he will eventually be able to activate these guns which will give him an unassailable advantage in the human criminal underworld.

The years wear on and the alien population continues to grow, despite their revolting living conditions. Ill educated and brutalised by their bleak existence, the aliens – or Prawns, as they come to be known – don’t make comfortable neighbours and the humans living alongside them become increasingly vociferous in their complaints. So some twenty years after they first appeared, a scheme is hatched to move the aliens on from District 9, where they have been living, to District 10 – a barren hellhole right out in the bush. The move is to be overseen by a tough military organisation, the MNU, who go in mob-handed with an enthusiastic Afrikaner office jock by the name of Wikus van de Merwe played brilliantly by Sharlto Copley. However, things don’t go according to plan…

The timeline is fractured, with much of the backstory very effectively told as a documentary, first of the alien roundup and then of the unfolding events. The wobbly camera-work, abrupt stops and various narrators giving their thoughts and opinions on what occurred is very cleverly interleaved with the visceral action.

It doesn’t take a genius to quickly realise that this film is more than just an escapist junket about yet another alien visitation. The district9.2proposed clear-out of District 9 is based on the forced evictions and removals of whole populations, both during the South African apartheid years and since, when in an attempt to dislodge some of the shanty towns that had built up during apartheid, the government have resorted to the kinds of tactics shown in this film. The less than subtle nod to recent history – District 9 in reality was the infamous District 6, where 60,000 blacks were forced to move out – gives the action extra emotional punch. This is echoed in the haunting soundtrack, which plays as aliens are shown scrabbling around on rubbish tips…

However, I don’t want you to go away with the impression that this is just some neo-political rant about man’s inhumanity to man. This film also produces plenty action-packed chases, fire fights and destructive explosions to keep the most avid action-junkie satisfied. I loved the ending – which managed to be moving and tie up the main story arc, while conveniently leaving the door open for the sequel. And if this team get together to produce said sequel, I’m definitely going to be right up at the front of the queue to see it at the cinema. An intelligent, thought provoking science fiction thriller that exposes humanity’s greed and brutality in an entertaining action-fest doesn’t come along every day of the week…

Review of The Help by Kathryn Stockett


I heard an interview by Kathryn Stockett with Mariella Frostrup on Radio 4 about this book and decided to get a copy from the library to see what all the fuss was about.

thehelpEnter a vanished world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver… There’s Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son’s tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from college, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared.

Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they’d be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell…

Skeeter, back from college, finds she doesn’t fit in so well with her married friends’ social life when the talk turns to installing a separate bathroom for the maid so the family isn’t in danger of catching ‘colored diseases’. Missing the maid who brought her up, she is drawn to motherly Aibileen and turns to her for help when she lands the job of writing a column in the local paper solving domestic problems, such as removing stubborn stains and unscrewing broken light bulbs. So when she gets the chance to write about the lives of the black women who help out in all the neighbouring white households, once more she asks Aibileen to help in contacting other maids for their stories – good and bad – of working for white folks. And Aibileen asks Minny…

Stockett was brought up in Mississippi and it shows. The description of the food, heat and landscape is pitch perfect. It is an effort to remember that this is only forty-nine years ago – and yet, the rigid standards imposed on everyone in this hide-bound rural society inevitably falls most heavily on those at the bottom of the heap – black women. This book could have degenerated into a Gone With the Wind pastiche of southern society, or shown Aibileen and Minny as downtrodden victims. Fortunately, it does neither. Both the black protagonists are shown to be intelligent, spirited individuals with their own particular coping strategies for getting through their difficult lives. Aibileen’s religion is an active force in her life and contrasts well with her shafts of desert dry humour that runs like a delicious chocolate thread throughout her narrative. Hm… talking of chocolate, you may not be quite so enthusiastic about the thought of chocolate pie by the end of the book – and I’m not saying anything more about the method that Minny uses to express her anger at all the injustices she has to contend with working for a manipulative, unscrupulous woman.

We see all the social strata in Jackson and what it means to be an acceptable member of the ‘in’ crowd – and what happens when you aren’t. Skin colour isn’t the only defining factor and as a Brit, I found it fascinating to see that 1960’s Jackson was every bit as snobbishly exclusive as any 18th century London salon, while poor Celia struggles to befriend anyone at all. Her breeding – or lack of it – along with her catastrophic dress sense doom her to be constantly snubbed.

However, while this subplot is engrossing, it isn’t the engine that drives the plot forward – it’s the threat of the violence by white racists against the growing civil unrest. Skeeter plunges into this project in order to produce a publishable book, and only as the maids start confiding in her does she begin to realise just how much they are risking. The growing tension as the book starts being read by the people who appear in it, with the protagonists’ dread of discovery brings home just what a dangerous time it was for dissenters. It is a powerful foil for the outwardly genteel concerns about appearance, cooking and well run homes.

Stockett manages the three narratives very well and in my opinion, manages to avoid most of the pitfalls that could have mired her. This is an impressive debut novel that manages to tell a gripping entertaining story about a raw, difficult stage in American history – and the fact that many people still recall it must have created an added complication.

Any niggles? Well, Stockett manages to mostly avoid lapsing into sentimentality, however one scene in the church when Aibileen is presented with a gift wrapped book for Skeeter had me wriggling uncomfortably. The enthusiastic applause and words of the reverend were just a little OTT for my taste.

Apart from that one jarring scene, though, I felt this is an excellent book that tells a powerful story with humour and adroitness. I look forward to reading Stockett’s next offering.