Natural History by Justina Robson

natural.jpgI’ve been wanting to read Justina Robson for a while. Through novels like Silver Screen (1999) and Mappa Mundi (2000), Robson has developed a reputation for writing cutting-edge SF while still paying attention to the characters and the idea that the future is based on our present. That’s why when I finally picked up Natural History (2003), I was a little disappointed.

Natural History begins with an incident in space. Voyager Lonestar Isol collides with debris, which she soon realises is really the remains of an alien ship. But there is something else here as well, an artifact left drifting for thousands of years. It is a jump engine and allows Isol to return home… only, it is not Earth it takes her to first, but another planet, a planet Isol has longed to find – a place that could become home for the Forged and the rest of her kind.

The Forged are another form of human, who have been engineered to serve the Unevolveds; the first Forged were given the forms of terraforming starships that brought life to Mars and other planets, and now their forms range from scout ships (like Isol) to animal-like Forged who perform menial tasks on Earth. Isol is one of the most senior Forged, and a heated debate is raging on whether the Forged should be granted independence from the rest of humanity. Isol wants the planet, called Idlewild, to become a homeplanet for the Forged if they secede, but the Unevolved (and several Forged) are uncertain… they don’t trust this engine technology Isol has found, and want to know that Idlewild is safe and devoid of life before making a decision. Isol reluctantly agrees to take an archeologist to Idlewild, to discover its secrets…

Robson is often described as the future of British SF and you can see why with Natural History. She paints a vivid landscape of a future far-removed from our own, tossing around theories about the essence of humanity and transcendence. So its being a bit of a mixed bag is disappointing. The premise for NH is solid, but I found that too much of the story becomes bogged down in politics and unnecessary detail for it to be truly engaging. It’s 200 pages before archaeologist Zephyr reaches Idlewild, the most interesting storyline; the rest is filled with the politics of the Forged and the Unevolved. Many of the character arcs feel largely underdeveloped as well; one character, Corvax, undertakes a journey of transformation in Uluru, an artificial universe only Forged can access, while another, Gritter, engages in petty crime and seems pointless. Robson utilises so many character perspectives that it seems to swamp the story; the most interesting characters are often neglected for long periods of time, particularly Zephyr, who has nothing to do until she reaches Idlewild.

Probably the biggest complaint I have with NH, though, is in not believing it. Robson goes to extreme lengths to convince the reader that her Forged are human, if unlike any kind of human we know… yet I didn’t find that convincing. They’re all supposed to be Forged, but Isol and Tatresi are so far removed from Corvax and Gritter as Forged that they could be different species, not different classes; they just don’t feel real. Also, while Robson tries to draw parallels with our own times to make her work accessible, in many ways that doesn’t work either; the idea that these giant human starships would use the same language, the very same expressions as we do now, seems ridiculous, thousands of years into the future – not to mention Corvax’s journey through Uluru, trying to be Unevolved and “normal”. And the ending is abrupt as well; for a person like Zephyr, who treasures being human so much, to give that away so willingly doesn’t seem like a natural conclusion, given her suspicion of the alien Stuff and Isol.

Still, it’s not a bad novel. Robson’s talent is there and the science is cutting-edge, particularly when dealing with 11-D and creating a decidedly alien race. And in many ways Natural History pays homage to vintage SF; a story of humans struggling to find themselves amidst a strange future and the mysteries of an alien world. It’s just a pity then that the rest of the novel is weighed down by its pace and characters, and ultimately feels hollow.

Podcast of the Week: Best of YouTube

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Podcast of the Week (29/8/07)
Best of YouTube
Rating:
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Best of YouTube is probably a podcast a lot of people know about, but I thought it would be a good one to feature. It’s updated daily and features some of the best and more original clips on YouTube, making it easier to find content without shifting through the rest.

It can be accessed via iTunes or Best of YouTube. It’s a good way for parents to control what their kids see on YouTube, as most of the videos are suitable for children. And if you have an AppleTV, the quality’s reasonable when upscaled on a digital screen.

An open letter to the Turkish Ambassador

This is a copy of the letter I’m sending to the Turkish Ambassador to Australia, regarding Turkey’s ban of WordPress. If you would like to contact the ambassador in your own country, feel free to copy and change the text below.

August 29, 2007
RE: Freedom of Speech

Dear Mr N. Murat Ersavci,

My name is Christopher Levinson. I live in Sydney and I’m writing to you regarding an action a Turkish court has taken that is of great concern to me.

On August 17th, 2007, the Turkish Fatih 2nd Civil Court of First Instance blocked access to the WordPress.com domain. The ban on WordPress, a blogging platform hosting some 1.3 million blogs, was a response to a suit filed by lawyers for Adnan Oktar alleging that defamatory statements had been made about their client by several blogs on WordPress.com.

The ban has resulted in all blogs hosted by WordPress.com being made inaccessible to Turkey. I feel very strongly that this is an overreaction. I am a blogger on WordPress; I have done nothing wrong, but my readership is being impacted.

Even more serious is the fact that there are many innocent Turkish bloggers on WordPress.com who now cannot access their blogs or are being forced to use other means to access them. It is a violation of their free speech and that of readers from all over the world.

Please understand, this is not about whether Adnan Oktar was slandered, or about the Turkish legal system; I respect your country, as I hope you respect mine. But it has gone beyond that. Now it is about innocent Turkish bloggers being forced into silence, and countless others being denied the freedom to be read. The court could have ordered that the offending blogs and any subsequent offenders be blocked, but instead ordered the complete ban of WordPress.com. It’s the equivalent of closing a library because of a single offending book, rather than just removing the book itself.

Many websites and blogs on both WordPress.com and on other platforms are initiating campaigns in support of Turkish bloggers, and I am writing to you to express my concern, and to ask that the Turkish authorities reconsider their position.

Yours sincerely,

Christopher Levinson.

(Included copies of WordPress Blocked in Turkey, Matt Mullenweg: Why We’re Blocked In Turkey, and Petition to Unblock WordPress in Turkey.)

5 fun Facebook apps for your profile

Facebook’s really taken off over the last year. It now has more than 34 million users and Yahoo supposedly offered $1 billion for the site last year. Part of its success is how simple Facebook makes it to stay in touch with friends, but the applications you add to your profile are a large part of it as well. Here are 5 you might like to try.

5) Scrabulous
A game of Scrabble in Facebook. It sounds strange but it’s actually a good idea; Scrabble is a game you play with friends and Facebook is a social site, so it works well, if you have enough friends.

4) Web Presence
Web Presence keeps track of your online identity. If you have a lot of profiles on other sites, or have blogs and write reviews, etc., Web Presence is an easy way to link them to your Facebook profile.

3) Causes
Causes makes supporting causes you care about very simple. You choose the causes and organisations you support and they’re displayed in your profile. It keeps track of the number of members and the money donated. You can make donations, which are processed securely and go directly to helping your chosen causes.

2) Where I’ve Been
A very useful app for anyone who travels, Where I’ve Been creates a map on your profile to show all the places you’ve visited; countries, states, etc. You can also mark places you want to visit.

1) Flixster
Flixster integrates the site of the same name and allows you to rate movies; your profile shows your favourites and you can collect trailers, show which films you want to see, etc. It also compares your ratings with your friends’, so you can see which movies you all like (or hate).

US Open Predictions

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The US Open starts later this morning, Australian time. So I guess it’s time for my annual predictions. I did pretty well last year (named 1 winner and the 2 finalists). Let’s see if I can top that. 😉

For the Men’s, well, I’ll have to say Roger Federer again. He’s clearly the best player in the world and if he doesn’t win it, it’s hard to imagine who else would. Djokovic has a chance, I guess; he’s got the game to win a Grand Slam. Nadal, I’ll probably regret saying this, but I just can’t see him winning; he’s not playing well enough right now and he’s been injurred. Which leaves Lleyton Hewitt as my Dark Horse. If he gets through the first few rounds, he could sneak through to the final. Where he’ll lose to Federer in 4 sets.

The Women’s is more open. Henin would have to be the one to beat, though, and she’s my prediction; she played her first tournament in a month earlier, and I think she won it without dropping a set. Maybe Jankovic has a chance, and Sharapova is always popular in New York, but I can’t see her winning again this year. My Dark Horse would be Ivanovic. She’s playing okay and I think she’s ready to take the next step. But Henin is really going to take some beating.

The thing which amazes me about Federer, though, is he just seems to go to another gear in the Slams. In last year’s final against Roddick he hit 69 winners in 4 sets. That’s just ridiculous; if he does that again, no-one has a chance. If he does win, he’ll have made the finals of all 4 Slams in a year for two consecutive years, and won 3 out of the 4 slams in a year three times in his career. And in his three best campaigns for the French crown, he would have lost to one man all three times – Nadal. I wonder if he never wins the French, will history remember that? How close he came, the closest since Laver? I doubt it. But Nadal surprised me at Wimbledon, so I have to give him credit too – he’s made more progress on grass than Federer has on clay. We’ll just have to see what happens.

Support Turkish Bloggers

Today is Support Turkish Bloggers Day. It’s an initiative being organised by members of the WordPress forums and others who feel strongly about censorship and freedom of speech. If you believe in the rights of bloggers everywhere, please join us!

I’ve written about the reasons behind this before, but I’ll give you a quick recap in case you missed it. Turkey has banned access to the WordPress.com domain, resulting in all WordPress.com blogs being inaccessible to Turkey. It means that Turkish bloggers are being forced into silence and countless others are being denied the freedom to read.

We want to send a message that this action is unacceptable. In support of Turkish bloggers and freedom of speech, we’re asking bloggers and site administrators everywhere to change their avatars and install a support banner on their blogs.

I’m using the Don’t Block the Blog avatar and will also be writing to the Turkish Ambassador to Australia. If you think you can help in any way, it would be greatly appreciated. The important thing is that bloggers everywhere show their solidarity, so please join us!

“Freedom is not merely the opportunity to do as one pleases; neither is it merely the opportunity to choose between set alternatives. Freedom is, first of all, the chance to formulate the available choices, to argue over them – and then, the opportunity to choose.” C. Wright Mills.

Site of the Week: DropJack

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Site of the Week (25/8/07)
DropJack

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DropJack is a new social content site in the style of Digg; users submit and comment on a story, the number of votes it receives determining its rank on the site. DropJack is also meant to serve as an archive of articles, with the aim of eventually acting as a search engine for content from around the ‘net.

There are some nice features which make it a bit different to sites like Digg or Sphinn. DropJack is targeted at a more general cross-section of users, meaning its categories are more news-oriented and varied; you can submit stories to DropJack that you might find hard to categorise on other sites. DropJack also allows you to bookmark stories straight to other sites as well (Digg, del.icio.us, etc.), which comes in very handy.

My main criticism is that it’s not as easy to navigate as other sites; the menu is a little clunky and whenever I see a big header like DropJack’s, I think it should be clickable. But the bookmarking is very simple, and it’s still in its early stages. Definitely one to keep an eye on.

Privacy and freedom of speech online

Public & Private in the Blogosphere
I found this survey over in the WordPress forums. If anyone has a chance, you might like to check it out. It’s an interesting survey, not too long, and for any bloggers out there it’s very thought-provoking.

It’s based around the idea of “public vs. private” in the blogosphere; how we think technology has changed our perception of public identity, and what we actually mean when we talk about concepts like privacy in today’s world. I found it interesting because it’s something which is coming up a lot now as blogs and the new media become more accepted; they often talk about issues from a personal perspective, so it’s a timely examination of the blurring line between public and private discourse.

For me, I’ve always been very public with my online identity, but I try to maintain distance as well. A part of being a writer in an age where everyone has something to say is trying to raise your profile so your voice can be heard, and it’s impossible to do that and maintain real privacy online. That’s the pay-off – to have your work read and published, you sacrifice some anonymity. Some of that hasn’t been my own choice; the first few stories I had published included my email address with them, so anyone who Googles me can find my information fairly easily. But for the most part I’ve accepted it and have tried to find a balance. For instance, for this blog I write about topics, but rarely get too personal with them; I use a public picture but not a revealing one, and I have a ClaimID page to keep track of my work online. So far it seems to be working; everything I say is open, but because I keep a slight distance, it allows me to keep some privacy.

But a lot of blogs aren’t like that. They’re more personal with their content, even when not necessarily talking about themselves, and are open for anyone to read. The whole idea of a blog is to provide an online commentary or journal, something personal, but presented in a public fashion; it’s a format which has never really existed before. I find that interesting – it shows that what we used to think of as private has changed, the lines between public and private discourse blurred. For instance, if you write about something private, like your grandmother’s funeral, and post it on a public blog, does that make it a public or a private post? In reality it’s probably both; our perspective has changed and it’s really somewhere between the two – we just don’t have a classification for it.

For how open the blogosphere can be, though, privacy is still an important part of it. It presents a barrier between the online world and the real one, and it’s why there are still private blogs and journals which people keep to themselves. Privacy isn’t just a right we have, it’s a protection. There’s a danger in writing something personal online; people are attracted to personal details and it can attract the wrong kind of person. That’s why being careful with the details you give out is important, particularly for women; using a nondescript avatar and choosing a good username become very important, things which can be identified as belonging to you, but which keep you at a safe distance. I think that’s part of the reason why Facebook has become so popular as well; it’s filled the need for social networking but retained privacy – your profile is as protected as you want it to be. It’s a good balance.

Probably the best example of the blurring between public and private domains in recent times is Post Secret. Post Secret is basically an art project where people mail their secrets anonymously to Frank Warren as postcards, who posts them on the blog. I only discovered Post Secret recently (though I knew of it), but if you’ve ever seen Post Secret or the published books, you’ll know it’s an incredibly powerful, intimate blog; I’ll never forget a woman who wrote “I wish I had been a better sister than you were a brother. Yours was not the only life you took”. There’s a voyeuristic aspect to its success, but the reason Post Secret is so powerful is because it’s based on a simple idea: confession. It makes the content intensely personal but public, letting people maintain privacy through anonymity. It’s a unique model and it’ll be interesting to see what forms come from it in the future.

There was another thing I was thinking about during the survey, and Post Secret reminded me of it again as well; what constitutes free speech online and how that’s changing. Blogs are so personal, it’s easy to see how people might take offence. If someone recognises themselves in Post Secret, is that an infringement of their rights? It would depend on how they’re depicted – if they’re just passing by, no, but it might be if they’re featured against their will. Would a book review slamming an author’s ideological viewpoint count as slander? Again, not to most people, unless it’s used to attack the author himself… but what about if someone wrote a blog specifically about another person, is that free speech? Basically that’s what’s happened to WordPress. If you haven’t heard, WordPress.com has been banned in Turkey under the order of a Turkish court. Lawyers for Adnan Oktar, a Turkish proponent of creationism, convinced the court that he had been slandered by the blog, adnanoktar.wordpress.com, and as a result, all WordPress.com blogs are now inaccessible to Turkey.

To me this seems like a terrible attack on freedom of speech; it’s censorship and everyone belonging to WordPress is being held ransom by a Turkish court and government. It’s what you’d expect from China or Pakistan, not Turkey, a supposedly secular nation. There’s a huge debate going on right now as to how WordPress should respond. The simplest response is to remove the offending blog(s), but I think that would set a terrible precedent. If the blog violates terms of service, copyright law or impersonates another person, it should be removed; but the blog doesn’t seem to be doing that. The blog is about Adan Oktar and it might be an individual case of slander, but that’s not the issue now. With slander, you sue the offending party – you don’t ban access to millions of blogs to stop just a few from being seen. It’s enforcing the silence of innocent Turkish bloggers and denying others the freedom to read. It’s simply not acceptable.

In support of Turkish bloggers and freedom of expression, many bloggers are launching their own response. There’s a petition at Mideast Youth for the Turkish government and court to reinstate access to WordPress in Turkey, and many bloggers are switching to “Don’t Block the Blog” avatars in protest. There are also protest banners springing up all over the ‘net; I’ve incorporated one into my sidebar and below. If you feel strongly about protecting freedom of speech, I’d encourage you to do the same. Any Turkish bloggers should think about using something like Tor or a proxy server to access their blogs as well – this is the time we need to hear your voices more than ever.

So that’s why I enjoyed the survey. It’s timely and takes a different look at our perception of identity, makes you think about what online privacy means to you. And at a time like this, that’s a very good thing.

Too Much (But Never Enough)

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Too Much (But Never Enough)
CJ Levinson

I walked across a sunburnt land
Tried to define myself amongst the sand
But all I found was a memory
Of something I’d tried to leave behind
You smiled at me from across the room
And I don’t know why I waste my time
Dreaming of something that can never be
Something that can never be

And I don’t know why I feel so shy
Because when I open my eyes, you’re standing right there
And I don’t know why I feel so high
Because when I open my eyes, the magic’s not there
It’s too much but never enough (too much but never enough)

I looked across the desolate land
Imagined the world in the palm of my hand
A voice on the wind called your name
But I was frozen at the wrong time to hear
We were like strangers falling in love
And I don’t know why I keep coming back for more
When you don’t even know who I am
No, you don’t know who I am

And I don’t know why I feel so shy
Because when I open my eyes, you’re standing right there
And I don’t know why I feel so high
Because when I open my eyes, the magic’s not there
It’s too much but never enough (too much but never enough)

Now we’re back where we belong
You with your promises, me on my knees
Begging forgiveness for something I don’t understand
It’s why I learnt to crawl before I walked

[Instrumental]

And I don’t know why I feel so shy
Because when I open my eyes, you’re standing right there
And I don’t know why I feel so high
Because when I open my eyes, the magic’s not there
It’s too much but never enough (too much but never enough)

Yes, it’s too much but never enough
Too much but never enough
Too much but never enough

Licenced under a Creative Commons Licence