Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Australia, let’s rethink the asylum seeker issue.

For an asylum seeker to be considered for refugee status, they have to be outside their country of origin. In most cases, these people will have left their country and entered a neighbouring country ‘illegally’. Australia is lucky in that it does not share a border with a major source-country of refugees. (It would be interesting to see Australia’s reaction if there was, in years to come, an influx of refugees from Papua New Guinea or Indonesia. Would they still be ‘stopping the boats’?) So almost all refugees come to Australia via a third, or transit, nation.

Prior to 2012, Australia’s annual refugee intake stood at 13,750. In 2013, the previous government increased that to 20,023. We need to put this in context. Australia’s total annual immigration numbers are capped at 190,000. Thus, even at the upper figure of 20,023, the number of refugees represented only around 10.5% of our total annual immigration numbers. When the current Abbott government came to power they immediately lowered the annual refugee intake back to 13,750, around 7.24% of total immigration. Many of the 96% or so of ‘legitimate’ migrants are probably wanting to come to Australia for a ‘better life’, be that for work purposes, to be re-united with family, and so on. They are certainly not fleeing danger. Thus, the vast majority of immigrants to Australia are, in fact, ‘economic migrants’.

In Indonesia, in January of this year, there were 7241 asylum seekers and 3,026 people who had already been granted refugee status. It’s worth noting that the number of asylum seekers is not much greater than the number by which our refugee intake was reduced when Abbott came to power (6,273). How many of these refugees and asylum seekers has Australia taken? According to a report in The Guardian (April 18, 2014), between September 2013 and January 2014, 360 people were accepted for resettlement, ‘mostly’ by Australia. This represents something less than 3.5% of these people in four months. Is this good enough? Is it at all surprising that the people waiting in Indonesia become frustrated and impatient, and try to make their way here by ‘illegal’ means?

Although it is usually claimed by those who support the strict border control policies of the Abbott government that this is intended to prevent the loss of life at sea, we are right to be somewhat sceptical about this. Are there not other ways of achieving this? Has either side of politics seriously considered any creative alternatives? I would argue that Australia could easily absorb all 3,026 recognised refugees from Indonesia, as well as all those asylum seekers who are later granted refugee status, in addition to its current intake of 13,750 (or even 20,023). The total number of migrants to Australia could easily be lifted to 200,000; alternatively, the intake of those economic (non-refugee) migrants could be reduced. Furthermore, I have no doubt that, in cooperation with the Indonesian Government, Australia could greatly increase the rate at which the asylum seekers’ claims are processed in Indonesia.

By taking these refugees from Indonesia, and by expediting the process of assessment, the asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia would be given realistic hope, and perhaps, just perhaps, that too would stop the boats.

So why does neither major political party in Australia want to try this? Would the Australian people at least be willing to consider such a solution? If not, why not?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: In Strange Worlds by Brenda Cheers


As a general rule, I don’t like to give away too much about the plot of a book when reviewing. However, in this case it is very difficult to say what I think needs to be said without doing so. So, you have been warned. There is already a sizeable hint in the blurb about this book on the Amazon site, and even in the title, so perhaps I am not giving too much away. The Amazon blurb says: ‘Just as Meg is about to discover the truth about this new world, she finds the rules have changed yet again, and she is back where it all began.’

Meg Atkins wakes up in hospital, after having apparently undergone a caesarean, to find everyone else in the world—including her newborn child, the rest of her family and her friends—dead from some kind of disease—or so it appears. We follow her journey as she tries to cope with this fact. She proves to be amazingly resourceful and resilient. She travels north from Melbourne, to south-east Queensland, where she seeks to make a life for herself. Eventually it becomes apparent that she is not entirely alone in the world, and is joined in her life by Luke and Connie. She also encounters Derek, a paediatrician, and some less savoury characters. Things take a strange turn when they are visited on their small farm by some strange ‘men’ who seem not quite human, and who begin to undertake some medical procedures and to monitor the health of these survivors. Throughout all this, Meg has the sense that their lives are being manipulated by someone behind the scenes, and who communicates with them via their dreams.

The narrative is written in the third person, exclusively and very intimately from the point of view of Meg. The quality of the writing is quite good here: clear, concise, straightforward. It does not rise to great literary heights, but suits the very intimate third person narrative style, which differs little from a first person narrative. Although it is third person, it really reflects Meg’s voice. This is further accentuated by the use of entries from Meg’s journal. The interweaving of straightforward narrative with journal entries, and of present events with appropriately placed elements of Meg’s back story, works well to create a clear picture of Meg. She is an interesting character. Flashbacks to her earlier life show her as somewhat weak, lacking in self-confidence and dependent. But in this new life she reveals herself to be strong, decisive and able to take drastic action when necessary without hesitation. I thought the author glossed over rather lightly the impact on Meg of waking up to find everyone dead, including her children. She is separated from her husband, with whom the children live. Her reaction upon seeing her dead daughter is not quite convincing; and she doesn’t even look in on her dead son. Yes, she gets drunk, but then seems to virtually shrug her shoulders and move on. I felt the author was in too much of a hurry to get on with the ‘serious’ part of the story.

The other characters, particularly Connie and Luke, have their moments of reality, but serve more as background against which to see Meg, rather than as real people in their own right. I ended up with the sense that people and relationships were not particularly important to Meg, and I wonder if this was the impression the author wanted to leave. I had the same feeling when she ‘woke up’ again, back in a world similar to her own real world, in which she has just given birth to a son, to which she shows an amazing indifference. Yes, I can understand that she feels no connection with this child of whom she has no recollection of having carried for nine months; but her plans to simply leave the child—and her husband to whom, in this new version of the world, she is still apparently happily married—behind make her seem very callous. Nor does she seem particularly concerned by the fact that she is unlikely to see Connie and Luke, and their four children, ever again. There is a passing reference to finding Derek, but not so much from any sense of personal connection with him as to verify the reality of the world in which she had lived for the past two or three years. I think the author needs to be careful not to sacrifice these more personal elements in favour of the probably more exciting—and easier to write—mystery/adventure elements of the story.

The plot of shifting into alternative versions of reality—parallel universes—is not at all new. There are shades of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes here, as well as episodes of TV shows such as Sliders and the Stargate franchise. In terms of this specific plot, I wondered why the author had chosen this particular parallel reality—in which everyone else suddenly mysteriously died—for the first part of this story. I found myself wondering whether this idea came first, and the author only subsequently thought of the parallel worlds idea. There were several elements that left me dissatisfied. First, I thought it extremely unlikely, based on the evidence she had, that the protagonist, Meg, would come up with this as a possible explanation for what had happened to her. Perhaps later, after two or three subsequent shifts, this idea might occur to her, but not now. Secondly, this provides no explanation at all for why the events in this world have occurred, or, indeed, what is actually going on. As an explanation for ‘why did everyone die’ or ‘who are these strange not-quite-human men’, ‘I must have slipped into a parallel universe’ is no explanation at all. This left me very frustrated. Will we ever know what was going on in that world? This is part of the problem with a series, which this will, in all likelihood, become. I know at least one sequel is on the way, if it is not already available. If the explanations for this first world later become apparent, then this is really not a series of standalone books, but one book in several volumes. This would require that I make judgements about the plot only when the entire story is told. At the moment, though, this is all I have to go on, and it left me dissatisfied. I was also disappointed that the fate of Luke and Connie was unresolved. Will we learn more about them later? I don’t know.

There is another point in the plot that concerns me. It has to do with the ‘rules’ that are operating in the world the author is creating. When Meg makes her first ‘shift’, her life in the new world is entirely continuous with her past life. Her memories are intact. There is nothing, in fact, to indicate that this is not the same world, in which something terrible has occurred. However, when she makes the second shift, back to ‘this’ world, she has no memory of her ‘current’ life in this world. Her consciousness, if you like, is that which she had before the first shift and in that previous world. After this second shift, she doesn’t know where her husband works, she doesn’t remember carrying the child. The past has changed. This, then, is a very different ‘shift’ from the first one. To be consistent, she should have woken up again in the hospital having just had a caesarean, this time into another different world: the past would be the same, but the present and future different. The author needs to have clear in her mind what rules are operating here. Already we have seen two different kinds of shifts, one where her past remains unchanged and one where it doesn’t. I was left with a sense that the author may not have thought this through, which also added to my impression that the whole world-shifting idea was only developed after the everyone-dead idea.

It should be clear why I needed to discuss the plot in some detail, because it is here that the problems lie for me. I had a few other issues with less important plot points. For instance, as someone with solar panels on the roof, I know that when the mains power fails, the solar panels won’t operate. Not so in the author’s world. I have this and a few other minor quibbles. But the more important points I have discussed speak to the coherence and consistency of the story. Not knowing whether these points will be addressed in the future makes it difficult to give a star rating. However, I am inclined to give it 3.5 stars. I think it’s slightly on the upper side of this point at the moment, so I will round it up to four stars where required.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Our Fragile Democracy

I am really concerned about our government here in Australia at the moment. I know the rest of the world doesn’t give a fig about our government; and perhaps most Australians don’t, either. Nevertheless, my concerns are now way beyond the usual party-political differences that plague this country. It would be easy to dismiss my concerns as those of a radical lefty, but I really hope that those who situate themselves on the right of the political spectrum will take the time to stop and listen and think. This is not just about which political sports team we happen to support.

These comments are again inspired by the government’s response to asylum seekers, but the issue is much broader than this. At the moment there appear to be two boatloads of asylum seekers somewhere in the Indian Ocean, seeking to make their way to Australia. I say ‘appear to be’ because the government is refusing to say anything, refusing even to confirm the existence of these boats. The Australian people are being told nothing about this situation; we know nothing about the government’s response to the situation, or about the current state or ultimate fate of these asylum seekers. The silence is being maintained on various pretexts, none of which should be convincing to the members of a democratic society.

Silence is one of the main tactics of this government. I think the government believes that if it says nothing about this and a range of other issues, they will eventually simply go away. And what frightens me is that they may be right. People have short memories. In a day, a few days, a week, the issue will have been forgotten as another issue seizes our and the media’s attention. Furthermore, whatever they are actually doing will be a fait accompli before we know about it (if we ever actually do). A totalitarian government often tries to silence its opponents. The Abbott government is being much cleverer than that: it is silencing itself. Any objections that are voiced are simply descending into this well of silence. Opponents end up shadowboxing. The government offers us only vague, empty, paternalistic assurances that they are doing the ‘right’ thing. We are expected to take their word for this. I don’t. The silence makes me very suspicious. They are hiding their actions from public scrutiny. Unfortunately, any outrage that is currently being expressed will eventually die down. Those of us who continue to shout will be made to appear silly; we will likely be reviled and ridiculed.

The second issue with this government is the ‘age of entitlement’. The government is keen to warn us that this age of entitlement (which they have invented) must end. Australian citizens must no longer regard themselves as ‘entitled’ to pensions, unemployment benefits, health care, affordable education and so on. What is actually happening, though, is that we are entering into a new and unprecedented era of entitlement. For the government believes that it is ‘entitled’. They use the word ‘mandate’, but it amounts to the same thing. This government believes that it is entitled to do whatever it wants to do because it won the election. I for one am glad that we have a complicated senate following the election, because it is the only thing that will set limits on this sense of entitlement. The senate is, in fact, the true seat of democracy. Those who voted for the current government may (at the time) have represented a majority. But democracy is about much, much more than majorities. A truly democratic government gives a voice to minorities and respects that voice.

We need to be very vigilant concerning the democracy of this nation. It is a fragile thing. We are not a democracy because we get to choose a new dictator every three years. Being elected does not give blanket entitlement to the government of the day. The government is accountable to the people who elected it today, tomorrow and every day, not just once every three years.

A secretive, silent government, that swaggers above the people with a sense of entitlement, is already straying far from the path of true democracy. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

'Any resemblance to real persons...'

I’m sure almost every writer bases characters in their novels on aspects of their own personality and history, as well as on the personality and history of people they have met over the years. The disclaimer often found at the beginning of books makes me smile. ‘The characters and events in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.’ Yeah, sure, right... So let’s see: Mrs Smith, the heroine’s neighbour, is a slightly porky, irritating woman who collects spoons. And it’s sheer coincidence that the author’s neighbour, when the author was growing up, was a slightly porky, irritating woman who collected porcelain elephants. Or was a stick thin, irritating woman who collected paper weights. However many details the author might change, we know that at some stage in her life she lived next door to an irritating woman who collected something. The fact that the character is irritating and has a propensity to collect things is no accidental coincidence.

I admit, from time to time, to fearing that some of my readers might think they recognise themselves in a character I have created. And the depiction of those characters is not always flattering, whether the less flattering aspects concern character traits or physical features. There’s not much I or any other writer can do about that. People are often odd. It is often their oddities that make them interesting. And it is often going to be those same oddities that make our literary creations interesting.

What I can say to those who think they identify themselves in one of my books is this. Each of my characters is constructed from bits and pieces of several real people. And the bits of these real life people are usually scattered among a range of characters. And, finally, there is a little bit of me in all the characters. I’m sorry if there is a fat person in my book, and someone thinks I am referring to them. I have met many overweight people in my life. The world is liberally peppered with largish folk. They are not going to be entirely absent from my literary world. Apologies if you think that irritating character bears a striking resemblance to you. First of all, though, it’s interesting that you yourself think you might be irritating. Top marks for insight. But you may be disappointed, because I have met many irritating people over the years. Everyone is irritating at some time and in some respect. I’ve been known to be irritating myself on occasion. If there is a one-legged, trampolining juggler in one of my books, and you think it’s you... Again, first of all, congratulations on your achievements. But rest assured that I have never met a one-legged, trampolining juggler. I think I would recall that. Nor have I seen one on Australia’s Got Talent. So it’s probably not you.

There may be the odd (in several senses) Anglican priest, or evolutionary biologist, in my books, but it’s probably not you. Or not only you. And certainly not entirely you. And he (or she) will most definitely have bits of me tossed in the mix.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Changing World Map

I was talking to someone the other day who made a passing remark which struck me as interesting. ‘America [meaning the USA] is obviously past its peak,’ he said. This was not in the context of an argument or debate. As I recall, we were discussing ‘the state of the world’. I remember having made a remark about the trend in the world today for countries to fragment. I was thinking of China, and the assumption we usually make that it will continue to strengthen its position in the world. Perhaps it will. But it, like so many countries, has its ethnic minorities, seeking to become independent. There are separatist movements everywhere. Larger countries are fragmenting. Russia, India, Indonesia, African nations, even the UK... all have their separatist movements. Rarely, if ever, do we see small countries coming together to form larger units, as happened, for example, with the USA and the USSR. The European Union may appear to be an exception to this trend, but how stable is that union? There are more and more anti-union representatives being elected to the European Parliament. So, the overwhelming trend is towards smaller, self-governing units. Whether these units can be economically self-sustaining remains to be seen. Perhaps we are witnessing the emergence of a clear distinction between political and economic entities.

So what about the USA? My friend made his remark casually, in passing, as though it were a self-evident truth. Has the USA passed its peak with respect to its economic and political power? Has its influence on the world stage maxed out? It’s not a ridiculous idea, although I’m sure it would be vigorously contested by the citizens of that nation. However, I don’t think the citizens of the USA are in the best position to judge this. They will, understandably, struggle to be objective. There are many in (Great) Britain who have yet to come to terms with (or even acknowledge) the fact that the British Empire is no more. Self-perceptions are slow to change, entangled as they so often are with jingoistic clichés.

Is the USA itself immune to the forces (whatever they are) which are leading to the fragmentation of nations? It’s perhaps not difficult to imagine meaningful secessionist movements growing in the US, if, for example, there were any attempt to introduce strong gun control laws across the nation, or if a federal government pursued unpopular environmental measures. There are already secessionist movements in Texas and no doubt other states. At the moment, I doubt that these are taken very seriously, but this could change with the right triggers.

Is Australia immune to this trend? Perhaps, largely, it is, since there was never really a coming together of very different political entities in the first place. Having said that, states are always asserting their rights, and the shape of our federalism is about to come under review. There have been (half-joking) suggestions that Queensland could secede—a move that the rest of the nation might (half-jokingly) applaud.

My main point is that I would not be brave enough to predict the economic, political and social shape of the world in 100 or 200 years time. Someone from even as short a time ago as 1990 could not have predicted the changes we have seen on the world map during the past twenty-four years. Those changes have far from run their course. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Review: Sailors Take Warning by Malcolm Torres

The USS Nimitz is involved in trialling a new, top secret cloaking device. While spending long months at sea, a host things begin to go awry: sabotage and other criminal activities; disappearing bodies; devil worship; psychotic killers; a tropical disease threatening to become an epidemic.  At first, this novel reads like a mystery/thriller, but gradually shifts into something with a more supernatural/horror feel.

The writing is of a reasonably high quality, and the story is peppered with a wide range of interesting characters. The story itself is at times a little chaotic, and not entirely coherent. Quite what is going on and why never becomes entirely clear. I had the feeling that the author had lots of great ideas, but hadn’t quite been able to string them together into a single, cohesive plot. It may have helped if some of the side plots had been jettisoned in the editing process. I think particularly of a BDSM relationship that develops between an officer and his young, enlisted assistant. This serves no purpose in the overall plot and is left unsatisfactorily resolved. The reader is led to believe that the strange rash affecting several members of the crew has something to do with whatever is going on, but in the end appears not to.

One of the main problems I have with this story is that there are no main characters, just a host of characters who do their bit here and there. To that extent the blurb on the Amazon page for this book is misleading. The story opens with a young naval officer, Kate. The opening is well-paced, and I settled down to enjoy her story. The blurb (and this opening chapter) leads the reader to believe that Kate will be our protagonist. She isn’t. ‘Kate takes drastic action on her own,’ asserts the blurb. She doesn’t. Kate disappears after the first chapter, popping up briefly here and there, but does nothing of any importance. She only becomes important again towards the end of the novel, but still not really taking ‘drastic action’. Terrence McDaniels, Kate’s love interest, is another potential protagonist, but he too comes and goes, and doesn’t really play a key role in events. In fact, my overall sense was that nobody does. In the end, perhaps the most ‘central’ character is Danny Jenks, a devil worshipping, psychotic killer. But he too could vanish from the story for long periods. The problem here is that the reader never really has a chance to identify with any of the characters. Any with whom the reader does begin to forge a bond (Nikki, for instance, the young girl involved in the BDSM relationship) are likely to disappear suddenly with no reference to their subsequent fate. While a character such as Captain Brandt (the other participant in the BDSM relationship) is quite well-drawn, we have no sense of his history, of why he is the way he is. Who he is at this present time is presented to us in a vacuum.

Despite these criticisms, there is enough here to make for interesting reading. I did want to know where the story was going, and what was going to happen to some of the characters. The fact that, in the end, I’m still not sure where the story went and why, and that some of the characters were forgotten along the way, left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied. I think it would have worked better if the author had adhered more closely to a central plotline. Side plots needed to feed into this central plot in some way. Giving more ‘screen time’ to only three or four main characters would also have given the reader a greater investment in the outcome of events.

The quality of the writing lifts this novel a little, as do the fertile ideas with which it is peppered. I give it 3.5 stars, rounding that to 4 stars where necessary.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Outrunning the Beast

Does anyone else, like me, feel that somewhere in our short human history we have taken a wrong turn? Some might argue that the rise of agriculture marks that point. It was at this point in time that the land was transformed in such a way that it could produce surplus food, which resulted in a population explosion. It also became impossible to return to the earlier hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

At every stage in human history we have witnessed breakthroughs and technological advances that have made it impossible to wind back the clock. Clearly such advances have brought with them enormous benefits to the human race. Few of us would want to return to an earlier way of being, except, perhaps, during occasional attacks of nostalgia. Nevertheless, many of these advances have also brought with them unintended and undesirable consequences. Would we, with hindsight, now go back and choose a different path? I doubt it.

Our innovations quickly have a way of transforming themselves from interesting novelties, the play things of the wealthy, to everyday necessities. A few years ago, no one had a mobile phone. Somehow, society functioned without them. Today, I doubt it would. We quickly become dependent on these new innovations, to the extent that to take a step back, to press the undo button, becomes impossible. The genie out of the bottle; closing the stable door... We even have firmly established clichés to describe this situation.

As much as we sometimes dream idly of a past golden age, and long for a return to ‘simpler days’, going backwards seems impossible. We are obliged to surge ever forwards, hoping—sometimes with little basis in reality—that we will finally come through the other end into a ‘Star Trek’ universe. Do you, like me, sometimes feel that we are riding the rapids towards a waterfall? Does some of the anxiety with which our society is afflicted stem from the fact that we sense that somewhere, somewhen, somehow, we have lost control? No one seems to be steering or rowing this boat. Certainly not our political leaders.

I am not of the opinion that we can continue to outrun the beast that is about to devour us (to change the metaphor). So far we’ve been lucky (some of us, anyway). But at some point our luck will run out; our ingenuity will fail us. When? I have no idea. What will happen when the moment arrives? I have no crystal ball. In any case, crystal balls have never worked in the past, whether used by seers, priests or economists. I suspect, though, at some point we are going to have to find a different way of being in this world. Or it will be forced upon us. Or else, in the science fiction fantasy future, we will escape the confines of this planet. And take our problems with us out into the galaxy.