Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: According to Adam, compiled and edited by Beryl Belsky

I haven't written any reviews for a while. Partly this is because of time constraints. Partly it is because none of the books I've considered for review recently have come up to standard. I have decided to be a little more strict about what I will and won't review. While previously I set the minimum standard at 3 stars, I am raising this to 4. Essentially, then, in future these reviews can also be considered as recommendations. They are of books that I consider as ranging from very good to brilliant. 

This is the final review that I am publishing under the old regime, which will begin in the New Year.

Some months ago I reviewed the first volume of writing initially posted on The Writer’s Drawer website (http://www.thewritersdrawer.net/) and brought together by Beryl Belsky. I gave that anthology an overall rating of 3.5 stars. There were some outstanding pieces in that earlier volume, but also some that were less satisfactory. Here in this second volume the overall standard is more even. Although I will be giving this collection 3.5 stars also, I will be rounding it down to 3 stars rather than rounding it up to 4 (as I did with the first volume) where this is necessary. 

In the earlier volume, despite some less successful pieces, the outstanding pieces really lifted it. Here, although it reaches on ‘average’ a similar standard, there are fewer outstanding pieces to lift it higher. Although in general I prefer fiction to non-fiction, the best piece here for me is a non-fiction piece, ‘Sign Language for the Blind’ by Matt Burkholder. This is an excellent piece, beautifully written, without a word wasted or a word missing. This is the only piece to which I would give 5 stars. ‘A Boy, a Girl, and the Sea’ by Richelle Shem-Tov is a moving story, dealing with Arab/Israeli issues. It is simply and elegantly written and is worth 4.5 stars. ‘Snow’ by Dominik Jarco is nicely written, but skirts the edges of being overwritten. It’s actually great that the reader never knows what is really happening in this story. It captures a moment of intimate communication between two people. This also is worth 4.5 stars. The other story to which I would give 4.5 stars was ‘Joaquin’s Gold’ by Robert Walton. It is a nice story, well constructed and well written.

I would not single out any of the remaining stories as ‘bad’. I would rate them from 3 to 4 stars, with many falling in the middle at 3.5. Some—including the title story, ‘According to Adam’ by Declan O’Leary, ‘A Tale from Ikkapur’ by Sowmeni Menon, ‘Cecilia and Sun Tzu’ by Chris Palmer, ‘The Painting’ by Pothoppuram Kesavan Jayanthan, ‘Pigbeef’ by Niles Koenigsberg, and ‘Rain’ by Peter Hepenstall—would have benefited from tighter and more careful editing.

While the section entitled Biography/Realism seems to stand apart as ‘non fiction’, I found the division between Fantasy/Romance and Mystery/Horror/Adventure unnecessary and unhelpful. Perhaps this reflects a general dissatisfaction I have with the whole concept of ‘genre’. I would have been just as happy to see the whole fiction collection presented in alphabetical order by author, without this somewhat arbitrary division into broad genres.

So while ‘on average’ the standard here was similar to that of the first volume, I enjoyed it slightly less. This demonstrates for me how a collection can be lifted by some really outstanding pieces, even when it contains some poorer pieces. Here, while there were no real clunkers, the only really outstanding piece was ‘Sign Language for the Blind’. This alone was not enough to lift the collection to 4 stars. I will be rounding it down to 3 stars where required.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

'Having a go'

During his recent reshuffle of his cabinet ministers, the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, appointed Scott Morrison as Minister for Social Services. Scott Morrison was formerly in charge of immigration or, rather, what it became: border protection. He was responsible for implementing the government’s hardline, heartless and—some would say—illegal border protection policies. Now he is in charge of social services. Australians should strap themselves in for a bumpy ride.

During his speech while explaining his reshuffle, Abbott explained Morrison’s job to us. His job was to ensure that ‘everyone was having a go’. Not—in a much more Australian phrase—to ensure that everyone in Australian ‘had a fair go’. The implication, of course, is that those who receive some kind of benefit from the government—unless you’re a mining company—are not really having a go. It goes without saying that there are people who are not ‘having a go’ in our society. Some of them are unemployed or disabled, some of them are working, and some of them are in the Federal Cabinet. But Abbott’s word reveals once again his underlying ideology and belief system. We all must be ‘lifters, not leaners’, ‘workers, not shirkers.’ We must all ‘have a go’.

There will always be those who take advantage of any and every system. They are among the poorest and the wealthiest in our nation. But social security should be first and foremost about security (a much more important form of security than border security). It is about ensuring that our citizens are secure when tough times hit. And they do. It is about support. It is about providing a service. People, from time to time, need to lean, and should be allowed to do so. Social security is not a privilege. It is a right. It is—to use a word Abbott hates—an entitlement.

This does not mean that I am some kind of naive, bleeding heart liberal, although I don’t really see those epithets as an insult. Of course we should prevent people (and governments and corporations) from rorting the system. But the primary function of social services is not to ensure that everyone is ‘having a go’. It is to ensure that everyone ‘has a fair go’. It is to ensure that people are given a hand up when they are down. It is to encourage (not bludgeon) people to participate in society. And its purpose is to continue to support people even when they are unable to contribute (at least in the narrow, economic sense of that term). If, sometimes, that means society has to carry along a few bludgers, so be it. The choice is: support those in need and put up with a few bludgers; or get rid of all the bludgers and punish people who are genuinely in need along the way. It seems fairly clear what Abbott’s preference is.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

This Weird Universe

I have been reading a biography of Einstein, and it is reminding me of the fascinating discoveries in physics during the first three decades of the last century in relativity and quantum physics. I cannot claim to understand the mathematics of these theories, nor to succeed entirely in visualising them. Nevertheless, every so often I glimpse, from the corner of my eye, something which, I suspect, is the reality of the universe described by these theories.

Einstein, of course, was deeply troubled by the development and implications of quantum theory until the end of his life. Quantum theory seemed to undermine the strict rules of cause and effect which he believed were necessary for any understanding of reality. He believed that quantum theory actually undermined physics, and undertook a long and fruitless quest to find an underlying theoretical framework that would reintroduce, at a deeper level, strict causality into the universe. I would not propose that his failure to do so means that such a theoretical framework does not exist and will not one day be discovered.

For the time being, however, I find the idea that strict causality does not govern the universe at its deepest (known) level, and that chance plays a fundamental role in the nature of reality, absolutely fascinating, if not awe inspiring.

There may be those who believe that this lack of strict causality let’s divine causality in through the back door. On the contrary, though, what this says to me is that there is a spontaneous causality embedded in the natural world, one in which creation ex nihilo is a characteristic of nature and does not depend on the intervention of a deity. In my opinion, this makes reality much more interesting and exciting than one into which a deity must intervene.

Friday, December 5, 2014

'Getting through...'

Some of you will have noticed that there has been something of a hiatus in my blog posts over the last month or so. Well, it’s been one of those times when life decided to happen all over me. I went through a change in relationship ‘status’; as a result of which I had to find an apartment to rent; as a result of which I had an almost month long battle with Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company, to get the phone connected and my internet set up. That was only finalised yesterday.

And...

In the middle of all this I discovered that my father has advanced pancreatic cancer, which has spread to his liver and lungs. Now, my father is eighty-seven years old, so eventually something like this was bound to happen. I am in Adelaide at the moment, where my parents live, staying with my sister. Adelaide is about 3000 km away from my home in Cairns. It’s a big country.

Now, I’m pleased to say that my father is in no pain, but he is losing weight and becoming weaker by the day. His worst problem is the difficulty he has breathing. It makes talking a herculean task. Being unable to care for himself he is now receiving palliative care in a nursing home. My mother, although physically quite robust, is not able to take care of herself either, and she is now in the same home—not necessarily the blessing it might seem at first sight, but that’s another story, which will probably never be told.

So my mind has been on other things.

One of the things I have realised is how easy it is to slip into a ‘getting through’ mode of being. The last four weeks have needed to be gotten through rather than lived. I just needed to get through the task of finding an apartment... Through the battle with Telstra... Through the emotional hardship of facing my father. I just have to get through this weekend, not just facing my father, but facing my mother who can [he says with some restraint] be a difficult woman.

I would not want this ‘getting through’ to become habitual, to form the consistent pattern of my life, or become my overriding attitude to life. Life is to be lived, not endured.

Despite my father’s poor prognosis, and despite his obvious physical difficulties, he is in good spirits. He is facing the situation with dignity, courage and even humour. Of course there is fear, and sometimes humiliation, when nurses have to assist him when he goes to the toilet; but he is facing up to these fears and humiliations, and talking about them. In short, he is being heroic. My father has not lived a ‘great’ life. In many ways, from the ouotside, it seems like a rather small, insignificant life. But he is a big man within that small life. I have always suspected this, and I suppose there have been moments when I (and probably he) might wondered what and who he might have been in different circumstances. But now some of that greatness of spirit is shining through for the world to see.

I realised as I prepared to fly down to Adelaide that there was a chance he could even die before I got here. He could still die this weekend. Even if he doesn’t, this might well be my last chance to see him. I wanted to say something to him, without embarrassing him, without becoming too mushy and emotional. I wanted to say to him that the things I like about myself, the things I consider to be my true strengths... These things I owe to him.

I had the chance to say it, and for that I am thankful.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Simplifying the world, i.e., racism

Nothing about the world in which we live is simple. Whether we are talking about the physical laws underlying the universe, the biological and evolutionary processes determining life on earth, or the complex psychosocial world of human behaviour... Everything is very messy and very complicated.

Part of the scientific method involves simplifying certain complex processes so that they can be partially understood. For example, in order to model complex processes such as weather patterns or climate, simplifications are made. It is impossible to account for every variable, so some attempt is made to identify the most important factors. In experimental science, hypotheses are tested under controlled conditions, as much as possible. This means that conditions are created in which only one or a few variables can influence the outcome of the experiment. This is an attempt to exclude the many thousands of other factors that can influence events in uncontrolled conditions. Science always arrives at a simplified view of reality. This is a necessary and constructive process, without which we would be floundering in the chaos that is reality.

Human beings take the same approach in the psychosocial realm: we generalise and simplify. We give things names and we group them together. Consider an object with four legs supporting a level platform above the ground. There are a vast number of such objects, and it would be utter chaos if every single one of them had to be assigned its own, unique name. So we generalise, we draw out common features, and all such objects we designate by the term ‘table’. We are even able to accommodate objects with more or fewer legs under the same term. This is a very useful exercise.

Nevertheless, having carried out this procedure, we do not then draw the incorrect conclusion that all tables are the same. Nor do we think that we have completely and comprehensively defined an object by calling it a table. Is it a wooden table or a plastic table or a metal table? Is it round or is it square? How tall or long is it? What colour is it? We are able to accommodate these differences and acknowledge and value these nuances within the framework of ‘table’. When it suits us, we can do that.

We can also choose not to.

Racism, sexism and other ‘isms’ are cases in which we choose not to.

In such cases we choose to ignore or devalue the differences and nuances, and convince ourselves that all ‘tables’ are the same. Once a ‘table’, always a ‘table’. A ‘table’ never changes its... erm... spots. You can never trust a ‘table’. I’m not furniturist, but, you know, it’s not fair that ‘tables’ get get all the tablecloths.

We need structure in the world, and names and categories help provide some of that structure. Unfortunately, we abuse such structures when it suits us, when it becomes convenient to ignore difference and nuance, to score political points. I’m not even the same as me from one day to the next, so it is silly in the extreme to think that all ‘tables’ are the same.

At its best, science recognises that its knowledge of the world is provisional. What we know and understand today is only an approximation of what the world is really like. Furthermore, it is the exceptions, the counter-examples—the things that don’t quite fit in the box—that serve to expand our knowledge of the world. In the myth of the Garden of Eden, God gave to Adam the task of naming all the animals. But naming something is only the beginning, not the end, of fully understanding and appreciating it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Literary fiction has not gone entirely the way of the dodo.

I recently read The Luminaries (Granta), the very long and complex novel by New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. It’s a very well-written book, although not one that I particularly enjoyed. The reason I mention it here is because it pleases me to think that a book of this type—some 832 pages in length, written in a pseudo-Victorian style, with a very complex formal structure—can find a publisher in this day and age. It can go on to win major literary awards, and also sell quite well. It’s not a best-seller, I guess, in that it probably did not make the NYT best-seller list—if it did, please correct me—and it may not have reached the Amazon top 100—again correct me if I am wrong. But I believe that as of August this year it had sold well in excess of half a million copies. I wouldn’t be whinging if one of my books sold a tenth as many.

I also recently read Burial Rites (Picador) by Hannah Kent, another novel which would hardly be considered mainstream or commercial. Again, it is great that there are still publishers willing to invest in books which have artistic merit, without necessarily having guaranteed market success. Having said that, I think a movie of Burial Rites is at least in the development stage; I believe a mini-series is planned for The Luminaries. So there is probably even money to be made from non-mainstream fiction too, for those who are ready to take the chance on it.

I often complain about the quality of the books that emerge from mainstream publishers. They seem to cater mainly to the current fad, with little regard for literary quality. While I can understand that publishing is first and foremost a business these days, I’m sure there is room within the publishing world to invest some of the profits from the blockbuster best-sellers into projects which may not have best-seller potential, but which nevertheless have artistic, cultural and literary value. There will even be a few of these that, perhaps surprisingly, more than pay their way.

It’s also pleasing to realise that there are plenty of readers out there who are willing to work a little harder, and don’t necessarily want their books to mimic movies and/or video games. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Combing the Supermarket Shelves

In the supermarket today I wanted to buy a comb. Just one, plain, simple, ordinary comb. You would think that wasn’t too much to ask. But no. I couldn’t buy a comb. I had to buy a pack of four different combs, for three of which I had no use whatsoever. So I would have to pay $3 for a comb that should have cost me... let’s say, $1.

The marketing company would probably say that I was saving money by buying the four combs because if I had bought all four combs separately it might have cost me... I don’t know... let’s say, $5. So, by buying the pack of combs I was saving $2!

How many times are we persuaded by advertising to buy something we neither want nor need, because the thing we want plus the thing we don’t want, together cost less than if we bought them separately... but more than if we simply bought the thing we wanted. I can buy four punnets of strawberries for $5, when they cost $1.50 each. So I save a dollar. Except that... I actually only want two punnets of strawberries which would only cost me $3. So, I buy the four punnets—what a bargain!—and either eat more strawberries than I actually want to eat, or the two unwanted punnets rot in the fridge.

And it’s even worse when I don’t even appear to have a choice. I now have the task of searching other supermarkets and stores to find a single comb... one single, ordinary comb. The main competitors will probably sell the same four-pack of combs. A smaller store may have a single comb, but charge two or three times what it is worth. And, in the end, it will cost me extra time and money to find just that comb. How much time and effort am I actually prepared to put in? In the end I will probably cave in and buy the four-pack.

Isn’t the free market a wonderful thing!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Fifty-six going on fourteen: the Australian Prime Minister

Hello, world. I know the rest of you out there probably don’t care much about Australia and Australian politics. No, not Austria, Australia. Many of you probably don’t know where Australia is (take a peek down there at the bottom right of most world maps). Most of you probably think Melbourne or Sydney is the capital city. I’m sure many of you think ‘Alf’ from Home and Away is our prime minister. Or Crocodile Dundee. Or Dame Edna Everage. Okay, many of you probably don’t know who any of those people are. Although more of you might have heard of them than of our actual Prime Minster, a certain Tony Abbott. Yes, I get it: when I talk about Australian politics and politicians, most of the world doesn’t even bother stifling its yawn.

But think of us down here. Please think of us and the burden we bear. Tony Abbott is almost fifty-seven years old (in November), a few months younger than me. So, a mature adult with lots of experience, right? Unfortunately we have a national leader who has a vastly inflated sense of his own importance on the world stage and of his place in history. We have a leader who prides himself on reducing very serious national and world issues to two and three word slogans. You can read the delight on his face when he comes up with his latest slogan which he will say once, then again... and yes, again, within the space of a few breaths. He has it! He has his headline grabbing slogan! I can picture him running home to his wife (or perhaps his mummy [mommy for US readers—I’m not referring to dead Egyptians wrapped up in bandages]): ‘Look at me! Look at me! I’m on the front page again!’

This is the man who reduces important issues to the level of the school sports day: We are all called to be part of Team Australia [read: Team Abbott]. He is so happy when he sees us jumping up and down in place: ‘Ooooh, pick me, Tony! Pick me!’ Thanks to our illustrious Prime Minister, we can now be assured that it’s okay to go back into Iraq, for the third time, because ISIL (or whatever it is today) is a ‘death cult’. Never mind hundreds and even thousands of years of history in that region, of conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and centuries of interference from the West. It can all be nicely summed up in a two word label: death cult. It’s all safely and neatly packaged away.

This is the man who threatened to ‘shirt front’ Vladimir Putin when he comes to Australia for the G20 meeting in November. For those of you who have no idea what ‘shirt front’ means, pop over to You Tube where I’m sure you will find plenty of examples—it is a term from Australia’s home grown brand of football. Yep, that’s really mature and constructive, Tony. Tony really knows how to calm down a volatile situation with carefully considered words. In the meantime, Putin swats the mosquito buzzing in his ear.

Whenever I see Tony Abbott, whenever I hear him speak, what comes to mind is the school yard, during those first two or three terrifying years in high school. To a thirteen or fourteen year old boy, everything’s pretty straightforward. No need to think, really, testosterone does that for us. The school bully or, even worse, that dreaded high school prefect: that’s our Tony. It’s all about getting to the top of the pile and imposing our will upon those below us. An argument reaches the dizzying heights of:

‘Yes I can!’

‘No you can’t!’

‘Yes I can!’

‘No you...’

So if any of you out there in the world of grownups are thinking of visiting Australia, be very careful. Tony Abbott might just want to shove your head down the toilet bowl and flush.

Raise your glasses. Here’s to our illustrious Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, fifty-six going on fourteen.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: Lost Innocence: The Accused by Simon Palmer

I am always somewhat reluctant to review the first part of an intended series of books. Just as the story is incomplete, so must the review be incomplete and provisional. It is difficult to comment on the merits of a plot which is unfinished. This is the case here.

Lost Innocence is the first part of an adventure thriller set in Bangkok, Thailand. Michael is a young, budding artist, who travels to Thailand to sketch the working girls of Bangkok, before commencing studies at an art school in London. Before long he finds himself in trouble. He is arrested on trumped up charges for having raped and beaten an underage girl, and thrown into the notorious Bangkok ‘Hilton’. He is given the option to pay a substantial fine and be released, or remain in prison to fight the charges. He decides, on principle, to fight the charges. While in prison he befriends a convicted drug smuggler, John, who shows him the ropes.

Michael’s arrest precipitates a rescue mission, first by his father, Stan, and then by his grandfather, Nigel, a prominent and wealthy lawyer. Finally, a private detective, Harvey Goulding, is hired to help unravel the mess. Along with the intrigue and machinations as the drama unfolds, the author sketches the complex and not entirely harmonious relationships between the three generations of men.

Palmer does an excellent job of taking the reader inside the Thai prison and legal system. He also provides a convincing account of the Bangkok sex industry. The story is interesting, although I was never quite convinced by Michael’s determination to fight the charges rather than pay the fine, given the horrific conditions to which he is subjected. Neither his motivation—a rather vague sense of principle—nor his strength of character seemed to warrant this. The generational interactions are potentially interesting, but we are not given sufficient back story to understand the strained relationships, particularly between the father and grandfather. Neither of these men was particularly likeable. Their wives, left behind in England, play only a minor role and, again, we are not given enough background to understand these relationships. There are moments when the story morphs—perhaps not surprisingly, given the setting—into a kind of soft porn, which is well written if a little predictable.

The author makes the unwise decision to narrate Michael’s part of the narrative in the first person, and the rest from various third person points of view. The choice is strange because, after the early chapters, Michael plays very little part in the story. Locked up in prison, the capacity of this character to move the story along is very limited. It is true that Michael’s personal account of his arrest and his time in prison is very vivid, but I think this could have been achieved just as effectively with an intimate, third person narrative.

The introduction of the private detective into the story provides a lift, but comes rather late in the narrative. His Thai female assistant, Bo, is probably one of the most interesting characters, and certainly the only female character to be given more than a bit role.

There are times when the grammar, and particularly the punctuation, are rather poor here. And there is a moment that made me cringe when we are presented with a dreadful, caricatured German accent.

This is not a bad start to the series. I think it would have been reasonable in this first volume to expect more back story, particularly concerning the father and grandfather, which would have leant more credibility to the conflicts between them. It will be interesting to see where the author takes this in future. I give it three and a half stars, rounding it down to three where necessary.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

How Puzzling!

I’m glad to say it’s been a busy week editing, without much time for either reading or writing. On this Sunday afternoon I have time to take a breather and reflect upon... jigsaw puzzles.

This is a love from my childhood and teenage years that has extended into adulthood. There was a hiatus in there of perhaps twenty years during which I kicked the habit, but I have fallen off the wagon in recent months. It all began last year when I visited my daughter in Melbourne and she had a puzzle on the go. This was followed up by a Christmas present or two that were—you guessed it—jigsaw puzzles. Since then they have appeared from time to time as gifts, or I have indulged myself. There was a time when I would embark upon a three-thousand piecer, but these days (partly due to space requirements) I have to be content with one thousand pieces. It’s a nice size in terms of both time and space.

So what is the attraction?

As with many things, it is initially the challenge. I’m not so keen on the challenge that I would like to reconstitute a polar bear in a blizzard. It’s always more fun when I there are features on the pieces that can help locate its position, in addition to its shape. There is the final satisfaction when the puzzle is complete; and many minor satisfactions (about 1000 of them) when each piece finds its place.

I find the process strangely meditative. My mind can wonder far and wide while a part of it becomes attuned to shapes and colours. It can also become a little obsessive: just one more piece! There were many times in my teens, particularly during the school holidays, when I would be up until three or four in the morning, searching for that ‘one more’ piece.

I do have some system when I do a puzzle. I have to start with the edges. I could spout some ‘philosophy’ at this point about the value of working within a framework. But I won’t. If there are large patches of sky or some other fairly uniform colour, I like to do these early on, to get them out of the way. I like to leave the more interesting features to last. I would find it a little tedious if I had to finish with a boring, uniform feature. I’m sure there is a philosophy here, too, and that some people will find intriguing clues to my personality.

Aside from these systematic elements, my approach to the puzzle tends to be multi-faceted. Sometimes I will look for a piece to fill a space. Sometimes I will look for the space a piece fills. Sometimes colour is the key; other times it is shape. Whatever works best and is most appropriate at the time.

I am not now going to wax lyrical, in a Forrest-Gump-ish fashion, about life bein’ like a jigsaw puzzle... It probably is and it probably isn’t. Personally I think life is much more like an artichoke.

Feel free to philosophise or analyse my personality if you wish. Right now I have some pieces just begging to be put into place.

**********************

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Not a technophobe, but...

I only bought my first ‘smart’ phone at the beginning of 2013, and even now, almost into the last quarter of 2014, I still often forget to switch it on until well into the day. I rarely use it, even as a phone. I only bought it because of all the great things people told me I would be able to do if I had one. Apparently none of these great things appeal to me... greatly. I sometimes feel obliged to invent some usefulness for this monthly expense. The impulse rarely lasts long. I am still waiting for this gadget to miraculously transform my life.

It is, therefore, with some amusement that I observe the excitement in people’s eyes as they await the release of the xth version of some company or other’s new model. I am thrilled to hear that it now does something—something I have never had any need for—much more quickly than it did before; or that it now does two quite unnecessary tasks simultaneously; or that it now does something entirely new that I have never wanted (and am never likely to want) to do.

I am not a technophobe. I love my computer. I am hardly ever away from it. I love my Kindle, and hardly ever read a physical book. I can see the point of navigator-thingummies, although I can manage perfectly well without one. I am probably a gimmick-o-phobe or gadget-o-phobe. I am also a creating-a-market-for-something-which-is-entirely-unnecessary-o-phobe. (Okay, I admit that didn’t exactly flow off the tongue.) Someone once tried to convince me of the value of their smart phone by explaining that they could write their shopping list on it. Well, folks, I remain convinced that it’s a damn sight easier to jot it down on a piece of paper. Perhaps I will invent the notebook (the kind with paper and spiral binding). Oh wait, that’s been done.

‘But I would lose the piece of paper,’ my friend objected.

‘But I would forget to take my phone,’ I decided not to reply.

This friend would have no framework for understanding this concept. ‘Forgetting my phone’ would have no more meaning for them than ‘forgetting to breathe’.

I love technology, but I hate being made to think I need something that I actually don’t. This goes far beyond technology, of course. I hate being made to think I need twenty-seven types of insurance. I hate being made to think we need ‘tougher security laws’.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against wanting things either. I don’t need chocolate, but I surely do want it. Perhaps even worse than being persuaded that I need something is being persuaded that I want something. Well, I don’t want twenty-seven types of insurance or tougher security laws. I don’t really want a smart phone either. To my shame I did let myself be persuaded that I just might need it. I don’t, but I’m stuck with it for a while, maybe forever. I’m not sure I even actually need a mobile phone of any kind. I know I need a computer, and I want it. I know I want my Kindle, and I can see some obvious benefits—no need to carry books around or clutter the house with them; cheaper ebooks. I have no need or desire for a tablet of any kind. So far nothing has persuaded me that I either need or want one of those.

The fact that someone will queue for days to be the first to buy the new model of... something. Well, that’s a little sad, don’t you think?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

No law could ever prevent this...

There is so much hyperbole, propaganda and hysteria being tossed around about ISIL and the threat of terrorism in Australia, that I suspect many of us are simply switching off our TVs and radios. Very complex issues are being reduced to two- and three-word slogans. Everything that happens is being used to bolster one side of the argument or the other.

A couple of nights ago, a young eighteen-year-old Islamic man stabbed two Australian police officers and was shot dead. Today that event is being used by our Attorney-General, George Brandis, to justify the introduction of tougher anti-terror legislation. The Victorian police have something of a history of shooting and killing young men, often young men with a mental illness. Police have been attacked in this country before. What makes this attack a ‘terrorist’ attack? The fact that the perpetrator was a Muslim? Even if it was a terrorist attack, what makes this kind of attack any worse than any other attack upon the police, or any citizen? Why are laws against murder, conspiracy to murder and attempted murder not sufficient for dealing with such a crime?

There is now the suspicion being raised that this young man may not have been acting alone. He may, for instance, have ‘spoken’ to people before going to the police station. He may even have been driven to the police station by someone else. It is important that this event be painted as part of a conspiracy, and not just the actions of a lone individual. This would justify the tougher legislation, because we would then be able to detect such a conspiracy. Assuming, of course, that the conspirators were stupid enough to discuss this over the phone, or via emails and social media, rather than over a Sunday afternoon BBQ.

If he is a lone individual, it is difficult to see how he would be different from any other lone individual who bore a grudge against the police, and decided to act on it. Or anyone with a mental illness who chose to act out on his or her delusional beliefs. How is the threat actually different? And how can any form of legislation ever, EVER, prevent an individual from deciding to act in this way, from whatever motivation?

While I recognise the danger that police face in our society from dangerous and sometimes unbalanced individuals, I don’t think we should overreact to this particular event. I think the police on this occasion probably acted appropriately. They had every right to defend themselves against this attack. The nature of their job obviously places them at higher risk than the average citizen, and they should be appropriately trained and equipped to deal with this. However, I don’t think this attack should be used to justify any kind of tougher law. Tougher laws would never be able to prevent acts like these anyway, although they just might provoke more individuals into attempting them.

In the meantime, let’s not forget that there is a family out there which has lost a son. The family may have lost him before he was killed, if he had, indeed, become radicalised. I can’t imagine what it would be like living with that fear. Or are we perhaps assuming that they, too, are necessarily to blame at some level, just because they are Muslims, and therefore not worthy of our empathy?

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Review: Miss Hyde, by Imogen Bold

I’d like to begin by saying that I quite enjoyed this book. It was a pleasant, easy read, founded upon an interesting concept.

Miss Marion Jekyll is the daughter of that famous London doctor created by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1885. (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was first published in 1886). She knows nothing about her father’s research. He died when she was very young. The story takes place when Marion is nineteen years old and staying in Vienna with her guardian, Mr Utterson, and chaperone, Miss Krummacker. We learn very early on that Marion is required to take medication to control what is described as her ‘epilepsy’. While in Vienna, she encounters a young man, Andor, who mistakes her for someone else, his sweetheart Irina, daughter of the Count and Countess von der Heide. (Note the not-so-subtle family name.) Marion soon discovers that she has a doppelganger living in Vienna, and becomes involved in a world of espionage, conspiracy and assassination.

At the same time, she begins to discover that her ‘epilepsy’ is, in fact, something else, and she struggles to contain/control the ‘Miss Hyde’ that she discovers within.

The story is set in 1873, but in an alternative Vienna, in which there are to be found unusual technologies which place this book within the ‘steampunk’ genre.  This Vienna is part of the Austro-Magyarian Empire, rather than the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For those readers who may not be aware, the Magyars are a people primarily associated with Hungary and whose language is Hungarian. So this is a nice way to set this reality apart, while retaining links to our own history. This alternative reality allows the author to mess with history if she so wishes. I wasn’t really convinced by the steampunk elements of the story. I felt the story would have worked perfectly without them, and that they were, therefore, a little gimmicky. They may play a more integral role in the sequels that are obviously on the way.

The story is narrated from the first person point of view of Marion. Her character is well-developed and she has an interesting voice, which is perhaps more modern than the 1873 setting might suggest. I didn’t mind this, and thought it would facilitate the reader’s identification with her. The ‘Miss Hyde’ character is not fully explored here, but probably will be in later volumes. There is an obvious sense in which she has to slowly emerge.

I found most of the minor characters interesting and multi-dimensional, although I thought the Crown Prince was perhaps a caricature. The main male character, Andor, who also inevitably becomes Marion’s love interest, I found rather shallow and uninteresting.

There were elements of the plot, especially around the romance, and concerning the identity of the real villain, which were rather too conventional. There were also some minor plot points which I thought were a little too contrived. There were hints within the story of the dirtier, grittier underbelly of this society which I would have liked to have seen developed further. Perhaps this will come in later volumes.

While this book has obvious shortcomings, it was quite enjoyable and interesting. It is also more competently written than many of the self-published books I have been reading recently. I give this four stars.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Notorious Trolley Thief

People are odd. You may have noticed this yourself from time to time. I sometimes wonder how we have managed to be so successful in the evolutionary stakes.

Not long ago I was participating in a local writers’ festival. A temporary bookshop was being set up in one of the function rooms of the hotel where the festival was being held. I had several boxes of books that I wanted to make available for sale. About half of them were my own publications, and half were the latest anthology produced by my writers’ group, and which I had edited. All in all, there were just over two hundred books, in boxes of various sizes.

I located the room where the bookshop was being set up. People were zipping around the room, busy being busy. I dared to catch the attention of the woman in charge and ask if a trolley was available.

‘No,’ she said. ‘You will have to use one of the trolleys used by hotel staff to take baggage up to people’s rooms.’

Okay. I could deal with that. I returned to the lobby of the hotel, but there were no trolleys around, and no staff of whom to make enquiries. The staff at the check-in desk were all very busy. I wandered back to the bookshop, musing about a possible plan B. Would I have to carry the boxes in, one by one? I would probably have no choice.

Then, in the bookstore, I spotted an empty, unused trolley along one wall. I shrugged and made a beeline for it. I could see no reason not to use it.

As I left the room, someone shouted. I turned to see the woman in charge chasing after me.
‘You can use that,’ she conceded graciously, ‘but bring it back!’

Darn it! My plan to steal this trolley and add it to the secret stash I was accumulating in my garage had been foiled at the last minute! It had been my plan to whisk it away, then return with seven heavy boxes of books balanced on my head. I wanted to say something to the woman. Several things. Such as, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this trolley was available?’ Instead, I gave her what may have been a smile and said, ‘Of course.’

Several things went through my head as I loaded the trolley and returned to the bookshop. Why had she said no trolley was available, when clearly there was? Were there rules about trolley use of which I was unaware? Was there, perhaps, a weekend course on trolley use that I should first have attended? Perhaps only those holding a special licence could operate this trolley.

Then, why would anyone want to steal a trolley? Was this, I wondered, some special, new design in trolleys that she did not want copied. Did it have special features. Anti-gravity, for instance? Was there a secret compartment hiding top secret government documents?

And, further, why did this woman think that I might want to steal her trolley? Did I have a reputation, unbeknownst to me, as a closet trolley thief? Or, just a thief?

Thanks to this woman, I shall now be on high alert for trolley thieves, as this is obviously a much more widespread problem in our society than I had hitherto imagined.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Real and Present Danger?

I’ve been hesitant to write about this because there is a feeling abroad that if you raise questions about this, you are somehow being un-Australian, not a team player... Not part of ‘Team Australia’ to repeat one of our Prime Minister’s endless slogans. At the very worst you are being naïve.

I am talking about the sudden supposed increase in the terrorist threat, here in Australia and in other countries throughout the world. And, very specifically, about the uncovering of the alleged plot by a group of ‘members’ of ISIL here in Australia to capture a random civilian off the streets and behead them. (As an aside, how does one become a ‘member’ of ISIL? ISIL claims to be a nation state. It would be rather as though I were suddenly to declare myself a ‘member’ of the USA.)

Now this is undoubtedly a terrible thing. No one wants this to happen. It may be appropriate to ask questions about whether such a large force of police was necessary to counter this threat. I certainly think we should weigh carefully the evidence supporting this claim when it comes before the court, and the people charged have a right to a fair trial. But clearly, preventing such an atrocity is to be applauded.

But the point of such a murder is to create a mood of fear within the community. It doesn’t require the carrying out of the deed to create that fear. Those who plotted this act—if indeed they did—have already achieved their goal. With, I might say, the help of the media and the government. But I am not unduly afraid. Yes, I could be seized and murdered by a terrorist. But before this threat was paraded before my eyes, a few days ago, I was in danger of being murdered in the street by a non-terrorist. I was in danger of an accidental death from a whole range of causes. The level of threat to me, and to each of us as individuals, is only greater today than it was a week ago by a minuscule quantity, if at all.

It is not my intention to play down how callous and inhuman such an act would be. Like most of us, I find it difficult to comprehend how one human being could even consider committing such an act against another human being. It also, unfortunately, doesn’t surprise me. Nevertheless, I do not now feel under any greater personal threat today than I did last week, or ten years ago. The danger to me and to each one of us is not significantly greater.

So, to those who seek to strike terror into my heart by plotting or carrying out such a heinous act, or any similar act, with respect to me, you have failed completely. On I go, living my life exactly as before, with scarcely a passing thought for you.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Life in ’Strahlia

Someone recently asked me via LinkedIn what it was like to live in ’Strahlia, er, Australia. This is a very difficult question to answer. It’s ‘like’ one thing for me, but ‘like’ something else for someone else. It is undoubtedly different living in Melbourne or Sydney than it is living in Cairns. It is different living here, than living one suburb over. There is no single way of living in Australia that sets it off from other parts of the world.

There are, of course, images from TV and cinema. I haven’t watched Home and Away since my children were quite young, but the fact that it is set in ‘Summer Bay’, and that in fact it always seems to be summer there, is bound to give a somewhat skewed impression to the rest of the world. Not everyone, young or old, spends every available moment at the beach, surfing. Personally, I hate the beach. It’s one of the last places I would ever want to be.

Then there are the ‘Crocodile Dundee’ (Paul Hogan) and ‘Croc Hunter’ (Steve Irwin) caricatures that seem to have such broad appeal overseas. I may be wrong about this, but my impression is that Steve and Bindy Irwin are far more popular overseas than here in Australia. Just to set the record straight, most of us don’t go around wrestling crocodiles or capturing highly venomous snakes.

Another image of Australia is that we are heavy drinkers, and perhaps we are. But so are people in many other western nations. According to World Health Organisation data, based on per capita drinking Australia is ranked eighteenth in the world, although we are ranked well above other countries that might be considered culturally similar to us, such as the UK, New Zealand, the USA and Canada.

Another image is of our sporting prowess. I think it is probably fair to say that in many sports we rank much higher than our population would predict. Our medal tally at the Olympics (let’s pretend the 2012 Olympics didn’t happen) is usually disproportionately high. So yes, sport has a very important place in our culture.

In other areas we have been very fortunate in the past—areas such as health care, education, personal freedom, economic prosperity, national security. My impression is, though, that in many of these areas we are rapidly falling back towards the field. While many other nations may continue to look with envy on Australia, I think overseas perceptions are lagging somewhat behind the reality. Perhaps our own perceptions too. A nation often clings desperately to its own self-image, long after that image has ceased to be reflected in reality.

Most of the time day to day life—even in Tropical Cairns, nestled between World Heritage Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef—is pretty much the same as in most other western nations. Most of us live in cities or suburbs. We work, we eat, we sleep and then we work again. Despite ‘Summer Bay’, life here is not a perpetual holiday.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Capitalising on Capitals

As a writer you are probably often wondering: to capitalise or not to capitalise? Clearly there are some areas of confusion, as well as some grey areas. I would suggest looking at one of the major style guides for directions on this, but I will highlight a few common issues here.

‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ (and their variants, as well as similar terms) are among those that writers often get wrong. Do we use upper case here, or not? Always, or only sometimes? There is a fairly simple rule or guidelines here. If ‘Mum’ is used in the place of the person’s name, use upper case; if it is used generically, use lower case. A good way of testing this is to substitute the name. Consider this example: ‘The other day I went with Dad to the zoo.’ My dad’s name is ‘George’, so: ‘The other day I went with George to the zoo.’ Clearly ‘Dad’ here takes the place of the name ‘George’. But consider this: ‘The other day I went with my dad to the zoo.’ If we substitute the name: ‘The other day I went with my George to the zoo.’ Clearly this doesn’t work. (Note: there are a few places, particularly in the UK, where people do sometimes speak about ‘our George’, or ‘my George’; but this is not the norm.)

This rule also holds for other titles, such as ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’. It starts to get a little grey when we think of other titles or terms of endearment. For example: ‘Are you ready for bed, sweetheart.’ Should this be ‘Sweetheart’? It is, after all, used in place of the person’s name. But we are unlikely to say, ‘I went to the shops with sweetheart,’ unless this is actually used as a nickname. We would almost certainly say: ‘I went to the shops with my sweetheart.’ So, as a general guideline, I would suggest not using upper case for these kinds of endearments or titles (this includes ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’).

A similar rule applies to official titles. When used in conjunction with the name, the title should be capitalised. Thus: ‘I went with Captain [or Doctor] Smith to the zoo.’ It should also be capitalised when used as a form of address: ‘How are you, Captain [Doctor]?’ But it should not be capitalised when used generically. ‘After Captain [Doctor] Smith and I went to the zoo, the captain [doctor] had to rush back to the base.’ There are some grey areas where we are not entirely sure whether a word represents an official title. For example, is ‘postman’ a title? Should it be capitalised in a sentence like this: ‘I went with Postman Pat to the zoo.’ (Yes, I know you must be thinking I spend a great deal of time at the zoo.) If so, then what about ‘milkman’? Perhaps to avoid ambiguity we might find a way to reword cases such as these: ‘I went to the zoo with the postman, Pat.’

Another area of interest is brand names. Official brand names and trademarks should always be capitalised, unless... And here it becomes a little grey again. In some cases, brand names have assumed a generic character. In the USA (I believe) people often refer to any vacuum cleaner as a ‘hoover’, even though ‘Hoover’ is actually a brand name. In fact, ‘to hoover’ is now a verb. In such a case, the capital can probably be dropped, unless quite specifically referring to that brand. When this transition occurs is where all that greyness creeps in, and perhaps it is best to err on the side of caution. In Australia, we refer to pretty much any container in which to keep things cool as an ‘esky’, even though this is, in fact, a brand name. We similarly refer to a bottle in which to keep things warm as a ‘thermos’—again a brand name. Perhaps these should be capitalised. Or perhaps we could use a different term: ‘cooler’, instead of ‘esky’, for instance. ‘Coke’ is one I come across quite often. It is often used generically to refer to any similar cola drink. I think, however, that the Coca Cola Company still very much regard this as their trademark. ‘Coke’, I would suggest, should be capitalised if it is referring to that particular brand of cola, while ‘cola’ can be used as a generic term.

What about animal names? This also causes people headaches. Should I capitalise ‘woodpecker’? Not unless I am also going to capitalise ‘dog’, ‘cat’, ‘tiger’ and every other noun referring to a type of animal. These are generic terms, and should not be capitalised. The same holds for breeds of dog and cat, etc. It is ‘cocker spaniel’, not ‘Cocker Spaniel’. The exception to this is if one of the words is a word we would otherwise normally capitalise, such as a place name. Thus it is ‘German shepherd’, rather than ‘german shepherd’ (or ‘German Shepherd’). The dictionary can often help here. For the more scientifically minded among my readers, the scientific name of an animal (or plant or bacteria, and so on) should be written in italics, giving the first word (the genus) an initial capital, but not the second word (the species). (Sometimes there are also subspecies names, but let’s not get too technical.) Thus a tiger is Panthera tigris.

I sense that some of the writers whose work I have edited have given up on this, and have opted for a more random approach. Hang in there! There are rules and guidelines which can help you through this maze. And in those grey areas I will leave you with two words: be consistent.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Review: Shadow of Worlds by JD Lovil

This is quite an ambitious undertaking in many respects. The idea of shifting between parallel worlds (loosely based on ideas from Quantum Mechanics) is not a new one; but the epic style in which this book is written is something new, at least to me.

Although written as a first person narrative, from the point of view of Rafe, a ‘walker’ (who can travel between worlds), the narrative is more often in the style of a mythological epic. The story moves from one strange world to another; the characters are themselves epic (many being ‘gods’) and the events, particularly those of the finale, occur on a meta-cosmic scale. The scenes are often painted with very broad brushstrokes, with little detail. Occasionally there are ‘closeups’, so to speak, of Rafe, and his interactions with his fellow travellers and others. But even many of these have a larger than life feel to them.

The story itself is somewhat conventional: the world or, in this case, the worlds are threatened by some nasty kind of something from the outer edges of reality, which is doing something a bit nasty to the more human-like bits of reality, and will probably end in the destruction of everything. The details are left vague. The good guys are summoned together to confront this threat. There are a few interesting little glimpses of other worlds and some of the characters’ back stories along the way, but these are subsumed beneath the larger narrative.

For the most part, the other worlds through which the main group of travellers pass—the more or less human (and lupine) contingent—are very sketchily outlined. Too much detail of too many such worlds would have become tedious, and no doubt cracks would have shown in the natural, political and social laws of these worlds with too much scrutiny. This is, therefore, quite a wise decision on the part of the author. Nevertheless, something on a smaller time/place scale would have been welcome. Because everything is so epic, and the story moves so quickly towards the denouement, the characters never become very real. This includes the narrator. I had no sense of connection with them. They were never placed in any jeopardy that made sense on a simply human scale. The destruction of everything everywhere for all time is not the kind of threat that I, as a human being stuck in one reality, can really identify with. I didn’t really much care whether the good guys won or lost. I would have cared more if I had known two or three of them more intimately, and they had faced a more intimate and personal threat along the way.

While I admire the scope of this book, and the free run that it allows the author’s imagination, I would have preferred that the focus be on the non-epic, with the epic as the backdrop against which this more intimate story was told. The best SF and fantasy works precisely in this way. As regards the author’s imagination, in some ways the freedom he allows himself is excessive. He has created a setting in which pretty much anything goes. I would prefer a little more discipline and structure, within which his imagination could operate. It is also difficult to take seriously any potential threat to the main protagonist when he can (apparently) go anywhere, or shape reality in any way he chooses. The author runs the risk of making the characters and their circumstances so far removed from the lives and concerns of the readers that they have no interest in them and no way of identifying with them.

On a more technical note, there are places where the author loses control of his grammar, particularly in his use of the tenses of verbs, and when marrying verb with subject. I would recommend more thorough copy editing/proofreading in subsequent volumes in the series.

I give this three and a half stars, but round up to four for sites without half stars.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

‘Yes I can, yes I can.’ ‘No you can’t.’

‘Anything is possible.’
‘You can be anything you want to be.’

No it isn’t.
No you can’t.

With the best will in the world, parents, teachers and society in general have repeated these propositions down the years. Set your mind to it, work hard, and the world is your oyster. You can achieve anything. No you can’t. At least, most of us won’t and can’t.

Of course there are people in the world who do achieve great things, often from very small beginnings. We hear about these people. We admire them. We make them our role models. Of course we do. It’s right that we should. Unfortunately, what we don’t hear about are those who set their mind to it, work hard... and fail. For every inspirational success story there are probably 999 failure stories. Perhaps we should add a few nines to this. These stories don’t quite make the news.

Not everyone has the same opportunities, and not everyone has the same innate abilities. I am going to be better at some things than others. Part of the path to success is first of all to identify our available opportunities and to work within our limitations. This does not mean that we are stuck in some kind predetermined class or caste system. Many of us will break out. There will be opportunities to expand our opportunities. But, while the sky might not be the limit, there are limitations.

Unfortunately the pervading attitude that everything is possible has created four difficulties for people today. First, it has created unrealistic expectations. There is only so much room at the top. Jobs are a resource, and there are simply not enough of the ‘best’ jobs to go round. It would be an absurd world in which everyone strived to emulate Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, in which everyone wanted to be a ‘pop idol’ or a brain surgeon or a corporate lawyer. Then, within each of these ‘top’ professions, there is only limited room at the very top. The success of some at achieving this position will inevitably be on the back of the failure of many, many others to do so.

The second thing we have done is create an unrelenting burden of competition for these top positions within these top jobs. The economic world sees competition as an unqualified good. It isn’t. It borrows this concept from evolutionary theory, in which the fittest survive. Supposedly, competition produces the ‘best’ people for the job. This is nothing more than ideological claptrap. Were I inclined to be less polite I might invoke bovine excrement at this point. Unfortunately, those who fill the best positions in the best fields do not necessarily reach this position on merit. It would, perhaps, be rather cynical to suggest that they rarely do. In nature, competition is often avoided. While some animals fight, and fight to the death, most avoid such confrontations after a symbolic encounter. Let me see. As a lioness I can fight that lioness for her prey, or I can move over to the next patch of savannah. But there will never be many lionesses, in any case. There are always only a few positions available at the top of the food chain. And, in general, gazelles don’t aspire to become lionesses.

The third thing we have done is create this hierarchy of jobs in the first place. We have achieved this by both social and economic means. I can understand why jobs which require longer and more specialised training tend to result in a higher income, but I wonder if the income differentials that actually exist are justified. For some time I worked with people with disabilities. This was hard work, physically and psychologically. I was required to undertake some very unpleasant tasks... for the minimum wage. It would be hardly surprising if I were to be a little resentful of another profession which charges the minimum wage each thirty seconds or less. I think a strong social argument could be mounted to the effect that the work of a disability support worker is more valuable than that of most solicitors or CEOs. But our society shows little evidence of valuing such work, beyond the occasional word of praise: ‘Oh, I so admire you for the work you do. Here’s a ribbon for your contribution to society.’ We have made some jobs seem more important or more attractive than others, often with little justification.

The fourth difficulty we have created with our shallow platitudes is in failing to teach people how to deal with failure and disappointment. These are all but inevitable. It doesn’t mean you give up. It doesn’t mean you sink into the abyss. It doesn’t even mean you have to settle for less; because we first have to unlearn the lesson that, if I don’t become the number one box office star and win two Oscars by the time I’m twenty-five, I’m settling for less. Becoming a teacher is ‘less’... How exactly? Becoming a carpenter, a sales assistant, a road sweeper... Who has convinced you and me that these are less? It really depends on the value system we adopt, doesn’t it? Is our current hierarchy of jobs the only one, or even the best one? I will fail at some things. I won’t be a very good sculptor or shepherd or disability support worker. I will probably fail at even more important things, such as being a good friend or a good partner or a good human being. Failure is a valuable part of life.

The important thing is whether, when I fail, I am willing to get up, dust myself off and try something else, perhaps even something ‘less’. Positive thinking and a positive attitude is not the sheer act of will power that some people seem to preach: ‘If you believe you will succeed, you will!’ If you don’t succeed it must be because you didn’t try hard enough or believe deeply enough. I smell manure again. Real positive thinking and a positive attitude means being able to accept my limitations and my failings, without being totally destroyed by them. It means being ready and willing to give something else a go.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Rule of Law

In Australia, we talk proudly of living under ‘the rule of law’, praise other countries for doing so, and condemn others for not doing so. So what is this ‘rule of law’?

The rule of law is the legal principle that decisions within a nation should be determined according to laws, statutes and legislation, rather than according to the whims of individual members of the government. All well and good. There are, however, a couple of issues that we need to keep in mind when extolling the virtues of the rule of law.

First of all, most politicians, when they use the term, have in mind a fairly specific approach to law: a western, democratic view of law, which takes into consideration such things as ‘universal’ human rights. The fact that a nation lives under the rule of law is not, in itself, any moral vindication of that country. Our Australian leaders would not, for example, regard very highly a nation living under Sharia Law. Australian leaders would (perhaps with justification) criticise a nation whose laws ignored the rights of minorities. These nations may be living under the rule of law, but they are not laws that we regard very highly.

The point is that ‘law’ is not the final arbiter here. There is something above and beyond law which (we seem to believe) gives us the right to pronounce a law good or bad. Law can also be used to strip people of rights which we might otherwise regard as fundamental. Among these are laws regarding national security.

Like many nations, since 2001 Australia has made, and continues to make, changes to laws concerning national security. These often give additional powers to police and to security agencies. It is always difficult to argue against these laws, and anyone who does so is accused of not taking seriously the threat to national security, or of being a ‘bleeding heart liberal’. The odd thing about these laws is that they often gain the most support from those who talk loudest about individual liberty and small government. The problem is that these laws sometimes involve the sacrifice of certain freedoms and rights. Of course, compromise is always necessary in society. These laws could also be used in situations for which they were not originally intended; but, by and large, we in the West seem to trust our governments, police and security forces not to abuse them. Perhaps we are a little naïve.

There are laws in place since 2010 in Australia which include in the definition of national security any serious threat to Australia’s borders or national integrity. This sounds fair enough. Clearly an ‘invasion’ is a threat to national security. Recently, however, ASIO (Australia’s main security agency) identified an Australian citizen, currently living overseas, as a ‘people smuggler’. The 2010 legislation was used to revoke this person’s passport. Now, I don’t know if this person is a people smuggler or not, but two things concern me about this decision.

First, is people smuggling really a matter of national security? It is a crime, certainly. But does it involve national security? A grey area at best.

Second, by invoking this law, the government is, in fact, able to undermine the ‘rule of law’. If this person is a people smuggler he [or she] can be charged with a crime and extradition procedures can begin. The person can face trial. He or she can defend themselves against the charges—which would seem to be a fundamental right under our particular rule of law—and justice can be done, and be seen to be done.

Invoking national security legislation bypasses the rule of law (while using law to do so). It’s also probably quicker, easier and cheaper.

I am not here to defend an alleged people smuggler. But I am here to uphold their right under the rule of law to have the opportunity to defend themselves against charges, properly presented before a court of law.

We need to be very wary of this slippery slope. And we are very foolish if we think there are not those within our society who will use such laws for their own ends, and to undermine the very rule of law of which they claim to be so proud.