Recent additions to the bookshelf

One of the advantages of this past year has been a commute from the south of London to the center of the city daily that meant I had between 1 1/2 and 2 hours sitting or standing while waiting to get where I was going. Sometimes that went to reading academic papers for my masters, but a lot of the time it went to recreational reading. Add that to the fact that I got a library card as soon as I could(making this the sixth city on the third continent where I have paid library fines) and I was able to get through quite a few books. Well, considering that I was in school at the time.

The highlight list includes:

That’s not a fully complete list, but those are most of the books I remember. Well, there’s also a bunch of classic science fiction books, but I’ll talk about those later

Things I wish I didn’t see

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of stories about how Doris Lessig, the Nobel prize winner for Literature, apparently made some disparaging remarks about the internet and TV. Now, Doris Lessig happens to be older than my grandmother, I can understand how the changes in society that have come about as a result of mass media and the internet might not sit well with her so I never even bothered to read the speech. I figured this was just a bunch of people from my generation getting annoyed over the words of a woman who would have a hard time understanding the world we live in. After all, when she was my age personal computers didn’t really exist yet.

Then I saw a link to her speech thanks to Pam(sort of) and that got me curious because those links tend to be interesting.

The highlights for those of you who do not feel like reading the entire thing:

“It is said that a people gets the government it deserves, but I do not think it is true of Zimbabwe. And we must remember that this respect and hunger for books comes, not from Mugabe’s regime, but from the one before it, the whites. It is an astonishing phenomenon, this hunger for books, and it can be seen everywhere from Kenya down to the Cape of Good Hope.”

“I have a friend from Zimbabwe, a black writer. He taught himself to read from the labels on jam jars, the labels on preserved fruit cans. He was brought up in an area I have driven through, an area for rural blacks. The earth is grit and gravel, there are low sparse bushes. The huts are poor, nothing like the well-cared-for huts of the better off. There was a school, but like the one I have described. He found a discarded children’s encyclopaedia on a rubbish heap and taught himself from that.

On Independence in 1980 there was a group of good writers in Zimbabwe, truly a nest of singing birds. They were bred in old Southern Rhodesia, under the whites – the mission schools, the better schools. Writers are not made in Zimbabwe, not easily, not under Mugabe.”

“Yet despite these difficulties, writers came into being. And we should also remember that this was Zimbabwe, conquered less than 100 years before. The grandparents of these people might have been storytellers working in the oral tradition. In one or two generations, the transition was made from these stories remembered and passed on, to print, to books.

Books were literally wrested from rubbish heaps and the detritus of the white man’s world.”

There are actually other interestingly wrong ideas in that speech, and a few right ones as well, but I kind of felt the need to talk about this bit because while I have seen commentaries about her speech on the web, no one seems to have mentioned this bit. And as an African with a penchant for reading and occasional writing I was instantly rubbed the wrong way by the idea that I’m supposed to thank colonization and the white man for my ability to read and write English.

Never mind the damage colonization has done and still does to Africa, never mind the fact that the mission schools she so easily praises were built to teach a small minority of Africans to be government clerks and clergymen and were never meant to either educate the masses or produce the thinkers they did, thinkers who primarily came into existence because they understood how to subvert the education they were being given and take more out of it than was intended for them. Instead let’s take swipes at African governments and praise colonizers who were happy enough to enslave people, turn those they didn’t enslave into second class citizens on their own land and then annex the aforementioned land and strip it of resources for their advantage.

Of course, as I have been reminded, when Doris Lessig was my age, pretty much all of Africa was still made up of European colonies. As with her comments about the web, they should be seen in the context of the times she has lived in. Ghana’s Colonization ended in my parents’ youth. My grandmother was already middle aged then. Zimbabwe didn’t get freedom until around about the time I was born and I was in secondary school when Apartheid ended. I still remember that day. My perspective on her statements is significantly different from hers, and I reserve the right to be more than a little annoyed by the whole ‘white people civilized Africa and brought culture to you poor, backwards savages’ meme that runs through sections of her speech. Its not new, or even that unexpected, I’m just tired of hearing it right now.

And while we’reon the topic, I’m also interested to note how all the (minimal) uproar over her words centered around her dismissing the Internet and television and yet no one noticed or felt the need to comment on the way she chose to refer to me and mine. I wonder if that is because they genuinely couldn’t see it or that they agreed with the sentiments expressed.

I imagine the world 50 years later

If you remember, I talked about the writing site that a friend of mine has set up. Well, I finally got off my ass, wrote a story, edited it about ten thousand times, then reluctantly emailed it to him. Luckily he seemed to like it and it is now up on the site.

So, this is one of my visions of what part of Africa could look at in about 50 years. Enjoy.

50 years from now……

This is an experiment by a hugely talented writer I know. A blog full of short stories about the earth in 50 years time. What makes it interesting is that all of these stories must share the same world. If someone defines a part of the world in a particular way, the rest of the stories that follow can’t contradict the original story. So far the stories up there are of remarkably good quality (In My Humble Opinion)

I’m supposed to add a piece of my own soon and I’m really hoping I don’t become the low point. (Yes, I’m writing seriously again. I’m not sure what to expect from myself, But I’d rather  keep trying than not do anything because I’m scared to fail)

Either way, read it people. It has my seal of approval.

Sidenote: Another story by the blog’s creator, this time for the 365tomorrows site. Take a look

Race and Science Fiction continues: the standard FAQ

Now, I’ve noticed a trend when this topic come s up of a set of basic excuses/rationalizations that always get rolled out when this topic comes up. Just to save time here’s a quick FAQ naming them and explaining why they don’t work.
*note: if I missed any of the standard excuses, let me know and I’ll put them up*

(a) Why do you even see race in this? whats wrong with you?

This I already covered here. I doubt if there is a need to update it yet

(b) This isn’t about race, its about the quality of writing

I immediately assume that means the person speaking has read little if any of the material whose quality they are commenting on. Either that or they really should not be ever put in the position to judge writing quality. That aside I tend to read this as meaning

The real problem is that only straight white males have what it takes to write intelligently in this genre

In which case please don’t bother to try and couch this idea in pseudo-reasonable terms. I can read. And I take as much offense at the idea that I’m too dumb to notice the subtext of the statement than I do at the statement itself.

Again, the quality of the work out there my minority voices in the genre speaks for itself in my opinion. I’m not saying all of it is good, but in terms of average quality they come out well above regular science fiction writing. Granted, this is an opinion and it could be wrong, but it is my experience that most of the bashing of these works tends to be done by people who have never looked beyond their covers. And maybe page 1.

(c) The publishers have books to sell and a predominantly white audience can only relate to white people

i.e. “Our audience happen to be the ones with the problem not us. We just appear to be as unenlightened as them because we must pander to their prejudices and we care more about money than we do about principles

You know, I wouldn’t really have a problem with this if they would come out and say it directly. I wouldn’t necessarily like the person saying it, but I could at least respect an attempt at honesty.

Its still an indictment of the general science fiction reading public and the open mindedness they claim to have inherited from/brought to the genre though. If they are as free of prejudice as they claim and this is really me being too sensitive then where could publishers have possibly gotten this idea from?

(d) Its hard for us to write about people who don’t look like us

So….. You are a science fiction writer who expects me to believe that you are capable of building entirely new universes with new alien cultures or maybe projecting into the future or past of humanity etc..
And at the same time you expect me to believe that you are incapable of writing with any kind of empathy or sensitivity about the people in the world around you based on differences in skin colour/gender/sexual orientation?

Either that’s a cop out or you aren’t a good enough writer for me to be paying attention to anyway. It isn’t as though there aren’t writers who are capable of pulling it off either(Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis spring immediately to mind but there are others). Hence I have a very hard time believing that this isn’t more about you than it is about some intrinsic inability of any writer to do this sensibly.

(e) That’s not true. The genre is VERY diverse in terms of writers. Look at ……….

Tobias Bucknell beat me to this one. In summary, its a silly statement. Stop making it and actually address the issue.

(f) What are you talking about? The genre does include lots of diversity. Just in the form of robots/little green men/elves etc.

Oh, yes, the old ‘the other as the alien’ bit. Now this has been used brilliantly in the past(Isaac Asimov and Octavia Butler come to mind) it also tends to be used as one hell of a cop out by some writers.

For the record. Telling me that you view me as so alien that the only way you could address me was to make me something totally not human(and usually still a caricature, just with different biology) is really not something you should be trumpeting from the trees as some sign of how open minded you are.

If I were to write a story where I represented race relations by creating an all black universe and had white people represented as an evil rapacious alien species that smell bad and are totally devoid of rhythm I expect you might not necessarily see that as a sign of the diversity of my thinking process.

Well, that is the FAQ for now. Please feel free to remind me of any common arguments I forgot and they will probably be added to the list in time.

Three of the best words in the english language

“four day weekend”

For my religiously inclined brethren, enjoy your easter. For me though, this is just time to relax a bit, read and enjoy the time with my family.

On the book agenda I am reading

Volume 2 of The collected speeches of Kwame Nkrumah (Really interesting. Partly what I expected and partly not. I might need to talk about him sometime)

Per Greg’s recommendation, Forty Studies that Changed Psychology (also interesting. Some of these studies I’d heard about and some I hadn’t. They all definitely make you think though)

Also per Greg’s recommendation, Accuracy and Reliability in Scientific Computing (just started this one. For anyone who’s learning how to write scientific software I’d pretty much call it essential)

A paper on Open Source Software in Africa courtesy of the Afrorise blog

Another paper on the economic impact of Open Source Software, this one based on research done by the EU.

I hope you enjoy your free time like I’m enjoying mine people.

Book review: Elizabeth Ohene – “Thinking Aloud” & “Stand Up and Be Counted”

Thinking Allowed - Elizabeth Ohene Stand Up and Be Counted - Elizabeth Ohene

These books represent a very important point in recent Ghanaian history and therefore make for very interesting reading. Elizabeth Ohene, a current Minister of State and former BBC presenter, was a columnist and editor for the The Daily Graphic, one of Ghana’s longest running government owned newspapers during a really interesting period in Ghana’s history.

In 1979 Ghana was under the control of a military government led by General Akuffo. He was overthrown by another group of soldiers led(sort of ) by then Flight Leftenant Rawlings. He held elections and passed Ghana on to a democratic government, then returned a year later to overthrow that same government and establish himself as head of state again in 1981. This was the period for which she was editor and its the time period both of these books cover.

“Stand up and Be Counted” is made up of her editorials over this period and “Thinking Allowed” is a column she wrote before and after she was editor. In both books she made a habit out of challenging the motives and actions of the ruling governments of the time, which was really unusual for a high ranking member of the state owned media. And probably a large part of the reason she had to flee the country after Rawlings came back.

The books are therefore interesting on two levels. on one because they provide insight into a very interesting period in Ghanaian history (I was born in ’79 when all this was going on) and they are also a record of a great deal of personal courage. Opposing the ruling government at that point in Ghana’s history was not exactly the healthiest move on the planet. Especially since she was doing it from the paper they owned.

It was an act of extraordinary bravery which is especially impressive when held up to the extreme levels of mediocrity that a decent section of the Ghanaian media is aggressively pursuing.

Definitely worth the price if you can find it