Peter Reason on being a pilgrim and being a tourist

I recently re-blogged a section from Peter Reason’s new book, In Search of Grace. I’ve been reading it over the weekend and am sorely tempted to simply copy out sections. I hope to write a fuller, more considered review in due course but also hope to blog responses to particular themes. Reason’s “ecological pilgrimage” touches on a huge range of topics related to nature connection, silence, conservation, pilgrimage, and time and whole range of topics close to my heart.

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It is an engaging read which is helpfully upfront about the messy human reality of pilgrimage – very far from a continuous series of flow experiences, epiphanies of so on. His pilgrimage is ecological rather than explicitly religious and draws on a wide range of traditions, including secular/scientific ones – but with a great deal of respect for the religious underpinnings of pilgrimage.

He is also unsentimental – observing for instance that as the “Sixth Great Extinction” began pretty much once homo sapiens showed up, blaming the depradations humans have wrought on the planet on “Western” or “modern” man is a mistake.

Anyway, there is a huge amount to get to grips with and I hope to feature some highlights and thoughts here over the next while. For the moment, one theme which is relatively minor but highly significant is the distinction between the pilgrim and the tourist. I have blogged on this before – or rather on the distinction often made between being a “tourist” and a “traveller” – my own preference being for honest tourist rather than pretentious traveller.

For Reason, these reflections are most acute on Inishmore, largest of the Aran Islands. Aware of the tension inherent in bringing economic benefit to an isolated community (although as he writes, given the preponderence of day trippers the main beneficiaries are the ferry companies), he also notes his own preference for solitude in sites like Dun Aengus. Yet, is he so different from the mass of tourists? As he reflects afterwards:

I sailed north with a heavy heart, disappointed with my visit. Inishmore is a remarkable place. First for its lessons in geology: it is one thing to read about how erosion creates limestone pavements, quite another to actually walk over them. Second, for its lessons in history: while this is not my part of the world, I know is has been deeply influenced and impoverished both by its own conflicts and those imported from England. For me, however, these qualities were overwhelmed by the visitor culture, not so much by the curiosity of the people who visit, but by the infrastructure that is required to cater from them and to profit from them. The tourist business requires that large numbers of visitors move through the sites fairly quickly and are returned to the tourist hub where they can spend their money.

It is all too easy to make a crude distinction between tourist and pilgrim. We are all both. The line is a subtle one that I found myself continually crossing and recrossing, never entirely sure which side I was on. Indeed, nature writer Paul Evans refers to people like me who go in search of wild places as ‘wilderness tourist.’ Religious pilgrims who go to sacred places in search of a holy realm will often take time out for sightseeing; and tourists visiting the same place may find themselves affected more profoundly than they had bargained for. The tourist may see a haughty arrogance in the pilgrim’s claim to a higher purpose, and the pilgrims may look down on the superficiality they see in the tourists.

Reason goes on to write as to why he finds the distinction still worth making; I don’t want this to turn into simply posting extracts from his writing so I would urge those who wish to know more to seek out the book For me, sites like the Louvre and the British Museum do acquire the status of pilgrim sites, and when somewhere is described as “touristy” it is usually because there is something worthwhile there. Of course, the experience of visiting it may be wrapped up in a lot of tiresome tat and overcrowding, but it was ever thus …

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‘British Army Gothic and Innocent Landscapes’ : The Troubles in Photographs (review of”The Maze”, Donovan Wylie, Nthposition, 2004)

‘British Army Gothic and Innocent Landscapes’ : The Troubles in Photographs (review of”The Maze”, Donovan Wylie, Nthposition, 2004)

(Nthposition seems to be no longer live, so the text is recovered from this blog and photos from Wylie’s book are reproduced here.)

“The Maze”
by Seamus Sweeney
Nth Position Book Reviews

Review of:
The Maze
Donovan Wylie
Granta, 2004

Prisons often have strangely poetic names. Think of Strangeways in Manchester or Parchman in Mississippi, think of Sing Sing or Spandau. Even Wormwood Scrubs has an evocative ring – the juxtaposition of the Book of Revelations book Wormwood and an image of the mundane labour of scrubbing. Some prisons display reverse nominative determination – Mountjoy in Dublin is anything but joyful. But no prison that I know of has as apt a name as The Maze near Belfast.

I had always assumed “The Maze” was so called because it was literally a maze, a medieval sounding fortress-prison. In fact, the townland on which the prison was built was known as “An Má” – the plain – as Gaeilge, which became “The Maze” over time. Yet the Maze is exactly that. Like something out of a Borges story, the building is deliberately designed to baffle and confuse. Entering the world of Donovan Wylie’s photographs is to enter a world of “steriles” and “inertias” – open spaces, the former a stone surfaced space designed to immobilise the prisoners, the latter a void running immediately along the wall of the prison designed to detect any movements near the seventeen-foot high perimeter wall. It’s a world of roads that are almost all cul-de-sacs, where any one point in the prison looks exactly the same as sundry other points.

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Northern Ireland. The Maze Prison. H-Block 5. Excercise Yard B. 2003 photo by Donovan Wylie via http://we-make-money-not-art.com/donovan_wylie_vision_as_power/

The Maze, from the evidence of Wylie’s photographs, was and is a prime example of a distinctive architecture those familiar with the Northern Ireland landscape will instantly recognise. The watchtowers, many now dismantled but many still present across the landscape, the courthouses and police stations surrounded by high walls and enmeshed in barbed wire – British Army Gothic, it could be called. For many who didn’t have to actually live there (and, I suspect, not a few of those who did) the apparatus of militarisation gave driving through the North a certain frisson of excitement. It was part of what made Northern Ireland distinct, and for this Free Stater, part of the sense of the place not being the same as Galway or Cork. There was a certain heaviness in the air, palpable at the sight of one of these inscrutable structures. Margaret Thatcher’s aphorism that Northern Ireland was as British as her constituency Finchley was widely ridiculed, but to call it as Irish as Spiddal or Mullingar betrays an even tinnier ear to the unique atmosphere of the Six Counties/Ulster/Northern Ireland.

As that last splurge of strokes indicates, it’s almost impossible to write about the wider topic of Northern Ireland for any length without betraying yourself – I use the word “betraying” judiciously. One’s allegiances are revealed in the very terms used to describe the Troubles/conflict/armed struggle/security situation. Even the attempt to be linguistically neutral will probably alienate both sides more than anything else.

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Northern Ireland. The Maze Prison. Inertia Stage 2. 2003 Photo by Donovan Wylie via http://we-make-money-not-art.com/donovan_wylie_vision_as_power/

Dr Louise Purbrick, Senior Lecturer in the History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton, provides a clear-sighted essay on the photographs that manages, on the whole, to avoid the partisan traps language sets for the unwary (although – here’s the inevitable “although”) her account of the start of the “Troubles” is a bit simplistic. Like a lot of penological literature, there’s a strange void in Purbrick’s essay – no mention of what the prisoners had actually done to end up in jail. One almost feels a deus ex machina has deposited them there.

Purbrick is strong on the history of the Maze, and the thinking in prison construction and design that underlay its conception. The Maze was built in 1976, beside the existing internment camp of Long Kesh. The paradox was that to enforce the end of special category status for paramilitary prisoners, a special prison had to be used. The Maze was unique in British prisons in that it was a complete maximum security institution – elsewhere in the UK, the policy of ‘dispersal’, incarcerating high security prisoners in Special Security Units scattered throughout the prison system, had been in place since the Sixties and continues to be. Housing prisoners in separate cells, as opposed to the dormitories of Long Kesh, was expected to break up group loyalties.

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Northern Ireland. The Maze Prison. Chapel, Phase 3. 2003. Photo by Donovan Wylie via We Make Money Not Art site (see link above)

The H-blocks which became part of the iconography of the Troubles were prefabricated concrete units whose shape was dictated by economy rather than any aspiration to symbolise anything. The advent of prefabrication in prison architecture could even be seen as part of the International Modernist glorification of functionality over traditional ideals of form. If Le Corbusier felt a house was a machine for living in, prefabricated prisons were machines for incarcerating people in. Built by the Royal Engineers, the Maze is British Army Gothic Triumphant – Wylie describes how the walls initially appear entirely grey, such is the volume of barbed wire around them.

The Hunger Strikes of the early Eighties (there were two major ones, the second during which Bobby Sands and ten others died, and a less well known strike in 1980) and the dirty protests, as well as creating a potent Republican martyrology and searing the H-block into Irish consciousness, ultimately ended the debate on special status. Purbrick cites the Chief Inspector of Prisons during this later phase in the conflict that “there is no point in pretending that it is a normal prison.”

Wylie’s photographs both gain and lose something for being taken when the Maze was unoccupied. There’s an eerie, JG Ballardian atmosphere to the photos of vast institutional structures now disused. There is little difference between the inertias and steriles, and indeed navigating the photographs becomes disorientating – have I been here before, one asks, even while turning the pages. This is a hint of the derealisation that the Maze itself must have provoked.

The pictures of now-empty cells, their flowery curtains the one hint of lively colour in the book, again strike one largely with their sameness. But how much of this is the sameness of institutional buildings – from hospitals to schools to barracks back to prisons – anywhere? How much of our reaction to these photos is their presumed context – was this cell wall covered in excrement, did a hunger striker lie on this bed? In these images, life is drained out- but is it because the prison is empty or because of the nature of the building itself?

The images are reminiscent of David Farrell’s Innocent Landcapes (published in book form in 2001). In 1999, after the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims’ Remains) Bill was passed in the Commons declaring an amnesty to help the identification and location of the remains of those “disappeared” during the Troubles, six locations were identified where eight people had been buried after being murdered by the IRA. Their fate and the location of their bodies had been unknown to their families since the Seventies. Farrell’s photographs were pastoral landscapes, with the unmistakable signs of a forensic search for a body discreetly in the middle distance, like a shepherd in a Poussin painting. Hannah Arendt’s thinking on the banality of evil are often discussed, but Wylie and Farrell portray the banality of much else that we think of with fear and trembling – the banal reality of maximum security and of murder and hidden burial respectively. Wylie and Farrell complement each other in other ways – Wylie portrays the architectural embodiment of the state’s forceful authority, while Farrell shows us the smiling hills where the IRA forcefully asserted its authority. (edit in 2017 – Farrell continued his project beyond the time this review was written, see here)

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Image from Innocent Landscapes, David Farrell, via http://www.galleryofphotography.ie/innocent-landscapes-by-david-farrell-010101-010201/

The Maze now lies empty, closed since October 2003. A public process of consultation is ongoing as to its fate – the interested can visit the site at New Future for the Maze. Predictably, there is a sectarian edge to the various proposals – museum, suburban centre, stadium – for its future. Wylie’s photographs may be closest we will get to simply leaving the Maze intact, neither the burden of interpretative centres with a no doubt contentious interpretation nor the simple erasure of history, but simply leaving it as it is.

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Innocent Landscapes, Resumed search, Oristown, March, 2011 from http://source.ie/blog/?p=1659

Review of “Wild Abandon”, Joe Dunthorne, TLS, August 19th 2011

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This is a brief review of an entertaining second novel by Joe Dunthorne. It didn’t quite have the success of Submarine, which was a pity, since in many ways the focus expanded quite effectively. Some tendency towards journalistese (see the Happy Mondays quote I mention below) it was a very effective comic novel that did a certain justice to its characters. With thanks to Maren Meinhardt for sending me the full published text.

Countercultures
SÉAMUS SWEENEY
Joe Dunthorne’s first novel, Submarine (2008), depicted a Swansea teenager’s comically sex-obsessed, self-dramatizing existence and his tragic attempts to keep his parents together. In his new novel, Dunthorne broadens his canvas to a commune in South Wales, but the focus remains on growing up, family life and marital breakdown. These, the novel suggests, are equally painful in unconventional families and in nuclear ones. Blean-y-llyn is a secular, non mystical exercise in communal living, conceived in the early 1990s by Don Riley and his companions. The Welsh name is not significant since all the communards are English, and it is known to the locals as the Rave House after a legendary fifteenth birthday party for Don’s daughter, Kate, which turned into an all-night affair.

The opening scene, in which seventeen year-old Kate and her eleven-year-old brother Albert have a shower together – it is the only way to get Albert to wash – suggests the eccentricity of the Riley ménage, in which Freya, the children’s mother, is increasingly alienated from Don. While Kate leaves every day to attend a sixth form college, Albert, who feels “puberty’s greasy palm on his shoulder”, is still schooled in the commune, with only six-year-old Isaac for company. Sensible Kate is one of those exasperated daughters of ostentatiously countercultural parents, but Albert has absorbed the apocalyptic beliefs of Isaac’s mother Marina, a serial commune-dweller and a believer in the upcoming cosmic dislocations of 2012.

Don Riley is a monster of righteousness and ill-judged humour. In one excruciating scene he tells his unwilling eleven-year-old son how he lost his virginity: “he leaned down to Albert’s ear and whispered conspiratorially in a tone that he hoped would show his son that, one day, the two of them could be friends. ‘She had a climber’s body but alpine tits’”. Also disturbing is Don’s use of the Personal Instrument, a self-built device for the focusing of consciousness, as an initiation for the commune’s children into adulthood – he inflicts this modified motorcycle helmet on Albert as a desperate and futile attempt at control. At times the larger-than-life Don threatens to dominate the book to the detriment of its wider themes.

Dunthorne creates sympathetic adolescent characters. Kate’s alienation from the commune reaches a crisis point, and she leaves to stay with her boyfriend Geraint and his nice, average suburban family – local television news producer dad, devoted and supportive mum. Having grown up on a diet of films depicting bourgeois life as a repository of hidden dysfunction, Kate expects dark secrets amid the mown lawns and plasma screens, and some of Dunthorne’s most acute humour exposes the limits of Kate’s apparently clear-eyed world-view. There are some false steps – a long expository section dips into Sunday supplement generalizations (“Black Monday revealed the vulnerability of the stocks markets; the Happy Mondays revealed the quality of drugs coming from the continent”) and the final rave seems set up for a sentimental resolution. Fortunately, a powerful last scene is able to reconcile Kate’s new maturity, the altered dynamics of the Riley family, and even Albert’s millennial anxieties, and Wild Abandon comes to a satisfying close.

“the overbearing mother, the emotional repression, the teasing sort-of girlfriend, the constant guilt and fear ” – draft review of The Cure, Rachel Genn, TLS, 2011

The TLS ultimately used a much edited version of this review of a book I evidently didn’t like. Perhaps I was uncomfortable with the line “having sex with Séamus in a pub toilet.” Bad sex writing ahoy!

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Eugene Mahon is a familiarly depressive fictional Irish male, living a
life of quiet desperation in Salthill, Co. Galway. He is kitted out
with the accoutrements of his type – the overbearing mother, the
emotional repression, the teasing sort-of girlfriend, the constant
guilt and fear. His father, Séamus, died some years before, marinated
in alcohol – his drinking accelerating after a Shoreditch building
site accident which left another man worse off than dead. And in a
familiar move both in reality and fiction, Eugene lights out for
London town; specifically to work on the sites and to live in The
Beacon, the pub lodgings where his father had stayed.

Della, landlady of the Beacon, receives Eugene’s letter announcing his
arrival with dismay. She recalls, in a passage that alternates
logistical and lyrical modes, having sex with Séamus in a pub toilet
(“Between the sink and the toilet there wasn’t much room for the V of
her thighs – ‘Weightlifter’s thighs,’ Seamus had kidded, his fingers
digging into the underside of them for a second … Even then, at the
moment where wanting becomes having, she had known that she would wake
with the barbs of who and where carelessly jagging over her” ). Jack,
a confrere of Seamus’ from the old days, is still is residence at The
Beacon. Della’s Oxbridge educated daughter Julia (“Little Miss May
Balls” as her mother mockingly calls her), and Julia’s shiftless
philosopher-boyfriend Rhodri (working on a volume of aphorisms and
daydreaming of a column: “’Grey Matters – where Psychology meets
Philosophy meets the Popular.’ The better Sunday supplements were
crying out for it. Perhaps even the TLS if he shaved off the
expletives.”) also populate this dive.

Upon arrival, Eugene goes to work on a site presided over by the man
who employed his father, tough but benevolent Buck O’Halloran and his
far from benevolent son Noble. The sites are no longer the preserve of
Irish refugees from miscellaneous misery; this is a truly
multinational crew. Eugene livens up – a little. Of course, an
Irishman in a novel cannot be all that happy for all that long, and
Eugene eventually wakes in a police cell, with a charge of racially
aggravated assault and no memory of how he got there or what lead to
the charge.

“The Cure” reminded me inescapably of Fitzgerald’s dictum that “Begin
with an individual and you end up with a type, begin with a type and
you end with – nothing.” Eugene’s almost stereotypically miseryguts
Irishman may live a little in London, but never takes on a spark of
life. His mother, his brother, his girlfriend back in Salthill – all
seem barely reheated leftovers from an Edna O’Brien novel. The writing
is slightly livelier, slightly more engaging, dealing with the
multiethnic crew of the site – but even these figures feel half formed, and tend to speak in the contemporary equivalent of Kipling’s aspirate-free Tommies.
Of all the characters, Rhodri’s absurd philosophising and pretension
(“he believed that writing in pencil let more of the self out”) are
closest to memorable, striking attributes.

While the flashbacks to Salthill largely read like an updated Angela’s
Ashes, there are some moving moments. The rain-sodden depressive
Irish caricature has a basis in reality, and Genn captures some
elements of the mother-son relationship very well – but more in discursive
passages (“it was obvious to her that her children had been trying to
get one over on her since the day they were born so she countered this
with apocalyptic predictions”) than in action or dialogue. These moments aside, The Cure moves with plodding overinclusiveness towards an unearned epiphany.

“The story-within-a-story done right” : review of “The World House”, Guy Adams, SF Site 2010

“The story-within-a-story done right” : review of “The World House”, Guy Adams, SF Site 2010

Original here. Despite my enthusiasm here – and what I wrote in the penultimate paragraph – I didn’t read any of the succeeding books in this series. I was never, even at my adolescent height of enthusiasm for SF/fantasy, all that into the multivolume series which dominate the field.

The World House
Guy Adams
Angry Robot, 2010

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Done properly, the story within a story can have a vertiginous effect, a sense of being caught in an infinite loop, best described by Jorge Luis Borges in his lecture on “The Thousand And One Nights” collected in the book Seven Nights. The world-within-a-world story can have a similar effect. In a way, the hidden world is a theme not only of literature — from Horton Hears A Who to, it could be argued, the three stages of the afterlife in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Dante enters the afterworld through “a dark wood”) — but of myth of the underworld may be the first world-within-a-world story.

Guy Adams has created a rollercoaster of a story set in a world within a box — a world-within-a-world that is itself a Divine Comedy. For the box is, for most of those inside, a kind of after-life — those humans who enter the box do so at a moment of imminent death in this world — and it is certainly more an Inferno, or at best a Purgatorio, than a Paradiso. This is a world created out of the nightmares and fears of humans themselves, contained inside a box that is in fact a prison, with a very special prisoner.

The first third or so of the book is taken up by gradually introducing the multifarious cast of characters. From Spain during the Civil War to Harlem in the early 30s to the late night bars of New York in the 70s to Florida and an unnamed corner of England today, the pre-box lives of the characters are sketched artfully and speedily.

We begin with Miles, an English antique shop owner with poor financial judgement and a gambling habit, who gets on the wrong side of some very nasty characters indeed, and just before they blow him away on account of an unpaid debt he vanishes into the box. We also meet Penelope Simmons, a fun-loving Boston socialite in the 30s, who, about to be raped and murdered by her psychopathic fiancé Chester and his chauffeur at the end of a night out in Harlem, also disappears into the box. Both turn up at the same time and in the same area of the rambling, seemingly infinite house, which is where most of the action in the world takes place. If there is a main protagonist to the book, it is Miles, whose mordant world-view and lack of appetite for heroics, and lustful longing for Penelope (in fairness to Miles, at their first encounter Penelope is totally naked having escaped from Chester’s clutches just in time) are an earthy anchor point as the surreal action ensues. Miles and Penelope luckily team up with Carruthers, an Edwardian big game hunter and general man of action along the lines of Lord John Roxton from The Lost World who is determined, with admirable pluck, to escape the box altogether.

Interspersed with the stories of the box’s human inhabitants are brief vignettes of the story of some kind of super-powerful entities, probably extraterrestrial, who are responsible for the box’s existence. The box is a kind of prison for a renegade entity, one who stayed behind to enjoy tormenting the puny, pitiful humans whom its fellows had just been bored by.

In the early stages, it seems at times that Adams is throwing in yet another character from yet another setting, seemingly at random. As the story progresses, we realise that there are connections and commonalities there. And there seems to be another kind of inhabitant of the box — who seems able to exit and re-enter both the box and our own timeline. Alan Arthur, an academic in modern Florida with a large chunk of his memory missing, is drawn to this box (which, unsurprisingly for an artefact of such power and mystery, has been the subject of confused and fragmentary articles in some of the more out-of-the-mainstream media) for reasons that become clearer as the story progresses.

Too much more would give away not only the plot but the pleasure of reading the unfolding of this intricate tale. The world of the box is one of subtly altered reality, where benign seeming surfaces mask mortal dangers. From a jungle to snow-capped mountains to a sea of literal dreams, there are all the unnatural environments that one could think of. This may be a kind of after-life, but the box is a highly lethal place. Most of the visitors have a short life expectancy, and many resort to a brutish subhuman existence of cannibalism and fear.

Some of the most endearing characters are, unfortunately, not with us for long — although the conclusion does raise the possibility that the arrows of causality may have to be tinkered with, if not actually reversed. There will be a sequel, Restoration, which I for one will certainly be reading to see where the ride will go next.

World-within-a-world stories, like stories-within-stories, can be horribly self-indulgent and dull. After a while, the reader can lose interest in a story in which anything can happen with no real consequences, or in which random settings can be created. The crucial trick which Adams pulls off is to create compelling characters whose destiny becomes a matter of all-consuming interest in the reader. Adams is also adept at keeping the various strands of his highly productive imagination together, and creating a real sense of nightmare and indeed of menace in the story.

Argentina’s Dark Half-Century: Review of Lewis Shiner’s “Dark Tangos”, SF Site, 2012

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I reviewed Shiner’s definitely SF short story collection Love in Vain for SF Site also. This was a highly impressive “mainstream” novel which comes highly recommended as the review hopefully makes clear. Original here.

Few countries have had as dark a half-century as Argentina. Once one of the ten wealthiest nations on earth, and blessed with outstanding natural resources, Argentina’s post-war history became a catalogue of repression, oppression, exploitation and (perhaps worst of all) a pervasive sense that justice was never done. The most intense and damaging period of repression was the so called processo, which introduced “disappeared” as a noun to the lexicon. Anyone suspected of leftist sympathies was liable to vanish, and in one of those particularly sinister twists of the human capacity for cruelty, pregnant women would give birth in captivity only to be killed and their children adopted by the elite. The CIA and various American corporations were complicit in this abuse, yet another murky drama of Cold War powerplay.

As Lewis Shiner’s narrator observes, while the absolute numbers of dead (thirty thousand or so in the processo) is not near as high, the evil and determination to utterly destroy The Other is reminiscent of the Holocaust. In the novel, the narrator, Robert Cavenaugh, works for a fictional American corporation whose Buenos Aires office was, it turns out, complicit in all this. He himself is a relative innocent, a frequent visitor to the city even before the posting, and recovering from the breakup of his marriage. This is, for him, far from a hardship posting; he is keen to master the tango, and embraces the Buenos Aires lifestyle, the antithesis of the suburban commuter life he knew, with gusto.

Shiner has weaved a compelling and sharply observed tale. The tango is Robert’s key to the nocturnal, sensuous world of Buenos Aires nights, and Shiner takes the reader into this culture with subtle, unshowy erudition. I have never been to Buenos Aires myself, but Shiner manages to create a convincing portrayal of a vast, vibrant city with the intimacy of a village. There is plenty of local colour, but it does not overwhelm.

What follows is a by turns entertaining, erotic and disturbing account of how Argentina’s and America’s pasts and presents intersect and interact. Falling in love with Elena, a beautiful Argentinian he sees one day at his workplace and meets one night at the tango, Rob enjoys a blissful interlude of eroticism, suddenly cut short by Elena withdrawing all contact. Determined not to let this relationship just end, Rob insists of entering her world, and through this determination is drawn into the darker heart of Argentinian politics. The darkness of Argentina’s past is counterpointed with the bright, romantic world of the tango, and the gentleness of the love story counterpoints the viciousness of the political plots.

At times I found some of the contrasts Shiner’s narrator drew between Americas North and South a little laboured; Argentina, too, is the New World. However they are perhaps necessary for us to understand the transformation from political innocent to someone whose involvement goes beyond the superficial, touristic liking of a country to something deeper. Shiner, whose short story collection Love In Vain I reviewed, has written a “straight”, mainstream novel that reminded me most of all of Graham Greene’s tale of painful moral awakenings and difficult comittments. There is no real speculative element to this fiction; when you read the torture scenes, and read about the tragedy of Argentina in the last half century, you’ll wish that these were the products of imagination rather than grim reality.

Laptop Warriors – on the “Stealing the Network” series. SAU Blog, October 2007

As it stands, my last contribution to the Social Affairs Unit blog is this piece on two novels written by (firstly) Ryan Russell, Tim Mullen (Thor), FX, Dan “Effugas” Kaminsky, Joe Grand, Ken Pfeil, Ido Durbrawsky, Mark Burnett, and Paul Craig, and (secondly) Ryan Russell, Jeff Moss, Kevin Mitnick, 131ah, Russ Rogers, Jay Beale, Joe Grand, Fyodor, FX, Paul Craig, Tim Mullen (Thor), and Tom Parker.

Even more is written about “cyber war” now than back in 2007 , though this paper persuasively argues that “war” is not the correct terminology for cyber attacks.  

As novels these books are pretty awful, although I did like the opening section about

Stealing the Network: How to Own the Box
by Ryan Russell, Tim Mullen (Thor), FX, Dan “Effugas” Kaminsky, Joe Grand, Ken Pfeil, Ido Durbrawsky, Mark Burnett, and Paul Craig
Rockland, MA: Syngress Publishing, 2003
Paperback, £25

Stealing the Network: How to Own A Continent
by Ryan Russell, Jeff Moss, Kevin Mitnick, 131ah, Russ Rogers, Jay Beale, Joe Grand, Fyodor, FX, Paul Craig, Timothy Mullen (Thor), and Tom Parker
Rockland, MA: Syngress Publishing, 2004
Paperback, £22

Last May, the Estonian government’s decision to relocate a statue of a Red Army soldier lead to vigorous protests from Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and ethnic Russians in Estonia and abroad. Most media coverage in the West focused on another confirmation of Putin’s self-confidence, and of resurgent Russian sabre-rattling. Less remarked on – and less reported – was the fact that an EU member was virtually assaulted – and “virtually” here means the contemporary sense. An army of computers attacked Estonia’s computer-based infrastructure. As the Estonian Minister for Defence later told Wired:

The attacks were aimed at the essential electronic infrastructure of the Republic of Estonia. All major commercial banks, telcos, media outlets, and name servers – the phone books of the internet – felt the impact, and this affected the majority of the Estonian population. This was the first time that a botnet threatened the national security of an entire nation.
[A botnet is basically a collection of computers whose security has been compromised and are being used for some nefarious purpose, usually unknown to the computer’s owner.]
As Wired adds portentously:

Welcome to Web War One
Computer-phobic readers, if such a breed read a web-based publication, may be forgiven a sigh of exasperation. The phrase “Revenge of the Nerds” has rarely seemed more apt – for not only are the computer nerds and geeks derided in schools and college now the world’s richest men, they are now claiming martial glory as their own.
So, war too goes digital. War has always been one of the staples – if not the staple – of popular fiction for men and boys of all ages. War and adventure are linked so closely that we often hear heard the war in Iraq described as “a foreign policy adventure”.

Of course, while the martial virtues and the computing virtues seem, at first, diametrically opposed, on closer inspection this is not the case. Someone once remarked that anyone who uses the phrase “military efficiency” without irony has never been in the army.

Be that as it may, the military mind is methodical, plans ahead, tries to break down the unknowable chaos of war into manageable units one can train and prepare for, and while the outcome is vastly more unknowable than the in theory entirely predictable response of a computer, shares with computer programming a mission of controlling the world.

Syngress specialise in computer security manuals, most of which are in a traditional format. They also publish the Stealing the Network series, which has become a series of “cyber-thrillers”, fictional stories about hackers using real techniques and technologies. How To Own the Box, the first in the series, is a set of short stories, while How To Own A Continent is a novel.

Jeff Moss, President & CEO of Black Hat, Inc. in his introduction (both books have slightly different introductions, with essentially the same material) is at pains to point out that “hacker” is abused in the media as a term for computer criminal. “Hacker” originally simply meant competent programmers and system administrators. They would “hack up” the source code of a system to fix things, because they would have the big picture of the entire system in mind at all times – unlike less competent computer folk who may know their small patch very well but have no vision of the entire system.

You would not describe a criminal auto mechanic as simply a mechanic, and you shouldn’t do the same with a hacker, either.
The introduction is a useful primer for understanding hacking. Interestingly the hardest attacks to defend against are not the technical assaults of viruses and worms, but physical attempts to literally hack into systems and what are called social engineering attacks – essentially closest to the traditional confidence artist’s manipulation of people’s gullibility, naïvete and trust.
The popular image of brilliant hackers taking over the Pentagon with a few keystrokes belies the sheer hard work, patience and ingenuity hacking seems to require. Hackers, as portrayed in the book, generally exploit the inefficiency and laziness of most system administrators. They remind me somewhat of the Oakland Athletics, the heroes of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball – poor outsiders in the world of baseball who methodically identified the great inefficiencies of the traditional scouting and recruitment system and played well above their weight.

The books are written by committee – both boast nine contributors, some of whom go by a nom du hack such as “FX”, “131ah” and “Fyodor” (yes, a tribute to Dostoyevksy, and Fyodor is properly embarrassed that a Google search for “Fyodor” lists him about the great proto-existentialist), some of whom such as Kevin Mitnick have gained fame well beyond the world of hacking.

How To Own A Continent boasts one of the most compelling opening chapters I’ve ever read. Much of both books is imbued with a kind of edgy nihilism, slightly contemptuous of the non-hacker and proud of technical competence and ingenuity. This opening chapter has a punch and narrative drive that sucks the reader in:

How much money would you need for the rest of your life? How much would you need in a lump sum so that you never had to work again, never had to worry about bills or taxes or a house payment. How much to live like a king? Your mind immediately jumps to Bill Gates or Ingmar Kamprad with their billions. You think that is what you would need.
Ah, but what if you wanted to live in obscurity, or at least were forced to? It’s not possible with that much money. You might actually need a billion dollars to live like royalty in the United States. It can be done; a few people live that way, but their lives are reality TV. If that kind of attention means the end of your life, either by a charge of treason or a mob hit, then the US isn’t an option. The US has a culture of being intrusive, everyone knows too much about everyone else.

The narrator explores the pitiless logic of this completely self-sufficient life – and surely total self-sufficiency is a common fantasy? For most of us, it will always stay in the world of fantasy. As the narrator explains,
It was not without its costs; several years of my life and my wife. Now I’m alone, there’s no one to take care of but myself. No reason to stay in Virginia. No distractions.
Over the rest of this chapter, a remorseless routine is laid out. It is utterly focused, but focused on what? We have hints, but no clear picture. The next chapter transfers the action to Lagos, and the plot proper commences. Some of what follows is impenetrable even if you are paying attention:
He logged in to the mac3 machine with another one of his stolen accounts, and switched over to his wstearns context by running the wstearns shell:
[mac3:~] ajr % ~mrash/Public\Drop\ Box/.shells/zsh-wstearns mac%

He next ssh’ed into the VA teach cluster using wstearns’ password:

Mac% ssh wstearns@gateway.cluster.vatech.edu
wstearns@gateway.cluster.vatech.edu’s password:

I doubt Robert Louis Stevenson or Captain Marryat could write a ssh’ing into a cluster scene to match that. However, generally the detail is either incidental or secondary to the thriller aspect of the plot, and in the context of the scene perfectly understandable. What matters is not what the characters type or what technology they use (though the authors obviously take considerable pride in the technical accuracy of their work) but the insight into the hacker mindset – problem-solving, logical, methodical, patient.
Military metaphors abound in the hacking world. Most obviously, the prefix war – as in wardialling, wardriving, warwalking and even warbiking. The etymology of all these terms is rooted in the 1983 film War Games.

War-driving, walking and biking all involve searching for wireless networks while in various forms of transport – either as a hobby, to identify unsecured networks to use for free, or for some other purpose. All you need is the free program NetStumbler and a wireless enabled laptop or PDA, and off you go on this addictive (as I can attest) if rather pointless (unless you actually are motivated to, and know how to, use the information) activity. The industry critics who have praised the books describe them as “attack orientated”.

How To Own A Continent is predominantly set in Africa, and while Conde Nast Traveler may not be commissioning the authors for sweeping travelogues anytime soon, their pithy style is in its own way evocative:

He took a taxi to Hotel Le Meridian. Everything in Lagos was dirty and broken. Even with its four stars and a price tag of $300 per night, the hotel’s water had the same color as Dr Pepper. You couldn’t even brush your teeth in this water let alone drink it. He went down to the bar area, and had a Star beer and chilli chicken pizza. It was not long before the prostitutes hanging around made their way to him. He was blunt but polite with them – he was in no mood for a dose of exotic STDs, and besides, he had work to do the next morning.
This is the world of the hacker – immensely proud of their competence and focused on their work. And how different is this from other heroes of popular, male-orientated fiction? Read Bond (rather than watch the glib cartoons of movies) and what comes across is Fleming’s hero’s professional pride, his self-recrimination when things go wrong, his satisfaction when things go right.
Male popular fiction has historically been criticised for dealing with the complex world of emotions and feelings by ignoring it. Put simply, the predominantly masculine world of the martial adventure story ignores, idealises or denigrates women. Perhaps the funniest moment of unintentional humour comes in the How to Own the Box story h3X’s Adventures in Networkland by FX.:

h3X is a hacker, or to be more precise, she is a hackse (from hexe, the German word for witch).
h3X occupies herself in the course of trying to exploit an American university’s vulnerable printer servers (I think). FX, we learn from the introductory biographies, is male. It’s an age-old literary problem – can a male writer convincingly convey a woman’s inner life, and vice versa? Perhaps the reader can judge if FX gets it right:
Since it’s about one in the morning (CET) on a Thursday (actually it’s Friday already), h3X decides to pay the local house club a visit and see if there is a nice piece of meat to play with in place of the printer. She puts the freshly discovered devices in her list file and makes a note about that one particular go-and-never return box. Then it’s time for DJs, vodka-lemon, and possibly some dude with a decent body and half a brain – though she knows that’s a hard-to-find combination.

It seems perhaps slightly ungallant to suggest that h3X’s persona might form some kind of wish fulfilment for hackers – but passages like the following make it difficult to suggest otherwise:
Inspecting about 50 different Cisco router configurations for hints on the application of this particular black or blue box is as boring as it sounds. You need to proceed methodically and stay concentrated, and this basically sucks, since you don’t see real progress being made. It’s the same for h3X, but females are sometimes a lot better at concentrating than males, and so she spends the better part of the night, trying to figure out interconnections and other facts about the network. After that, she barely has enough energy left to sit on the couch and watch some TV before she dozes off. The phone rings several times in an attempt to make this attractive, young member of society participate in what people call nightlife, but it goes unheard.

There’s a bathos to the last line that couldn’t be bettered. “What people call nightlife” indeed. But while it is easy to mock the occasional clunky dialogue and characterisation, and the occasional confirmation of the computer nerd stereotype, the books have a compelling power. For me at least they pass the Pageturning Test, along with the Reread Test the only assessment of a thriller that really counts.
And like boy’s fiction of earlier eras, the aim is not to produce a masterpiece of psychological penetration, or to faithfully chart the emotional life of the hacker, but to recount tales of derring-do and adventure. These adventures take place almost entirely in virtual space, but the sense of excitement is still there.

And so what if it is often incomprehensible? I barely understand the naval manoeuvring in Patrick O’Brian, but still derive much pleasure from the books (granted, much of this is from Aubrey and Maturin and the precision of the description of the world, rather than the action as such) In his review on this site of the film Miami Vice, Christopher Peachment argued that:

Not understanding the professional jargon is one of the great joys of watching any new American TV series or film. Think back to the beginnings of ER. It took several shows before you could follow what the doctors were shouting over the mayhem and blood. So too with The Shield, currently the best show on British TV and nearly impenetrable thanks to the cop’s street slang.
And the art of skipping the boring or impenetrable is part of the art of reading (although this can be taken too far).
Finally the universe of Stealing the Network is far from amoral. Just as in boy’s stories of the past, the good are rewarded and the bad punished. In the story Just Another Day At the Office in How To Own The Box, the anonymous protagonist begins highly-paid industrial espionage against his own employer, A42:

A42 was contracted by the U.S. Government to research new technologies for a next-generation stealth-landmine.
Obviously this is a particularly high-security workplace, and our narrator uses a variety of ingenious technical attacks, physical attacks, and social engineering to derive the information. The Epilogue, while lacking much local colour, summarises the disaffection of the successful traitor (and is reminiscent of Henry Hill’s closing monologue in Goodfellas):
I can’t disclose much about my location. Let’s just say it’s damp and cold. But it’s much better to be here than in jail, or dead. I thought I had it made – simple hacks into insecure systems for tax-free dollars. And then the ultimate heist: breaking into a sensitive lab to steal one of the most important weapons the U.S. had been developing. And now it’s over. I’m in a country I know nothing about, with a new identity, doing chump work for a guy who’s fresh out of school.
Proud of their profession, daring, ingenious, patient, methodical, contemptuous of “chump work”, playing the game for the game’s sake more than for the supposed casus belli – the hackers of the Stealing The Network books are not so far from the military heroes of popular literature as we might think.