Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The bikies are going to get me!!!

Recently in Queensland, the state government has passed what it considers to be tough ‘anti-bikie’ laws to crack down on what are perceived as criminal bikie gangs. Apparently these are suddenly such a threat to our society that laws which undermine basic human rights are necessary to ‘protect’ us all. Here we go again. Another bunch of unnecessary and draconian laws to protect us from yet another imagined threat. Let’s not worry about real threats, such as those to the environment. Instead, let’s pass dangerous laws that may be populist in the short term, but probably won’t achieve what they aim to achieve, and open the doors for even further human rights abuses in the future.

Oh, I’m sure all Queenslanders feel so much safer now. I’m sure, like me, you have lain awake in bed at night in terror of these bikie gangs.

Governments love to target an ‘enemy’. No doubt it gives them a sense of power. They can claim to be getting tough: doing ‘something’. It is only too easy to play upon people’s fears. And, let’s face it, people seem to scare easily (except about climate change, apparently). The other easy target for governments (including this state government) is paedophiles. I am one of those bleeding heart liberals who happens to believe that even paedophiles have legal (and human) rights; which, of course, will immediately lead to accusations that I am ‘protecting’ them or am in some way defending their actions. No. I am simply pointing out that paedophiles remain human beings. We do what governments and frightened people always do when we label them ‘monsters’: we try to define them as non-human so that we can treat them in any way we wish. Need I point out that this is a slippery slope?

The crimes allegedly committed by members of bikie gangs are already crimes. They are not worse crimes (or in any way different) because they are committed by people who identify with such an organisation. I felt the same way about anti-terrorist laws. As far as I am aware, it was always illegal to set off a bomb in order to kill or injure people. Special laws and penalties are not required to deal with this. It is now, apparently, illegal for any three or more members of an illegal gang to meet together (for any purpose). Too bad if these people also happen to be friends, cousins or brothers. Three brothers, who happen also to belong to such an organisation, can no longer have Christmas lunch together. I presume it has always been illegal to meet together to conspire to commit a crime. That in itself is already, probably, a slightly silly law. Now, of course, the presumption is that whenever any three or more people who belong to such an organisation meet together it is for the purpose of carrying out or planning a crime.

Let me think. Presumably people who don’t belong to any identifiable criminal organisation have in the past, are at present, and probably will in the future meet together to plan nefarious deeds. After all, apparently 99.4% of all crimes in Queensland are committed by people who do not belong to these identified criminal organisations. Are you in a restaurant right now, reading this on your smart phone? Are their three or more people having a meal together right now in that restaurant? Oh my God, are you having a meal with two or more other people right now? What if they (or you) are planning a crime? Any group of three or more people, anywhere, anytime, might be planning a crime! Oh my God! Government, please step in and protect me! Let’s make it illegal for three or more people to meet together anywhere, anytime. That should make me safe!

This is, of course, ridiculous. Or is it? There are reasons why we protect the right of legal assembly; and reasons why governments past, present and future are suspicious of such rights. All kinds of human rights abuses can be ‘justified’ in the name of protecting us. Governments with too much power—as Queensland’s government does have right now, without an effective opposition and without an upper house of review—seem only too quick to abuse that power. 

I would rather be accused of being a ‘bleeding heart liberal’—and even actually be one—than stand by and watch our rights eaten away in the name of ‘sensible’ and ‘appropriate’ measures designed to ‘protect’ us. I suspect we are more often in need of protection from governments than by them.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sand City Murders by MK Alexander - a Review

Sand City Murders is a mystery/crime novel, with a time travel twist. It is narrated in the first person by Patrick Jardel, a reporter with a small town newspaper, the Sand City Chronicle. He becomes involved in the investigation of a series of strange murders in the town. The investigation becomes international when the Dutch detective, Tractus Fynn, is brought into the investigation because of a connection with similar crimes overseas. It soon becomes apparent to Patrick that all—and particularly Fynn—is not what it seems. Fynn slowly reveals himself to have the ability to travel through time and alter past events, and Patrick himself discovers that he is unique (apparently) in being able to recall the previous timelines, although the present is now altered. Along the way it becomes clear that a shadowy figure, whom Fynn calls ‘Mortimer’, may be behind these murders, and that this Mortimer is also a time traveler, and Fynn’s arch-enemy or nemesis.

There is a certain corniness to this plot, which may be intentional, paying homage to detective fiction of the past, but also, perhaps, to more recent television interpretations of these. The figure of Fynn reminded me of the recent interpretation of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, in the current ITV production, Poirot, as portrayed by David Suchet. Fynn is slightly (and somewhat indeterminately) foreign, somewhat pompous and markedly old-fashioned. He is meant to be Dutch apparently, yet, for some reason, refers to young women as ‘Mademoiselle’, blurring his nationality to some extent.

The plot itself is necessarily complicated and, I might say, almost indeterminate. This is because the present—due to Fynn’s and Mortimer’s messing with the past—is in constant flux. Who has been murdered, who works where and does what—these things can change within a few pages. This means that minor characters in the story are difficult to pin down: today, they are not who they were yesterday. The major characters, though, are reasonably firm, Patrick, Fynn and the main local detective on the scene, Durbin. Patrick’s growing confusion and the gradual disintegration of his concept of reality and his trust in the world around him are well portrayed. This also provides for some nice moments of humour. I was a little less sure about Fynn. In particular, his foreignness seems to come and go somewhat. Mortimer (when his identity is finally revealed) turns out to be something of a comic book character: rather stereotypically evil. The motivation for his personal vendetta against Fynn remains unclear to me.

In any story involving time travel, there are always going to be problems with the plot. Explaining the ‘rules’—why this happens, why this doesn’t, how this or that is accomplished—will always leave plenty of scope for criticism. For the purpose of such a story I am generally happy to ‘suspend my disbelief’ in these cases. The author here makes a valiant effort at making it all plausible—and, of course, fails miserably in the attempt. That’s okay. What bothered me slightly more was that he spent too much time trying to explain the rules to the reader, via conversations between Patrick and Fynn. There were too many such conversations, none of which really served to clarify the matter or further the plot. I was also puzzled by the introduction of another element into Patrick’s character, namely, his apparent total ignorance regarding modern icons such as Superman, Popeye and the Flintstones. We are informed that Patrick possesses no television, but this is not enough to account for such ignorance. These little hints were intriguing and amusing, and I eagerly awaited the explanation for this, or the revelation of their significance for the plot. Neither eventuated. Or perhaps I missed something here.

It is clear that the author intends this to be the first in a series of novels, with Tractus Fynn as the main protagonist, and Patrick as his narrator/sidekick (à la ‘Watson’). I would be a little concerned that the motif—crime occurring; Fynn flashing back to past to undo crime (thus changing the present); Mortimer flashing back to do it all again—could become tedious very quickly. Subsequent volumes could end up being nothing more than minor variations on the theme. I await the sequels with interest.

I might just mention that there were a number of technical issues with the book. Particularly early on, the author seemed to have lost control of the tense in which he was writing. Happily, this settled down after a while. There were also a large number of typographical and grammatical errors, which I stopped counting after a while. Some of these errors really jarred: ‘once and a while’ instead of ‘once in a while’; ‘gossip-and-chief’ rather than ‘gossip-in-chief’; similarly ‘editor-and-chief’ rather than ‘editor-in-chief’. The author repeatedly wrote ‘in the knick of time’ rather than ‘in the nick of time’. This was unintentionally amusing. The author also frequently wrote ‘maybe’ instead of ‘may be’. I would encourage the author to work hard to avoid so many issues in subsequent volumes.

All in all, this in an enjoyable and entertaining book. The overriding concept is interesting and provides scope for some interesting stories. There is also the possibility that this will quickly lose its novelty value. To this volume I give four stars.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Trimming the Fat

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart. – Mark Twain

For the record, I do not subscribe to that school of writing, inspired by contemporary journalism, that insists on everything being pared down to the bare minimum. I enjoy a well-used, well-placed adjective or adverb. I like to wax lyrical on occasion. As with everything in the art of writing, however, the secret is in choosing the time and place. Very often, less will be more.

Many writers (myself very much included) simply use too many words. Consider the following passage from a one-time NYT best seller:

Somehow, Langdon’s body was in motion, panic and instinct now overruling his sedatives. As he clambered awkwardly out of bed, a searing hot pain tore into his right forearm. For an instant, he thought a bullet had passed through the door and hit him, but when he looked down, he realized his IV had snapped off in his arm. The plastic catheter poked out of a jagged hole in his forearm, and warm blood was already flowing backward out of the tube.

Opinion will vary about this, but let’s see if I can eliminate a few unnecessary words here:

Langdon’s body was in motion, panic and instinct overruling his sedatives. As he clambered out of bed, a searing pain tore into his forearm. Briefly, he thought a bullet had passed through the door and hit him; then he realized his IV had snapped off. The catheter poked from a jagged hole in his forearm, warm blood flowing from the tube.

Eighty-two words have become sixty-one words. In this short passage I achieved a 25% reduction in word count without, I would suggest, any loss of information or impact. I might even argue that the impact is greater in the second version. If only this practice had been applied to the entire book!

As an editor, I will always strive to make the writing tighter and more concise, without any loss of essential information, and without affecting the impact of the writing. We tend to use auxiliary words when they are not really necessary. Why write, for example, ‘he began to stand up’, when all we really mean is ‘he stood’? By all means use ‘he began...’ if the action is interrupted, and this is important to the story. So: ‘He began to stand, but a firm hand kept him in place.’ Even here ‘up’ is redundant. Avoid phrases such as: ‘he tried to go as far as he could.’ Presumably he actually went as far as he could: the trying is redundant. Unless you have a specific reason for using the imperfect tense, use the perfect tense: ‘He watched television’ rather than ‘He was watching television’. Is it really necessary to write: ‘He opened the box and a smile rapidly grew across his face’, when ‘He opened the box and smiled’ will do the job? Yes, sometimes you will want to wax lyrical; but choose the moment carefully. Don’t squander this creativity on less important passages.

Having written for scientific journals, in which every unnecessary punctuation mark is ruthlessly excised, I have become very efficient at trimming the fat. Even so, it often takes others to point out the fat I have overlooked in my own work. Sometimes ‘the fat’ may be a precious aspect of our creativity; most often it isn’t.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go through this blog and trim it of its unnecessary fat of which, no doubt, there is an abundance.