Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Children Are Jailed For Their Parents' Crimes in Blame (Book Review)

Blame is a near-future dystopian novel set in the UK. Following a global economic depression, public anger focuses on those who benefited financially from embezzlement, fraud or other crimes. The people want revenge, but in many cases the perpetrators are dead or can't be found. So attention turns to their descendants, and the concept of "heritage crime" is born.

As Abie (a.k.a. Ant) explains it: "People don't like us, Mattie, you know that. Outside it's because we 'got away' with it for so long, because we had this great life we weren't supposed to have…. It makes them feel better if they can blame us for everything. They used to blame black people, refugees, Jews, immigrants, whatever. Then they ran out of people to point fingers at. So now it's us."

Ant, her brother Mattie, and their foster parents Gina and Dan, are all found guilty of having criminal parents, and are put in one of the new "family prisons" in the UK. Their chief tormentor is Assessor Grey, the man who spearheaded the family-jailing movement. He also dreamed up the cruel strap that bolts onto the backs of these "heritage criminals" and prevents them from walking normally. The resultant gait gives them the nickname "strutters."

Ant is a rebel and unwilling to keep her head down until her "debt to society" is paid. She's looking for a way to escape, and not a moment too soon, as conditions are deteriorating, not only in their own prison but in the prison full of actual violent criminals, which, awkwardly enough, connects to their prison via a corridor.

Bizarre circumstances ensue, leading to Ant and her brother finding themselves on the lam with a gang of other strutters. In order to survive, they must commit some minor crimes—a reminder that when we label people as bad, fairly or not, and repeat it over and over again, they tend to oblige us by becoming so.

Other improbable things happen, and it all culminates in a bonanza of triumphant improbability. People who demand realism in their fiction may not be happy with this book. On the other hand, readers who can suspend their disbelief will find it a breathless ride. It is, in fact, much like a Hollywood thriller.

It's also thought-provoking. One is tempted to dismiss the novel's central conceit as something that could never happen in our allegedly enlightened society. But look at what's happening in the world today. Even well-off people are ready to see themselves as the victims of Syrians, Mexicans, etc., who come from other countries in search of a better life. A Trump presidency seemed a laughable impossibility to many just one year ago. Blame is popular right now. The Bible itself gives us a precedent for heritage crime, saying "The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation" (Numbers 14:18).

One of my favorite things about Blame is its sprinkling of foreign languages. Ant and Mattie are half Haitian and sometimes speak Creole to each other. A Creole nursery rhyme that serves as a metaphor for their condition comes up in a couple of places. Creole is a fascinating mix of French and something altogether different.

Another language that comes up in the book is German. Germany is the only country in Europe without heritage crime laws. They have learned from their history and no longer give in to the temptation to blame a group of others for their problems. Thus German is seen by the strutters as the language of freedom. Strutters dream of immigrating to Germany.

Finally, the strutters have their own slang, a glossary to which is provided at the beginning of the book. The author appears to take a special interest in languages. I'm curious to see if he plays with languages in his other novels.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Oh Yeah... Global Warming

I think almost all of us are getting caught up in the American election. It is, after all, the craziest spectacle of an election since Americans first started having elections. Those of us who aren't terrified of the spectre of a Donald Trump presidency think he's he's some sort of orange-haired misogynist superhero who going to Make America Great Again.

Yes, we should be afraid—but not of Donald Trump. We should be afraid of the wildfires raging in California right now, and the wildfires that raged in Alberta last month. We should be scared of reports that the temperature reached 54 degrees Celsius in Mitribah, Kuwait[1] (129 Fahrenheit for you Americans). This is the hottest temperature ever recorded outside of Death Valley (also in California).

The very name "Death Valley" suggests that this is not a climate we want proliferating over the globe. I read somewhere that plants can't live if the average temperature gets above 50 degrees Celsius. If plants can't live, neither can we.

So we should be very scared of global warming, and we should realize that no one is going to save us from it if we don't save ourselves. Here is an idea that is having some difficulty gaining traction. Most people are now at a point where they're willing to consider global warming a problem, and to accept that somebody ought to do something. The thing is, there is no other "somebody" out there. There's only us. We are the ones who need to do something. Not the politicians. (So not the politicians! All they want is our votes.) Not Elon Musk. You and me.

This is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that we can't be lazy and wait for Superman and Wonderwoman to show up. We have to change what we are personally doing.

The good news is that we have that power. We can do it. You're the one you've been waiting for. Isn't that exciting?

I suggest a three-pronged approach, though if you have other ideas, go with them. It's your life.

1. Change your commute

Remember when the car was something you fired up on a pleasant Sunday to go for a drive? Neither do I. The unfortunate norm that has developed is to drive everywhere, for everything. That's not working. To get to the office and the grocery store, walk, bike or take the bus. Do you live in one of those ghastly modern subdivisions with no public transportation and no real infrastructure? There are still things you can do. Contact your ward councilor and tell him you want bus service. While he's working on that, start carpooling with your neighbours. Do everything you have to do in one trip rather than being in and out of the car all day.

2. Change your house

If you live in a northern climate, get your house well insulated and install a heat pump. Yes, there's an initial expenditure, but you'll make it back, and after that, it's sheer savings. We installed a ductless mini-split, and now our electricity bill is about 40% less than it used to be. If you live in a hot climate, you can still benefit from a heat pump. They cool as well as heat, and are more efficient than traditional air conditioners. But don't just rely on heat pumps to manage temperatures. On a hot sunny day, close blinds, curtains and windows to keep your house cooler. On a cold sunny day, throw open the blinds and curtains to let the sun warm the house.

3. Change your vacations

I have long suspected that people in northern climates fly to southern ones in the winter strictly to make their friends jealous. There are better ways to spend your next vacation than lying in the sun working on your skin tumour. Stay closer to home, and you'll be pleasantly surprised at all the fun and interesting things you can do in neighbouring towns, even in your own town. There are a couple of nice things about going to overlooked vacation spots such as small towns. One is the lack of crowds. Another is that the volunteers in the tiny museum will be so happy to see you. They'll give you a tour, and maybe even show you neat stuff they're currently working on in their archives.

And why escape from winter when you can enjoy it? You can snowshoe, skate and ski. Yes, alpine skiing takes fuel and electricity. You have to drive to the hill, and a ski lift hauls you up the montain. That's still better than flying in a plane, or taking a cruise. Cruise ships these days are so gigantic that they're less efficient than airplanes. It's true. Also, they're in the habit of dumping their sewage (which is to say, passenger poop) into the ocean. That's just gross.

Do these three things, and you wont't just be saving the world and improving your fitness and health, you'll also be saving money, and lots of it. Who doesn't like saving money?

If you're poor, you're excempt from number 2, and you're already doing numbers 1 and 3 by default. But there's still something you can change.

4. (Optional) Change your dreams for the future

Instead of telling yourself, "One day I'll have a big house and a big car and I'll fly to the Caribbean every year!" tell yourself, "One day I'll have a passive solar house and a tiny electric car, and I'll live simply and non-materialistically, give my money away to causes I care about, and feel really good about myself!" That's a much better dream.

Gandhi is supposed to have said, "Be the change that you wish to see in the world."[2] Those are good words to live by. If you prefer to get your inspiration from stories, you might want to get a copy of How the Children Stopped the Wars. I read this book years ago, and it's stayed with me.

It's about a little boy whose father is far away. All the children in his village are missing their fathers--they're off fighting in the war. One day when he's walking by himself, he meets a strange little man who explains to him that the war has been going on for years and years. It's lasted so long that nobody remembers why they're fighting, and many have died.

The little boy asks, "Why doesn't somebody stop it?"

The little man says, "Why don't you?" Then he shrinks into a point and vanishes.

So the little boy gathers together the children of his village, and off they go. They have all kinds of interesting and scary adventures, and eventually find their fathers and stop the war.

That little man has a message for all of us.


1. See https://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/eastern-hemispheres-alltime-temperature-record-kuwait-fries-in-54. Back

2. Or maybe he didn't quite say that. See http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/opinion/falser-words-were-never-spoken.html. Back. So what? There's something to be said for pithiness and memorability.