November 3rd, 2005


November Books 1) Safe Area Goražde

1) Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95, by Joe Sacco

Another one of Time's top 25.

Most of my experience of Bosnia was far to the west and north of the town of Goražde, for three years a Muslim-held pocket surrounded by Serb forces. Before reading Sacco's graphic novel, I knew precisely two anecdotes about it. One is from accounts of the peace negotiations at Dayton ten years ago this month, which provide a backdrop to Joe Sacco's framing narrative: through use of satellite imaging, a mountain path linking Goražde to the rest of Muslim-held territory was found and actually written into the peace treaty; the exhilaration of the international negotiators at finding this solution forming a shocking contrast with the lack of enthusiasm of their local counterparts, who expected the war to resume in a year or so.

Sacco has a superb portrait here of a community under siege, not actually sure if there is a future, yet alone what it might hold (there were persistent rumours that Goražde might be traded to the Serbs in return for concessions elsewhere). He shows himself as an outsider, both slightly sinister (with his eyes never visible behind his glasses) and slightly absurd (with his lips grotesquely enlarged, giving him literally a big mouth). The inhabitants of Goražde, and their assailants, are shown as normal human beings, caught up in scenes of horror and destruction.

As well as providing a narrative of the people of Goražde, Sacco uses the book to make a couple of factual assertions that I have not seen anywhere else in writing about the war. One is that chemical weapons were used by the Serbs against refugees fleeing Srebrenica. He is completely convinced of this, although he concedes that Human Rights Watch, who also looked into the question, were not. I can add a little more supporting, though circumstantial, evidence from our report on Yugoslav arms sales to Iraq published in late 2002: it is a matter of record that the old Yugoslav army had a chemical weapons stockpile in the Sarajevo suburb of Hadžići, and that nobody (at least three years ago) seemed to know precisely what had happened to the stockpile after the army withdrew from Sarajevo in 1992. Quite likely most of it did reach military depots in Serbia, but it is far from impossible that some was diverted into Bosnian Serb hands en route, or subsequently.

Sacco's second factual point is linked to the second of the two anecdotes I mentioned above - the notorious assertion by General Sir Michael Rose, at the time in charge of British peace-keepers, that a tank attack on the town could have been stopped by "one bloke with a crowbar" and that the defenders of Goražde were asking UN peacekeepers to do their fighting for them. Sacco's depiction of the tank attack on a terrified and poorly armed civilian population is a far more eloquent refutation of Rose's statement than could possibly have been achieved by the written word alone.

Perhaps few people these days will be very interested in the politics and history of Goražde. It is after all ten years since the Dayton negotiations which ended the Bosnian war. The debate about the rights and wrongs of international intervention is now, alas, completely different from the period when President Clinton and the rest of the international community displayed utter spinelessness in the face of warlordism and genocide in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia, before finally doing the right thing in Kosovo.

But the book remains very much worth reading as a human story of how people do survive in extreme circumstances, and ought to be celebrated as a classic of its genre.

November Books 2) Moving Mars

2) Moving Mars, by Greg Bear

This Nebula winner is the autobiography of Casseia Majumdar, Martian stateswoman, who is at the heart of an independence struggle that ends up with the entire planet escaping not just politically but physically from the rest of the solar system. All kinds of resonances in here from sf's history - the three that came immediately to mind were Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, also his Red Planet and Asimov's very early short story, "The Weapon Too Deadly To Use". Plus the deadly nano-bots coming to life and devastating the human settlements, though a classic and almost cliched image of sf, were done very well here.


I really enjoyed this book and I'm rather surprised I hadn't heard more about it from others. In particular, the main hard sf element of the plot, the acquisition by a relatively weak political player (the Martian government) of what is effectively a weapon of mass destruction, seemed to me awfully relevant to contemporary politics, if anything rather more so than when the book was first published in 1993. I guess that Bear's vision of a revolutionary human society on Mars is less grandiose (though I think no less ambitious) than Kim Stanley Robinson's massive trilogy which was coming out at around the same time, and perhaps his portrayal of how the political process appears to insiders - which I felt was realistic and well-informed - was insufficiently romanticised to leave a lasting impression in people's memories.


I raised my eyebrows at first when Casseia was appointed to senior government office before the age of thirty (in earth years); but I had lunch yesterday with a prime minister (admittedly of a small and not-quite-independent European country) who was first appointed to that job when he was 28, and the circumstances described seemed to me to make the scenario just about plausible. And, of course, great stories are often told about unusual events.


Moving Mars scores very well on the sensawunda scale, better indeed than most Nebula winners. I felt it also worked well on the human level, with Casseia's decisions and mistakes, both political and personal, convincingly portrayed. I have had my complaints about some past Nebula winners, but this one was a good call.


First interviews this month

From leedy:
  1. What languages do you speak? Collapse )
  2. What book are you reading at the moment? Collapse )
  3. If you could go on holiday anywhere in the world RIGHT NOW, where would you go? Collapse )
  4. What is your favourite smell? Collapse )
  5. What was your favourite subject in school? Collapse )

And daegaer asks:
  1. What was the best thing about growing up in Northern Ireland? Collapse )
  2. If you could travel in time, would you go forwards or back? Why? Collapse )
  3. Is there a piece of poetry that has had a lasting influence on you? Collapse )
  4. What's your favourite guilty pleasure song? Collapse )
  5. Have you ever considered a permanent move to a former-USSR state? Collapse )

November Books 3) The Jewel-Hinged Jaw

3) The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, by Samuel R. Delany

This is a collection of a dozen pieces about sf, written between 1966 and 1976. They vary greatly in both length and quality; the longest, an article called "Shadows", is 80 pages, split into 60 sections which really appear just thrown together at random. I found some of this book stimulating but other bits overblown - for instance, Delany's apparently serious argument that there is no difference in average height between men and women, it's just that tall women and short men are oppressed by society and are in hiding as a result. I really bought the book for his essay on Thomas Disch (who I haven't read) and Roger Zelazny (who I have) and I thought that was well worth the cost (I've promised greengolux my thoughts on this at greater length but have probably missed her deadline by now). His longer piece on The Dispossessed had some sensible points in it but attacked the book for being insufficiently feminist and open-minded about sex, a view which will doubtless surprise many of its readers. So there we are; all interesting, but some bits much more interesting and worthwhile than others.