Monday, July 26, 2010

A Quiet Drive

Driving in Japan can have some peculiar challenges.
Like mind-numbing fear.

Last night, I got the bizarre idea to drive out to a small mountain town that I heard had at one time given home to a whetstone mine (tied to another obsession of mine you might have read about). I knew it was out of the way--I can read a map, after all. But I forgot that out of the way can have a very special meaning in Japan.

You see, Japan has lots of mountains, which are usually big things, but they are all crammed in very tightly, so they kind of get...squashed together. Driving in the mountains in the US usually means lots of winding roads and switchbacks. In Japan it means driving on things which would best be descried as "paved goat paths." Most of the 40 kilometer trip there was nice, broad, 4-lane highway, but about 3km out from the village, I turned off the highway and the nice big roads suddenly contracted into one lane (but somehow, mysteriously, 2-way) streets bordered by towering pines on one side and sheer drop-offs on the other. No sane person would build roads there...seriously.

I made my way, though, gripping the steering wheel tightly, driving about 10 km an hour and hoping that no one would come the other way, and found the village. Although everything was closed and I couldn't find the place I was looking for it was still very pretty, with lovely valley views and babbling brooks. So that was good--it wasn't a total loss. I even saw some foxes and a Tanuki. Then it came time to go home.

Now let me just preface this with a big old preemptive "It was my fault". I know it. There's no need to tell me, ok?

So here's what happened.

I had turned around, and was retracing my way home, and I even had the navigation system set for the way back. But suddenly, I noticed what looked like a big, brand new two-lane highway leading in the general direction of home...It had intersected the little one-way road I had come in on at a very acute angle and I hadn't seen it coming in. Now, looking at the winding path I had taken there and comparing it to the big wide highway, and taking into consideration that although it wasn't on the navigation map, that map was 2 years old and the highway looked brand new, I turned onto it. Would you have done differently? Of course not.

What I hadn't considered, of course, was the apparent fact that the Japanese road system was designed by a blind fool possessed by the soul of the Marquis De Sade. The two lane went about a half a mile, and suddenly ended at a t-intersection with another one of those one-lane roads (WHY WOULD ANYONE BUILD THIS ROAD????). Now, at this point I SHOULD have turned back to the road I had come in on, the familiar though scary path. But, that new path still went in the general direction of home, and it appeared to wind through a bucolic forest offering nice scenery and the chance to see more wildlife, rather than skirt any valleys or cliffs. So I took it.

Ghu help me.

The path soon narrowed. Then narrowed again. It squeezed down into a trail just barely wider than my car, hemmed in by overgrown weeds and pine trees curving overhead to make a tunnel that ended about 2 feet above my car. Now, apart from the fact that this road was paved beautifully, with drainage grates installed every 100 meters or so, I would have sworn that this was a trail left by generations of wandering mountain bears, not a road made by men. There were no houses, no paths into the forest, no sign of any habitation or industry but the road. If I had been afraid of oncoming traffic on the way in, I was nearly wetting myself now.

A real, honest to goodness picture of the road.

I drove slowly, the needle hovering just above the 0, and sweated and cursed and laughed, unbelieving the fact that not only did this road exist, for cars, but that I was driving on it. I was scared not only of traffic, but of falling limbs, of potholes, of bears...the works. Truth be told, we have had some real flooding recently, and the possibility of the road being blocked by a recent landlside, or washed away totally, or any number of problems that would require me to drive over it again, IN REVERSE, was very real. Luckily, none of those obstacles appeared.

Again, I am making NONE of this up.

But of course, on a hairpin turn with no place to pull off and let it pass safely, another car did.

Now, I had been driving for more than a mile and a half, through switchbacks and blind curves, and I was not ABOUT to back up. The map showed that we were about 300 meters from the nearest real road, and I laid into my horn. The oncoming car, hidden behind its own headlights (it was dark, of course, in that forest) backed up, and edged ever so slightly to the side, with it's tire hanging half off the road over a ditch. I did the same, and luckily there was just enough clear space to the side to go off the road. I folded in my mirrors, as did the other car (I'm not joking), and we passed, with about 3cm to spare.

I was soaked in sweat and fear.

But that final 300 meters passed, and I nearly cried with joy when the path intersected that lovely 4 lane highway that lead home. And I made it home safely, in the end, with another story to tell about my own stupidity.

I'll have to go back during the day to find the hones, though.
Click Here to read the rest.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reading the Hugo Nominees: The City & The City

I've found my vote.

After getting my Hugo Voters pack and the free eBooks of the nominees, I swore to myself I'd try to read all of them before I voted. I did. I tried. But the only one I made it through was this one...and that's good enough for me.

You see, if book isn't good enough to hold my attention after the first couple of chapters, I couldn't in good conscience vote for it for an award, and most of the Nominees couldn't hold my attention for the first ten pages.

But The City & The City? I'm planning to read this one at least two more times.

I like China Mieville's work. I've read his three New Crobuzon novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council) and enjoyed them all quite a lot, so I was already planning to buy this one. And now, having gotten through my free copy, I'm going to buy it anyway--because it deserves my money.

China has a flair for the fantastic, for introducing amazing ideas with little fanfare and letting you figure out for yourself how new, how exciting this thing is...and The City & The City is a constant rise of fascination and thrill, a slow drop of the jaw as you penetrate deeper into the mystery of the story.

I think the cover blurbs do little justice to this one. Basically, this story is a murder mystery/political thriller--if you have to genre-fy it, that is. It's not actually that fantasy-ish, in the traditional sense of the word. Nothing, NOTHING, in this book, is impossible. There's no magic, not amazing technology (except for rumors about ancient artifacts with unexplained powers, which are left as just that--rumors).

The amazing thing about this story, this wonderful, enthralling story, is that it skirts so very closely to the real world.

The two cities of the title are Bes'z and Ul Qoma. These places have different cultures, languages, and histories. Bes'z is vaguely Austro-Hungarian/Eastern European in feel, with street names like "GunterStrasz" and characters named "Lizbyet Corwi" or "Vilyem Barichi." Ul Qoma suggests a more Middle Eastern feel (as the name might imply), and in addition it apparently had a Socialist revolution--it is being blockaded by the US, keeping out such worldly things as Coca-Cola.

So there are two cities. Different in so many ways...and yet, and yet, the fascinating thing is these two cites share something vital. The same physical space.

"Aha!" I hear you say. We've moved into science fiction/fantasy territory--there's some kind of dimensional rift, or a wizard did it, or...quantum...stuff!"

Nope. These two city-states, with utterly distinct cultures, languages and political situations--and some amount of antagonism--are literally in the same place. They are interlaced, weaving together physically to make a place where neighborhoods abut another country, where a single street can pass between two cities as it meanders from building to building (a phenomenon called "crosshatching"). And because these cities are in different countries, with non-cooperative governments and some level of animosity, the citizens can, legally, only be in ONE place at a time.

Let's back up here...and let's get spoilery (I'm not going to really discuss details of the story, but more my interpretation--which might ruin it if you want to make your own, unsullied, as it were, by mine.)

I used to live in Post-unification Berlin (a city specifically mentioned in the book, and dismissed as "not at all the same"). In fact, I lived within spitting distance of the remains of the wall. That wall used to mark the border between two cities that were one--two countries that shared a name, a history, and a culture but had been cut in two for political reasons. The wall fell, eventually, and the city started to heal, but the marks are still there. People dressed a little differently, spoke a little differently, thought a little differently. That wall was in place for less than 30 years, but the differences on each side were real.

Now imagine that the division between East and West hadn't lasted for 30 years, but 300. Or 1000. How different would each side be? And how resistant to unification the two halves would become...the individual identity of each side would have been defined by separation. And imagine how that would be expressed in the minds of the people--over the years, the decades, it would be utterly and completely natural to accept the way of things. It would become ingrained...and this is what happened in the Cities of Mieville's novel.

Some untold number of years ago, thousands perhaps? The cities split, or grew together, or SOMETHING, and there were two cities in one place. They resisted unification, for whatever reason, and as time passed the cities reached a status quo with each other. The established reasonably solid borders, though those borders might claim every other building on a particular street, or they might miss a certain space, and in order to protect the integrity of the split, they erected barriers. Not physical barriers, but psychological ones.

The people of each city are trained from childhood, and from all sides, to not see or sense the other city in any way. They are trained in a kind of pointed ignoring that comes near to pathological blindness. What this means is, people--real live people--who live in the two cities can be walking down the same street, next to each other, but if one is in Bes'z and the other is in Ul Qoman, they can not see each other. They must, in the words of the book, "unsee." There are cues to help with this, luckily. Differences in dress and mannerism, and of course language help mark people as in one city or the other, and architecture and even colors differ enough that mistakes are largely absent. But that's it. No walls, no barricades. Just ingrained willful ignoring of the spaces around you which aren't yours.

In the book, it is shown time and again that there is no real physical prevention of seeing, but the indoctrination of each child trains them to not pay any attention to the inhabitants of the other city. In fact, the rift is so vital, so strong, that there is a specific law and a specific organization that pertains to just this thing. Any failure to maintain your presence in JUST ONE city, any paying of attention to events in the other, results in "Breach", and the infractor becomes subject of a near mythical, seemingly all powerful organization called just that: "Breach".

It sounds mad. It sounds like something utterly impossible...until you look a little more closely at the realities of national, linguistic and cultural borders.

If we return to Germany, think about this passage from Wikipedia:

When the Wall was erected, Berlin's complex public transit networks, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn, were divided with it. Some lines were cut in half; many stations were shut down. Three western lines traveled through brief sections of East Berlin territory, passing through eastern stations (called Geisterbahnh├Âfe, or ghost stations) without stopping. Both the eastern and western networks converged at Friedrichstra├če, which became a major crossing point for those (mostly Westerners) with permission to cross.

Think about that--the trains crossed into another country, where you would be SHOT if you got off...then back into yours. You could look out the windows of your train on the way to work and see another country, where you had no hope of going, where you might have family or friends that you could never meet...and get off the train, still in your own nation, and go about your day.

Or take a look at this:

See that? That little spot there? That was a little village called Steinstuecken, that for some weird political reason was added to West Berlin in the big kerfluffle that arbitrarily divided a city into two enemy states. And so it was completely isolated, an area of a few square kilometers, for vague political reasons, and if you tried to leave for ANY REASON, you would be shot on sight.

So, no, I don't think the story is that out of touch with reality. I wish it were. It's just an extreme extension of things that we all known are true about politics, people, and psychology. In fact, the extreme isn't that far off...just look at Yugoslavia.

Of course, the madness of the politics and the cities is only part of the story. Add in some corporate greed, the natural tendencies of young people to resist the status quo, and some weirded out foreigners and the book becomes a real-live story. And a GOOD one.

This was a FANTASTIC book. On top of all the craziness with the politics and the cities themselves, the meat of the story is an exciting page turner of a mystery, with likable, believable characters and a satisfying ending. So you get it all--mind-bending weirdness, police procedural and a murder mystery, all in one.

Seriously, go and read it.
Click Here to read the rest.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Twas a hot and sultry evening...

Last night. And tonight. And probably tomorrow night.

You got a problem with that? Cause I do...

Japan has a lot going for it. Low crime rate, cheap and competent medical care, excellent food...

But it ain't got weather. You get like, two good weeks in Spring, and the rest of the year is utter crap with scattered bits of hell. Right now is the latter.

But I shouldn't complain. Life is good...I just got a bonus at work, totally unplanned for and the actual result of my company appreciating my hard work--making it a REAL LIVE BONUS, as opposed to the Japanese "Deferred Compensation" faux-nus--and the wife said I could buy what I want with it. So...70,000 JPY bonus. iPad 64gig wifi is 68,800 JPY.

Guess what's coming in a week or two? That's right, UTTERLY NEEDLESS TECHNOLOGICAL GIMMICRY!!!! But it's pretty and shiny and it will help me while away the hours until death's icy hand closes over me for good.

How's by you?
Click Here to read the rest.