Category Archives: Book Review

BOOK REVIEW: “Irontown Blues” by John Varley (2018)

Having spent twenty years waiting for this book, and then wolfing it down in a day, it seemed only right for me to think about it for 20 hours before I started talking about it. I was disappointed, but perhaps something would change. Maybe I’d strike on some idea that would suddenly unlock it and the whole thing would strike me as brilliant. It’s happened before. Hell, it happened with the first book in this trilogy, Steel Beech, which I utterly hated upon first reading, but I now recognize as the best book of Varley’s career.

“Irontown Blues,” though…no. I don’t see it.

As with all the books in the trilogy, it’s standalone and mostly-self-contained. While events and people from the other books are relevant, those events will be replayed or explained here so the reader doesn’t have to schlog through 3 other novels and 13 short stories to figure out what the author is talking about. As a result, I’m going to dispense with a lengthy aside about the larger Eight Worlds universe this fits into for now, and just jump into the story.

In short, it’s a self-consciously noir detective tale. Chris Bach is a hard-boiled detective. He wears a trench coat and a fedora. He has a cheap office with a 1939 calendar on the wall. He actually lives in a community called Noirville.  A hot dame with a sexy dress and a glamorous hat breezes in and gives him a case. You know, the usual.

The big reveal is that all of this takes place on the moon about 350 years from now, and that Chris is one messed up cat. He’s dealing with a massively bad case of PTSD and some well-earned paranoia as a result. His detective shtick is his attempt to cope with it by play acting a life as a generic gumshoe. It’s something he knows well from old books and movies, and the simplicity of it appeals to his attempts to stay centered.

Apart from “The Big Glitch,” the event that traumatized Chris, the moon is always depicted as a near-utopia in the Eight Worlds stories, but that’s played down here. We focus on the seedy underbelly. Even so, as Chris himself admits, there’s not much crime. Not really enough to justify his hobby.

The Dame’s case is interesting: in a disease-free future, some guy is deliberately infecting people with very hard-to-cure illnesses. Nothing lethal, but still a serious crime. Chris takes the job and then the book all kind of falls apart.

Do you know what a MacGuffin is? As Hitchcock put it, it’s the thing that has no value in and of itself, but which drives the plot because everybody wants it and is trying to get it. The best example in this context (Though not a Hitchcock-related) would be The Maltese Falcon. The bird itself is basically worthless, but people are willing to kill and die for it. That obsession sets up the conflicts, action, and, more importantly we learn about the characters. Specifically Sam Spade, the detective and protagonist. It’s pretty much a standard detective storytelling device.

The problem in Irontown Blues is that the case itself is more-or-less a MacGuffin. It exists only to set up the book and get it rolling, and provide a spine for the narrative to hold on to, but it’s not even remotely interesting in and of itself. It’s really just a lot of rigmarole that serves no purpose, it’s just a pointlessly convoluted manipulation, which the book itself pretty much admits, but when the author tries to put meaning to it, to explain why the first two thirds of the novel are just padding, well, the explanation doesn’t really wash. I mean, it’s internally logically consistent, I guess, but it’s far from satisfying, and it never connected with me. And while it may be consistent, that doesn’t mean it’s good.

The real reason, I think, is that the author simply wanted to write a hard-boiled detective novel, and that’s pretty much the end of it. The Eight Worlds universe just happened to be the most convenient venue at hand.

This confuses me, because I know Varley can write a good detective story. He’s done it before. This mystery stinks, though. It is clearly just busywork. Part of that problem is that Chris is really bad at his job. Now this could be endearing. A crap detective can be charming or funny, but here, no, he’s neither. He gets a case – first one in forever – then procrastinates for three days before doing anything. When he finds out he has to go to Irontown, he gets scared and procrastinates for days longer. He doesn’t even send his sentient bloodhound, Sherlock, to follow the dame around.

Another problem is that Chris is basically the least interesting character in any Varley story ever. His dog is more interesting. Hell, his dog’s translator is more interesting, and she only turns up in the notes where she talks about the difficulties of translating dog-thought into people-talk. She’s never even ‘onscreen’, so to speak. There’s really none of the existential dilemma we find in the first two books in the series. In Steel Beach, Hildy Johnson is trying to find some meaning in life, and figure out why she’s suicidal. Then a disaster happens. She doesn’t find meaning, but she does at least kick the suicide thing. In Golden Globe, Sparky Valentine is an actor who’s led a life of no particular significance. He gets a chance to do something that will be the pinnacle of his career, something that will make him feel his life is well-lived, and he goes through hell, high water, the whole solar system, and fights with the mob in order to do it.

In this book there’s none of that self-examination and quest for meaning. A bland PTSDed-out ex-cop plays dressup, some people try to kill him at one point, and then he and his dog live happily ever after with his girlfriend (A minor character from Steel Beach) whilehis dog’s translator lusts after him.

Big deal.

The traumatic event in his life revolves around the disaster from Steel Beach, and we have an extensive flashback of his actions and aftermath, and, yeah, that stuff is actually pretty good, but it goes to show how little of the rest of the book stands out.

Readers of the series will want to know if it finally makes good on the promises at the end of Steel Beach and Golden Globe. Yes, but in a far less impressive fashion than we were led to expect.  In fact, it feels derivative of the penultimate book in Varley’s “Lighting and Thunder” tetragy.

Which brings up a second major problem with the book: Tone. Voice. Phil Collins sounds the same whether he’s singing solo or with Genesis, right? Sting sounds very different when he’s solo than he did with The Police. Varley, likewise, had a different authorial voice in the Eight Worlds series than he does in his other work. He also has a somewhat different voice in his standalone works, like “Slow Apocalypse,” which ‘sounds’ different than the Thunder-and-Lightning stuff. Here, however, we have an Eight Worlds story that doesn’t sound like an Eight Worlds story. It sounds like a Thunder-and-Lightning book. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just distractingly out of place. Remember that album of heavy metal covers Pat Boone did? Just felt wrong, didn’t it? Of course he did it as a joke, but Varley is serious here.

Another problem, I think, is that as this series has progressed, it has gotten less fantastic, and less disturbing. The moon is a a place where death itself is not an absolute certainty, nobody starves, nobody gets sick, everyone has access to all the information and entertainment there could conceivably be, everyone can live any kind of life they want, and folks change gender back and forth again and again based on their moods and the whims of the fashion industry. Hell, mosquitoes have been genetically modified so they no longer even bother people. Even this marks a slight reduction in marvelousness than the original Eight Worlds stories. (Which, despite a near-magical utopia, were plenty squick-inducing in places)

In this book, mention is made of perfect health, of gene-altered smart dogs, of cybernetic implants, but it’s all taken down several notches, and only mentioned when it absolutely has to be. It just feels different. Like he’s trying to put the mushroom cloud back in the bomb. I have to say that I do not think he’s actually trying to do that, it just feels that way by accident.

Another problem is that it absorbs the Anna-Louise Bach stories into the Eight Worlds universe. Those were a series of three stories about a lady cop who lives on the moon, and one where she’s a lifeguard living on a space station. They are in a world that is similar in some ways, but that’s all: similar. Until now.

Varley has decided to shoehorn them into Eight Worlds, and brother, believe you men, he has to hammer the hell out of them to make them fit. It contradicts the Bach stories themselves, and the Eight Worlds backstory. I found it terribly distracting, but that’s probably just me.

The final and biggest problem is just the lack of interest here. This feels less like a story that was begging to be told, a story Varley was busting at the seams to share, and more like the sort of thing he feels he’s put off about as long as he can, and is finally banging out from a sense of obligation, not passion.

In the end, it’s short, bland, kind of abrupt, and basically sugarless. And, sadly, it’s the end of the Eight Worlds saga, which has been running (infrequently) for 45 years. Not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a ‘meh.’

 

No one is ever fanatical enough

There’s a Ballard novel that everyone but me hates – “Hello America.” I don’t think anyone I’ve read really gets it: They take it as an environmental fable or a dumb adventure story or just a silver-age SF writer beyond his prime. In fact, it’s slamming American liberalism. Ballard was British, and liberal at that, which effectively means his fingernail clippings were harder to the left than Bernie Sanders. As such he had a lot of criticism of our politics, which I can sum up by saying “Americans liberals are doing it wrong.”
 
Case in point: the American ecology collapses. It takes a couple decades, but everything east of the Rockies becomes desert. The government’s response is to pour more money into youth programs, which they feel will really bear fruit a generation or two down the road. So while they’re building the National Youth Center (A twice-life-size fiberglass replica of the Taj Mahal), the country literally ceases to exist. That particular president later retires to a Buddhist monastery in Japan where he spends the rest of his life attempting to attain Nirvana. Which is just sort of the thing American liberals did in the 1970s (The book came out in 1980).
 
So hundreds of thousands of Americans are abandoning America every year (The largest American ghetto was in Dublin) while the Government was shutting down nuclear power plants. Because those are bad. All the while they could have easily solved the problem, but were more concerned with social issues than transitory things like the economy or individual human lives.
 
This sounds like an uber-conservative book, and most of the (few) people I know who’ve read it take it that way, never realizing that Ballard was about as far from conservative as it was possible to be without a doctor’s prescription back in the day. (Seriously: He has some hideously disturbing books that my conservative friends should avoid. If you REALLY want to read him, contact me and I’ll give you a list of (comparatively) safe books) Instead, he was slamming the American school of liberalism, which he (Apparently) felt was just as goofed up and fanatical and intolerant and whacked-out-of-touch-with-reality as the right wing was.
 
Why not rag on the right? Its shortcomings were obvious, and everyone else was doing that sort of thing anyway. Ballard was not one to follow the herd.
 
What made me think of this was a conversation with a friend today, and a similar one a few days ago with someone else, talking about how they’ve more or less been pilloried for not being liberal enough for the liking of the current freaked-out crop. I’m not making a political statement here. I’m annoyingly apolitical. I just find it interesting when fanatics get scared and turn on their own. I don’t really care which side of the aisle the fanatics are on.

OBITUARY: James Stephen Graham

There are so many people who knew and loved Jim, from so many different places, that I feel like a poser talking about him. I only knew him for the last few years of his life. During that time, he and I were never on the same continent. We were barely in the same hemisphere. Even so, we were friends.

We weren’t the incredibly close secrets-of-the-soul kind of friends. You know, the ones where you go walking through the park, looking up at the stars and talking about what it’s all about, trying to make sense out of life and existence. I don’t claim any massively hugely deep insights, and as I said there were so many people that know him so much better than me. But we were friends, and I feel like I have to say something.

I don’t mean “I feel obliged to say something,” I mean, “My heart demands I say something.”

I first ‘met’ Jim when I was the head writer on a now-defunct website. He’d just written a book called “Birdie Down” – his second novel – and he asked me if I’d review it. I got a fair number of requests to review self-published books, and I wasn’t enthused. They’re generally terrible. Most people can’t write for sour apples, and I usually couldn’t print a review anyway, because it would be very negative and hurt their feelings. Just the same, there was something about him – maybe just how polite he was, or maybe his lack of pretension – so I said, “Sure, I’ll get to it when I get to it.”

When I finally got to it, I really enjoyed it. I wrote a glowing review and posted it, and Jim was so happy that he reposted parts of it on his website, and used part of it for his cover blurb.

As a self-published writer myself, we naturally got to talking about the craft, and how hard it is to get paid and/or discovered, and we hit it off. You know how it is when you meet a total stranger in the dorms in college, and something just clicks and you sit up talking about vampire movies or some other dumb thing until it’s time for class the next morning? And then you just know that you’ve made a life-long friend, and thirty years from now you’ll still be calling up and annoying each other about movies or TV shows, or ideas for TV shows, or some dumb funny thing or another? It was kinda like that. I figured Jim and I would be yammering on for the rest of our lives.

And here we are. And I find myself missing all those conversations we’ll never have.

I read his first novel, and enjoyed that more than “Birdie Down,” and I may or may not have reviewed that too. I don’t remember. I probably did. He told me that he was working on a third novel, Army of Souls. By this time it had come out that ancient arcane theology and forgotten heresies are a hobby of mine, and as “Army” touched on some of those subjects, he asked if he could use me as a resource. I said sure. I don’t think I was very useful. The novel ultimately had exactly one line that I’d had any hand it. That made me laugh.

During that period he asked me if I’d be a reader for him. I said, ‘sure.’ This basically entailed me reading his manuscripts, and making notes about flow; pointing out when the American characters used Anglicisms in conversation rather than Americanisms; spelling errors, stuff like that. Nothing substantial. During that period we emailed several times a day, and conversations frequently sprawled away from the topic to whatever dumb random things struck our minds. It was a lot of fun.

My kid is special needs, and during that period he was going to a Christian school. I needed to be on hand, just to be safe, so I spent most of my days in the chapel when they weren’t using it. I did most of my readerly duties there, and when Jim found out about it, he was amused, given the somewhat sacrilegious nature of his book.

We talked less after the project was done, but still kept in fairly regular touch. No big deal. Friends for life, right? Thirty more years? Levels of chattyness wax and wane. No need to force it.

On October 12th he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He’d been working on another novel. It was about 80% done. On the 13th he gave me the bad news, and asked me if I’d please finish the book for him. He said he really liked my writing, and he liked me, and trusted that I’d do a good job with it.

He also said – and this is probably the best example of what a great guy he was – he said, ‘I don’t know why your books don’t sell better, but you can put your name on the final one of mine as a co-author, and maybe that will help my readers find your stuff.’ I paraphrase slightly, but that’s the gist of it.

My God, how selfless is that? Who turns their death into an advertisement for a friend’s crappy career?

He asked me not to mention it for a while, because there were people he needed to tell about his condition, and he wanted them to find out from him, not by accidental online blathering. After that was done, he said, he’d send me the notes and manuscript and stuff. I said sure, I’d wait to hear back from him.

I asked him what his prognosis was. “Not years” was all he’d say. I was determined that I would write the best damn ending to his book that I could come up with, and that I’d get a finished copy to him before he passed.

A week went by, two, three, more. I figured he had more pressing matters, but I really wanted to give him that finished story.

Yesterday, the November 10th, Vivien told me that the cancer was much more aggressive than anticipated and he had died.

Well, what can you do? I was stunned. I said, “I’m sorry for your loss,” I prayed. I binge-ate to make myself feel better. I had trouble getting to sleep last night, writing this obituary over and over again in my head all night long.

Jim was a nice guy. He was kind, he was honorable and brave, as his long service record in the British military attests. He was interesting and smart and, although he never talked about it, I gather he was a pretty good businessman in his later years. He was a good writer. The places he wrote about felt like real places. That may not sound like much, but trust me: It’s high praise. Most can’t pull that off.

And of course he was my friend.

I’m envious of you, who knew him better. You were blessed to have him in so much of your lives, and I can only imagine the sorrow and anguish you’re going through. If it’s any consolation, the last time we talked he told me he wasn’t despairing, that he wasn’t angry with the world. I don’t know if that helps, but I hope it does. He was only in a little bit of my life, for just a few years, but I consider myself better for having known him. He was a good man.

He was also a good writer with a lot of stories left to tell. His mind was like a library that burned down. Now we’ll never get to read all those books he never got to write; hear all those stories he had yet to tell. There’s just an empty space where all that imagination and talent used to be. It’s a terrible absence.

My prayers go out for the well being of his soul, and for the comforting of his family and friends in this terrible time. He was a good man, and he will be missed, but he will not be forgotten.

BOOK REVIEW: “Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein (1959)

“Starship Troopers” is probably the seminal “Fightin’ Space Marine” story. It’s the cornerstone of a whole subgenre of Science Fiction, and it’s almost universally regarded as one of the best novels of Robert Heinleins’ entire career.

I really don’t like it though.

For the record: I increasingly hate Heinlein mostly because I unreservedly loved him when I was younger. Cut my eye teeth on his books, and identified (Way too much in retrospect) with his ‘aw shucks’ version of self-superiority (“It’s not that I’m so great, it’s just that everyone else in the universe is a waste of skin.”) Let’s not get into that now. I’m just putting it up here to acknowledge my obvious bias.

The important thing to take away here is that even when I was younger and adored ol’ Bob, I still didn’t like this book. I couldn’t get through it. From high school through the end of college, I started and gave up on it over and over again. In my twenties, I finally bit the bullet and just poured through the whole thing once and for all. Predictably, I didn’t like it. I just don’t think it’s a very good book, and I am mystified by the adoration people have for it. I mean, hell, there’s a “Starship Trooper” suite on a Yes album. Not a song, mind you, but an actual ten-minute suite. And it’s not a crappy Yes album, either, it’s one of the good ones before they became an embarrassment to themselves and others. Seriously: what the frack is up with that?

Recently, I read Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” which got me on a Fightin’ Space Marine kick, which led to “The Forever War,” which led to me reluctantly deciding to re-read “Trooper,” despite my dislike from twenty years before.

I hauled the book out, I read the first chapter, and I thought, “Wow, you know, that was pretty kickass! Maybe I’ve misjudged Bob. Perhaps I’ve been unfair. I mean, yeah, his first book was possibly the worst first book ever written by a human being, but to his credit he seemed to know it and didn’t want it published. And yeah, his later stuff is all basically him talking about how great he is for hundreds of pages at a time while spanking it and talking about how much he wants to sleep with his mom. So, yeah, both ends of the career are a total wash. Just the shame, I did used to see something in the guy, right? I mean, he can’t compare with a real writer from the period, but he wasn’t utterly without talent, he’s certainly the best of the “Engineer Writers” from the mid-20th century, and one of the few who seemed to wrap his brain ‘round the concept that you needed to have an actual story in your story.” (Compare Arthur C. Clarke or S. Fowler Wright for authors who never grasped that).

So I read the first chapter and a little glimmering of my 12-year-old-boy love for all that is sciency and spacey came back, and I thought, “Damn, this is my old friend! I haven’t seen him in thirty years! This guy’s good!”

And then I read Chapter Two, and it all fell to crap again. Heinlein Sucks. That’s all there is to it.

Bad book, bad writer. If that’s what you’re looking for, the review is done. Go home.

If you’re more interested in *why* it’s a bad book, here’s the rundown:

Chapter 1: Really, really, really cool Fightin’ Space Marine battle, probably the best one ever written up to that time. (20 pages)

Chapter 2: Flashback to high school, when Protagonist discusses arcane matters of social theory, then randomly decides for utterly stupid reasons to join the military (20 pages) These are, in fact, supposed to be stupid reasons.

Chapter 3: Basic training. As this is modestly interesting, Heinlein brings it in at 10 pages.

Chapter 4: More of same. 10 pages, but not at all interesting..

Chapter 5: A dumbass gets himself court martialed, which takes 17 pages while we have the military justice system explained to us.

Chapter 6: 18 pages during which a sergeant and an officer discuss how broken up they are over the fact that they spent the preceding 17 pages during which they go into the philosophy of military justice and blah blah blah.

Chapter 7: Protagonist describes the powered servo-armor combat suits they wear for 9 pages. This was undoubtedly far cooler in the day than it is now. I mean, we’ve all seen Iron Man, right? Or a zillion Anime mighty-fighty-robot shows. It’s a cliché now, but this is the genesis of it. It lacks impact nowadays in all but an historical sense, but back then it was cool. Of course since it’s modestly interesting, Heinlein keeps it as short as possible. He’s not actually interested in being interesting, he just wants to rail on about how he feels the world and the army should be run. Just to make that perfectly clear, we’re now 108 pages into the book, nearly halfway through, and the only genuinely neat-o-keen-o stuff is in the beginning. “Well,” you think, “We’re building up to it.” Oh, how wrong you are!

Chapter 8: 21 pages on military discipline, floggings (He’s for ‘em!), and the death penalty for rapists. Can’t really argue against that, but it’s all so talky and nothing happens.

Chapter 9: 8 Pages about basic training. Every bit as dull as the previous 90 or so pages about basic training.

Chapter 10: 15 pages on the protagonists’ 1st assignment, during which nothing interesting happens, but we‘re told the pecking order on ship in great detail.

Chapter 11: The flashback that started in Chapter 2 FINALLY ends, and pick up the story from the end of the battle in Chapter 1. “Ha! Now it’ll finally get rolling!” No. Mostly we just talk about how command of the squad is re-organized in the wake of the casualties they took.

Chapter 12: THIRTY SIX PAGES of Officers Candidate School! Thirty Six Pages! This is basically the Basic Training sections replayed in case you weren’t paying attention, only it’s more boring as they’ve taken out the floggings and court martials and random walking around stuff (None of which was all that interesting to begin with) and they’ve replaced it with a whole lot of half-assed social theories. It just goes on and on and on, and it won’t stop.

Chapter 13: When it finally does stop, it gets even worse. The next chapter is 58 pages, the first half of which is entirely dedicated to explaining the technical order by which a platoon is organized, who has what post, what rank, what file, and so on. It is every bit as dull as reading an instruction manual. Duller, actually, because you’re forced to realize at some point that Heinlein actually decided the instruction manual wasn’t good enough, and went through and re-thought all the trivia himself.

Now, I don’t mean this in the sense of “We need suppressing fire from this corner more often, so it makes sense to keep the gunners behind the guidon in marching formations.” No. Nothing so non-arcane. He’s talking about who should be in charge of getting the correct kind of butter for platoon pick nicks, and where thus and so should bunk when he’s off duty, and who is in charge of recycling waste paper and so on.

Am I exaggerating? Probably, but to be honest, I couldn’t tell. After 201 pages of a space adventure book that lacks all adventure, and is actually just “Heinlein’s Republic,” I was fading fast. 25 pages of him jacking off like a filthy monkey about the chain of command among noncoms was really just more than I could bear. I read it, of course, but my eyes glazed over. Yeah, it really is that dull.

When the fighting actually starts, you actually almost stumble upon it. Up to this point, the chapters have all been kind of thematically cohesive – this one’s about this, that one’s about that – and they don’t mix. This one does, for some reason. Then we’re dropped into another combat sequence. I honestly don’t think Heinlein wanted it in there, and it’s not nearly as good as the battle sequence at the start of the book. Also, it ends really abruptly with the protagonist getting knocked out and waking up and being told what happened.

“I couldn’t be bothered to actually finish the story, so here’s what I was thinking about doing,” basically.

Chapter 14: 3-page coda in which our hero, now fully fledged and formed, flies off into future battles that we don’t get to see.

The End. And who gives a crap, by this point?

Now, I recognize that I’m being uncommonly specific here, and I recognize that my complaint is mostly that this is boring, but let’s be honest here: This is a book about Fightin’ Space Marines. Is it too much to ask that they actually do some fightin’? My copy is 263 pages long, and I’d say 35 of them actually involve any action. Talk about bait-and-switch!

What we get instead is, as I said above, “Heinlein’s Republic.” This is not a novel so much as a dialectic on how the military, and to a larger extent civilization, should be run. The book is all about philosophy, and I have nothing against that, nor do I have anything against boring. Nor do I have anything against boring philosophy. I’m basically religious, so I’m well acquainted with both. Also: I like Russian Novels. Somebody wants to ramble on about the meaning of life, or whether or not there’s a God, or whether or not it matters whether or not there’s a God, I’m on board. I like that stuff.

What Heinlein has done here, however, is manage to avoid pretty much *any* interesting questions of human existence, and instead obsess over the proud traditions of Officers Candidate School rank pins, which must be returned to the school after the cadet is done with them, live or dead. A full history of the pins is kept on file, and will be rattled off at the drop of a hat. Not that anyone’s likely to drop their hats, as that would imply something exciting going on, and as I’ve pointed out: Heinlein is dead-set against allowing anything interesting into his book.

So what we’re dealing with here isn’t a traditional ‘boring’ per se. I’m fully conversant in ‘boring.’ Boring and I are old friends. No. This is not Russian-Level Boring, nor even “Arcane Gnostic Historical Studies”-level boring. No, this is an entirely new, advanced level of boring that really didn’t exist before. This is 200 pages of a navy guy who *NEVER* saw combat telling Marines how they should live. It’s like the drunk old guy at the VFW who can’t shut up about how he’d’a won Korea if it’d been left up to him.

Heinlein is the most Mary-Sue of all writers of his generation. Every character is him, to a greater or lesser extent. While this is true of all authors to some degree, Heinlein really sometimes seems to believe that it’s only right to be him, and the rest shouldn’t be allowed. He’s fairly “I ain’t nuthin’ special” about this, so it’s easy to miss, but the closer you look the more you realize that this isn’t so much a book as it is a man madly obsessed with his own genius basking in his own reflected glory, and begging people to pay homage to him.

Oddly, they do.

And his philosophy, such as it is, is so amazingly half-assed. In a nutshell:

1) Voting is too important to be allowed for everyone.

2) You only get to vote if you’re a veteran, or have done equivalent service. But being a veteran is better. But it’s not fascist or anything. For some reason. We’re told.

3) Life is miraculously better for everyone pretty much forever. Hooray!

Yeah. The rest of the book – and I can not sufficiently articulate this – is basically a guy writing his Fake Military Rule Book with one hand and shootin’ putty at the moon with the other. This is the most onanistically self-obsessed mouth-breathing RPG game master piece of crap ever committed to paper. “Tee-hee-hee! Everyone will acknowledge what a genius I am if they see how I’ve managed to remove line officers from the equation entirely!”

I can not express what a complete waste of time this novel is. As entertainment, as philosophy, even as a paperweight, on every level you can think of, the book completely fails. (Ayn Rand’s stuff is somewhat less awful, and VERY good as a paperweight or doorstop).

“Ah,” some of you say, “But this book has been required reading at all of the military academies at one point or another, so obviously it must be good.” Well, don’t strain your adenoidal voice, I’ll admit what you say is true. But here’s the question: WHY was it required reading at the academies?

I mean, Shakespeare is required reading, too. Is Nazi Bob required reading for the same reasons as ol Wild Bill? No, probably not. Mein Kampf has been required reading on occasion, too. Important to know the philosophical errors related to Nazism. Would “Starship” be required reading for the same reason as Mr. Adolph’s Wild Ride? No, probably not. Is it required for historical reasons, like Caesar’s Gallic Wars? No? Hm. Is it required for the same reason an engineering textbook might be required? Again, no.

So why HAS it been required? I honestly don’t know, but I have two non-mutually-exclusive theories:

1) As much of what the peacetime military does involves strategies for organizing things, this book might be useful for looking at other ways to do it.

2) Given that it has a (slight) narrative, it might be considered candy to keep students interested. “Well, they’ve done 1000 pages of the organizational structure of the Byzantine empire during the age of Vikings, so let’s give ‘em something to let ‘em relax for a day.”

In any event, whether or not it’s been required at the academies, and whether or not it’s required reading now (I don’t believe it is at any of ‘em), that’s a pretty sad justification for a book. “Well, it’s unreadable, but your tax dollars force some people to read it anyway.” It’s just terrible.

Ultimately it’s a couple hundred pages of a self-proclaimed genius solving all the problems of the world without ever realizing that his genius is just self-congratulatory dumbassery.

 

BOOK REVIEW: “Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book One, The Summer Sword” by Rick Riordan (2015)

I’m fond of Rick Riordan. I used to read his books to my son when my son was little, and when he he learned how to read, the first thing he went for was Riordan’s first “Percy Jackson” series. My son’s got a penchant for Fantasy overy Science Fiction, and the books are (mostly) fun, but with some darkness here and there, and aimed pretty solidly at an eighth grade reader. Good Juvie Fiction, or as the hip kids call it these days, “Young Adult Fiction.” (I hate that name, BTW)

 

“Magnus Chase” is Riordan’s fourth series set in the Percy Jackson universe (Or “Percyverse,” as I call it). This can best be describes as “American Gods Lite.” There are no gay Muslim cab drivers having sex with genies in the back seat, or love goddesses who eat men while having sex, and the gods are not so hardscrabble and down on their luck in Riordan as they are in Gaiman, but the basic hook is the same: the pagan gods are real, and still interact with the human world. In both Percy Jackson series, it’s the Greek gods, in the Kane Chronicles trilogy, it’s Egyptian gods. Here we finally get to the Norse gods.

 

I say “Finaly,” because the Norse gods are cool. They are violent, entertaining, frightening, and don’t even pretend to have an interest in good or evil. However they are also brave, doomed, inquisitive, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes even apologetic. Yeah, true, Odin’s own followers occasionally described him as “the Evil God,” and Thor was prone to murderous rages. But Thor felt bad about his mercurial temper and often tried to make ammends, and Odin suffered terribly to bring poetry and beer to humanity, so as to make our miserable existences bearable.

 

I can not stress the “Brave” part strongly enough. This is a quality that the Greek and Egyptian gods do not have, nor can they. They are immortal. They can’t be killed. If there is no risk, there is no bravery. The Norse gods can be killed, and they know full well they’re going to die at the end of the world, but they’re out there fighting anyway. There is risk, there is bravery, and there is nothing more brave than going out to fight a battle knowing full well it will kill you.

 

Ok, this brings us to the actual “Review” portion of this review.

 

It’s present-day Boston, and Magnus Chase is a homeless kid who’s been living on the streets for two years. He eventually comes in to unwanted contact with his only living relatives, one of whom kidnaps him, tells him he’s a demigod, and forces him to recover a lost magical Norse sword from the river. In the process of doing this, he dies.

 

He wakes up in Vallhalla, which is essentially a huge five-star hotel featuring superlative acomodations, a large number of interesting dead people, huge jovial meals, endless combat in the courtyard, and activities that range from “Mele fighting to the death” to “Yoga to the death.” No, I’m not kidding. There’s also a pervading sense of boredom. No one has seen the Gods in years, and Asgard itself appears to be in disrepair.

 

Typically, things go sideways pretty quickly. There’s a debate as to whether or not he’s supposed to even be in Asgard, as it’s unclear if he meets the requirements. There’s a nebulous prophecy that the world will end in nine days. Loki, the Big Bad of the universe, keeps appearing to warn Magnus that he (Loki) doesn’t want it to end. Magnus goes rogue trying to save the world with an ad-hoc team consisting of himself, a de-frocked Valkyrie, and two different kinds of elves. They’re being chased by teams from Valhalla, who have concluded Magnus and chums are working for Loki, trying to hasten the end of the world.

 

From there we have the normal adventure stuff. We visit three of the nine worlds (Four counting earth), there are giants, and we meet a few gods along the way. The good guys win, but the bad guys simply go to work on another plan.

 

As with all Riordan’s stuff, the fun largely comes from the juxtaposition of the divine and the mundane. Odin has an I-phone, but it took him 10 days standing in a blizzard to figure it out. Thor is obsessed with Game of Thrones and Arrow. (“This is my 3622nd consecutive deployment protecting the border of Midgard. I’d go crazy if I didn’t have something to distract myself”) Everyone hates how Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have represented them.

 

The core cast is somewhat more diverse than usual: Magnus is a white homeless kid, a seldom-seen kind of protagonist, particularly in this sort of book. Samirah is an Iranian-American, and a good Muslim, despite being in the service of Pagan gods. She’s bethrothed to an arranged marriage when she turns 18, however, interestingly, she’s looking forward to it. (“Don’t think everything traditional is bad, Magnus. You don’t know anything. Our families wouldn’t knowingly make a bad match, and I’ve been in love with this guy since I was twelve”) Also quite unusual. We’ve got a handicapped deaf mute white elf, and we’ve got an almost-definitely-gay svartelf who wants to ditch the whole “working the forges” thing and open his own fashion store. Magnus is also an atheist, which is the first time they’ve touched on that in these books. Previously, whenever the subject of whether or not there’s a “High God” over all these events has been blown off with “Don’t worry about it,” answers.

 

This is the first of Riordan’s books that borrows rather openly from other works. The magic concerning Magnus’ sword and its use of energy is exactly like the way magic works in Paolini’s “Inheritance” series. There’s a blowoff gag reference to “American Gods,” there’s an out-of-nowhere reference to the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (Specifically a riff on Marvin the Paranoid Android), a possible-but-unlikely reference to Dr. Who, and a funny swipe taken at the first Percy Jackson book.

 

So it’s a fun read, and if you’ve got Jr High/High School age kids, you could do far worse. I recommend it.

 

And yet, and yet, and yet, and yet…well…it’s kind of sugarless, you know? The first Jackson series had a plan, a beginning, a middle, and an end. While book 3 was a very weak link, the final book ended very strong. The Kane trilogy was tighter, stronger, and more interesting than the first Jackson series, though it has the typical Riordan problem of going to great lengths to introduce new secondary team members, most of which will have no payoff in subsequent books. The second Percy Jackson series was a disappointment. Despite a very clever premise, it was disjointed, and was in all honestly rather weak, as though the author was running out of steam, or was padding out a trilogy up to five books, or was simply bored with the material, or, more likely, all three.

 

This book falls somewhere between. In terms of plotting and pace, it’s probably better than the first Percy Jackson book, but the characterization is much weaker than in the Kane books. Magnus is a little quicker on the uptake than Percy, though I think that’s mostly because this is the fourth time we’ve seen new characters go all gee-gosh-wow as they gradually come to grips with their true natures. He gets that tedious stuff out of the way quickly. Magnus is informed by his backstory as a street kid, but in personality he’s not really substantially different than Percy was. His voice is almost the same, but we know Riordan is capable of stretching as Carter Kane felt very different than Percy. The other members of the team are rather thinly defined. Not awfully so, but they just don’t feel very thick, if you know what I mean. Despite some nice flourishes here and there and a good sense of humor, the whole “unsuspecting hero racing to save the world from an ancient prophecy of destruction” thing has been done ten times in fourteen books over ten years, and there’s a feeling that the author is simply going through the motions.

 

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, it’s just not an instant classic. It was a fun read, however, and as I said, I recommend it.

BOOK REVIEW: “King Lesserlight’s Crown” by Charlie Starr

BOOK REVIEW: “King Lesserlight’s Crown: A Children’s Story for Grownups, Too” by Charlie W. Starr (2010)

My first impression in describing a book like this is to say it’s “Delightful.” Then I realize that’s one of those words that only old ladies and men in the cast of Amadeus use. That’d make most readers just zip by without bothering to read the review, so that’s out. My second impression was to call it “Charming.” Same exact problem. I’ll have to settle for telling you it’s “Good,” I guess, though that doesn’t really capture the qualities that make it good.

King Lesserlight’s Crown is an allegorical fable. It tells the story of a man who used to be happy, but then suddenly isn’t anymore. To his confusion he’s got everything he needs to be happy: A loving wife, a loving kid. They were enough for him, and now, even though he knows why, they’re just not, and he doesn’t know why. He’s got everything he needs in the material posessions department, as well, though he doesn’t seem to have been particularly interested in that stuff. In any event, it isn’t poverty or an unsecure future that’s caused him to change.

In our world, we’d say “He’s having a midlife crisis.” In the deliberately wonky world of the book, however, we’re told that a monster called a “Gloom,” stole his heart. The rest of the book concerns his attempts to track it down and get it back.

Part Pilgrims Progress, part Ecclesastes, and part Hope and Crosby Road Movie, it’s absurd here and there, amusing throughout, and genuinely funny in a few places. The tone is never somber, nor is it giddy and playing for cheap laughs. There is a point to the story that he author is working towards, after all, and the path he uses to get there is good….ah, screw it: It’s charming. The path he uses to get there is charming.

In terms of writing style, it’s sort of a hybrid between the later Narnia books and the mid-series Oz books, though without the worldbuilding of either. The author isn’t so much interested in the exterior landscape of his mythical world as he is in the interior landscape of Lesserlight’s soul. It’s brisk and fun, and, as I said above, occasionally really funny, though the humor is undercut by a feeling of emptiness that those of us around fiftyish will immediately recognize.

It’s a novella of not quite a hundred pages, and without the occasionally storybook-style illustrations (By Troy Cleland), it’d probably come in about ten pages shorter still. Despite its brevity, however, I really enjoyed it and plowed through quickly. I think what sold me on it was not just the writing, nor the story, but the pervasive feeling that the author was trying to help. That’s a rare thing, isn’t it?

Whether it does or not is up to the reader, of course, but in the end I found it delightful.

BOOK REVIEW: “Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book One, The Summer Sword” by Rick Riordan (2015)

I’m fond of Rick Riordan. I used to read his books to my son when my son was little, and when he he learned how to read, the first thing he went for was Riordan’s first “Percy Jackson” series. My son’s got a penchant for Fantasy overy Science Fiction, and the books are (mostly) fun, but with some darkness here and there, and aimed pretty solidly at an eighth grade reader. Good Juvie Fiction, or as the hip kids call it these days, “Young Adult Fiction.” (I hate that name, BTW)

“Magnus Chase” is Riordan’s fourth series set in the Percy Jackson universe (Or “Percyverse,” as I call it). This can best be describes as “American Gods Lite.” There are no gay Muslim cab drivers having sex with genies in the back seat, or love goddesses who eat men while having sex, and the gods are not so hardscrabble and down on their luck in Riordan as they are in Gaiman, but the basic hook is the same: the pagan gods are real, and still interact with the human world. In both Percy Jackson series, it’s the Greek gods, in the Kane Chronicles trilogy, it’s Egyptian gods. Here we finally get to the Norse gods.

I say “Finaly,” because the Norse gods are cool. They are violent, entertaining, frightening, and don’t even pretend to have an interest in good or evil. However they are also brave, doomed, inquisitive, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes even apologetic. Yeah, true, Odin’s own followers occasionally described him as “the Evil God,” and Thor was prone to murderous rages. But Thor felt bad about his mercurial temper and often tried to make ammends, and Odin suffered terribly to bring poetry and beer to humanity, so as to make our miserable existences bearable.

I can not stress the “Brave” part strongly enough. This is a quality that the Greek and Egyptian gods do not have, nor can they. They are immortal. They can’t be killed. If there is no risk, there is no bravery. The Norse gods can be killed, and they know full well they’re going to die at the end of the world, but they’re out there fighting anyway. There is risk, there is bravery, and there is nothing more brave than going out to fight a battle knowing full well it will kill you.

Ok, this brings us to the actual “Review” portion of this review.

It’s present-day Boston, and Magnus Chase is a homeless kid who’s been living on the streets for two years. He eventually comes in to unwanted contact with his only living relatives, one of whom kidnaps him, tells him he’s a demigod, and forces him to recover a lost magical Norse sword from the river. In the process of doing this, he dies.

He wakes up in Vallhalla, which is essentially a huge five-star hotel featuring superlative acomodations, a large number of interesting dead people, huge jovial meals, endless combat in the courtyard, and activities that range from “Mele fighting to the death” to “Yoga to the death.” No, I’m not kidding. There’s also a pervading sense of boredom. No one has seen the Gods in years, and Asgard itself appears to be in disrepair.

Typically, things go sideways pretty quickly. There’s a debate as to whether or not he’s supposed to even be in Asgard, as it’s unclear if he meets the requirements. There’s a nebulous prophecy that the world will end in nine days. Loki, the Big Bad of the universe, keeps appearing to warn Magnus that he (Loki) doesn’t want it to end. Magnus goes rogue trying to save the world with an ad-hoc team consisting of himself, a de-frocked Valkyrie, and two different kinds of elves. They’re being chased by teams from Valhalla, who have concluded Magnus and chums are working for Loki, trying to hasten the end of the world.

From there we have the normal adventure stuff. We visit three of the nine worlds (Four counting earth), there are giants, and we meet a few gods along the way. The good guys win, but the bad guys simply go to work on another plan.

As with all Riordan’s stuff, the fun largely comes from the juxtaposition of the divine and the mundane. Odin has an I-phone, but it took him 10 days standing in a blizzard to figure it out. Thor is obsessed with Game of Thrones and Arrow. (“This is my 3622nd consecutive deployment protecting the border of Midgard. I’d go crazy if I didn’t have something to distract myself”) Everyone hates how Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have represented them.

The core cast is somewhat more diverse than usual: Magnus is a white homeless kid, a seldom-seen kind of protagonist, particularly in this sort of book. Samirah is an Iranian-American, and a good Muslim, despite being in the service of Pagan gods. She’s bethrothed to an arranged marriage when she turns 18, however, interestingly, she’s looking forward to it. (“Don’t think everything traditional is bad, Magnus. You don’t know anything. Our families wouldn’t knowingly make a bad match, and I’ve been in love with this guy since I was twelve”) Also quite unusual. We’ve got a handicapped deaf mute white elf, and we’ve got an almost-definitely-gay svartelf who wants to ditch the whole “working the forges” thing and open his own fashion store. Magnus is also an atheist, which is the first time they’ve touched on that in these books. Previously, whenever the subject of whether or not there’s a “High God” over all these events has been blown off with “Don’t worry about it,” answers.

This is the first of Riordan’s books that borrows rather openly from other works. The magic concerning Magnus’ sword and its use of energy is exactly like the way magic works in Paolini’s “Inheritance” series. There’s a blowoff gag reference to “American Gods,” there’s an out-of-nowhere reference to the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (Specifically a riff on Marvin the Paranoid Android), a possible-but-unlikely reference to Dr. Who, and a funny swipe taken at the first Percy Jackson book.

So it’s a fun read, and if you’ve got Jr High/High School age kids, you could do far worse. I recommend it.

And yet, and yet, and yet, and yet…well…it’s kind of sugarless, you know? The first Jackson series had a plan, a beginning, a middle, and an end. While book 3 was a very weak link, the final book ended very strong. The Kane trilogy was tighter, stronger, and more interesting than the first Jackson series, though it has the typical Riordan problem of going to great lengths to introduce new secondary team members, most of which will have no payoff in subsequent books. The second Percy Jackson series was a disappointment. Despite a very clever premise, it was disjointed, and was in all honestly rather weak, as though the author was running out of steam, or was padding out a trilogy up to five books, or was simply bored with the material, or, more likely, all three.

This book falls somewhere between. In terms of plotting and pace, it’s probably better than the first Percy Jackson book, but the characterization is much weaker than in the Kane books. Magnus is a little quicker on the uptake than Percy, though I think that’s mostly because this is the fourth time we’ve seen new characters go all gee-gosh-wow as they gradually come to grips with their true natures. He gets that tedious stuff out of the way quickly. Magnus is informed by his backstory as a street kid, but in personality he’s not really substantially different than Percy was. His voice is almost the same, but we know Riordan is capable of stretching as Carter Kane felt very different than Percy. The other members of the team are rather thinly defined. Not awfully so, but they just don’t feel very thick, if you know what I mean. Despite some nice flourishes here and there and a good sense of humor, the whole “unsuspecting hero racing to save the world from an ancient prophecy of destruction” thing has been done ten times in fourteen books over ten years, and there’s a feeling that the author is simply going through the motions.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, it’s just not an instant classic. It was a fun read, however, and as I said, I recommend it.

BOOK REVIEW: “Lagrange Five” by Mack Reynolds (1979)

Sometimes an author will get so hepped up on some goofball idea or another that he’ll write essentially propaganda masquerading as prediction. “Lagrange Five” is a prime example of that, and Heinlein’s thoroughly awful, “For us, the Living…” is another, and we could throw Belamy’s “Looking Backward” in there as well. It’s a common failing of Utopian Science Fiction.

The plot here concerns Rex Bader, Private Eye, who’s been brought to the“Island Three” space colony in order to solve the mysterious disappearance of a professor. There’s also an outbreak of a kind of contagious space-madness. This quickly reaches epidemic levels. There’s also political turmoil within Island Three that threatens to tear their idyllic society apart.

All of that has promise, particularly the madness part, as I’ve always been interested in the psychiatric effects of living offworld. That’s a vein largely untapped by the genre. Sadly this alleged mystery is less mysterious than your average episode of Scooby Doo. (Not counting “Scooby Doo: Mysteries Inc.” which fairly rocks, of course)

There’s a rather hilarious tendency of the author to always refer to the protagonist by his full name. (“Rex Bader wanted a beer, so Rex Bader went into the bar, and spied a barstool where Rex Bader thought he – Rex Bader – would like to sit.” I’m exaggerating, but not by much) He’s as bland as bland can be. The only bit of characterization is his penchant for dropping the word “Wizard” into conversation FREQUENTLY. (More slight exaggeration: “Rex Bader walked into the bar. ‘Wizard,’ he thought. ‘I’d like a beer’ he said to the bartender with the false mustache. ‘Whadya’ think, mate?’ the bartender said, affecting a slight British accent while inquiring of Rex Bader’s opinion of the drink he’d just had. “Wizard,” said Rex Bader, with regards to the drink, after tasting it.”) Oh my gosh, his attempts at future-slang are cringingly awful. “What’s spinning, chum-pal” is a frequent example.

Reynolds’ prose is club-footed. He commits basic sins like using the same words too close in proximity (Only-slightly-exaggerated example: “He got in the car and closed the door of the car and then the car drove off”) He is overly expositional, dropping info-bombs, most of which have nothing to do with the threadbare plot. He’s got a lot of tortured syntax.

The obligatory love interest is the girl Friday of the missing professor. She’s all tweeds and “Clipped Diction” (Whatever that means) by day, and liberated ‘70s shag-around sex-toy by night. Plus she cooks without being asked. Then there’s Whip, an angry 1960s Black Panther type who calls everyone “Whitey,” and wants to start a space colony for radical black isolationists. Beyond these three, everyone else in the book is a cipher or a mustache-twirler, and none of these folks are what you’d call ‘compelling’ as characters go.

Rex Bader is just about the worst detective I’ve ever read. He mostly just walks from bar to bar. He makes an effort to find exactly one-and-a-half clues, then basically gives up and says “I got no idea.” It’s almost as though the author had never read a detective story before, or even made it all the way through a detective movie. He’s spinning his wheels. He honestly has no idea what his main character should be doing, so for most of the book his main character does nothing.

The chick is only there to provide tedious exposition (Because, remember, this book is propaganda for the L5 Society), and honestly I’m not sure why Whip is there. His presence is kind of random, and at odds with the rest of the story. I guess it was an attempt at social relevancy or something, which indicates that the author (62 at the time) was a bit out of touch, culturally.

Despite all that, the question of why people are suddenly going nuts in the station is interesting. Then, about a third of the way through the author abruptly throws in a totally-useless flashback which explains EVERYTHING, and renders the rest of the detective story both superfluous and tedious. Instead of reading an inept detective, we are now reading an inept detective struggling to catch up with what the reader already knows.

The author clearly is not interested in the tale he’s telling. As I said, this is primarily a work of propaganda. The government here is Utopian Syndicalism which, allegedly, is better than anything. Nobody pays for anything because the colony produces more than it really needs. “Island Three” is twenty MILES long (Again, remember this was set only fifty years in the future) and feels like an even-more-sterile version of Epcot. We’ve got fake storybook villages – this one Italian, that one Polynesian, another is British – and one big new ultra-modern city which is only vaguely described. All this is surrounded by garden land and wildlife refuges and parks and lakes and sailboats (It’s an enclosed system twenty miles long. Where the heck is the wind supposed to be coming from?). We’ve got people riding bicycles everywhere (Bicycles won’t work inside a rotating object because the gyroscopic effect that holds them up is negated by the greater gyroscopic effect of the object they’re in) because, we’re told, they like to do things by hand.

Despite being told they have 100% employment and everyone likes to do things the old fashioned way, we never actually SEE anyone working, and we’re told the work week is only thirty hours. Thus everyone has a major time-wasting hobby, like pretending to be a British bartender, or joining a low-gravity ballet troupe. There’s major mixed messages going on here: we’re told this is the rugged frontier, but there ain’t no cowboys in it, just pastry chefs and creepy swingers in a world so antiseptic as to make “It’s a small world” seem gritty and forlorn.

The point of the book is to tell us that we can have this in our lifetimes. Its purpose is to show how superior LaGrangian existence will be, in a world without crime, without punishment, without religion, without money, without makeup, without stupid people (Minimum IQ to join is 130), without racism, without marriage, without sexual mores, without much of anything, really. It’s colorless, sugarless, conflict free. The author is trying to paint a picture of heaven, but it’s just dull and unrealistic and betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of human nature. This is a problem of utopias: they are, by definition, places where nothing interesting ever happens.

Furthermore, the author states

1) The Jews are just as guilty as the Arabs, and both sides are prolonging the middle eastern conflict to make money off of it.
2) Religion is “The biggest con of all time”
3) The Aztecs and Mayans and several African Tribes had a higher standard of living than European civilization at the time, or even in much of the 20th century developed world. This is patent nonsense, but it was popular myth in the hippie-dippie ‘60s. The fact is Aztecs lived nasty, brutish, short lives, were more or less continually at war, practiced human sacrifice on an industrial scale, were frequently subject to famine, had a huge infant mortality rate (As did the entire pre-modern world) and a woman had a 1:5 chance of dying from pregnancy.
4) Egypt gave the world civilization (untrue) but he says that Egyptians weren’t black, so it doesn’t really count as African
5) Planet Earth is overpopulated with three billion people in 2029, and is doomed if they don’t get those crazy numbers under control. (The population of the world when the book was written was four billion)
6) Arabs are portrayed as untrustworthy, manipulative, and vicious and (With one exception) hypocritical about their religion. Italian Mafioso are portrayed about the same, but are not hypocritical.
7) English is ‘a mongrel language composed of French, German, Celtic, and a bunch of other tongues’ and is better replaced with “Interlingua.” (This is a weird assertion from an American writer speaking to an Anglophonic audience in a book written in English)
8) Nobody in the book cares about the industries, countries, and entire economies they’re destroying back on earth. They seem to think the ‘earthworms’ had it coming to them.

There’s also one utterly reprehensible aspect of the book: Eugenics.

We’re told that stupid people, religious people, cripples and homosexuals will not be allowed into the colonies. Rex Bader finds this rather oppressive and snooty, and at first I thought it was intended as a ‘snake in the garden’ thing , a sort of, ‘yes, we’ve got paradise, but at what cost?’ But no: at the end of the book, both Rex Bader and Whip agree these strictures are ideal, and the best of all possible ways for the human race.

In conclusion, this is honestly one of the worst books I’ve ever read.

BOOK REVIEW: “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara (1974)

“The Killer Angels” isn’t even remotely a Science Fiction book. It’s a straight ahead historical fiction set in and around the battle of Gettysburg, during the American Civil War. “Why,” you ask, “Is he reviewing something that is in no way Science Fiction?” Good question: I’m reviewing it because Joss Whedon once stated that this book was one of the two principle influences behind the creation of “Firefly.” (The other major influence being the John Wayne/Rock Hudson movie “The Undefeated.”) As such, and given that I’m sort of fascinated by the Civil War in general, I thought “What the heck?” So here it is:

PLAY BY PLAY

The Confederate Army invades the United States, and attempts to defeat the Union Army at the more-or-less random location in Pennsylvania, but they lose.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

I probably should have said “Spoilers” before that synopsis. Sorry.

This is a very good book, though it’s not really my kind of thing. I’ll admit it right up front: I’m not that cool. I generally only read Science Fiction, and the occasional weirdo bit of esoteric literature like Calvino and Nabokov and Poe and Joyce and whatnot. I’m not in the least bit highbrow: If it don’t got ray guns in it, I’m generally not interested, unless it’s just some inherently strange literary sculpture that holds my attention through sheer beauty (As with Nabokov) or strangeness (As with Calvino). Pretty much I don’t do ‘straight fiction’ well at all, which isn’t to say there’s anything bad with straight fiction, it’s just not something that interests me. I also don’t talk about football much. Make of that what you will.

That said, even though this is a well-written, entertaining, interesting book, and even though I’m something of a history buff, the utter lack of an alien invasion or a sapient computer was rather daunting to me, and it took me nearly two years to plow through it. To be fair: at least six months of that time was because I’d misplaced it, but still: I’m a dullard.

In general, the story is roughly evenly divided between north and south, with Lee and Longstreet as the focus on the Southern side, and with Chamberlain and Buford on the Union one. There are a roughly-equal number of ancillary historical characters on either side – foreign observers, other officers, etc – as well as a small group of entirely fictional ‘Average Joe’ characters on each side. Actually, I should say that I took them to be fictional because of the way they were depicted, but in researching for this review (yes, I do that), I’ve discovered that only one of them wasn’t an actual historical person.

Of the ‘real’ characters, Longstreet makes the largest impression, as a mopey man who’s lost his faith in just about everything, but keeps on going because he doesn’t have anything else to do. His brooding introspection, and his aloof distance from the other Southern officers is interesting, and occasionally compelling. He’s utterly dedicated to Lee, and will do things he knows are disastrous simply because the old man asks it of him. Curiously, Lee himself is depicted as an enfeebled old man, rapidly growing weaker, and increasingly out of touch with the nature of the conflict. Despite getting roughly equal time, Chamberlain and Buford don’t have near the resonance of their rebel counterparts, but then that’s an inherent and probably unavoidable problem in any story about the Civil War: the losers were the romantic, exciting, sexy ones. The winners were essentially interchangeable “Grist for the mill” as General Grant famously said. In Colonials versus Cylons, who’s going to be more interesting? I overstate, obviously, but you get my point.

Of the nonfictional “Average Joe“ characters , the Northern ones make more of an impression than the southern, curiously. In general, we spend most of our time with a New England Yankee Captain Ellis Speer, who’s on the front line in the final battle. Speer seems too modern to me, frankly. I’d assumed this was the Author’s own voice, being placed in a fictional character. Now that I know Speer was a real guy, well, it still may be the Author’s own voice. The character’s progressive agnosticism, his “Brave new world” view of the conflict and life seem, to me, at odds with the way people of the time thought and wrote and believed. It comes across to me as Emmersonian, taken to somewhat ludicrous levels, but, hey, that could just be me.

This is a broody tome. Easily half its length is internal monolog, deliberations, and ruminative thoughts of the characters, debating their decision making process. On the one hand, this is fascinating as it shows us how their minds work. On the other hand, some characters seem unable to take a trip to the can without ten pages of self-recriminations. And occasionally I was dragged out of the story by the realization that all these internal deliberations weren’t real – no one can know the mind of another, certainly not at this remove in history – unless said other actually wrote down what he was thinking at the time. Lee is famously inscrutable. So on the one hand, this is engaging, and on the other hand, it’s completely fictional. We know what they did, we don’t know what they were thinking, however. In that regard, much of the novel is an apologetic.

The one fictional character in the book is an Irish immigrant named “Buster Kilrain.” “Buster” wasn’t used as a name until Buster Keaton did it in the 20th Century

One aspect that always fascinates me about Civil War stories is that they are all, inherently, about culture clash: Agrarian versus Industrial, Anglic versus Germanic, Gentry versus Egalitarian, Mannered versus Boorish, Pretentious versus Impudent. It’s good stuff, and it’s really the starting point of the whole “Cowboys versus the Robber Barons” stuff that eventually becomes a trope of Westerns from here on out. That said: I have to think this book is a little too pointed in that regard. Captain Speer views the Southern secession as an attempt to go back to the time of Kings, an attempt to place the cause of freedom back in the box, destroy the noble equality that was won by blood in the Revolution, and so on. There’s a British observer traveling with the Rebels who feels effectively the same way, and just so there can be no mistaking it, each character lays this out at least eight times in the course of the novel.

This, to me, seems to be completely at odds with how most people felt at the time, and seems like an anachronistic attempt to place a modern interpretation on an historic event. Everything I’ve read about (And by) Southerners during the war seems to indicate that they were staunchly dedicated to the idea that the Union was trying to take away their freedom, or hem it in. They were all about freedom, provided you weren’t black, or, to a lesser extent, a chick. Curiously, they treated Indians better than the North did in this period.

So: in a nutshell: it’s a pretty good book, though I’m not sure it’s good enough to justify the Pulitzer it won in ‘75. It’s of historic interest to a Science Fiction fan for its influence on Firefly, but it’s not required reading since the part of the story this influenced takes place mostly between the first and second scenes of the first episode.

Curiously: Shaara also wrote a good deal of Science Fiction, though I’ve never read any of it. Here’s a list:
http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?Michael_Shaara

BOOK REVIEW: “Scatterbrain” by Larry Niven (2003)

Mister Niven is one of my favorite Science Fiction writers. He’s concocted my favorite fictional universe (“Known Space”) and he’s only written two books I’m aware of that are so bad they made me want to murder people (“World out of Time” and “The Griping Hand”). I forgive him for that.
About fifteen years ago, he started coming out with books that are essentially the literary equivalent of those annoying “Greatest Hits CDs” that bands come out with right before the holidays. You know, special 2-CD retrospectives of all their songs that you’ve already bought two times over, that you get from co-workers you barely know along with notes along the lines of “Gladys in the typing pool once mentioned that you liked these queerbaits, so herey’go.” These books were like that, consisting of nothing new, but they had a lot of essays by the author, a few otherwise-uncollected short stories, some excerpts from his novels [Groaning out loud], some correspondence, some behind-the-scenes writing industry stuff and (in one case) really rude drawings of triple-penised aliens having sex with sasquatch or whatever. Much as I love Niven, I was never a big fan of this particular venue‘s means of exploring his greatness, so I tended to pass on these.
Since I’m right in the middle of three books that are, frankly, entirely too smart for me, I felt like I needed a burger-and-fries to go with my meal (A metaphor that makes no sense whatsoever, but there you have it), and picked up the third of these collections, “Scatterbrain.”
It’s about exactly what you’d expect: 26 sections including 5 short stories (two I’d already read, both rather weak, and one I’d never heard of before that was pretty darn good); two excerpts from novels [groaning out loud]; 13 short essays, articles, and/or rambling digressions about odds and ends, a series of e-mails explaining how he collaborated writing one of the stories in the book (“Ice and Mirrors”), and two sections about his Man/Kzin series, essentially the same background info he gives to authors who are writing installments for that.
Not exactly mesmerizing reading, and aside from literature grad students doing research, I’m not sure who’d want to read Larry’s emails about a work in progress. Yeah, it seems like that sort of thing would be fascinating – ‘we’re watching a mind at work’ kind of stuff – but mostly it’s kind of not. And the Man/Kzin stuff is not at all what you’d call interesting.
Still and all, this isn’t a bad little ‘useless-career-retrospective #3’ kind of compilation, it’s just…well, kind of useless. “Ice and Mirrors” is a great great greatshort story, his views on writing collaborations are neat, and as ever there are lots of good “Nivenisms” in his essays, it’s just that this is…well, If I’m going to torture the ‘greatest hits’ analogy more, let’s say that this is just a very, very uneven B-side collection, and not an album. It’s more interesting than it is good, and not particularly inspired. Pretty much for fans only, though I will say “Ice and Mirrors” is worth the price of admission all by itself.