Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan

Against my better judgement, I've decided to try listening to the Wheel of Time series originally by Robert Jordan. This series actually had a bit of a reputation at my high school because the school library had copies and it was considered a challenge for people to read because there were so darn many book in the series. Seriously, there are fourteen main books in the series, not all of them written by Robert Jordan because he died partway through writing the series. This series also has a reputation for being super trope-tastic, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does leave the reader feeling like they're just in somebody's own attempt to create Lord of the Rings. Having finished the first book I can safely say it is very definitely chock full of tropes and at least follows the same general pattern of Lord of the Rings if not running in the exact same grooves. However, with thirteen other books to go, hopefully there's an opportunity for the series to develop beyond the first book.

I was actually kind of disappointed with the first book, Eye of the World, and I think it's because it spends so much time establishing the universe of the book while vaguely dancing around the main plot. You do get the impression that Jordan has developed a deep and complex world for his characters, possibly with lengthy genealogies as well, but I feel like Jordan spends way too much time on the development and just not quite enough time on moving the plot forward. Let me see if I can draw a comparison.

Remember how there's that first part of Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are leaving the Shire but haven't gotten to Rivendell yet? Their main quest at that point is escaping from the pursuing Ringwraiths and reach Rivendell safely, but we don't get to the real quest involving the One Ring until the Council of Elrond. This first book feels a lot like that. The characters are trying to leave their home of Emond's Field in the Two Rivers and reach the city of Tar Valon, where everything will be explained to them there. More importantly the servants of the Big Bad are chasing the protagonists so it's important that they reach safety. Now I don't know about the rest of you guys, but for me that part between the Shire and Rivendell was the least exciting in the entire series. (Looking at you, Tom Bombadil.) So if the first book of this series is entirely like that, it's not as much fun for me either.

The finale for this book is also really rushed. Our main characters finally link up and go off to fight the Big Bad (Known as the Dark One, incidentally) utilizing an artifact from a previous age known as the Eye of the World. And then the main characters...win. The Dark One is defeated, presumably dead, and the day has been saved. This is all within the last few chapters as well, mind you, so it's kind of weird how it abruptly ends. Obviously the Dark One is not truly defeated because there are a baker's dozen more books to go and it's implied he's not really dead, just temporarily defeated. But for the amount of time we spent not knowing where we were going or what had to be done, the ending felt like a bit of an anticlimax.

Hopefully as the series goes on we'll get some more development and the characters will get fleshed out a little bit more for me to know them better. (In typical fantasy fashion they have overly elaborate names so I have to go do research to find out how to spell the darn things.) But as a start it leaves a lot of room for improvement.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham

Today I'm looking at a classic sci-fi book, The Day of the Triffids, written in 1951 and later adapted into a B science-fiction movie, making this one of the old school classics. Since this came up on sale I thought I'd give it a try, expecting some silly B-movie nonsense. I am left with mixed feelings about this book because even for the level of quality I was expecting, it fell pretty short of the standard. Most of the book focused on the apocalypse but the triffids played less of a role than I expected in the book.

This book is written from the perspective of a survivor of a global apocalypse that has mostly wiped out civilization. The crisis begins when the earth passes through the tail of a comet, causing green fireworks to appear in the night sky, visible to all the earth. Because of its uniqueness, much of earth's population turns out to observe this event, only to discover the next morning that they have gone blind. Only a handful of people, who for a variety of reasons didn't see the effects of the comet's tail, survive with their vision intact.

Although bad enough, the crisis is even worse because of the escape of the triffids. The triffids are strange plant creatures that appeared many years before the comet occurred. The triffids are commercially valuable but come with several dangers. They are carnivorous plants, capable of walking, and possessing a deadly venom-filled stinger. If that wasn't bad enough the triffids breed like crazy and are capable of growing pretty much anywhere. It was hard enough to keep the triffids in line when civilization was still operating, but now the triffids are able to run unchecked and attack the surviving humans with impunity.

Despite the triffids being in the title of the book, they don't play as large of a role as I thought they might. They're a constant menace through the book but you get to the point where people treat them as a constant annoyance more than anything else. Just when it gets to the point where the number of triffids presents an actual danger to our characters, the book ends and they move to a triffid-free island. Most of the focus of the book is on trying to figure out what the heck happened and finding a way to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, as well as a love story between the main characters. The fact that the comet which blinded everyone is later blamed on man's hubris just further undermines the triffids as the main threat of the book. And I have to say, as an enemy, deadly garden pests that can be taken out with the proper application of a chainsaw leave something to be desired.

The ending was also rather abrupt. Our main characters spend a significant portion of time working to make a farm habitable, despite being constantly under siege by triffids. Within the last chapter the main characters discover that humans have established a secure base on the Isle of Wight, giving our main characters an opportunity to escape. However, we also discover that a feudal military dictatorship has established itself in southern England and they want to take over the main characters' farm. Within a space of about five pages the main characters learn about the feudal dictators, escape from the feudal dictators, and the book ends. It just...ends. It felt like Wyndham was trying to throw in one final drama before the book ended. It might make more sense if the book was serialized and Wyndham didn't know when it was going to end, but as the ending of a novel it leaves a lot to be desired.

Ultimately this is a B-movie book so the expectations aren't very high for this book. That being said, even for a B-movie level of a book, I felt like the writing left a lot to be desired. It would have been a lot better if the triffids ever felt like more than just a headache for the main characters, and if  the ending wasn't as abrupt as it was. But if you like old B-movie quality sci-fi you can't go wrong with this.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dead Wake, by Erik Larson

Today I'm looking at a book titled Dead Wake which came out about a couple of years ago. As it says on the cover this book is about the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and I didn't know how interesting a read it would be so I left it on hold for a while. However, this book was part of an extensive advertising campaign on Smithsonian's website, and I kept seeing this book at the library and in bookstores so I broke down and decided that it was finally time to check this book out. The book goes into quite a lot of detail on a variety of subjects so I thought it was worth the effort.

As you might remember from high school history, the sinking of the Lusitania is one of the events that caused the United States to enter the First World War. If you know a little bit more about the event you might know that the Lusitania sunk within twenty minutes, which meant a significant number of passengers could not get to the lifeboats in time. There has been some debate among historians about why the Lusitania sank as quickly as it did. And the author does a really good job of explaining why preexisting theories were incorrect and providing evidence for his own theory.

First, a noticeable secondary explosion meant that many survivors, including the captain, assumed that the Lusitania was hit by two torpedoes from the attacking U-20. However U-20's logs and communications with German Navy command, as well as intercepts by British Intelligence, revealed that only one torpedo had been launched, which raised the question what caused the secondary explosion. Later disclosures of the manifest revealed that the Lusitania actually was carrying American-made ammunition for the British so it was believed that a cargo of munitions may have caused a secondary explosion. However the quantity of munitions loaded on the Lusitania were insufficient to cause a damaging explosion.

The explanation Larson provides lays in the structural design of the Lusitania itself. The Lusitania was originally part of a Royal Navy project to design large, fast ships and both the Lusitania and its sister ship the Mauritania were originally naval auxiliary ships. Although built and owned by Cunard lines, both the Lusitania and the Mauritania could be converted to cruisers in wartime. Although the navy decided to keep the Lusitania in civilian service, its military origins had significant effects on its design. Specifically the Lusitania had longitudinal coal bunkers. This meant that it had two large coal bunkers running along the entire length of the ship while most civilian ships had multiple small coal bunkers running across the beam of the ship. The idea behind this design was that the coal would serve as additional armor for the ship against enemy projectiles. Unfortunately, it appears longitudinal coal bunkers were actually a liability to ships hit by torpedoes. Because the watertight compartments within the coal bunkers weren't sealed, it basically provided a giant basin for water to enter the ship from a torpedo strike.

This explains why the Lusitania sank so quickly, especially considering the ship listed severely to the side on which it was struck, to the point it was difficult to get lifeboats launched from either side of the ship. As the water cascaded into the bowels of the ship, it is very likely the cold sea water caused some part of the steam machinery to explode. Larson points to a steam pipe, which may explain loss of control of the ship into the crisis, although a boiler or other apparatus is just as likely. The simplicity of the explanation as well as the evidence supporting this hypothesis provides a much better explanation for why the Lusitania may have sunk as quickly as it did.

Overall I think this book was well researched. Larson provides a lot of background detail which debunks the hypothesis that a secret cache of munitions on board caused the secondary explosion. As demonstrated with previous strikes on ships with longitudinal coal bunkers, a hit by a torpedo into the coal bunker caused the ship to sink in an astoundingly short period of time. It is probably safe to say the same occurred with the Lusitania.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst, by Jeffrey Toobin

Today I'm looking at a book that talks about an event I only knew of through the final line to Warren Zevron's song Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, the kidnapping and conversion to terrorist of Patricia Hearst in the 1970's. For many people this was a truly bizarre and confusing event. A member of the prominent Hearst family gets kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a radical group that people have only heard of in connection to the murder of Marcus Foster, a local and highly popular superintendent of schools.

After a series of incoherent messages with the only clear demand being the Hearst family bankroll the distribution of food to needy people in California, the SLA breaks off contact only to resurface with Patricia Hearst, their captive, now a member and involved in a prominent bank robbery. The majority of the nine members die in a shootout with police in Los Angeles, but for more than a year Patricia Hearst and two other survivors manage to evade capture for over a year. It's almost by accident that Patricia gets arrested and after serving less than two years of a seven year prison sentence, she gets a commutation from president Jimmy Carter.

Overall these events seem strange and confusing, but if Toobin does anything right, he manages to put everything into context and make it much more understandable for the reader. What emerges is a narrative not of random events and brainwashing of heiresses, but a young woman who goes through what might charitably be called a rebellious phase. By the time of her kidnapping, Patricia saw her future as largely fixed. She was a trust fund heiress so there was no need to work for a living, and she was already engaged to be married. Despite going to UC Berkeley her life had become confined to a narrow domesticity which threatened to dominate the rest of her life. Patricia Hearst may have gone on to become just another of the socialite set of baby boomers except her world was violently interrupted on February 4th.

For someone who felt trapped by life and was yearning for something different and meaningful, is it any surprise that Patricia came to adopt the ideology of the SLA? Toobin makes it very doubtful that they brainwashed her. Aside from one murder, one kidnapping, and a handful of bank robberies the SLA failed to do almost anything correctly and the disparate political opinions, some of which weren't terribly developed, meant the SLA had more a broad outline rather than a specific platform. Indeed, once the SLA kidnapped Patricia, Toobin points out they seemed utterly at a loss for what to do with her and quickly lost sight of whatever ransom demands they might have had.

But with individuals in the SLA talking to Patricia about political philosophies she hadn't even encountered and reading from socialist and communist texts, they probably presented Patricia with an alternative to the narrow lifestyle she had seen before her. So while it's somewhat surprising, it's understandable why Patricia may eventually join with her kidnappers. Toobin also dismantles through several examples, including times Patricia could have very easily escaped, why Patricia's argument that she joined the SLA out of fear for her life simply doesn't hold up under inspection.

Following her arrest, her desire to rejoin the life she had before her kidnapping is even less surprising. The conditions of the SLA were quite terrible, going from bad to worse and at some points resorting to eating horse meat and beans. The comfort and security of her privileged lifestyle would have been a powerful lure to Patricia, especially with the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence looming.

Finally I, and it seems Toobin, are left with mixed feelings about the commutation and later pardon of Patricia Hearst. On the one hand, Patricia definitely showed that she had recognized the wrong of what she had done, and had reformed for her crimes and would become a productive and law-abiding member of society again. On the other hand, she definitely only got such treatment because of her family's extensive connections and it can quite cynically be seen as the rich escaping justice. It's a hard question and since it's all in the past it's largely irrelevant, but it does reveal a divide all the more prevalent today.

The story of Patricia Hearst is important because it reflects deep issues in the United States that are still affecting us today. The civil rights movements of the 1960's morphed into the violent countercultures of then 1970's, along with a variety of other bad events for the United States. High oil prices, a stagnant economy, a corrupt president, and a decline in law and order saw the seventies become a decade of despair and frustration. The surge of modern conservatism, with its roots in Ronald Reagan, saw its beginnings as a reaction to the violent counterculture of the 1970's, and we are still dealing with those result to this day.

This book is an interesting look into a troubled time of American history and how it had profound effects not only in the immediate, but long term as well. I think it's worth your time to investigate.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Dungeoneers, by Jeffery Russell

Today I'm looking at another fantasy novel about professional adventurers, The Dungeoneers, by Jeffery Russell. Because this was a suggestion when I read The Palace Job (along with Orconomics) I was a little worried that this might end up being very similar to the other stories. Fortunately I can say that this book definitely has its own niche. On a sliding scale from most serious to most comedic I'd say this falls between the more serious nature of The Palace Job and the more comedic nature of Orconomics, with maybe falling a little further on the serious side. All that being said, this is pretty enjoyable.

The Dungeoneers begins with Durham, a guard who's worked at the sheep gate for the past five years and didn't expect his career to change terribly any time soon. When an order for him to follow a caravan arrives, he assumes it'll be some very boring babysitting for a merchant. Much to his surprise Durham discovers that the caravan he's been assigned to is a band of dwarves who professionally explore and loot dungeons for nobles, as well as retrieve powerful artifacts and keep said artifacts from ending up in the wrong hands. It seems there's been some mixup in the paperwork and Durham will be in far more danger than he possibly could have imagined.

The main thing I liked about this book was the idea of professionals who take out traditional fantasy problems in a manner different from what we're used to. (Although that may be because it bears a striking similarity to the idea for my own book, The Dragonslayer Manuscript) Thud, the leader of the Dungeoneers explicitly tells Durham that they're not adventurers or heroes. Those sorts of people wander into places and usually get themselves killed. The Dungeoneers are professional dungeon-delvers. They avoid risks, they carefully search for traps, they have a variety of equipment to solve problems, and they're willing to pull out gunpowder or a ballista to make sure everything goes smoothly. I like how Russell took the problem of looting a dungeon and took it to an incredibly straightforward and business-like solution.

The book does spend a lot of time on exposition and establishment because it's the first in a series so it's a little lighter on the things-happening parts. I want to say at least half the book was spent on exposition rather than plot, but within the plot we actually saw characters do things and use their skills, rather than just be told about it. Durham actually proves very observant for a guard and his skills come in useful for the party, and every dwarf on the team has their own unique talents. So I think Russell did a pretty good job there.

This is a fairly short read but it's interesting enough that I'm willing to consider getting to the next book in the series. (Although considering I have another thirty books to read that looks incredibly difficult right now) But if you like fantasy with a twist this is a good choice.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingstone, by Martin Dugard

Today I'm looking at a history of one of the major news events of the nineteenth century, the hunt for Dr. David Livingstone in central Africa after he had been missing for five years. White explorers going missing was hardly a novel occurrence and Livingstone was not the first, but the stature and fame of Livingstone meant Britain and the larger world knew his name, and the influence of newspapers keeping Africa and Livingstone in the public consciousness ensured a steady interest in the fate of the missionary and explorer. In fact it was a newspaper stunt that eventually found Dr. Livingstone, with reporter Henry Stanley of the New York Herald leading the expedition at the behest of the paper's editor. Stanley's words upon finding Livingstone in the town of Ujiji, ''Dr. Livingstone, I presume.'' have even entered the English lexicon Since I knew basically nothing but the most general details of this period of white men stumbling around and getting themselves lost in swamps in history, I figured this book was worth taking a look.

What precipitated Livingstone's expedition through jungles, swamps, deserts, and savannas was a debate over the source of the White Nile, one of the Nile's main tributaries. (Incidentally just doing a basic Wikipedia search it looks like there's still some debate over what counts as the ''source'' of the Nile) However there were several hypotheses being floated about by people who had actually tramped through Africa. One source that was known for certain was Lake Victoria, a large lake that sprawls across the modern countries of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania and which the White Nile definitively drains from. What was (and is) debated is if there was a source further south beyond Lake Victoria. Some hypothesized that a river or series of lakes and rivers connected Lake Tanganyika, further to the south, with Lake Victoria. Livingstone himself believed that lakes further south, such as Lake Malawi, might even be connected to Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. Because of his status and reputation as an explorer, Livingstone set out on an expedition into Central Africa.

The thrill for the people back home was that central Africa was one of the last unknown places to Europeans. Nevermind that other people had been living there quite happily for thousands of years and had even traded with places as far away as China, to Europe it was terra incognita. So there was a great amount of romance of the brave, solitary explorer delving into the unknown, and Livingstone actually had a habit of going on these expeditions only with native porters and assistants. And this was not uncommon. Many expeditions of the time consisted of only a handful of white Europeans and a large train of African, Arab, or Indian porters, soldiers, and assistants. And if the Europeans should die, the hired help had little or no motivation to bring word back to European outposts in locations like Zanzibar. In fact in some cases, the porters and assistants were accused of murdering their employers, which made it even less palatable to report back to authorities. So once Livingstone disappeared into Africa, neither he nor word came back it was very unlikely anyone would hear from him again.

Stanley's was not the first expedition to go in search of Livingstone, but it was the only one to actually find him. A previous expedition had gone to confirm rumors of his death, but after finding convincing proof Livingstone was alive it returned to England. In many ways it was sheer good fortune that Stanley, an absolute neophyte when it came to traveling in Africa, actually met Livingstone at Ujiji. Both Livingstone and Stanley had been extremely ill during their expeditions, suffering from malnutrition, dehydration, and a variety of disease like malaria endemic to the tropics. Either one could have died before reaching the other. Livingstone could have failed to make it to Ujiji, where he hoped relief supplies was waiting for him. Stanley could have arrived before Livingstone, and spent all his dwindling supplies waiting or searching for Livingstone before having to return to the coast. It truly was a tremendous coincidence of good fortune for both men.

Overall I thought this book was interesting, although there's a certain level of crazy to these explorers who decide to go wandering through jungles and suffer all manner of diseases. I certainly would have headed back home at the first opportunity. Or never left home in the first place. I do suspect Dugard stretches or sensationalizes some facts, but I don't see any serious flaws with his methodology, especially considering the copious written material available for Dugard to draw upon for research. It is heavily from the European perspective, but that's hardly surprising. Dugard also tries to put things within the larger context of the nineteenth century, but it's mostly focused on the historical figures than the larger picture. If you're specifically interested in the life and work of Livingstone and Stanley, I think this book is a good opportunity.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Today I'm looking at Hidden Figures, a book you may remember coming out way back in 2016. I was recently able to borrow it from the library and because I had heard good things I decided it was worth reading about. Hidden Figures talks about the history of the black female computers who worked first for the aeronautical research laboratories at Langley Field and later for NASA during the height of the space race. These women, who literally did nothing but math for a living, have been overlooked in official and even unofficial histories of NASA. Shetterly began investigations because her father was a black engineer for NASA and knew many of the computers who lived in their neighborhood. As she continued her research Shetterly discovered that at least fifty black women worked for the Langley aeronautical research labs and/or NASA, and it's possibly a much greater number. This is to say nothing of the white women who worked in the exact same jobs but have gotten only slightly more recognition. Even Shetterly admits that her book only scratches the surface of the history of NASA's black women computers, but it's an important first step so further research can be done.

Today when we hear computer we think immediately of an inanimate object so ubiquitous it hardly bears thinking about. I am writing this blog post on a computer. You are reading it on a different computer. You probably use a computer at work, and so do I. But seventy years ago electronic computers were little better than theory, and complex mathematics had to be done at best with the aid of slide rules and mechanical adding machines. Because this was seen as drudge work, scientists and engineers were happy to pass the difficult task of actually doing the math to female computers.

During World War II, America's quest for air supremacy meant that massive amounts of money were spent on the research and development of new and better airplanes, and the aeronautic studies required massive amounts of calculations. Whether it was refining the SBD Dauntless, speeding up the P-51 Mustang, or getting a little more lift from the B-29, thousands of calculations had to be done to ensure American planes would win the war. But due to wartime shortages in labor, the War Department was looking for anyone with mathematical aptitude to work for their research labs. Thanks to this and an executive order from FDR prohibiting racial discrimination for federal jobs, an entire new set of opportunities were open not only to African-Americans in general, but specifically African-American women. Although they had to struggle with segregation within the laboratories, the black computers confined to a separate computing pool and relegated to a single table in the cafeteria, the ladies of Computing West were undeterred by their circumstances and gave it their all. And like many of their white counterparts, these female computers managed to earn the respect and admiration of their white male colleagues.

Perhaps most astoundingly, what was supposed to be a temporary war-time job, soon developed into a career for many of these women as the arms race and space race of the Cold War continued to feed demand for mathematical know-how. Some women even went on to learn how to program and operate the electronic computers that began replacing the biological kinds in the 1960's.

It is not overall surprising that black women have been overlooked by more traditional histories. Non-whites and women have had a hard time going beyond more than mere token status. But I think this book is an important step into revealing the complex nature of NASA even in the 1950's and 60's and how women of color have been involved since the beginning. As I said, hopefully more research will follow on Shetterly's book and we can learn more about the computers of NASA.

- Kalpar