Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

Today I'm looking at a book recommended to me by a friend, The Library at Mount Char. This book mostly follows Carolyn, one of twelve children adopted by their Father on a day in 1977. Each of the twelve children are responsible for one of the twelve catalogs, the categories of knowledge within Father's vast and seemingly limitless library. Why the god-like Father had chosen the twelve of them is a mystery but the children learn very quickly to not ask unnecessary questions. But one day, Father disappears and all twelve of the children are unable to even get close to the Library. It seems impossible but if Father is dead, then the power of the Library is up for grabs and whoever can get their first will rule the universe.

I have to admit this book is pretty...creepy. Creepier than most stuff that I'd normally read. The premise on the book summary was interesting to me but the book itself went into an entirely different direction than I expected it to. Which is good. It's different and I think the plot was well-written and it was something I wouldn't normally have read otherwise so I'm glad my friend suggested it to me. But that doesn't keep it from being really creepy and dark all the same which can make it a little scary to read.

Part of the fun of this book is figuring out the plot as you go along as well. Things are not as they seem from the beginning and over time you get a better and better feeling that something is very wrong. The hints are little towards the beginning, almost innocuous, but as they get more obvious and you start seeing that things aren't quite adding up your mind starts going down certain tracks. As a result I wasn't terribly surprised by the plot twists, but I felt like I could anticipate them without ruining the tension of the novel. It's also done in achronological order so you get different parts of the story at different times which keeps you trying to guess or figure out what the heck is going on.

Hawkins also does considerable world-building, although it isn't detailed an encyclopedic. Hawkins tends to hint at or mention things rather than explain them outright, such as the friends, servants, and enemies of Father. And honestly, I think that works for the length of the book which is just under 400 pages. If this was a thicker, slow-burner, doorstop of a book I'd ask for just a little bit more detail when it came to Hawkins's world. With the length of the book I think he did a right amount of worldbuilding without letting the plot suffer. I am wondering if he has a plan for other books utilizing the same characters, since it ended on a call to action, but that remains to be seen.

If you're looking for something different and more than a little creepy, this book is definitely worth checking out. It's not quite my favorite, but I wouldn't say it's a bad one either.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis

Today I'm looking at a book from one of the greats of modern fantasy, C.S. Lewis, with his novella The Screwtape Letters. Written during World War II, The Screwtape Letters take the form of correspondence from a senior devil, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood who is engaged in tempting a young man into sin and ultimately damnation. There are actually at least two audio editions of this book read by different individuals. The version I listened to was read by Ralph Cosham which is definitely very different from the version read by John Cleese. I have not listened to the entirety of the Cleese reading but from the excerpts I have listened to definitely gives the character of Screwtape a very different perspective.

The book is almost entirely theological, as Screwtape provides advice to Wormwood on his ''Patient'' regarding leading him to sin and the virtues which Wormwood should endeavor to make his patient avoid. Now, I cannot say for certain that this book reveals Lewis's own theological opinions. It could very well be his own, earnestly held beliefs that he decided to communicate in a humorous format. Or it could be a series of doctrines he may agree partially with, or hardly at all, which he is presenting for consideration. I simply do not have enough knowledge of Lewis's own personal theology to say one way or the other. Considering that this falls very heavily into the ''God is Love'' theology and Lewis also wrote a book titled The Four Loves, I think it's reasonable to conclude there's at least a little bit of overlap.

As for the theology presented within the book, there are some parts that I agree with and some parts that I don't. Lewis himself was an atheist who returned to Christianity with renewed vigor so he very strongly rejects atheism, materialism, secular humanism, and a number of other isms as merely distractions of diabolical nature to keep people away from Christianity and God. The only path to redemption for humans is to love and serve God. Being an atheist, I of course disagree with this. And not just from a theological perspective. Leaving aside entirely the question of whether or not deities exist, or even accepting that they do exist within the context of the story, I think it's a little unfair to say that Christianity or even religion is the only way of being a good person. There was a lot of good which came out of the Progressive movements and other liberal movements through the nineteenth and twentieth century, not all of it religious in its origin. And if people are caring for others and doing work to help other people, does their motivation for doing so really matter, as long as they're doing good?

And I really think it comes down to the question over motivation. It seems to me, within The Screwtape Letters, that doing good for God is more important of more value than simply doing good. While I would say the motivation for doing good is largely irrelevant. Whether you do it for god, the warm fuzzy feeling, or out of general compassion, feeding the poor is good regardless of your motives. So I'm not sure Lewis and I would be able to see eye-to-eye on theology, but that's all right.

This book is interesting, if consisting almost entirely of theology and moralism. I can't find myself agreeing with all of its ideas, but there are at least some things I can agree with or at least respect.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Turn Coat, by Jim Butcher

Today I'm looking at the eleventh book in the Dresden Files series, Turn Coat. There's some pretty important stuff plot-wise that happens in this book and I feel like it's a pivotal moment in the series, possibly where things take a turn for the worse and Harry finds himself in deeper and deeper trouble. It's also basically impossible for me to talk about this book without getting into plot spoilers so I'll just have to advise everyone who doesn't want spoilers to go away now. As usual, I will have my red warning

Dear and gentle readers: As this is the eleventh book in an ongoing series and a major shift, it is basically impossible to adequately talk about this book without spoilers. If you wish to avoid these, I advise leaving now. Come back next week for spoiler-free writings.

The book begins with David Morgan, the Warden who was Dresden's parole officer for years and attempted to kill Dresden on more than one occasion, Coming to Dresden's door badly wounded and himself on the run from the Wardens. Morgan reveals that he's wanted for the murder of one of the seven members of the High Council but the entire set up is a frame job and Morgan's completely innocent. And knowing that Morgan is loyal to the White Council unto death and this can't be anything other than a frame job, Harry believes him. However the Wardens are now launching a global manhunt for Morgan and Harry only has a few days to find evidence proving Morgan is innocent.

The situation gets even more complicated when a mysterious party sets up a Craigslist ad offering five million dollars for Morgan, clearly not the work of the White Council but possibly that of the Black Council. Which means Harry could find himself fighting against every cutthroat and mercenary in the magical community to protect Morgan, and very soon gets in over his head.

There are a ton of big events in this book which move the plot forward and set up conflict for later novels. Most important is the Black Council, the hypothetical force behind the strangeness and discontent upsetting the magical balance of power, is finally unmasked as a real threat. Although factions of the White Council, including the Merlin, continue to publicly deny that anything such as a ''Black Council'' exists, internally the White Council has no choice but to accept that this is a real and credible threat. Dresden and McCoy also start putting together the idea of a Gray Council, their own secret faction preparing for when the Black Council inevitably strikes again. I'm thinking that wizard politics are going to play a much larger role in later books.

There's also a major shift with Thomas, Harry's vampire brother, who's been working to combat his biological need to feed on other people's life force and exploit them. I've actually liked Thomas quite a bit, partly because I've joked he seems to be using the family brain cell, and partly because I like that he's not happy with being a vampire and is trying to find a way to be better than what the demon inside him wants him to be. Unfortunately in this book Thomas goes through some torture and anguish and by the end he's fully embraced the demon and become just another White Court vampire, seeing people as food. This upsets Harry quite a bit, and it upsets me as well.

Something which has annoyed me greatly, ever since the third season of Heroes, is when a character goes through a redemption arc and then decides, ''No, being good's too hard. I'm just going to go back to killing people.'' I'm not sure why this annoys me so much but it's something I absolutely hate seeing. And I'm seeing that with Thomas here as well. Thomas has been fighting against his need to consume people's life force and be a better person, but it's been difficult because he still has to get energy as a vampire somehow. And he managed to come up with a clever solution with his hair salon. So I'm not exactly thrilled that Thomas has decided to just embrace the demon and eat people. I am hopeful that Harry will be able to reach through to Thomas and bring him back, so I'm not totally sworn off, but that remains to be seen.

Other than that there were so many things I liked about this book. Toot, who is turning into quite a badass, is hilarious and awesome and I'm hoping to see more of him and his little buddies. Listens to Wind also gets a really awesome scene, even if it was pretty stereotyped, not to mention all the other cool stuff that happens in this book. Overall I think this book is a mix of good and bad, serious and silly, and I think Butcher does a pretty good job of striking a balance. The series may be getting a little darker in its tone, but Dresden still snarks like the best of us.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Wild Cards I

Today I'm looking at a collection of short stories in the Wild Cards universe, Wild Cards I, which deals with the introduction of the Wild Card virus to earth, its aftermath, and changes to the world after survivors of the virus, both aces and jokers, begin to take a more prominent role in the world. The result is an interesting world that feels incredibly cohesive, at least in this first novel, despite being written by a variety of authors over a number of years.

The story begins in 1946 when an alien, who ultimately gets the moniker Doctor Tachyon, lands at White Sands, New Mexico to warn the United States that his people developed an experimental bioweapon they intended to test on earth. Doctor Tachyon managed to prevent them from deploying it immediately, but the vessel carrying it crash landed somewhere in the eastern United States and it's absolutely vital that they recover it before it gets released. Unfortunately they fail and the bioweapon gets released over Manhattan.

For the people who get infected by the virus, about 90% of them die outright, which caused considerable panic when thousands of people died grisly deaths around New York City, creating a state of emergency. Of the remaining 10% who survive, about 90% of them get mutations that are largely useless, whether it be a disfigured hand, transformation into an animal form, or a minor ability such as being able to move coins a little bit on a table. These people are called jokers and a majority of them get consigned to a ghetto at the southern end of Manhattan called Jokertown. Of the remaining 10% of survivors, a mere 1% of those who are infected with the wild card virus, they get legitimate superpowers whether it be flight, super-strength, or telekinesis. These are the aces, first mistrusted and even reviled by the American public, and then later heroes with their own comic books.

The thing I like most about this book was how interconnected everything felt. As I said, this was a combined effort of numerous authors over a period of time within a shared universe. with Wild Cards I the result was a book that felt like it had a cohesive vision and voice throughout the book, rather than a collection of stories by different people in a shared universe. A good comparison would be some of the Bolo books. While these books are within a shared universe, the short stories in the anthologies can be quite distinct from one another with each author's own voice coming through in the book. While this adds to the variety of the Bolo universe, it makes the books feel a lot like an anthology rather than a cohesive story.

Wild Cards I, by comparison, feels like a full-length novel written in the style of a series of short stories. While the individual authors' voices didn't come out as much, the result felt more like a unified vision rather than an anthology. And I, for one, appreciated that and it's something I can't say I've really seen anywhere else in the books I've read.

Overall I think this book was pretty good. There were some bits I didn't care for, and the parts with the HUAC witch-hunts against aces got a little too relevant for me, but otherwise I think it was a really enjoyable story. If you like superheroes, this might be worth taking a look.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 7, 2017

At All Costs, by David Weber

Today I'm looking at the eleventh book in the Honor Harrington series, At All Costs. As with a lot of the other books as I've progressed through the series, this book is considerably longer and I think part of it is simply bloat. I found at least a few examples of stuff thrown into the book which probably could have been left out or trimmed down without losing too much of the book. There's also more of the subplots from elsewhere in the Honorverse getting woven into the main story and I'm suspecting I probably should have gone to read those side stories as well because they're starting to seriously affect the main storyline. I remember when Mesa and Manpower had first been introduced to me, having just read the main Honor Harrington books and it felt a little out of nowhere that there was this whole additional plotline.

With as long and occasionally bloated as this book feels, though, this book spends a lot of time making things happen. Which isn't to say that the other books didn't have major events, but I feel like this was a major turning point in the series because the Maticore-Haven conflict is getting resolved while the Manpower and Solar League plotlines are becoming more important. I'll have to see if my feelings about the series are right as I continue.

Usual warning to my kind and gentle readers. I will try to discuss the book in as spoiler-free a manner as possible, but as I'm eleven books in it's difficult to talk about a book intelligently without mentioning some spoilers. If you wish to avoid them please leave now. 

One of the things I was honestly a little on the fence about was the awesome space battles. I think this book, more than any other in the series, has had the most space battles in it. And that's part of why I was all for this series in the first place. Give me a bunch of ships with missiles and lasers and I'll be pretty darn happy. Unfortunately, the space battles in this book start getting really repetitive after a while. I noticed in particular that Dave has this really bad habit of going through the number of missiles in a salvo, which bloats his description of the battle by a considerable amount. Seriously, a lot of the battles include a passage where Dave says, ''The Manticorans launched so many thousands of missiles. This number of them were decoys. This number of them were recon pods. But this many were live warheads. Haven countermissiles took out this many. Point defense took out this many. This number lost target lock and wandered off. This many missed. And this many hit the enemy ships. And then the enemy ship exploded.''

Like, I appreciate that he's going through the effort of making the battles as detailed and realistic as possible, but at the same time I really didn't want to hear Dave prattle off a bunch of numbers as well. And this happens at least three or four times in the book, possibly more because I honestly lost count. The result was it made the battles feel a lot longer and a lot less interesting to me, which I thought was a shame because it was the space battles that had me interested in the book in the first place.

As I said, there are also major plot developments in the rest of the book. For example there's the Manticore-Haven war which starts up again, then heads towards another peace negotiation, and then turns into a shooting war again and after the events of this book, I suspect they'll have no choice but to agree to a ceasefire, but it's hard to say. And, as I mentioned, there's the plot involving Manpower and how they apparently are involved much deeper than anyone would expect.

I do wish that the Manpower plot had been introduced and expanded on more in the main books. I'm sure I can go hunt down the supplemental books to find out about the genetic slave trade, all the horrors involved with it, and the grand galactic schemes the board of Manpower has going on, but since it's affecting these books I wish I'd had more of an introduction.

Otherwise, I think this book was pretty good. The series is definitely different from when I started with On Basilisk Station, but I'm still enjoying the series and eager to continue reading it.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

March Upcountry, by David Weber and John Ringo

Today I'm looking at the first book in a series co-written by David Weber and John Ringo. If you've spent any time at all looking at my blog, you're probably aware that I've spent a lot of time reading Weber's books. Specifically anything related to the Bolo franchise he's written, and a significant number of the Honor Harrington books. I have a little bit of experience with John Ringo as well, since he wrote Road to Damascus, one of the Bolo books which I had mixed feelings about. But since I could get this book for free from the library, I figured it was worth at least the time to check it out and see if it was any good.

March Upcountry is the first in the Empire of Man series, which I presume follows the adventures of Prince Roger MacClintock. Roger is third in line to the throne and will eventually be replaced in the line of succession by the children of his older siblings, so he's always been superfluous to requirements for the royal family. As a result, Roger has grown up to be a spoiled dandy, more obsessed with his good looks and clothing than anything particularly useful. Much to Roger's dismay his mother sends him on a diplomatic mission to a backwater planet of the empire, mostly to get him out from underfoot. But an assassination attempt on Roger's ship results in Roger and a company of his bodyguards being stranded on an even more remote planet, Marduk.

Marduk is only barely part of the Empire, most of the planet being covered by dense jungles filled with populations of hostile indigenous aliens. To make matters worse, the Saints, environmental extremists and enemies of the Empire, have sent a fleet into the system, which means Roger and Bravo Company of the Bronze Battalion have to land secretly on the surface of Marduk, and somehow manage to trek overland to the tiny space port to call for rescue.

This book is mostly about the challenges Bravo Company faces trying to survive on Marduk and make its way halfway across the planet to get to the spaceport, and Roger's growth from a spoiled dandy into a responsible and capable military officer. Both plots are pretty interesting and handled competently, so I have nothing to complain about there. Having read a ton of military sci-fi including the always diverse Warhammer 40k universe, I'm pretty familiar with both of these plots but I at least enjoyed them. I do kind of wish, considering how darn long this particular book was, that they had gotten Roger and Bravo Company off of Marduk at the end of the book, rather than leaving them only partway to their first goal. I'm just not sure how much more different the second book can be since they'll still be making their way through the jungle, trying to get to the spaceport.

There are some signs that this is definitely Weber and Ringo's work, if only because the native fauna on Marduk has six limbs each. (Dave seems to really like giving creatures six limbs.) And the space combat felt almost like I was listening to an Honor Harrington book. Since I was actually reading an Honor Harrington book at the same time it got more than a little confusing for me because I had to remember which book I was reading!

Plus there's also the Saints who I'm sure will become more important in later books in the series but had at best a cameo in this book. The Saints are extremely militant environmentalists who are pretty much a combination of the worst parts of the People's Republic of Haven in Honor Harrington, and the bad guys in Ringo's Road to Damascus. Apparently they have chaplains whose goal is to minimize harm to the environment and override a spaceship captain's decision if it would cause too much harm. Also the Saints apparently have worlds they've actively been de-terraforming and basically run them as slave labor camps where starving political prisoners attack dandelions with wooden tools. I just feel that they're almost too cartoonishly villainous to be taken seriously, especially considering Ringo's pronounced conservative streak and Weber's strong pro-military and vaguely libertarian streak as well.

On the flip side, the protagonists definitely influence the development of several indigenous cultures on Marduk and give them access to pieces of advanced technology. The characters also mention bringing sociological adjustment teams and more advanced technology to Marduk to help integrate the native population into the empire. This is seen as a good thing but I'm not entirely sure that it is. On the one hand, there are definite benefits to bringing advanced technologies, especially medicine, to areas without as great a technological base to improve the local quality of life. On the other hand, this has a very strong imperialist ring to it and I'm not sure I like the reasons why the main characters are interested in helping the inhabitants of Marduk. It does leave me with a feeling of ambivalence regarding the book's politics.

Overall, the book is okay but there are some warning signs that it might go into some very unpleasant territory later on with crazy environmentalists. Out of the many other military sci-fi books I've read, this one was at least enjoyable. If you like this sort of crazy pulp, maybe you'll like this as well.

- Kalpar

Monday, September 4, 2017

Baby Boomers are Killing Railroads

Last week Penn Central, the largest railroad company in the United States, declared bankruptcy after only two years in operation following the merger of long-time rivals Pennsylvania and New York Central. This bankruptcy has sent a ripple through the economy and forced investors to take a hard look at their railroad holdings as numerous other companies have reported financial difficulties. To many it seems that the railroad, long a stalwart of the American economy, is in danger of disappearing.

But what is to blame for the failure of railroads? Many economists have pondered why a company as large as the Penn Central, which continued to pay dividends despite poor earnings, would fail as completely as it did. Some cite issues such as poor railroad management, competition from federally subsidized highways and airports, and increasing costs in both labor and infrastructure. Farmers in Maine especially blame Penn Central's poor handling of last year's potato harvest which resulted in entire shipments of potatoes getting lost and rotting en route to market. However many are laying the blame for Penn Central and other railroads' difficulties squarely at the doorstep of the up and coming generation of Baby Boomers.

''The problem with Baby Boomers is they want everything right now,'' a Penn Central representative said. ''Many Baby Boomers simply don't appreciate that we're willing to take the time necessary to make sure they get where they're going safely. In some places our track has deteriorated so badly we can only travel fifteen miles an hour over it or the train will derail. For whatever reason, Baby Boomers simply aren't willing to accept that.''

Prominent sociologists agree with this assessment. ''Baby Boomers simply value the speed of air travel or the convenience of car travel over the frustrations associated with rail travel. As a generation, Baby Boomers are more interested in getting the best service possible for the best price possible, rather than supporting traditional industries like railroads.'' 

Railroads are only the latest of industries that Baby Boomers are responsible for killing, with radio, big band music, and propeller driven aircraft being other prominent casualties of the Baby Boomer onslaught.