Thursday, December 26, 2013

Superfreakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

This week I've decided to review the sequel to Freakonomics, Superfreakonomics where Levitt and Dubner return to explore the economic rationales behind some of humanity's (and in some cases monkeys') weirder behaviors. I again found this book to be interesting and it raised some very interesting points, but at the same time I began noticing a trend of extremely loose organization that seemed to be inherent in both books. In the introduction the authors straight up admit that the book doesn't have a unifying theme or a central goal and as a result the book gets kind of muddled because it lacks a goal. A lot of the information presented within the book create interesting anecdotes that make good dinner conversations, but I feel like a lot of the further reading to educate yourself on the subject is left with the reader rather than with the author.

It's very hard for me to pin down exactly why I don't care for the sequel as much as I enjoyed the first one but I get the feeling it might be because it's simply more of the same that you got in the first book. Levitt and Dubner go through data to challenge commonly held assumptions and introduce economic concepts and make them applicable to the lay reader. It's very much like the first book and exposes how to apply an economic mindset to any situation and interpreting it based on incentives, cost versus benefit, and other factors. While it certainly introduces a handful of new concepts and helps to further the education of the lay reader in economic principles and research, I feel like Superfreakonomics isn't quite as ground-breaking as its predecessor. The problem is I can't really come up with any evidence to support my opinion, it's all really down to my feelings.

Is the book your time? Probably. It certainly raises a lot of good questions and challenges many commonly-held assumptions within larger society. I just feel like it focuses entirely on simply challenging assumptions and trying to make your head explode with the incredible more than anything else. With no clear goal or no overarching points it comes across as a collection of interesting anecdotes that could very easily be forgotten rather than being applied in the larger world to challenge our perceptions. It's certainly interesting, but I don't know if it will really stick with people.

Overall, interesting, but it's lacking a something I simply can't identify.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 19, 2013

On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

I want to preface this review by stating that I really liked this book, but there's one particular detail that overall is really minor but bugs the ever-loving hell out of me. It may seem kind of small to a lot of my readers but it's symptomatic of much larger issues I've encountered in fiction and part of a personal crusade. However, I want you all to take away from this that despite my frustration this is a really awesome book and I think anyone who's a fan of space opera should definitely check it out.

On Basilisk Station is the first book in the Honor Harrington series which follows Honor Harrington and her service as a ship commander in the Royal Manticoran Navy, as well as looking at the larger political and military intrigues between the Kingdom of Manticore and the People's Republic of Haven. I had heard great things about this series but had initially hesitated in starting because it's a long-running series that's currently twenty years old and apparently shows no signs of stopping. I managed to find the first book for free on my kindle (which will save me a bunch of shelf space since I intend to continue with the series) and decided to go ahead and give it a shot. I was very pleased with the book and glad that I decided to start reading this series.

This book introduces us to Honor Harrington, as well as the larger picture such as the Kingdom of Manticore and the People's Republic of Haven and sets the tone for a future conflict between these two powers. Through no fault of her own Harrington gets assigned to Basilisk Station, the dumping ground of the RMN's mistakes and is left with only her single aging light cruiser, the HMS Fearless, to protect and enforce order within the Medusa system. Instead of giving into despair and accepting that she's been abandoned, Harrington decides to actually enforce the orders she's been given by command and starts to seriously shake things up. Along the way she uncovers a far more sinister plot that may put the very danger of Manticore at stake.

Probably the greatest strength of the Honor Harrington series is its main character, which is desperately important if you're trying to create a character-driven series. Honor is an incredibly competent spaceship captain, tough as nails, driven to not only advance her career as an officer but also to execute her duties to the fullest extent possible. She is definitely someone I would want in command of a warship and would trust to be able to not only get the job done, but do it right as well. I definitely look forward to more of Harrington's adventures in the future and hope they are just as enjoyable.

In addition to Harrington being a great character I really enjoyed the glimpses of the larger political machinations going on while Harrington is shaking things up at Basilisk. You get to see not only the intrigues among the Manticoran Admiralty and Parliament, but also the plots of other powers as they try to extend their influence into the Medusa system. Oddly enough I actually enjoy reading about these sorts of political intrigues, which is a lot of why I love Song of Ice and Fire as well, and since they're very well and realistically written I look forward to watching the political situation develop alongside the military situation in future installments.

What really frustrates me about this book though, is a certain aspect of Harrington's backstory that the author decided to include and it doesn't really need to exist within the novel. Sadly, like a number of strong female characters part of Harrington's backstory is sexual violence. Granted, she beats the ever-loving crap out of her attempted rapist and the navy really wanted her to press charges so they could kick his ass out of the service, but it's still frustrating that a well-rounded lead female character has, almost by obligation, sexual violence as part of her past. And it's not like this event is really even necessary because all it really does is make Harrington hate Pavel Young (her attempted rapist) even more. Young is already from an aristocratic family and put on the fast track to promotion because of his lineage despite the fact that he's an incompetent and barely qualified for command of his own ship. Harrington could hate him solely based on him being a spoiled rich kid and if she was a male character that would be the entire basis of their antagonism. Furthermore the sexual assault isn't even used as an excuse to explain why she's a tough and competent starship commander, Harrington is just driven to be the best possible captain she can regardless.

Obviously, yes, sexual violence (and violence in general) against women is a big deal and we should be doing everything we can to fight this almost casual acceptance in some circles that violence against women is a fact of life and we can't do anything about it. I don't think Weber meant any ill-will when he included this particular aspect of Harrington's backstory, but I think it's a strong example of how even the best authors can kind of fall into this trap. There is some merit because it's not the end-all-be-all of who Harrington is and why she is the way she is, but it's still a frustrating and unnecessary addition.

Despite my frustrations I thought Harrington was well-written as a person and I was really interested in all the political events going on around her. I did find it a little hard to follow at times because the perspective shifted suddenly, but I suspect that was because of the formatting on the kindle rather than any fault of the author. If you're a fan of space operas and political intrigue I'd definitely recommend checking this series out.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Astra: Synchronicity, by Lisa Eskra

This week I've decided to review yet another book that I picked up for free at some point with my Kindle and as of writing is still free on Amazon. Unfortunately I had a lot of issues with this book and while I found out that it was part of a series by an author, sadly I did not feel interested enough in this book to pursue the series in the future. Overall the book felt really rough around the edges and could have stood to be polished a lot more. For a first book from an author it's pretty promising and I hope that her writing continues to develop and get better in the future, but for the first book of a series it turned me off entirely.

When I started reading Astra: Synchronicity, I thought that maybe I had jumped into book two in a three part series because there's a lot of background information that's sort of glossed over and I felt like I was just supposed to know all of this already from another book. This novel felt like a lot of part-twos to a trilogy because it had a muddled beginning and no clear end. Yes, some issues got resolved within the novel, but there were numerous, much larger issues which remained to be solved by the characters, and the promise of new and interesting problems as well. I felt like when the book wasn't working on the main plot for the future novels it was just sort of muddling around trying to waste time so it could be a full book.

Throughout all of the novel I still didn't really feel any connection with the characters. If pressed I could identify for most of the main characters a clear cut motivation that drives their progress through the novel, but I felt like they were more just actors playing a role rather than people earnestly driven by their goals. Again, this is probably mostly because it's the author's first book and so she is still working on developing her characters into fully-fleshed beings, but I didn't feel any emotional investment in them as characters and wasn't particularly concerned if they succeeded or not. Obviously it's very hard to make people care about your characters and take an emotional investment in them, but for whatever reason I just couldn't bring myself to care and wasn't particularly interested in what will happen to them.

On the subject of characterization, I was particularly frustrated with our male and female leads, Magnius and Amii. I didn't find anything particularly objectionable to them as characters but I was really frustrated with their "Will we or won't we romance." Now, my readers are no doubt aware I'm no big fan of romance and I'm sure writing a situation where both parties are involved are unsure of what they want out of the relationship can be a challenge and it takes a lot of work to be done well, but unfortunately the tension between Magnius and Amii seemed to be more because the characters suffered from extreme swings in their core personality. I just found myself wishing they'd make up their mind so we could get back to this galaxy-shaking plot that was taking place as well.

The biggest thing I noticed with this book is that the author is really trying to create her own giant, galaxy-spanning epic story with all of these really neat ideas, but I'm afraid that it's kind of an ambitious undertaking for a first-time author and as a result it struggles. In the first fifth or so of the novel we're introduced to a lot of different plot threads and they only get tied together after the twenty-percent mark. (I read it on my kindle, okay?) And with all these different plot threads you get the sense that this is going to be a massive plot that's going to take our characters all sorts of places before it's finished with them. By the time I reached the halfway point I was absolutely certain that this book would introduce a major conflict and fail to resolve it so other books would have a driving plot.

Obviously, I'm not opposed to huge epics. I'm a fan of Song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Girl Genius, and Fullmetal Alchemist, series that all have this really big over-arching plot that gets resolved over the course of a series. Or, in the case of Song of Ice and Fire, might get resolved. Eventually. We'll see. However, doing a large, sprawling epic well takes a lot of work and dedication and maybe, just maybe, shouldn't be the first thing that you attempt as an author. True, I haven't written a work of fiction in my life, but having some experience certainly can't hurt before writing your magnus opus. And I very clearly got the impression the author knew what story she wanted to tell, what aspects she wanted to implement, and how she wanted all of it to end, she just didn't have the experience to pull it off as well as the work deserved. For most authors, even my favorites, their first book will not be their best book and it will take them time to develop their writing style. Trying to do the beginning of a huge epic for your first novel is certainly ambitious but I think it's a classic case of your reach exceeding your grasp.

Overall I thought the book was competently written for a first novel, even if it felt a little disorganized. By the end Eskra had tied all of the various plot threads into one big plot...rope I guess, and there was a very clear direction as to where she was headed. Since the first book is free it can't really hurt to check it out, but I just didn't feel enough of a connection to want to continue with it further.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Gunheads, by Steve Parker

This week we return to the world of Warhammer 40,000 with Steve Parker's book Gunheads. I was actually a pretty big fan of one of Steve Parker's other books, Rebel Winter, and when a friend recommended this novel to me I decided to go ahead and pick it up. Overall I thought it was rather enjoyable, but it doesn't really deviate too much from the standard 40k formula. If you're looking for something fresh and exciting then this definitely isn't your fare. If you're interested in a very familiar and well-written Imperial Guard novel then you could do a lot worse than Gunheads.

The plot starts of pretty compelling, with the Guard landing on the planet Golgotha to try and recover Commissar Yarrick's famous Baneblade superheavy tank, the Fortress of Arrogance. Because Golgotha has been dominated by the orks for the past forty years, as well as the planet being an inhospitable desert, the Guard is going to attempt a quick retrieval rather than trying to conquer the entire planet and bring it back into the fold of the Imperium. As the brutal desert conditions continue to take their toll and machinery breaks down it becomes a race against both the clock and the orks to find the Fortress of Arrogance and leave Golgotha.

Despite the interesting plot, I realized about halfway through Gunheads that this book started feeling very familiar to me and felt a lot like a Gaunt's Ghosts novels with different characters. Basically you have an Imperial force, desperately outgunned and outnumbered, struggling for survival as they try to achieve their objective. You kind of know that they'll reach an objective in the end, but maybe not the one they'd hoped, and some of the characters will survive, but not as many as you'd hoped either. Plus there's plenty of decent, fighting soldiers in the army, and some of them might even be generals, but there's plenty of loonies in the commissariat and higher ranks to balance that out and a couple of bad apples among the rank-and-file. The challenge for the author then becomes how to make the book new and interesting so that readers have a reason to come back for more. In my opinion Dan Abnett accomplishes this very well by having his Ghosts go through a number of different interesting situations and how the Ghosts will manage to get out of this scrape. What I really think Gunheads does well and what sets it apart is focusing on the tank arm of the Imperial Guard. After all, the awesome tanks are a very good reason why most people choose to play Imperial Guard but most of the novels focus on the (very frequently) helplessly outmatched infantrymen as they try to take on the worst the universe is able to throw at them. The tanks, however, are glorious warmachines and may not be the most sophisticated or fanciest of armored vehicles, but when you see them in battle they make a good account for themselves and it is truly epic. Gunheads focuses almost entirely on the tanks and it was a rare treat to watch them in battle. (Plus, as you all know I'm a super fanboy for tanks anyway so it was a really good fit.)

Beyond the dealing specifically with tankers and their own specific challenges, this book really doesn't push the envelope or bring anything new. If you've read a bunch of other Guard novels like I have, you can kind of see where this one will be going and it won't disappoint in that regard. The Adeptus Mechanicus have some ulterior motives, the leading general's gone mad with his quest for one last victory, and everyone else is tryin to survive to get off this particular Emperor-forsaken-rock. This book even feels like part of a larger series with its references to events that have happened before the novel and the feeling that we were going to meet these characters again in the future. I did do some research and found out that a lot of the characters had been introduced in a short story that Parker had written before, but there hadn't been anything else written featuring these particular characters. I get the feeling, much like the characters in Rebel Winter they may disappear off into the what-ifs of 40k and we're left to conclude they just had awesome adventures and managed to do what you can only really hope to do, survive.

If Gunheads doesn't really break new ground, it at least trods the old ground competently and it's a pretty good read. And sometimes you don't want to read something terribly complicated that explores genres, and sometimes you just want to read something fun and escape in the fantasy for a little while. And really, that's what I chose to accept Gunheads as, a fun little tank fantasy with a familiar storyline that I'm not ashamed of enjoying. If you're a fan of the Guard and their tanks I'd definitely recommend checking it out.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 28, 2013

TV Review: Continuum

In the slowly increasingly history of the Arsenal I've really only talked about TV shows twice. The very first official post where I talked about Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, and that one time I talked about my opinions on the sixth series of the new Doctor Who. (Well, okay, three times if you include that time I talked about Firefly in a video.) It's a little funny because it's not like most of the entertainment I consume is just books so that's what I have to talk about. There are plenty of times where I sit down on the couch after a rough day and enjoy whatever happens to be in my Netflix queue at the moment (Mythbusters if you were interested) and there are plenty of video games that I enjoy playing. Perhaps the only person I know who is a more avid fan of the Total War franchise is my colleague Carvan. I think, however, that a lot of the TV shows I watch and video games that I play are pretty out there in the public consciousness and I don't really need to talk about them. I mean, who the heck in the sci-fi community hasn't heard of Doctor Who by now?

Continuum, I suspect, makes a notable exception in that case. I was only made aware of it because it was in a list of suggestions for me on Netflix based on my interest in sci-fi and time travel. Although I've only seen the first season I've ended up with rather strong opinions on Continuum and I have yet to meet anyone who's also seen the show. (Considering that as of writing it's an ongoing series that at least suggests it has got a rather strong following to merit continued existence.) As such I feel justified in writing about this series and pestering you all with my opinions on it.

Continuum is a series that is (originally) set in the year 2077. The governments of the world failed financially and had to be bailed out by the large corporations. As a result the corporations now control and own everything and there are, unsurprisingly, some people who are unhappy with this situation and are leading a rebellion/terrorist campaign against the corporate-controlled government. A handful get captured for bombing the Corporate Congress and were slated for execution but managed to engineer an escape attempt that transported them back to the year 2012, taking with them a police officer called Kiera Cameron. Much of the show then revolves around Cameron trying to stop the terrorists/rebels from trying to interfere with the past so that they can change the future as well as trying to return to her family in her own time. The series relies on a lot of what at this point are time-travel tropes such as the future fish out of water, meeting future famous and influential people, and exploring the paradoxes of time-travel. It doesn't bring terribly much new to the table aside from some Great Recession social commentary, but it's at least fairly enjoyable.
I have, however, two fairly large issues with this series which make me rather ambivalent to the whole thing. The first, and definitely my biggest issue, is how the show handles its portrayal of Cameron and the terrorists/rebels. As you've probably noticed throughout this review I've been adding a stroke whenever I talk about the rebel/terrorist group known as Liber8 in the series. The reason I do so is because I'm not entirely convinced that Liber8 are the bad guys in this scenario. To further explain, in the future of 2077 the freedoms of speech, press, and peaceable assembly have been removed by the government and in many cases martial law has been instituted. In response to these and other harsh measures the member of Liber8, much like V in V for Vendetta have been left with no alternative than violent (and explosive) insurrection. Officer Cameron, by contrast, only occasionally questions the morality of her cause and her support of the existing regime. In the TV show the members of Liber8, who are some pretty hardened criminals regardless of the cause for which they fight, are unequivocally depicted as the villains engaging in theft, murder, kidnapping, extortion, and all manner of other crimes. Cameron is depicted very cleanly as the hero of the series, a traveler lost in time who is trying to do the right thing. However she also utilizes fairly unethical means to gain evidence and confessions in her police work and shows no respect for the legal protections all people are granted when suspected of a crime. And I at least didn't hate Cameron, she was an interesting character and fairly compelling, but there's a part of my brain that was constantly going, "She's a pawn of the government quashing the rights of the people! She violates legal protocol to get results!" That part then picks up a red flag, climbs a barricade, and promptly gets shot but it raises some good points.

The other big issue I have with this series, and perhaps this gets resolved in later seasons, is an inconsistency on whether or not the events occur in one timeline. The first and last episodes of the series pretty strongly state that the series occurs within one timeline and the characters are currently in a time loop and are unable to alter past events in spite of their intentions. However, in the middle of the series they deal specifically with the grandfather paradox and end up with a "Well we just don't know. Maybe we're in a branching timeline. Maybe this is the same timeline but something's different." For my readers who are unaware, the grandfather paradox is a classic time-travel paradox that has bugged the heck out of sci-fi nerds for decades. Suppose you have a time machine and decide to travel back in time to a point before your grandfather has ever met your grandmother. You then kill him. What happens? Some suggest you can kill him, but the timeline will auto-correct and you will cease to exist when the timeline "erases" any errors, a la Back to the Future. Others theorize that you simply cannot kill your grandfather because then you would not be able to exist to come back in time and kill him. Even if you tried your hardest to kill your grandfather the simple fact that you exist means he'll have a series of extremely close scrapes and continue to go on and meet your grandmother. And then some hypothesize that he wasn't really your grandfather all along and in fact you might be your own grandpa, a la Futurama.  Continuum takes on the grandfather paradox and actually kills the grandmother of one of the characters, however said character continues to exist after their grandmother dies. Perhaps this is explored in a later season of the series, but because this is very definitely the same timeline it raises the question of how the character's still able to exist when by all rights they shouldn't. It's all very frustrating and makes me wish the series was more consistent with its own time travel rules.

Overall I have mixed feelings on the series. It was kind of enjoyable, but I feel like it doesn't bring anything new to the table and doesn't do everything it's trying to do well. Definitely not on my recommend list of TV shows if that tells you anything. 

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Kalpar Lectures: Why Get Offended by Fiction?

Kalpar's Note: Sorry, this is another long, wordy post this week with me ranting about various things which I have opinions about. I had considered doing this as a video lecture but I'm much better at writing my ideas down and I feel like I can transmit it in a more cohesive fashion through this medium. No I haven't died or been attacked or anything, I just haven't felt up to making videos for quite a while due to a combination of laziness and Minecraft. I hope you at least enjoy this post.

Recently I had someone ask me what was the point of getting offended over fiction. The gist of their argument was that since fiction's made up then it doesn't really matter and there's no point in getting offended. I have a much longer response which I'll detail through the rest of this post, but the main point I'm going to make is that fiction does matter and we should care about the messages it sends. And obviously people do get offended by works of fiction, otherwise we wouldn't have a list of the most commonly banned books in the United States, however that offense is not always justified or with some of these books is frequently misguided. But every once in a while you get a book that truly is offensive and sends a message that has no merit whatsoever and it is our right and responsibility as readers to stand up and refuse to accept this sort of garbage as reading material.

Perhaps for as long as humans have existed, we have had fiction. There have always been stories and in some cases they actually pre-date the written word and have been passed down in the oral tradition before being committed to paper. These stories, more specifically these myths (for that's what I'm talking about), served a very important role in helping people understand and make sense of the universe around them. Questions like, "Where did we come from? Why are we here? What's life all about? How should I act towards other people? What happens to me when I die?" Myths sought to explain all of these questions and give people meaning to their existence and an idea on how to operate in the larger world. From the very beginning fiction was a medium to communicate ideas to other people.

Obviously things have gotten a little more complex in the past ten thousand years, but fiction retains its power to communicate philosophies, ideologies, and even theologies to a large number of people in a familiar form. Sometimes fiction is used like a mirror, such as in Gulliver's Travels, where the author reflects all the flaws and issues in society and how they seem so terribly important to those involved, but are really quite silly if you can look at it objectively. Sometimes fiction is used to show how the world really is in contrast to how it really is, like in All Quiet on the Western Front that dispelled the legend of glorious and honorable combat and revealed war for the nightmarish hell that it really is. And sometimes fiction is a means to talk about what's wrong with society and how things can be made better, like the many tangents in Les Miserables which deal with sewers, taxation, and prison reform and how they failed a modern France. With fiction the possibilities are practically endless because you can do all of this and more and are only constrained by the limits of the imagination. Fiction has been and remains a powerful force for influencing how people think, how people act, and how people live and enables one person to share their ideas and beliefs with a very wide range of people.

However, once we get into issues such as opinions and beliefs we start getting into sticky territory. At least in the United States with this glorious freedom of speech and the press, people are allowed to express whatever opinions they wish, no matter how misguided or ill-informed they may be. This has lead to an almost sacred nature of other people's opinions and you're not allowed to challenge their opinions and explain why you think they're wrong in the public forum and be taken seriously. Granted, as the public forum exists now it's very hard to have a reasonable and rational discourse of ideas with another person and it very quickly devolves into a loud shouting match, but ideas should constantly be challenged otherwise there's no way to see if they have any merit and the important thing is to remain respectful despite your disagreement. As with any rule, though, there is of course an exception: when people are completely and utterly wrong and have an opinion that is hurtful than others. Much of America's progress as a nation has been because people have been brave enough to challenge the "opinions" of other people. For example, it was the opinion of quite a few people that African-Americans were "better off" as slaves in the United States and they just didn't have the intellectual capacity to be equal citizens in our country. It was the opinion of many people that Catholics could never be true American citizens because of their loyalty to an overseas absolute monarch: the pope. It was an opinion that women could never be rational enough to trust the vote and they'd just end up voting how their husbands told them to vote. All of these opinions were offensive and based on illegitimate facts and if they had been considered "sacred" and weren't allowed to be challenged in the public forum then we'd be faced with a country still completely dominated by rich, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men. (Although now it's only mostly dominated by rich WASP men. So...some progress I guess.)

In the same way, because fiction is capable of transmitting philosophies and ideologies it is very possible for fiction to transmit beliefs and opinions that are simply wrong and need to be vigorously challenged in the forum. And sometimes the author may not even be aware of the unfortunate implications of their writings, such as stating that a strong female character's backstory is because she was raped in her past. As I explained in another lecture elsewhere, rape as a backstory diminishes the agency of a female character and is offensive because it implies that women can only become tough and strong if something extremely bad like rape happens to them. And this trope has been so strongly woven into fiction that some authors might not even be aware that there's something wrong with this message so it's our duty as readers to inform them about why it's wrong and suggest how they can avoid such pitfalls in the future.

There are times when it's a lot harder to tell if the author accidentally put a message into a novel or honestly believes the message that they're promoting through their work. If they appear to be fully behind this message, though, then it once again is our duty to counter their opinions and explain why we find them offensive and what's wrong with them because it is only by doing so that we can affect change. If an author writes a book that is about a truly abusive relationship but constantly describes it as true love, then we should point out how and why it's abusive and challenge this definition of "true love" at every turn. If a book claims that only the best and brightest deserve to prosper and all others should be left behind to suffer and die, we should challenge this assumption and point out that we're all in this together as human beings and, after all, the world needs ditch diggers in addition to geniuses. Offensive and wrong opinions deserve to be challenged and fought in the forum to help us become better as readers, as writers, and as people. If we demand better writing from our authors and vote with our wallets, we can definitely change how things are written and, although to a lesser effect nowadays, what gets published.

Now, is all fiction going to have deep messages and somehow affect how you live and look at the world? No, of course not. Sometimes a story is just a story and you want to be entertained for a while and there's nothing wrong with that. I do that myself on numerous occasions. The danger is assuming that because fiction is fun it is harmless and cannot affect the world beyond the bookshelf and the library. The simple fact of the matter is yes, books can change the world and greatly affect how people live, even fiction books. If this wasn't the case then tyrants would not have censorship and book burning. Authors have a great power in their writing and can influence thousands, if not millions of people with their words, but not every author is going to utilize this power responsibly. We as the consumers have the power of choice in what books we read, what books we recommend for other people, and what books we tell other people to avoid. By voting with our voices and wallets we can control what ideas spread and flourish, and what ideas wither and die. It is an awesome responsibility and we should use it wisely.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Bromeliad Trilogy, by Terry Pratchett

This week I've decided to review Sir Terry Pratchett's Bromeliad Trilogy, which is actually an anthology of three books titled Truckers, Diggers, and Wings. This is not a Discworld novel and is actually set in our own universe, but it still comes with the classic Pratchett wit and insight. I was overall pretty satisfied with this book, as I usually am with Pratchett's writing, however I felt like this book could have used some more time to develop. Definitely worth your time to read, and like the other Pratchett young-adult novels I've read it's good for the whole family because it asks some really tough questions that even adults can have trouble with.

In my opinion Bromeliad really isn't three books in a series, it's instead one large book divided into three segments, and if you're going to read this I'd recommend getting the anthology version where all three are bound in one volume because you feel how the whole story is connected together. This is especially true in the case of Diggers and Wings where Diggers tells the beginning and one half of the middle of a story while Wings tells the other half of the middle and then the end. If you read these as separate novels, and especially if you space time between reading them, then there's a good chance that you'll lose track of part of the plot, so I'd definitely recommend taking all of it at one go. And, as with a lot of Pratchett's works, the reading flows rather easily so I think even younger kids would be able to tackle the whole thing.

My main issue with this book is that the pacing feels terribly rushed and I felt like there wasn't a lot of time for ideas to develop. Just to provide an example, within the first two chapter's you're introduced to the fact that nomes, humanoid creatures approximately four inches tall, exist and live on the edges of human society. You're also introduced to the fact that an entire civilization of nomes lives within a department store and thinks that the store comprises the entirety of the known universe. Finally it's revealed that the nomes actually crash landed on our planet fifteen thousand years ago and are aliens from outer space. Again, all of this is within the first two chapters. To establish all of that an author might take half a book, but you're barely into the Bromeliad and all of that gets unloaded on you. And the speed doesn't diminish from there; although the driving plot is the desire of the nomes to "Go home and be safe" , events proceed at an almost breakneck pace.

Indeed, Bromeliad only clocks in at five hundred pages and is still feels on the light side for all the issues that it touches upon. If Pratchett had added another one or two hundred pages of development I think this book would be just about the right length. I think that there might be a good reason for this book feeling rather fast, because nomes live at a much faster pace than we do, although it seems a normal length of time for them by comparison. Perhaps, then, since we are humans reading about nomes the fast pace is to further emphasize the disconnect between our two species. However, as Bromeliad stands it's still an excellent piece of literature and reveals a lot about the nomish (and even human!) condition.

I think the biggest thing about this novel, and I feel like this holds true for all of Pratchett's young adult novels, is that it doesn't talk down to kids or feed them something too simple. Yes there are plenty of works with fairly simple storylines that enjoy great popularity. Pretty much any story that follows the monomyth is going to have familiar archetypes and stick to a semi-familiar pattern, and there are a lot of good examples to that. However, that isn't the only story to be told and sometimes you have to talk about things more complex, such as when there's no bad guys, just people who don't know the consequences of their actions, like in the Bromeliad. Plus, this novel tackles tough issues such as theology and our place in the universe and it doesn't really give any answers, which I think was a good choice on Pratchett's part. When you get right down to it with matters like theology or the universe there's a lot we still don't know and probably can't know and the important thing is to keep asking questions and never get stuck believing things are the way they are because someone else told you. Philosophically I think the book raises more questions than it answers and it's a very good book to challenge a lot of assumptions people might have, especially young people.

Overall a really good book that I enjoyed in spite of its fast pace and potential for more development. Another good read for the family.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bolos Book Four: Last Stand

I've decided to return to one of my favorite series to review this week, the great and mighty Bolos. Like pretty much all the other books in the Bolo series this is actually a collection of short stories in an anthology which comes from a wider range of authors, however old hands like David Weber and Linda Evans return to continue contributing to the series. Overall I think this is a very good book with some really good stories, but like most of the Bolo stories it has a very bittersweet element as you watch these somehow relateable war machines sacrifice themselves for the people they protect. 

I think one of the biggest things that I liked in this book was the introduction of an overall history of the Bolo series as understood from human civilization well after a cataclysmic event known as the Final War. I'll spare you much of the spoiler-y details about this War, but the end result is that all civilization beyond the planetary level was wiped out leaving a handful of remote enclaves. As a result the history of the Bolos before the Final War exists in fragmented records that are often contradictory. I like this a lot because since the Bolo series is written by a many different authors with their own takes on the series, it provides an in-universe explanation for all of the contradictions within the works. I do hope that in later books they manage to smooth out the contradictions and make the series far more cohesive. 

This book is an interesting contrast to some of the other earlier books because in most of the stories the Bolos actually manage to survive their missions. And I do like seeing the Bolos succeed and survive after completing their missions. Somehow, despite the fact that these are giant, thousand ton war machines built for simply one purpose, I still want them to survive in a peace that they've fought for as well. Even if they were never built for that peace. I was definitely interested in the last story when a Bolo decides that it's tired of killing and wants to spend the rest of its days in peace. There's definitely a very human element to the Bolos that makes them something more than just giant metal machines designed for war that really comes to the fore in quite a few of these stories. 

I also really like this book because it further fleshes out the universe in addition to the Final War I discussed above. More alien races and conflicts are introduced, more Bolo models are developed, and the history of the Crazy Years is also developed as well. I like authors both old and new can come to this series and help develop the series and keep it alive with new ideas and innovation. It definitely leaves me hopeful that the later books of this series will also be enjoyable.  Definitely a good read for fans of the Bolo series and I'd recommend it for fans of pulp sci-fi. 

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

So this week I've decided to finally read Philip K. Dick's classic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? If any of you have seen the classic 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner, this is the book that the novel is based off of. I have read that although Philip K. Dick died before the film was released, the work that he did get to see impressed him incredibly and he even said the film was better than his book. This was enough to pique my curiosity and I figured it was about time for me to actually start reading books from one of the giants of science fiction. I definitely have mixed feelings about this book and I hope I can give this book its full credit. However, I think I agree with the author in saying that this is one of the rare instances where the film adaptation is actually better than the novel.

To provide a general plot summary of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? sometime in the 20th century the world experienced a third, final, devastating nuclear war that killed of much of the population. Faced with a planet slowly dying from nuclear fallout, the UN pushes for extensive off-world colonization, including Mars, and to help motivate citizens to leave earth each colonist is given an android "servant". Really, no better than electronic slaves. As the androids become better and more complicated it becomes harder to tell androids and humans apart aside from a couple of specific tests. Because androids occasionally kill their human masters and escape police departments employ bounty hunters like Rick Deckard to "retire" androids. Overall it raises a bunch of good questions such as what sort of value artificial life has and what makes someone human.

The book raises a lot of good questions, but I haven't even talked about half of what Dick manages to cram into this novel. And really I think that this is a weakness of his work and I've heard that this is a tendency of Dick's books and stories in general. Dick introduces all of these really interesting ideas such as a device that lets you control what emotions you feel, a religion based on holding all life, from humans down to the smallest bug as sacred, and an extensive market in pet animals that cost as much as cars and come with payment plans. Dick introduces all of these really interesting ideas that you could make a whole book out of just one of these ideas. (And no, so I don't get accused of plagiarism, this isn't really my idea, this is from the foreword to the edition that I read but I found myself agreeing with the foreword's author as I continued with this novel.)

So really, I think this is where the movie adaptation has a benefit well over the book. Blade Runner has cut out all of the superfluous elements of the novel like the electric sheep and Mercerism, which allows the story to be much better-paced and focus on the important element. I feel that because the book has all these various threads, many of which never really get developed, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? loses a lot of its focus and you kind of lose the urgency of the narrative. I will say that the movie has your more expected Hollywood ending while the book just sort of ends, which I feel is kind of an appropriate ending for this story.

If you're interested in this story, I'd actually recommend that you watch Blade Runner, especially the director's cut which is widely considered to be better than the original theatrical release. The book's all right but it definitely lacks the focus and direction of the movie.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Imperial, by Rio Grande Games: A Board Game Review

All right, all right, I know that this isn't really my usual sort of writing but I promise we'll get back to book reviews again next week. Although I'm increasingly worried that this blog is just becoming a collection of Kalpar's rants considering I went ahead and made a Klapperpedia entry as a break as well. I promise that this post actually has a point though. First of all I am going to actually be reviewing the board game Imperial, which I think is a really fun game, and I'm also going to be refuting this article which claimed Imperial is inherently broken and not worth your time. Is it worth my time to potentially start an internet flame war over a board game? I don't know...maybe?

A couple of months back I purchased a board game called Imperial, which is published by Rio Grande Games and was developed by Mac Gerdts. I had heard the game described as "Diplomacy, but it actually ends." And since my biggest issue with Diplomacy is that it never seems to end, I thought that this could be nothing but a good thing. And I guess I should start this review by stating my main issue with this article which is the assumption that Diplomacy is actually a good game. I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I know there have been tons of people who like it and it has this huge following and I've only played the damn game twice but it just sucks. I think the biggest issue I have with Diplomacy is that it very quickly grinds into a stalemate that can only be ended through concerted effort over a series of hours. In my (albeit very limited) experience, everyone settles into two or three roughly equal power blocs upon the first turn and then nothing proceeds to happen for the next six hours, at which point everyone gives up and goes home. Yes, there is a level of diplomatic intrigue and chances for backstabbing and conniving, but pretty much everyone is hesitant to start stabbing everyone in the back because then all six other powers are more likely to gang up on you and that's a fight that will end very quickly. It just seems to very quickly turn into a long, protracted stalemate where NOTHING HAPPENS and no end is in sight. The weird thing is, I have a friend who finds Diplomacy fun because it degenerates into people yelling at each other because nothing is happening on the board and he feeds off of that. I however have a much different opinion of fun.

To provide a brief overview of how Imperial works, you all play Swiss bankers who have invested in bonds in the great powers before World War I. If you hold the highest bond in a country you decide what actions it takes, which is determined by a roundel. Countries can raise armies and navies, build factories, levy taxes, conquer territory, and pay interest on its bonds. As a nation's economy grows its moves up on the power scale which signifies an overall increase in its economic strength making its bonds more valuable. During all of this the players are also buying bonds in other countries in the hopes that the countries they invest in will become economically strong and make their investment pay off. The game ends when a country reaches 25 on the power scale; the players count their cash and the relative value of their bonds and whoever's made the most money is the winner. It sounds really complicated but once you start playing it actually becomes really simple.

The important thing that my friends and I have realized, upon playing this game, is that this is not Risk and this is not Diplomacy. The objective is not complete military conquest of Europe, as fun as that may sound. Yes, some territorial expansion is necessary to build up your economy, and yes, you certainly can try to conquer the world, but there's an upper cap on the number of units you can field and it certainly isn't economically feasible. The objective it to make the most money out of your investments and leave an country (or sometimes countries) in a much stronger economic position. And maybe that sounds boring to people. I can understand how people might find that boring and uninteresting, but I think it's an excellent twist on an old and somewhat worn concept.

In addition, well-managed countries will reach 25 on the scale very quickly, adding a degree of urgency to the game and forcing you to decide what actions are going to give you the best benefits. Should I raise armies and increase my tax base through conquest, or should I focus on industrial development? Can I trust my neighbor not to invade and hamstring my economy? How badly do I want to spite this other person? Can I afford to spite them? All of these factors are going to influence your decisions and you actually have to consider opportunity cost rather than just "Who should I clobber next?". The simple fact of the matter is if you're going to try a conquer the world strategy you're most likely going to lose. Probably not badly, but you're going to be outclassed by players who understand this is a game about economic rather than military strategy.

I guess what really bothered me about the article was how offended the author got that someone took some basic ideas from Diplomacy and shook them up in new and interesting ways. Change can be good! Granted, not all change is good and some changes can be downright bad, (I'm looking at you, Special Edition Star Wars.) but I don't think Imperial deserves so much hate for (at least in my opinion) improving a highly frustrating game. And it's not like Diplomacy is the only game that's allowed to be about World War I Europe. It's like saying that a video game about World War II can never be made again after the first Call of Duty game or saying no movies about the Civil War could be made after Gettysburg. People who are interested in history are going to keep coming back to certain periods they like and want to interpret them in new and interesting ways. After all, Dungeons & Dragons got its start because Gary Gygax decided to change how Chainmail worked and Warhammer 40,000 exists because Games Workshop decided to try setting Warhammer in space. Taking inspiration from thing that have come before and changing them has been going on since the days of Shakespeare and probably before that too. To say that Imperial deserves to be trashed because it's a Diplomacy knock-off is a discredit to all sorts of works.

I guess if I had to sum up my main points is if you decide to play Imperial remember that you're not trying to conquer the world. This is not Risk, this is not Diplomacy. It may look like them superficially, but the objective isn't military domination. You're a Swiss banker who wants to make a return on their investment, so act like it! Put on a top hat and monocle! Twirl your mustache! Scoff at the working classes! But most importantly, HAVE FUN. And don't get all bent out of shape if someone takes inspiration from something you liked to make your own thing. After all, it means they liked that thing enough they wanted to make their own version.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Annie McGwire and the Time Flyer, by Mike Ziniti

For this week I decided to read one of the sci-fi books I picked up for free with my kindle a while ago and, as usual with free e-books, I was a little hesitant. My past experience has told me that in general, free e-books tend to be okay but far from stellar. I am very happy, however, to announce that Annie McGwire and the Time Flyer is an excellent book and well worth its (as of writing) one dollar kindle price. Heck, it's even good enough for the ten dollar paperback price! This is a really good book, especially from a first-time author, and I'd definitely recommend it for fans of time travel. 

Annie McGwire is a sixth grader living in the town of New Spain, famous for being next to the second largest esker in the world and not much else. However a strange series of events is launched when Annie's uncle Tim invents a time machine he calls the Time Flyer 3. When Annie's friend Mitch uses the Time Flyer and gets lost somewhere in time, Annie has to pilot the Time Flyer herself, even if she's only got a vague idea of what she's doing. 

The thing that really sold me on this book is how much I liked Annie as a character. She's smart and brave and is able to think things through and does her very best to save the day, so to speak. She feels like a good-natured sixth grader who just wants things to work out. She's a very likable character and less frustrating than some of the protagonists I've come across in the past. And even though she's smart and adapts quickly, there's still a lot of stuff she doesn't understand about time travel so she's not some know-it-all kid either. I really think readers, especially kids, will like her as a character and be able to connect with her. Really, having likable characters makes reading a book a lot less of a chore.

The other thing I noticed about this book is that it felt like very easy reading. (Says the man who took on Les Miserables on a challenge.) But Annie McGwire has a very easy reading level making it especially accessible to kids. I actually feel like this is a good family book because the plot is complicated enough for adults while still remaining accessible to children. I'd definitely recommend this for family reading night and if you don't do that already this is a good place to start. 

The thing that really touched me was one of Annie's choices on how to use time travel in a very personal way. I'll try to avoid spoiling it for my readers but if you know me well it's something I've often contemplated doing if I had access to time travel, in spite of all the risks. That whole ending really hit home for me and made this book especially memorable beyond just another time travel story. Definitely a must-read novel for any fans of sci-fi and time travel.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sharpe's Tiger, by Bernard Cornwell

So I decided once again to go into the field of historical fiction, deciding this time to go with the well-received Sharpe series, following the adventures of Richard Sharpe in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. I'm actually familiar with a sort of spin-off of this series, Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts, which is basically the Sharpe series, but in space! Since I quite liked the Gaunt's Ghosts series I decided I'd give Sharpe a try as well. I must admit that I still had some apprehensions about going into this series because it's historical fiction, which I usually have issues with. Overall I thought this book was rather good, though, and I look forward to reading more about Sharpe's adventures in the future. (I should note that this is the first Sharpe book chronologically, but by far not the first written in the series.)

Sharpe's Tiger is set during the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799, which was the final battle of the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War. To provide a very broad and somewhat inaccurate description, the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War was a war between the Indian state of Mysore and their allies and Great Britain and their allies. Great Britain was interested in political and economic control of India and Mysore was interested in keeping them out of India. For those of you that payed attention in world history you're no doubt aware that India became the crown jewel of the British Empire so the end result of the campaign is never really in doubt. Much of the drama comes, instead, from the uncertain fate of the characters during the novel and hoping that they'll survive.

What I really liked about this book was that it was incredibly honest about the nature of warfare. There is a tendency within military fiction, even in the best-written, to make it very clean and honorable. Sharpe's Tiger, by comparison, shows you the blood, the gore, the looting, and the brutality of warfare, even in the early 1800's. You really get a feeling of the visceral and brutal nature of warfare which I personally haven't seen anywhere else in the fiction I've read. I found the subject material a refreshing change of pace from the usual sci-fi or fantasy pulp that I've been reading, although it's very similar to a lot of the Warhammer 40,000 books I've been reading, unsurprisingly I guess.

The other thing I really noticed was a lack of character development in this novel. I think a lot of this was because this was a prequel novel in the series so we're supposed to be already familiar with the characters. We see Sharpe get a little ambitious and begin his ascent through the ranks, but other than that there isn't a lot of development. I'm hoping when I get into the core books of the series there will be better fleshing out of characters making me more interested in their fates.

Overall pretty good and I hope to read more about Sharpe in the future.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Dead Witch Walking, by Kim Harrison

So, I'm pretty sure you're all very aware that this is not my usual type of book, just from the cover. I'll admit that if I hadn't been told about the subject matter I would have never picked this book up in a million years. Honestly the only reason I was interested in this book was it's an urban fantasy set in my home city of Cincinnati. When I was given a brief outline of the plot I decided it was worth taking the risk and borrowed a copy from the library. The bad news is, sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover, and this happens to be one of those cases.

Dead Witch Walking at least starts as a promising urban fantasy. For most of human history, Inderlanders like witches, vampires, and werewolves have been hidden among the human population. In this particular universe, the United States and the Soviet Union decided to focus on genetic research rather than atomic research, attempting to find genetic superweapons. However, as a result a deadly virus got attached to a genetically modified tomato and killed a significant portion of the human population in 1966, while Inderlanders remained unaffected. With the Inderlanders having roughly the same strength now as the humans they decided to reveal themselves to us normals. Forty years later humans and Inderlanders live side by side in an uneasy peace. Our protagonist is Rachel Morgan, a runner for Inderlander Security who decides to strike out on her own and is joined by a vampire named Ivy and a pixie named Jinks. However Inderlander Security doesn't take its agents leaving lightly and it looks like Rachel will be dodging assassins for some time.

To be completely fair, the book started out good and if it weren't for this one huge thing I would not hate this book so much. It's an interesting premise, I like seeing my home city featured in a major book, and it's a nice change of pace from the usual books that I like to read. The book is very definitely a first in a series and spends a lot of time setting up larger plots for the rest of the series while the arc resolved within this book is a fairly minor arc by comparison. And, I'll openly admit it, I rather liked the characters, especially Jenks and his family. They all felt unique and had their own personalities and I felt like I could get used to hanging around this crowd. However, there's the huge thing that ruined the book and had me feel like I can't continue the series in good faith.

So, as I mentioned, Rachel's friend and roommate Ivy is a vampire. Now, keep in mind vampires are different in this novel, but if you're an old hand at fantasy you shouldn't be surprised at this point. The thing that irritates me is apparently within this universe there is a whole list of innocuous things that seem perfectly normal that are apparently major turn-ons for vampires and make them want to violently rip your throat out and drink your blood. These turn-ons include: asking them about their family, eating food in front of them, getting angry, following them into another room in the middle of a conversation to continue a conversation, and getting scared when they lose self-control and start trying to rip your throat out. And if you don't know these strange turn-ons and accidentally set off a vampire? Well then it's your own damn fault for being such a hussy. Honestly, I equated this to saying that if you get raped it's your own damn fault, and if you don't understand why that statement is wrong then we need to sit down and have a serious conversation. The utter wrongness of this whole statement made me wonder if this series is worth following.

I'm still debating if I should follow this series because the writing is actually pretty good and the characterization's well done, but the statements with vampires leave me rather bothered. Maybe it'll get better in later books, but I'm understandably worried.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card

Roughly a decade ago I read Ender's Game not by choice, but rather was required reading for my school. Of course, the English teacher I had ignored Ender's Game entirely and chose to focus exclusively on Fahrenheit 451. Of course, both are good books and have excellent points to make, but I remember liking Ender's Game a lot better. Probably because I didn't get as many of the subtle nuances in Fahrenheit 451. The important point of this diatribe is that there is currently an Ender's Game movie due to be released November 1st so I decided to take this as a prime opportunity to go back and re-read Ender's Game and maybe look at the rest of the Ender series at the same time. 

For those of you not already familiar with the story, it follows the education of Ender Wiggin, a child believed to be humanity's last hope in the impending Third War between the humans and the buggers. Ender is taken to Battle School and put through extensive military training and subjected by his instructors to extreme adversity. Throughout the novel the human leaders have strike a delicate balance because if Ender isn't ready for the invasion, humanity will probably be completely wiped out, but if they put too much strain on Ender they may wreck their best chance at survival. It's a very tightly-paced novel and I found myself flying through it. Definitely worth a read before the movie comes out in November. 

To Scott's credit, what I think he can really write well is children, especially dialog between children. As I mentioned in my review of The Lost Gate, for whatever reason Scott is really able to nail down the attitudes and mannerisms of adolescents and put that into word form. Some people would argue that the kids in Ender's Game don't talk like kids normally do, but I counter that it's exactly how kids talk when there are no adults around. As much of a stereotype as it is at this point, you really only need to go onto X-box live to hear thirteen year olds shout racial slurs at each other, and in a way I feel like that's almost exactly the sort of people who would get picked for Battle School. 

As a book, Ender's Game has meant a lot of things to a lot of people, although I only really know this from the introduction. As I'm not a trained literary critic I very seldom go beyond the surface text into all the hidden nuances and shades of meaning. Either that or I'm just thick, take your pick. For me, Ender's Game has always been a really good sci-fi pulp adventure that relies on a lot of familiar, if perhaps a little well-worn tropes. The bug war, which we seem almost destined to have, massive space battles, and a world government formed from the threat of extraterrestrial attack. However, and for reasons I can't really divulge without spoiling the book, Ender's Game still has its own unique charm that makes it stand out from the regular sci-fi pulp. 

I would definitely recommend you all check this book out before going to see the movie. I'm hoping the movie will do the book a great deal of justice, but as always I am wary. 

- Kalpar  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Kalpar Lecture: The American Narrative

Hey look! A new video! And Kalpar talks about history and what he likes to call the American Narrative. We probably just made that name up.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Railroad and the City: A Technological and Urbanistic History of Cincinnati, by Carl W. Condit

So, I've decided to go into the realm of the really esoteric this week and talk about a book that I read
because of my ongoing interpretation of Cincinnati railroad history at a museum whose name must be shrouded in the cloak of ambiguity. To be perfectly honest I expect that exactly none of my readers will ever in their lives have any desire to pick up this book. It is, as you can probably imagine, an incredibly technical and detailed history regarding the history of railroads, as well as other means of transportation, within Cincinnati. Condit succeeds in that he provides a very narrow and detailed exploration of a subject which there was no previous coverage and forty years later there still is very little additional coverage. Essential for Cincinnati railfans and rail researchers, but that's pretty much the only audience.

To be completely fair as a reviewer, this book gets a lot of bonuses because it's the only book in its particular field and remains, to my knowledge, the only general reference text on Cincinnati railroads. Condit carefully tracks the ascendancy of rail transportation, especially after the Civil War, and the continued growth and development within Cincinnati. Condit even goes through the growth and development of the Little Miami, Cincinnati, Hamilton, & Dayton, and the still operating Cincinnati, New Orleans, & Texas Pacific Railroads, as well as numerous other local lines that eventually merged with some of the largest railroads in the United States. Condit also does a good job about explaining the growth of streetcars as well as electric interurban transit and how with traditional steam railroads they together created a three-tiered system of passenger transit across various distances, eventually leading to the abandonment by steam railroads of local accommodation trains and the transfer, almost exclusively, to long-distance Pullman sleeper trains.

In conjunction with the growth and gradual changes in rail service, Condit takes us through the growth of terminal facilities in Cincinnati and the gradual shortcomings of such facilities as traffic grew and became increasingly more complex. Despite repeated attempts to create a central terminal for all railroads serving Cincinnati it wasn't until the late 1920's that a plan was agreed upon and construction of a terminal facility was begun, which opened as Cincinnati Union Terminal in 1933. Perhaps what I found most interesting was the fact that none of the five stations that served Cincinnati before CUT all had hand-thrown switches which were considered outdated by the 1900's. I also found it rather hilarious that the Fourth Street Station was just a house the C&O Railroad had bought and laid some tracks outside of.

Probably the thing that most stands out about this text, though, is its bitter vehemence at the decline of rail transportation in all its forms and the destruction of much rail infrastructure because of this decline. The last few paragraphs of this book are very vocal against the growing reliance upon automotive transportation and the growing system of interstate highways being constructed across the United States. Granted, I can quite understand the author's frustrations as he was writing in the 1970's and for a while demolition of Cincinnati's historic art deco Union Terminal was seriously considered. Fortunately for the people of Cincinnati a new purpose was eventually foun for the Union Terminal and it continues to remain an important part of Cincinnati's cultural heritage. Or something. I don't know, I like trains.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Klapperpedia Entry: The Free Barony of Klapperia

Author's Note: Okay, straight up, sorry I don't have a book review for you guys to read this week, I know you're absolutely crushed about that. I just needed a break from the regular review schedule and decided to just have fun this week. To provide more context, Klapperia is a fictional micronation and has been a running in-joke among my friends for probably far too long. Anyway, I decided to make a formal "Klapperpedia" entry on this great nation. I hope you enjoy. - Kalpar

The Free Barony of Klapperia

The Free Barony of Klapperia, often simply referred to as Klapperia, is an absolute monarchy that encompasses approximately 314 square feet, making it one of the smallest micronations in the world. It is also the only fully mobile nation in the world, centered around the location of its head of state, the Baron von Kalpar. Klapperia remains unrecognized by any nation or micronation on earth and the current administration has no future plans in attempting to gain recognition, content to hide within the legal framework of the United States, utilizing the current baron's dual citizenship.

Klapperia tends to be a fairly stable nation, with a highly educated workforce that contracts with various American institutions to enrich both American and Klapperian culture and education in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Public opinion strongly supports this arrangement and it is the hope of most Klapperian citizens that this partnership with the United States will continue well into the future. The Klapperian government is also currently undertaking many long-term economic projects that it hope will improve the standard of living for Klapperian citizens with both tangible and intangible benefits.

Despite its small size and relative insignificance, Klapperia has a rich culture and remains a center of intellectualism. Many people have consulted Klapperian scholars for assistance in the past, and for the most part they have been eager to provide assistance to their neighbors. Due to its small size, foreign relations tend to take a person-by-person basis in Klapperia, and while Klapperia appreciates and aids many American citizens, there are significant portions of America's population with which Klapperia has a very strained relationship. Foreign relations remain an area needing significant improvement and the central government has made various attempts to improve its diplomatic corps with varying success.


The Free Barony of Klapperia was founded sometime in 2008 or 2009, but as there are no real records it's hard to pin it down beyond a couple of years. This was followed by an explosion of immigration, the creation of a government, and a flowering of art and culture. As the years went by the tidal wave of immigration dried up to a trickle and the growth of civilization stagnated. Although nowhere near as vibrant as the halcyon days following its founding, Klapperia continues to slowly grow and spread its culture.


Klapperia is probably the smallest nation in existence, encompassing a mere 314 square feet, encompassing a circle with a ten foot radius centered upon the Baron von Kalpar. It is also the only fully mobile nation and continually shifts depending upon the baron's current location. Klapperian legal experts have debated if Klapperia extends a full fifty miles above the baron to international airspace, if it extends only to the top of the baron's head, or meets somewhere in between. The official statement from the Klapperian government has been that it doesn't really matter anyway as there is literally no means to enforce its territory rights without provoking a major diplomatic incident with the host nation.


Population - It is hard to pin down an exact number of Klapperian citizens. Some state that Klapperia really only has one citizen, its baron, since the the baron is quite literally the state. The official policy of the baron is that anyone who is granted Klapperian citizenship and remains a Klapperian citizen at heart, remains a Klapperian citizen regardless of where they're located. This places the population at approximately twenty, give or take a few. The majority of its population is college-educated and of Eurasian descent, often joining the professional class of its host nation.

Language - In its early days Klapperia developed its own limited language, a series of hand gestures used to convey thoughts and ideas. The lexicon of Klapperian Sign Language remained fairly small and consisted mostly of vulgar words that couldn't be said in polite situations. KSL was also incredibly context-based with hand signals having multiple interpretations dependent upon the situation. Klapperian also would frequently combine signals together to convey far more complex ideas, resulting in a flurry of gestures for rather short sentences. Due to its multiple drawbacks KSL was largely abandoned but remains in limited usage.

Religion - Officially, Klapperia practices freedom of religion although it has multiple sponsored state religions. The Cult of Joris is perhaps the most mysterious and very little about it is known beyond its favortism of dugongs and prohibitions against the use of stone as a building material. The Imperial Cult of Saints venerates Morgan Freeman as the chief deity, as well as his many saints including: Gordon Freeman, Isaac Asimov, Rorschach, Mr. Rogers, Benjamin Franklin, Zoidberg, Jean-Luc Picard, Bill Nye, and Kevin Bacon. Other mainstream religions such as the worship of the Immortal God-Emperor, Norse Paganism, and Roman Catholicism are also practiced to varying degrees.

Government and Politics

Technically, the Free Barony of Klapperia is an absolute monarchy with all power invested within its head of state, the Baron von Kalpar. In reality Klapperia operates more as a lose feudal network in which the Baron von Kalpar is simply one of many major political players who helps determine government policy through consensus. Among its major leaders, aside from the Baron von Kalpar, are the Prince-Bishop Carvan, a prominent theologian and military leader, the powerful wizard T'im B'rgh!ld !, whose wisdom and courage has saved Klapperia many times against its more dangerous foes, Knight-Commander Korgia Natch whose valiant military efforts are often overshadowed, and the great Brenhotep a man some suppose may be a ghost who nonetheless possesses great technical skills. Generally this impressive collection of personages is able to reach a consensus, but there have been many instances where the baron has acted unilaterally due to bickering among his colleagues.


In theory every citizen of Klapperia is expected to defend the homeland in a crisis, however due to a lack of any such national emergencies Klapperia has no military. In a pinch a band of maybe five to ten poorly equipped and even more poorly trained soldiers could be drawn up, but for the most part Klapperia is content to hide behind the grossly inflated military budget of its host nation. Several wargame exercises, including deep space combat, have been undertaken to test the leadership of the nominal military leader, Knight-Commander Natch, however the results of such wargames have not been promising and the government is considering a reorganization of its military leadership as a result.


In addition to its sign language and state religions, Klapperia maintains a vibrant culture celebrating the nerd heritage of many of its citizens. Nerd rituals such as video games and the consumption of sci-fi or fantasy fiction are an almost daily observance and much work has been done to introduce foreigners to the delights of nerd culture. Major holidays are observed throughout the year and often have complicated rituals involved. The global tradition of Christmas is observed in December, however Klapperian ceremonies often include ritual gift-giving to ensure that the sun will continue to rise. International Nerd Day and the baron's birthday are observed on May 25th and celebrations often include cake and a seasonal cookout. Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated on November 5th by a significant minority of the population and includes watching V for Vendetta and occasionally dressing up as the character V.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ravenor Omnibus, by Dan Abnett

Once again I have decided to explore more of what is apparently called "The Daniverse" within the much larger Warhammer 40,000 universe with the Ravenor omnibus, which contains the novels Ravenor, Ravenor Returned, and Ravenor Rogue. Much like the Eisenhorn trilogy this book follows the adventures of Gideon Ravenor, and Imperial Inquisitor and psyker, as he roots out the enemies of the Imperium from within. (And if you didn't know already, Ravenor is Eisenhorn's apprentice who has graduated to become an Inquisitor in his own right.) While these books were enjoyable, as pretty much anything penned by Dan Abnett is, I had more difficulty with these than I did with Eisenhorn and I feel like they're not as well put together as the Eisenhorn novels. Definitely still worth a read, especially since the next omnibus is apparently Ravenor vs. Eisenhorn and I definitely plan on reading that in the future. Yes, it's good, but it's not my favorite thing to come from Dan's desk.

What I liked about this series of novels, and this is what I liked about the Eisenhorn books too, was that you got to see the Imperium operating from the inside. Most 40k novels occur when there's, you know, fighting going on, and normal life has been disrupted on whatever ball of dirt's being attacked. In the Inquisition novels they're not facing down an army of orks or a Tau battlegroup; instead, they're taking on Chaos cults and xenos sympathizers who threaten to weaken the Imperium from within. So you get to see how the Imperium works and what daily life for most people is like. Granted, life is still pretty bad when you're not getting eaten by Tyranids or something, but it's a change of pace.

Unlike the Eisenhorn books, though, I feel like these books require an understanding of some of the ins and outs of the 40k universe before reading. Eisenhorn did a great job of introducing people to concepts such as daemons, blanks, and rogue traders but in Ravenor you're expected to already know what those are without a lot of explanation. So if you're new to the 40k universe and looking to get yourself oriented, I'd recommend at least waiting on these books until you've gotten your feet wet. If you're an experienced vet, though, I think you'd enjoy these novels.

I think the main problem with this is that, according to Dan's introduction, these books were not initially meant to be a trilogy. Yes, they tie together as a trilogy in the end, but Abnett had originally envisioned the Ravenor series much like Gaunt's Ghosts: a series of ongoing adventures following our characters across space. The second two books definitely feel much more connected plot-wise to each other than they do to the first book, especially with the major plot of the birth of the deamon Slyte who threatens to destroy an entire sub-sector and seriously weaken the Imperium. It definitely works, but I feel like the first book kind of stands on its own. Much like how A New Hope kind of stands on its own from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Still connected, but the last two more connected than the first two.

The other thing I noticed was a tendency for the books to have a fairly slow investigative pace and then everything sort of suddenly come together at the last minute in a huge showdown. I think Abnett was trying to capture sort of the essence of police fiction in that regard, where there's a lot of time spent investigating the case and slowly putting all the pieces together, followed by a sudden burst of action at the end where the case gets busted wide open. It's certainly a legitimate literary approach but I get the feeling that it isn't Abnett's strong suit. Definitely a thumbs-up for trying something new and if the next omnibus is like this I hope that his skill develops and he gets better.

Despite the issues I had with this book, I think it was at least enjoyable. If you're an old hand at the 40k universe you'd definitely want to give this book a go, especially if you like a lot of Dan Abnett's other stuff. As with the Eisenhorn novels, it was a refreshing change to look at planets that weren't being completely destroyed by invading armies and see how the Imperium works on the inside. I don't think this is a book for newbies, though, and you should probably know about a number of things before jumping into this series.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

Okay, so I know this book doesn't exactly fall within my usual bailiwick of science-fiction or history. I mean, since the main characters are all anthropomorphic animals and there's a demigod it might count as fantasy but even then that's a tenuous link at best. To be perfectly honest the reason was I was reminded of the book and remembered liking it a lot as a child, as well as a couple of its film adaptations, and I decided to dust off my old copy and see if it was as good as I remembered it being. Looking at it now, though, I find the whole book rather odd and I think a lot of that is because it's displaced in both time and location and what may seem appropriate for an early twentieth century community on the banks of the Thames certainly does not seem appropriate in twenty-first century Ohio. It's still an entertaining family read, but its overall tone and emphasis is very odd to a modern reader.

In a way, I find this book to be about the quintessential landed English gentleman, much like the hobbits in Lord of Rings. The characters, much like the hobbits, haven't got a lot of work to do and spend much of their time wandering around and having picnics. There's also this sort of overall message that you should never do anything exciting or dangerous ever in your life and should be content with lazily wandering around in the country. Okay, to clarify on that as you're no doubt aware, Mr. Toad takes up a number of expensive fads throughout the book which he ultimately gets bored with and moves on to the next thing. The most expensive and dangerous of these fads being Mr. Toad's obsession with that new-fangled technology of motorcars. Now of course there is certainly a lot to be said for moderation and not doing anything to excess, which is certainly Toad's weakness, and on that point I agree with the author. What troubles me is that there's a chapter when Ratty wants to go on an adventure because he's young and wants to have a few stories to tell when he's older. Quite frankly I see nothing wrong with him doing that since he apparently has no real pressing obligations along the riverbank. I'm all for young people going off and having an adventure or three before they have to settle down and be responsible, heck I've done it myself on a couple of occasions. The troubling part is that Mole keeps Ratty from going on his adventure and then Ratty thanks Mole for saving him from his mania. Maybe this is just a rural English thing, but apparently doing anything different or unusual is bad and should be avoided at all costs. Certainly a message that a twenty-first century American audience probably will not understand.

The other thing I really noticed about this story was an emphasis on class standing and proper respect towards one's betters. Again, I think this is because I'm reading this in a different country a hundred years later that it's confusing me more than anything. As an American, and a twenty-first century American at that, I don't really follow the same strict stratification of classes that an early twentieth century Englishman might. Granted, I will admit there are certain social classes in America today and I certainly belong to a certain class and move in that social circle, but I certainly don't expect people to be doffing their caps or knuckling their forelocks to me. And I certainly won't be doffing my hat to anyone just because they're somehow "better" than me. The indignation over disrespect towards higher social strata is probably the part I found most alien to me, merely because of changes over time.

There's also a matter of asking "So when the hell are we, book?" which comes out during Toad's imprisonment. I had assumed for the most part the book was set in 1908, when it came out, and for the most part that seemed to be true. But when Toad gets put in prison it's described as a medieval dungeon with straw and his guards carry halberds. I mean, really? Halberds? In 1908? I of course started thinking of the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London and as far as I can tell the Tower stopped being used as a prison well before 1908. (Granted, it apparently was used to hold POWs during both World Wars, but since this is peacetime I have significant doubts.) And then it gets worse when Toad escapes and his jailers chase him on a train....with halberds. It was a confusing anachronism that I found frustrating more than anything else.

A final thing that kind of bothered me about this book was the statement that Toad didn't deserve to go to prison because he was rich. I will admit that even in the United States there is a different law for the rich than there is for the poor, as has been proven many, many times, but I like to at least pretend that no one is above the law, regardless of who they are. Again, maybe it's a difference in time and place that makes saying rich people are allowed to break the law a perfectly acceptable thing to say, but I found it rather jarring and I think that's why most adaptations try to make Toad innocent when he goes to prison

Is it a good book? Well, it's certainly still a beloved story a century later and the subject of much nostalgia. I certainly wouldn't say you shouldn't read it, but I find it very odd and definitely a product of its times. And if reading isn't your thing there are countless adaptations which you can pick and choose from.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, by Terry Pratchett

So, I had one more young-adult Discworld novel to read, which was actually the first young-adult Discword novel that Sir Terry wrote. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents in no way ties in with any of the other Discworld novels which is probably what is what I found to be so odd about this book. Almost every other Discworld book, except for the very early ones which have a very distinct character on their own, feel like you're on the Disc and part of a larger universe. Usually this is something very simple like familiar geographic landmarks, like the city of Ankh-Morpork or the Lancre highlands, or a familiar character like Lord Vetinari or Granny Weatherwax. Even in the first Tiffany Aching book, The Wee Free Men, it introduces the new location of the Chalk, but somehow ties it into the larger world of the Disc. I'm not saying that The Amazing Maurice is bad because it doesn't feel like a Discworld book, but if it weren't for the fact that the story happens entirely in Uberwald, I would have forgotten that this is a Discworld book.

Probably what confused me most about this book was its repeated insistence that stories aren't real and the real world doesn't follow story logic. Just as an example, in a story the third and youngest son who goes on a quest that his older two brothers have gone on and failed is guaranteed success because that's how stories work. In real life, the third son probably has no better chance than his brothers unless he has some sort of extra knowledge or an extra talent. Possible, yes, but definitely not guaranteed in any way. And in this respect I feel like the book is in conflict with itself because the characters openly state that the real world doesn't work like stories and they have to write their own destiny because the story won't help them. Despite the fact that in other books like Witches Abroad it is very clearly stated that the Disc runs on narrative causality and people get shaped by the story-magic that dominates the Disc. Granted, this being Discworld there are subversions of the archetypes and tropes, but the stories still follow a familiar format. Heck, in The Last Hero Cohen and his Silver Horde succeed because they know how to manipulate the power of stories to their benefit. For the characters to be fighting against the forces of narrative, and at the same time benefiting from them, it made the book feel almost schizophrenic. 

I also got the impression that the plot of this book ran along rather quickly and didn't really pick up until maybe a third of the book had gone by. This impression may be because I read this book rather quickly, but there was definitely a lot of time establishing the premise of talking rats and a talking cat who are all sapient before the real plot of the book got underway. 

I will admit that this book was actually rather dark in tone, but I think it was still appropriate for children and definitely for young adults. I think it's also a reference to original fairy tales where the wicked are punished mercilessly and there's plenty of blood and gore. Granted, not a lot of blood and gore in this novel, but there are some pretty scary things in there too. 

If the book didn't explicitly take place in Uberwald, I wouldn't categorize it as a Discworld book. And even then, the Uberwald in The Amazing Maurice is not the same as the Uberwald in The Fifth Elephant. There are no vampires, werewolves, Igors, or dramatic thunderclaps. It just...happens to be in a vaguely German village. But it's still an enjoyable book and I'd recommend it for fans of fantasy, but don't get your impressions of the Disc from this one book. 

- Kalpar