Thursday, February 28, 2013

Raiding the Stacks: A Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne

Well it's the last week of the month again, so that means I dig into the old and dusty public domain books to find something to talk about. This time I return to the works of Jules Verne and his fairly short novel, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, which is exactly what it says on the tin. There are some people, and they take a journey to the center of the Earth. As it's been mentioned on Wikipedia, this book really does not work as well as some of Verne's other stories. In the case of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Verne imagined a lot of what a modern submarine might look like with its electric appliances. In the case of Journey to the Center of the Earth the story relies on geological hypotheses which are definitively proven incorrect today and so it makes for a rather unbelievable story. As a work of science fiction, ignoring the inaccuracies, I am not sure if this story is strong enough to endure.

The story follows the adventures of Professor Lidenbrock, a renown German geologist who has obtained a note from an Icelandic alchemist of the sixteenth century who claims to have gone to the center of the world through an extinct volcano in Iceland. Taken along with Professor Lidenbrock is his nephew, Axel, and their Icelandic guide, Hans. (I should point out that in my translation Professor Lidenbrock's name to Professor Hardwigg and Axel's name to Harry.) Despite Axel fully expecting them to encounter terrific heat as they delve into the depths of the earth, they find countless tunnels and galleries which are all at a very comfortable temperature. Eventually they even find an entire ocean over a hundred miles beneath the surface of the earth and evidence that a number of creatures from previous time periods may still exist in the bowels of the earth.

This book is definitely a work from Verne. There are a couple of almost fanboy-glee passages dedicated to the wonders of electricity and its superiority over gas and coal which is a very distinct Verne fingerprint in the stories I have read. Furthermore, a lot of the story seems to focus on the fantastic and almost impossible things that Professor Lidenbrock, Hans, and Axel encounter on their journeys. Several chapters are dedicated to the wonders of Iceland (which is a pretty cool place and I think I'd like to go someday) to the countless mineral treasures observed within the bowels of the earth. Verne even works in what was some cutting-edge paleontology in 1864 with a number of fossils, including human fossils discovered rather recently in Europe. While much of this is rather fascinating it bears the very distinct marks of being from the nineteenth century and suffers as a result.

First of all, the premise is, of course, fanciful at best now because we know beyond a doubt that the center of the earth is filled with lots of lava at thousands of degrees in temperature which is impossible for humans to breach. Hell, we haven't gotten further than about 1.2 kilometers into the earth's crust and that still leaves roughly another four kilometers to get to the mantle, at its thinnest point! Getting further within the earth appears to be simply impossible because temperature increases to a point where humans cannot survive. As a result, Verne's story looks rather foolish by comparison. In regards to Verne's foray into paleontology he is, once again, proven wrong by the advance of time and research. Unfortunately Verne constantly refers to the Great Flood, you know, the one in the Bible with Noah. The one that didn't happen. I understand that Verne is merely a product of his times when people, well a larger number of people, thought Genesis really happened, but when your entire understanding of geology and paleontology is dependent on separating time between before and after the great flood, it casts some serious doubts onto your understanding of the fields.

Among the other issues was a mention of a race of giants apparently thought to exist in the fossil record during the 1860's and the characters discovering one such member of the species during their adventures. I am not really sure where such ideas originated but obviously such humans never existed, at least according to our knowledge of today, besides which twelve foot high humans are impractical because of the square-cube law. Finally there was the problem with our characters' escape through a volcano with the description that they were surrounded by boiling water during their ascent. Aside from the fact that lava is, as I mentioned, thousands of degrees in temperature, but if our characters were exposed to temperatures very close to water's boiling point they would very definitely be dead. It is an unfortunate misunderstanding on the part of Verne, but completely shatters any suspension of disbelief for the reader.

Ultimately I would advise passing this story up for my readers. It simply has not aged well and its scientific foundation is rocky at best. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is much better in comparison to how its research has stood the test of time and is probably the better of Verne's classics.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Kalpar Lectures: The Korean War and North Koreans with Nukes

This week Kalpar gives a (short for him) lecture on the Korean War and the fact that North Korea, the world's chief exporter of crazy since 1953, has nuclear weapons. Hide under your desks so the radiation won't get you.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Smallworld, by Dominic Green

I recently picked up Smallworld for my Kindle and gave it a read and ended up enjoying it. I'd definitely recommend my readers interested in oddball science fiction to go check it out. Smallworld follows the adventures of the Reborn-in-Jesus family who lives on the microplanet Mount Ararat with a strange recluse known to the Reborn-in-Jesus family as Uncle Anchorite. Together they must face corrupt mining companies, dangerous convicted criminals, and freebooting tax pirates from threatening the mostly peaceful life on Mount Ararat. If that wasn't bad enough the interstellar government "of the people", which toppled the Dictator of Mankind, may be no better than the government they replaced! Overall it was a fun read for me despite a couple of small issues.

My two largest concerns were the number of characters and the brevity of the narratives contained in Smallworld. In the case of the characters the Reborn-in-Jesus family has a number of biological, as well as adopted, children who have a bewildering number of names such as Only-God-Is-Perfect, God's-Wounds, Pitch-Not-Thy-Tent-Unto-Sodom, and Measure-of-Barley. With in many cases there being no real distinguishable difference between the characters I felt kind of like the first time I met all the dwarves in the Hobbit. I could remember Thorin, Bilbo, and Bombur (the fat one) but the rest were just extra characters who hung around while the main characters took a lot of the focus. Perhaps it's a matter of laziness on my own part as a reader, but when there are a ton of characters with no real distinguishing characteristics for much of the book it becomes difficult for me to keep track of all of them.

The other major issue I had with this story was its formatting of several distinct short stories. I will admit that the only real issue this caused for me was I felt that once I got the grasp of the plot of a short story it would suddenly be over and I had to start understanding another short story all over again. A minor frustration, but nothing that really took away from the book. I definitely think that with the concept that Green created, a tiny world that's little more than twenty kilometers in diameter, works better as a series of short stories with entertaining situations. Making it a single, novel-length narrative wouldn't have been able to explore as many possibilities and create as many humorous situations.

A lot of the humor in this book is more subtle satire than laugh-out-loud slapstick. I liked the little take-thats at the People's Interstellar Government with an unelected, permanent council that, as I mentioned, seemed to be possibly even worse than the "evil" Dictatorship they had supplanted. I also found the idea of a special force of tax collectors who add every shot they fire to your tax account to be both funny and sadly plausible. Of course, it's not chuckles a minute and there are some very tense bits with serial killers on the loose and the mystery of what's really at the center of Mount Ararat. I thought it was a nice collection of science-fiction short stories kind of in the same vein as Red Dwarf but a little more subtle. It's not a very overt humor but it's definitely enjoyable for the thinking reader who doesn't mind a few dirty bits as well.

There is a sequel by Green called Littlestar, but it focuses on a couple of characters I didn't actually like that much (and remembered!) so I don't think I'll be following up with this series. Still, I recommend everyone check out Smallworld and if you want more from Dominic Green be sure to look for him wherever books are sold.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Stars Must Wait, by Keith Laumer

Yes, yes, I know that I am not exactly in the holiday mood by talking about tanks and death and so on, but I quite like the Bolo series so you can take it up with me and my tank. Damn straight. Hennyway, so The Stars Must Wait is actually a continuation of an earlier story written by Laumer called Night of the Trolls, which was included in Bolo: Annals of the Dinochrome Brigade and The Compleat Bolo. I'm not sure why Laumer decided to revisit this particular story and expand it into its own novel, but that's his prerogative as a writer. Regardless of my other issues with this novel, which I intend to discuss later, this story is not going to be my favorite in the series by a long shot. The Bolo tanks have a very, very small role in the story so while it's a pretty good sci-fi story it just doesn't have the tank goodness I've come to expect from this series.

The Stars Must Wait follows the adventures of Lieutenant Command Torrence Jackson, an astronaut who was supposed to be in suspended animation for a day, or nine years and on one of Saturn's moons at the most. Instead, Jackson discovers he's been asleep for eighty years and the world he knew has disintegrated in the intervening years. The United States has devolved into a state of techno-barbarism where a number of people can use pieces of technology from before the fall, but for the most part a majority of the body of knowledge has been lost. If that wasn't bad enough, it turns out Jackson's old shipmate Tobey Mallon got out of suspended animation twenty years earlier and has set himself up as Baron. Jackson must not only figure out how to survive in a world where most technology has been lost, but outsmart his powerful and very dangerous former friend.

Now, to address my issues with this particular novel I shall have to delve into the differences of the plotlines of The Stars Must Wait and the original source material, Night of the Trolls. So, for my readers who are concerned with this sort of thing: SPOILERS AHOY! ALLONS-Y!

The main problem I had with this novel was a lot of the extended plot which involved Jackson discovering just how far civilization had collapsed in the eighty-odd years that he had been asleep. While this was fairly entertaining and could have made for a very good sci-fi story this happened after a very important plot event in the story. Let me explain. Previously, Mallon and other members of the crew of the Prometheus (That's the ship that was supposed to go to Saturn) were brought out of suspended animation by a fail-safe and discovered that civilization had collapsed. They also had two Bolos at their disposal and Mallon used the larger Bolo to establish himself as Baron. However Mallon and his crewmates came to a disagreement over what to do with the Prometheus. Mallon wanted to strip the Prometheus for technological resources and rebuild society with himself as an absolute ruler, but Mallon's crewmates wanted to send Prometheus on its mission to Saturn. Ultimately Mallon's crewmates locked down the Bolos to keep Mallon away from the ship. Mallon then uses Jackson to unlock one of the Bolos which will allow Mallon to finally break into the Prometheus.

After Jackson unlocks the Bolo he escapes from Mallon's palace, he learns more about society in the eighty years since he left, how it fell, and even meets some of his descendants. The problem with having Jackson go through these crazy adventures is that Mallon is off getting ready to break into the Prometheus and if Jackson doesn't get there before him, then Mallon will be establishing himself as the High King of the entire eastern seaboard. The plot worked a lot better as a short story because Jackson immediately went to the launch pad where Prometheus to head Mallon off right away. By having Jackson spend some time faffing about instead of actually addressing the issue at hand all sense of urgency is lost from the narrative. I think if Laumer had had Jackson have his adventures before unlocking the Bolo for Mallon this story would have worked better.

I also find myself disagreeing with the new ending for this story which actually is the exact opposite of the original short story. In Night of the Trolls, Jackson decides to launch Prometheus on its mission and begin working on rebuilding society without its treasure trove of lost technology. In The Stars Must Wait, though, Jackson decides to scavenge the crew and the Prometheus to help rebuild society, much as Mallon would have done. What really bothers me is as far as I can tell it really doesn't make Jackson any better than Mallon, even if he has better intentions. I know that he's working with his crewmates to make a better society rather than setting himself up as king, but he still uses his technology, especially the Bolo, to accomplish his goals. Whenever progress comes at gunpoint you have to wonder if it's really progress.

If I could, I would really fix the pacing issues which is my major problem with this book. I still debate over whether I like the new ending or the old ending better, but I am at least right now still leaning toward the old ending. As a science-fiction after-the-end book it's pretty good and worth a read, but if you're in it for just the Bolos then I advise you just pass this one by.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Kalpar Lectures: Kalpar vs. The Nice Guys Trope

To honor the holiday of Valentine's Day Kalpar has decided to flame-bait half the internet by taking on the Nice Guys trope which can be found in numerous movies and TV series. Sorry for the cuts, we're trying a new way of editing things. Feel free to leave feedback!

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Year's Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois

So, a couple of months ago I was browsing a used bookstore and came across this anthology sitting on the shelf. To be precise, I found several copies of this eight-hundred page anthology sitting on the shelf and perhaps that should have been a warning sign for me but if I am anything it is foolhardy. Or perhaps just foolish. Where was I? Oh yes, the review. So I took this nice anthology of short stories home with me and...really I ended up more disappointed than anything else with this anthology. Now, I don't want to just mindlessly riff on this anthology so I'm going to try to explain why I disliked this particular anthology in specific. As always, this is a matter of opinion for me rather than objective fact so feel free to take my review with a grain of salt and if what I talk about sounds appealing to you then by all means feel free to go read this anthology.

My first problem, and I will admit that this is a personal problem more than anything else, is that there were a couple of stories that were just really freaking depressing and it didn't sit well with me. I know that I tend to be a rather melancholic person myself, but there's something in me that just doesn't want to read about how all matter in the universe will get pulled apart on an atomic scale because of the acceleration of dark matter and we know it's coming. I mean, yes, the story made me think about our ultimate mortality but it left me with a bad feeling. Or the story of a man who's trapped travelling backwards through time at an accelerated pace with the ultimate doom of being forever a stranger in civilization with little to no resources. It was a very lonely prospect that again left me with a very shaken feeling. I understand that not all art can be all happy all the time, but those stories in specific gave me a very bad feeling that stays with me still.

There were also a couple of stories that I felt were definitely lacking in a science fiction element. For example there was a story that was mostly about a science fiction author and his aging husky with a slight side story about an asteroid that might hit earth and cause a major cataclysm. Maybe. While a story about a man and his dog is something I can enjoy, in a science-fiction anthology I'd prefer something a little more fantastic. Especially when the sci-fi element is just an asteroid coming to hit the earth and we can't do anything about it. There was also a story where we're told that a certain gentleman thinks he's an immortal Atlantean who has been brought back to reestablish the reign of the immortals and their subjugation of normal humans, but for all the evidence we're given he could just be a crackpot high on something or other. I don't know, I'm a square, I don't know about drugs.

Overall I was just left disappointed more than anything else with this anthology. There were some good stories in here, like the ones that involved time travel, but most of them just weren't that enjoyable for me. I would recommend that you just pass this particular anthology by and read something else.

- Kalpar

Saturday, February 2, 2013

An Epic Response to Kalpar's Epic Post Concerning the Epic of Gilgamesh. Epic.

Stupid title aside, and at the risk of the blog sounding like a mutual masturbation party, I really enjoyed reading Kalpar's post on the Epic of Gilgamesh. I found that he nailed a lot of the reasons why Ancient literature is so fascinating and why it does need to be studied: namely that in attempting to understand it and interpret it, we peel back layers of storytelling that inform us of the situation and the culture surrounding the authors.

The part that most caught my eye was near the end of that post, concerning the connection between the Torah and the Epic of Giggles. As some of you may know, while Kalpar and I were at university together, I spent my 4 years picking up a degree in theology; oddly enough I found a direct use for that degree right out of college and currently teach religion at one of the local high schools in the area, specializing in Scriptural studies. In teaching my students one of the things I try to focus on near the start of our studies of the Torah and the rest of the Old Testament is learning how to peel back the layers of ancient literature to get to the lessons and meaning of the story buried underneath. One point that Kalpar made (and the point that will be the premise of much of the rest of this post) was that Giggles' view of cities (that they are the center of civilization, etc.) is a notably different one from the view of urban life found in the Old Testament. A bit more context might help to explain why two civilizations who grew up very near to each other would have such radically different views of the way people should live. 

For those of you who have little to no knowledge of the Scriptures, let me go all middle-ages-monk up in here and illuminate things a little for you. Much of what we now call the Old Testament was not written as a historical record or by some ancient Hebrew journalist recording the events as the occurred exactly as they occurred. Much of the Old Testament was written down during a period of time in Jewish history known as the Babylonian Exile. Long story short, Babylon was the major power in the Middle Eastern region during the 6th century BC. Babylon is essentially running a protection racket against Judah and when Judah's king decides not to pay, Babylon comes in, sacks Jerusalem, burns down the Temple of Solomon, and hauls off most of the population to exile in Babylon. The message was a common one in the ancient world, (see the Roman attack on Jerusalem about 600 years later) and which meant that the Babylonians (and by proxy their gods) were stronger than the Jews.

Again, it is at this point in their history, between 587 and 537 BC that the Jews are setting these stories down. However, to some extent they have an agenda in mind; their aim is to remind themselves and future generations that their God is the only god and from a theological standpoint, they lost to the Babylonians because they had not been upholding their end of the Covenant of Sinai.Therefore, in the minds of the Jews the emphasis needed to be placed on putting a total dependence back on God if they had any hope of getting themselves out of the Exile. As these stories were set down, they are filtered through this need to ensure that Judah recognizes its reliance on God and this is where we get the disdain for cities and urban, settled living.

Now, to a large extent the Sumerians and Babylonians who carried Giggles' story were right to say that cites bring about civilization. After all, for a society to grow, have an economy, research technologies and advance it requires settled living based on agriculture and some form of barter and trade. This provides enough additional resources to allow some members of society to do things which don't focus on the basic needs of survival and then the civilization can grow and advance. However, this creates two problems for the Jewish authors of the OT. First, where cities cause wealth and prosperity and advancement, they also cause crime, poverty, anonymity and a class structure and hierarchy which is very difficult to break. For the ancient Hebrews, a lot of these things were situations which risked violating, if not directly doing so, the Covenant with God. In slightly more modern language, it created a culture of sin. Much of the latter parts of the Old Testament, especially the prophetic books deal with the problems caused by that settled, urban living. The second problem it causes is a sense of self-reliance. It would seem odd to a modern western individual, that a sense of self reliance would be contrary to what any good God would want for his creation; however, bear in mind that the Jews see the Exile as a result of too much self-reliance and that the remedy for the Exile is total reliance on God to bail them out. We see time and time again in the Scripture that when the Jews are wandering around and are more nomadic, they do have to rely more-so on divine providence than if they were living in settled communities with a system of government/priests/etc. In these nomadic cases, things tend to go better for them. However, when they settle down and start causing the problems mentioned previously, then things start to deteriorate. 

I would like to qualify a few of the things I have said. One, no one is advocating a return to a nomadic lifestyle. Organized, urban living is here to stay, and for the benefits mentioned above, it should be. Secondly, no one is advocating a lack of self-reliance or self-support. That also, at least in modern western society, is necessary for individual growth and the growth of society at large. The point I am making is that the Jews have their own agenda in writing these stories down, and hopefully in the course of reading this you have some greater understanding as to why. And I would also like to point out, that to some extent the Jews of the 500s BC still have a point in 2013. There are problems (e.g. poverty, crime, set class structures, etc) with an urban-based society that continue to exist today and still stem from the same root causes. One of the challenges the Jews were failing to live up to was the challenge to address these problems and take care of people who were suffering under those burdens; I would argue that we are certainly still struggling with that as well. Furthermore, an over-emphasis on self-reliance and the self-made-man can blind one to the real sense that we are all co-dependent on people we can't even see or imagine. Some greater sensitivity to how tugging the web in one point affects all the other strands as well would not be amiss in our interconnected age. 

I want to conclude with an apology in both senses of the word. First, I apologize for the length of the post (understanding Scripture is something I am passionate about) and if at any point I may have seems disrespectful of anyone's belief structure. God knows I am not looking to start shit with a post on a blog on the internet. Second, I wish to apologize, in the sense of giving an account or explanation for, my reason for posting this. I do think that theistic or atheistic, the Scriptures we carry today still have a great deal of meaning and challenge presented to us. We have solved very few of the problems the Bible presents us with, and often we have multiplied the problems. If we know how to read that book and understand it and let it speak to us on its own terms and not necessarily on ours, then I think a lot of good can come from those pages. 

Defender of the Faith
- Carvan

Friday, February 1, 2013

Just Give Me a Reason

With the crown of Scotland almost in our power at this stage, we just need one last reason to go to war against the Scottish king to usurp his last bit of power. In all fairness though, I am unifying the Celtic peoples to go beat up on the English, so in that sense this game is historically accurate, right?

Part 19:

Part 20:

God Save the Queen
- Carvan