Thursday, April 25, 2013

Wicked River: The Mississippi When it Last Ran Wild, by Lee Sandlin

First off, I want to apologize to everyone this week about not having a Raiding the Stacks feature like I usually have done at the end of the month. Unfortunately I had a rather large backlog of books to work through and I couldn't decide on an old-school book to read for this month so I ended up just skipping it and going with Wicked River, which I'm talking about this week. As some of my readers are aware I've been volunteering down at the local history museum and have, among other things, been dressing up as a steamboat pilot from the 1860's. As part of my ongoing research into life on the river during that time period I read Wicked River and unfortunately was left rather disappointed.

I will admit that attempting to provide a broad overview of the history of the entire Mississippi River from about 1800 to 1863 in 250 pages is definitely an audacious undertaking to say the least. Unfortunately Sandlin's text is incredibly narrow in its focus and relies almost entirely on interesting anecdotes from various points in river history. From a historical perspective while anecdotes can be amusing, they are typically not a good resource for historical information because they are unusual. Overall the book provides a very narrow view into river life during the early 1800's which cannot be extrapolated into a larger picture of river life.

A typical example of the incredible focus which is in Wicked River is the case of the Crow's Nest, an island in Louisiana which was the base of an infamous band of pirates in the early 1800's. Sandlin goes into great detail about how the pirates located near the Crow's Nest plagued local shipping for years and despite the best attempts of river travelers they remained a constant menace. At least, until the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12 destroyed the Crow's Nest and cleared the river channel. Although this is an infamous example of river piracy it doesn't shed light on how wide-spread piracy was on the Mississippi or if pirates still operated on the river (which I assume they did) after 1812. It's a lot of information to be sure, but with such a limited scope it cannot speak for the entire river.

Another problem which I had with Wicked River was its tendency to focus on the scandalous aspects of river culture, specifically the orgies that happened around camp meetings and the thriving prostitution trade up and down the river. I'm not bothered by the fact that people in the past had sex. Clearly all of us today wouldn't exist if a great many people in the past hadn't had sex so it had a very good purpose. The problem is that Sandlin fails to put these facts into a much larger context and instead seems to just draw them out because they're "shocking" to modern audiences. There's just enough information included for it to be titillating but doesn't go far enough to educate the reader in an appropriate manner. Human sexuality throughout history is a complex and interesting subject in its own right, but just tossing it in to boost readership is pandering of the worst sort.

Among the other issues which I found most irritating was a relative dearth of information regarding steamboats and steamboat life on the Mississippi during this time period. From its invention in the early 1810's to its absolute dominance of the river in the 1860's the steamboat came to define river life on the Mississippi. While there are a few sections interspersed among the book that talks a little about steamboat conditions and the characters a traveler was likely to meet on a river journey, there is no single chapter devoted to steamboats. I thought it was a grievous oversight on the part of Sandlin to barely touch upon a literal driving force of Mississippi life. The death of the steamboat industry is given only a couple of pages as well, merely stating the railroads did them in which, while accurate, fell short of a satisfactory answer as far as I was concerned.

Although Wicked River contained a handful of useful tidbits of information within its pages, for the most part  I found it to be pulp history of low quality. Although well-researched and exhaustive in detail, it focuses almost entirely on anecdotal evidence which provides a very narrow and specific view of river life rather than a cohesive whole. The inclusion of, for lack of a better term, naughty bits which really only exist to spice up the narrative further makes the book feel like an attempt to pander to the masses rather than investigate history. I'd suggest my readers pass this book by and I shall be looking elsewhere for more research on river history.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

So, I know that this week's book is kind of out of our regular purview here at the Arsenal, but I found this book very informative and an excellent educational read. In addition I saw the documentary of the book which deals with many of the issues on Netflix and so I'm going to do a little compare and contrast between the two. And as a final sort of take-that, the field of economics is one of many sources of information that historians use to piece together the story of the past and chart change and development over time. I especially found the question of why crime dropped dramatically in the 1990's particularly interesting just for the historical context.

Freakonomics, as the authors state, doesn't have any real central theme other than, perhaps, their desire to overturn conventional wisdom through analysis of data. Levitt and Dubner ask varied questions like: "Is your real estate agent really getting you the best deal for your house?" "Would teachers cheat on standardized tests?" and "How much does a child's name affect their future?" The answers are surprising, but supported by a truly extensive sampling of data and numerous peer-reviewed papers and, as Levitt says, while people may lie, numbers don't.

Aside from asking some interesting questions and providing equally interesting answers, Levitt and Dubner have managed to make the world of economics accessible to the masses through very easy reading and concrete anecdotes and examples, rather than dealing with the usual vague, mathematical absolutes. By translating concepts such as incentives and information asymmetry into concrete examples such as higher pay for teachers or the, supposedly, esoteric information available to real estate agents. Freakonomics will definitely change how you approach numerous situations and hopefully challenge some of your long-held assumptions about how the world works. Although Levitt's economic research may be trivial, it has long-reaching affects and has even changed how the Chicago Public School system approaches standardized testing.

In regards to the Freakonomics documentary, it addresses many of the questions tackled in the book, such as the sudden drop in crime that occurred in the 1990's, the prevalence of cheating among sumo wrestlers, and how much a child's name affects their future. I felt that the documentary was capable of being more focused because there seemed to be a temptation within the book to bring in outside information that, while relevant to the question Levitt and Dubner were trying to answer, in my opinion disrupted the overall flow of the text. The documentary definitely benefited from a much tighter focus on the subject material, even if that made it more limited in scope. In addition, both the book and film have material which does not overlap but is still interesting, such as the questions "Why do drug dealers live with their moms?" and "Can you bribe a high school student to succeed?".

Overall I would definitely recommend that my readers go and read both the book Freakonomics and the similarly titled documentary. The questions are provocative and interesting, the writing is incredibly accessible, and the results are thought-provoking and informative. Levitt and Dubner have done a great deal to demystify economics and make it applicable to the man in the street, which I think is the truly great service done by this book. I shall hopefully be tackling the second installment from these authors, Super Freakonomics in the future and find it equally engaging.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bolo Book 1: Honor of the Regiment, with David Drake, S.M. Stirling, Christopher Stasheff, & Mercedes Lackey

To the utter lack of surprise of my readers, I have decided to continue with the epic awesomeness of the Bolo series with the next book, Honor of the Regiment, also known as "Book One" of the series. This is by far my favorite book of the series so far, exceeding the tank goodness of The Compleat Bolo and The Stars Must Wait. This book seriously has everything I was hoping for with the series and sets the bar pretty high for later installments of this series. 

This book is formatted into several short stories written by a number of science fiction authors who draw upon Kieth Laumer's original ideas, but truth be told I only recognized Mercedes Lackey. However, I'm glad that they managed to bring several new authors who all seemed to agree on the direction of the universe and, perhaps more critically, agreed on the defining characteristic of the Bolo tanks: their undying loyalty to their human leaders. Perhaps more importantly for me, all but one of these stories had fully sentient Bolos with their own unique personalities. Some of these stories even went as far as to question if Bolos should have the same rights as humans since they are, as far as we can tell, sentient and if it's right for humans to keep the Bolos as a warrior race. None of the stories really explore that issue to a great extent but I hope future stories will.

I think what I really loved about this book was the unshakeable and almost naive optimism it has in humanity and the future. I will readily admit that these stories are really nothing more than cheap sci-fi pulp written for cheap schmucks like me who love a good war story. Except, and this is I think an important difference, it is fun and never devoid of hope. I don't know about everyone else but paraphrasing the lovely Sofie Liv Pendersen of The Agony Booth, too many works right now take themselves incredibly seriously and are trying to be gritty and realistic and end up losing sight of the fun that drew most people into the genre in the first place. Granted, she was talking about the superhero genre with Linkara at the time, but I feel that the statement is equally accurate when it comes to science-fiction. I know that may seem like a paradox when you consider that I am also a huge fan of the notoriously grim-dark Warhammer 40,000 series, but sometimes I just want to have fun with science-fiction and see some ridiculously awesome shit go down, like a tank that calls itself Sir Kendrick Evilslayer defend a colony called Camelot from space pirates. Seriously, what is to not like about that? 

Overall I found this to be a fun read of some kickass pulp stories with tanks big as, or bigger than, houses doing awesome things for the sake of honor and duty. I do wish there was a more well-defined timeline and more information on some of the enemies that humanity is facing in this distant future, but I am hoping that future books will further develop those ideas. A must-read for any fans of tanks and fun pulp action. 

- Kalpar 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Hal Spacejock, by Simon Haynes

In the first chapters of this novel, I found some interesting similarities between the titular Hal Spacejock and the archetypal space rogue, Han Solo. Both are down-on-their-luck freighter pilots who fly rusty hunk of junk spaceship to which they have very strong emotional attachments. In addition, both Hal and Solo are heavily in debt to somewhat less than ethical figures who, if they can't recoup their losses, are willing to kill their debtors to make a point. Despite the initial similarities between the two characters, I found that Hal lacked any of the charm and dashing of Han Solo. Perhaps Hal was supposed to be a parody of such freighter captains like Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds, but it didn't go far enough in deconstructing the archetype. Instead, Hal comes across as the bumbling idiot hero saved by fortunate coincidences or the actions of his more intelligent Navcom or robot copilot Clunk. Ultimately I found the book mediocre at best.

Our story centers on freighter pilot Hal Spacejock, owner (for the time being) of the rusty old space freighter known as the Black Gull. Threatened by a rather persistent debt collector and his robot enforcer, Hal takes a job for local business magnate Walter Jerling and picks up a robot co-pilot, Clunk, in the bargain. However, it turns out delivering a load of robot parts is more difficult than anticipated, especially when Jerling's main business rivals are out to steal Hal's cargo. Hal, Clunk, and the ever-faithful Navcom must go through a number of challenges to get their cargo delivered and get the all-important payday. While this could have made an entertaining and interesting story, the story just didn't work for me on a number of levels. 

The main problem was I didn't really like Hal Spacejock as a character and I was left with serious questions about his mental abilities based on some of his actions. For example, Hal assumes the job involving robot parts is a cover for stolen goods, which is simply not true. Granted, there are some rather less than legal aspects to this particular job, but Hal's "intuition" about the job is dead wrong. Considering the numerous other jobs Hal has turned down for various reasons I'm left wondering if he's just inventing elaborate excuses for not taking legitimate jobs or is just plain dumb. Either way it didn't make me like him as a character. Add on top of that his total lack of abilities as a pilot, which almost gets him killed, and Hal's almost complete reliance on Clunk and Navcom to save his ass and I ended up wishing something bad would happen to Hal.

I ended up really liking Clunk, the robot copilot, who did a lot of the problem-solving for Hal's situations. Also he can actually fly and land a ship, which I considered to be a definite mark in his favor over Hal. As I mentioned before, throughout the book a lot of the problems Hal and Clunk encounter are largely solved by Clunk (or the navigational computer's) ingenuity. Hal occasionally shows some initiative and comes up with two or three solutions to the many, many challenges he has to face, but for the most part it's other people. That is, when the problems aren't being solved by miraculous coincidences, which was another major problem I had. The simple fact that Hal and Clunk get saved by more than a generous handful of fortunate coincidences kind of annoyed me. I understand that a lot of fiction involves plenty of coincidences, but the sheer number was enough to strain belief for me. 

Overall, I found Hal Spacejock to be a mediocre book at best, but maybe it was just because I disliked Hal as a character so much. I felt that things worked out too neatly for Hal in the end and he had none of the dash or charm of the other space freighter captains that I know and love in the genre. I don't know if the other books about Hal in this series are any better, but I think I would have serious trouble summoning the interest to read them. 

- Kalpar