Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, by Tanigawa Nagaru

This may surprise my readers, but I used to be an ardent Haruhist. Shocking, I know. For a number of years everywhere you turned there was just a ton of Haruhi-related stuff. Cosplayers, posters, models. (I even own two!) The reason behind all this hubbub was the release of the anime series titled The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, based upon a series of light novels written by Tanigawa Nagaru. For those of you unfamiliar with the medium, light novels are very much like novellas. Very short, usually not more than about a hundred pages or so, and often have a handful of illustrations. My first exposure to Haruhi had been the animated series which had taken stories of the several light novels to create about half a season of episodes. And for whatever reason I fell in love. Of course time went on and eventually a second season was released which included, in my opinion, an extremely frustrating time loop, and a theatrical film which I've yet to see. However, I think the mania seems to have died down quite a bit, granted I've been out of the anime scene for quite some time after safely retreating to the relative sanity of pulp science-fiction! However I still have a certain fondness for this series and so I've decided to look into the original light novels.

The stories are told from the perspective of Kyon, an average Japanese high school student who is incredibly unremarkable in every way. Kyon tells us as a kid that he really enjoyed sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure stories, desperately hoping that they were real and the world was filled with such wonders. As he got older he realized the world was much more mundane and came to accept it, satisfied with his humdrum life. When in high school it turns out there's a girl in his class named Suzumiya Haruhi who claims she's not interested in ordinary humans, only aliens, time travelers, and espers. Needless to say this labels Haruhi as an oddball, but Kyon is soon dragged into Haruhi's orbit. Things are only made far more complicated as it's revealed that aliens, time travelers, and espers all do exist and they're quite interested in Haruhi!

I think the real appeal about this series for me is it's very much gratuitous wish fulfillment. As someone who spent their childhood fantasizing about space and magic, and then read almost nothing but a steady diet of pulp novels in their teenage years, I too have often wondered what life would be like if we had superheroes, time travelers, and wizards running around. In a way I almost envy Kyon, despite his constant protests about finding himself in such strange situations, because he gets to be in exactly those situations. And it's fun to see time travelers, aliens, and espers all have to keep up the facade of being normal while doing perfectly normal things, like make a bad high school movie. (Which I am also guilty on multiple counts of doing.) Play video games, go on vacation, or play a game of baseball. There's just a certain charm in harmless wish fulfillment that makes it really appealing to me. If you're the same sort of person who's always sort of wished that the world we lived in was just a little more...fantastic...then you'd probably enjoy this series as well.

The first book I will admit, is a little dry because it has to do all the setting up for the later books. We get introduced to Kyon, Haruhi, and the other members of the SOS Brigade, as well as their unconventional secrets. We do get to see at points that Yuki, Mikuru, and Koizumi aren't lying, cementing both Kyon and our own belief that this world is littered with aliens time travelers, and espers. Well, maybe not littered but at least significantly populated. There are also a ton of awkward parts because of the sexual assault/rapey things that Haruhi does to poor Mikuru which perhaps a Japanese audience might find entertaining but I personally find really cringe-worthy. Fortunately I remember that diminishing as the series goes on, but I may have blanked that from my memory.

Personally I highly recommend both the anime series (where you can find it) and the light novels which are fortunately very readily available in e-book form on Amazon. I plan on continuing with the book series and eagerly anticipate the parts that were not included in the anime series.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

I'm aware that I don't really talk about short stories here at the Arsenal. When I do it's usually an anthology or collection of short stories, which you usually want to talk about as a whole rather than individually. Or at least that's my inclination. In this particular case I feel like The Metamorphosis has actually given me something to talk about in a blog post beyond, “It was good. I liked it.” (Which sadly often is what it boils down with some of the stuff that I really like.) The point is after I had finished The Metamorphosis I had an idea strike me as a potential interpretation of this story. Of course, I'm aware this is probably in no way an original interpretation of the story but it gives me something to write about so I'm going to write about it.

The plot of The Metamorphosis begins with Gregor Samsa, traveling salesman and provider for his family, suddenly being transformed into a monstrous vermin. My particular translation chose cockroach but the point is he's turned into a giant, undesirable creature. The how or why of course is never explained, instead the story focuses on the actions of Gregor and his family in reaction to his sudden and inexplicable transformation. His father, mother, and sister Grete are all required to get jobs to provide for themselves, a burden previously shouldered by Gregor, as well as deal with the embarrassment of their son. Their situation continues to decay until Gregor's death, which the family receives with great joy and hope for a fresh start.

What I found interesting about this story was the fact that it could be used as a metaphor for the struggle of an invalid in a family. For example, rather than being transformed into a giant bug, perhaps Gregor was paralyzed by an accident while traveling, or was struck down by a debilitating and terminal disease such as cancer. Gregor is immediately secluded in his room by his family, cut off not only from the outside world but from his family as well. Gregor's father out and out doesn't wish to have anything to do with Gregor and removes himself entirely from Gregor's presence. Gregor's mother wishes to see him and tend to him, but herself is restrained by her fear of his condition. It is only Gregor's sister Grete who finds the courage to face his condition, and even then only in an indirect manner rather than head-on. (But more on that in a minute.) Considering that the culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century tended to hide or seclude anything that didn't conform to its standards is it really that surprising that Gregor was hidden? This is the culture that gave us disappointment rooms after all.

The Samsa family's emotions regarding Gregor's condition is also an excellent example of a family dealing with a member who has been suddenly and tragically disabled. Gregor's mother initially remains in denial about his condition, hopeful that everything will return to normal soon. (An almost ludicrous prospect considering his transformation into a bug.) Grete, however, responds to Gregor's needs with enthusiasm, making sure he's well fed, cleaning his room, and trying to make his life easier in general. As time goes on, Gregor's condition fails to improve, and the family makes more and more sacrifices because of Gregor's condition, Grete's opinion towards him continues to decline. Eventually Grete is satisfied with only the most perfunctory cleaning of Gregor's room and discarded odds and ends that there is no room for elsewhere join him, including the trash. The family comes to resent Gregor and his condition, the hardship that he's put them through, and the conviction that they'd be better off without him. When Gregor finally dies there is no grief from his family, only relief.

Of course we all hope that if we, like Gregor, were struck down by random chance then our friends and loved ones would be far more understanding and accommodating than Gregor's family. However, the tragic truth of the matter is there are plenty of anecdotal examples of people being fed up with the burden of disabled relatives, seeking only a release from this inconsiderate imposition. The Metamorphosis, much like one of my all-time favorites The Twilight Zone, paints a modern issue in a fantastic light, and challenges us to think about what we would do in a similar situation. If you haven't read this short story yet, I'd highly recommend you do. Of course, I can't guarantee your interpretation will be the same as mine!

- Kalpar 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Short Victorious War, by David Weber

This week I've returned once again to the Honorverse to check on Honor Harrington, who I've come to consider a sort of friend, and see what she's been up to. Although I was rather pleased with this particular book, I was starting to feel a sense of repetition to this series as well, at least in a very general sense. Honor gets a new ship. Honor gets sent on a mission. There are challenges on this mission that she must overcome. The final act of the book culminates in an epic space battle where Honor's ship is badly damaged. Honor emerges victorious and is promoted and rewarded. I do hope things get a little more sophisticated in later books, especially if she gets promoted to admiral rank, but I'm finding Honor's career and the inevitable space battles almost boring by comparison with all the other stuff going on in these books.

Overall in terms of plot the war between Manticore and Haven is about to break out and Haven is moving its final elements into position before launching what it hopes will be a short and victorious war to achieve their strategic goals as well as quell internal dissent back home. Meanwhile Manticore is trying to figure out where and when Haven will strike, tackling the challenges of delayed interstellar communication. It makes for a very interesting political drama and in some ways the intensity of the space battles actually pales in comparison, for me at least, with both Manticore and Haven's larger struggles. Honor, of course, has been promoted again as commander of the HMS Nike, a freshly minted battlecruiser and one of the crown jewels in the Royal Manticore Navy's fleet. Honor will also be serving as the flag captain for one of the task group admirals assigned to Hancock Station, giving her a real taste of squadron command as higher ups in the RMN begin grooming Honor for flag rank. While I certainly enjoy seeing Honor, a very competent and capable commander, work her way up the system, as I said her career seems almost a diversion from the larger events in which she plays a small role.

I will admit that the fact this series is basically just Horatio Hornblower, but IN SPACE! starts coming through very evidently in this installment. Especially when a Havenite politician named Rob S. Pierre gets a group of people to sign an agreement in a tennis court and ends up chairman of the Committee of Public Safety. I almost get the feeling Weber is nudging us in the ribs saying, "Get it? Get it? History!" To which I find myself smiling and nodding, "Yes Dave, you're very clever." And honestly? I'm really in favor of it. I like science fiction. I like history. Science fiction history in space is just really cool and fun for me. And as long as the books continue to remain fun to read I'm going to keep reading.

My other big issue with this book was the return, once again, to Honor's personal history and Pavel Young's attempted rape of her while they were in military academy. On the one hand, how the book handles it is very realistic and positive in many respects. Pretty much everyone was or continues to be on Honor's side in the vendetta, just wishing she'd admit he attempted to rape her so they can throw his ass out of the service. Furthermore such a traumatic experience has left Honor very hesitant to engage in romantic relationships with anyone, content with the companionship of Nimitz, and focusing on her career instead. Which I think is very realistic of many rape victims having trouble trusting people for years afterwards. On top of that, Honor still has body-image issues because she was a gangly teenager, despite even though everyone asked and the narration goes out of the way to assure us that she has a mature beauty now. Again, it's very realistic for people to have body image issues as well, which can last for years or exist only because they don't match a certain often unrealistic standard of beauty. So in a way it sort of fleshes out Honor because even though she's a badass space captain she's got personal issues just like the rest of us.

On the other hand, her problems seem to be "fixed" by getting herself a good man. Don't get me wrong, I'm in favor of Honor having a happy relationship and potentially several fat children to continue the lineage of Honor's newly minted noble house. And pretty much all the other characters are hugely in favor of Honor getting some action too, because heck she deserves it. The problem is that being in a relationship is portrayed as a "fix" to Honor's problems when that's just not realistic in any sense. It's all too often that fiction says all your problems can be fixed if you can find yourself in a relationship. Hell, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is made up of this trope. But that's not how real relationships work and it hurts everyone to have relationships portrayed as such in fiction.

Issues aside, and as I have clearly shown I have a few, I rather like this book and if you've read the previous two books then you pretty much know what to expect by this point. Weber's writing is excellent, as always, and his ability to paint a large picture makes for fascinating reading. Now that Haven and Manticore are officially at war I look forward to the conflict becoming much larger and impressive in scope, as well as seeing how both states survive under the strain of warfare. IN SPACE!

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris

This week I've decided to continue with my reading of Morris's three-part series chronicling the life of Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Rex focuses exclusively on Theodore Roosevelt's time as president from the death of William McKinley in September of 1901 to his succession by William Howard Taft in March of 1909. These seven and a half years are some of the most influential in creating the modern presidency and shifting the balance of power in Washington away from the legislative to the executive branch. Of course Roosevelt had plenty of challenges put forth by a sometimes obstinate Congress, but in many ways his sheer force of personality reshaped the presidency to the center of national politicial affairs. I will say that this particular book is a very good grounding in the basic history of Roosevelt's administration, but it is in no way exhaustive.

From a mechanical viewpoint I did have some serious concerns regarding the focus of attention in the book. My hardcover edition clocks in at five hundred and fifty-five pages, yet nearly two-thirds of the book is focused exclusively on his first administration. Roosevelt's second term, one which was certainly equally significant, is crammed into the last third of the book and feels definitely more rushed by comparison. I feel like there certainly was enough material to talk about his second term at length, especially the wide range of reform legislation including the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act, his negotiation of the peace settlement between Japan and Russia in 1905, and other economic, ecological, and diplomatic efforts.

Morris definitely seems to pick specific incidents of historic note in his biography that tell an interesting story and develop over time. Specifically anti-trust reform, economic policies, the Panama Canal, race relations, and diplomatic negotiations take up a significant portion of the text, often unfolding as a sort of narrative. However many stories abruptly disappear from the narrative, such as the Panama Canal. Once the treaty for construction of the canal has been approved by a freshly independent Panama, it fades entirely from the narrative. There is a brief mention of Roosevelt's visit to the construction site of the canal and his investigation of the poor conditions, but nothing is said about the actions (if any) taken by Roosevelt to improve the working conditions in Panama. Granted, the construction of such a massive structure is a heroic tale in and of itself, but for it to disappear so suddenly after considerable attention had been paid to it is certainly jarring to say the least.

I will say from a policy standpoint I have certainly become far more mixed on my opinions of Theodore Roosevelt. Although his federal regulation and reform of big business, as well as conservation efforts are definitely ground-breaking during their era and setting a tone for a whole new approach to government, his foreign and racial policy certainly leave a lot to be desired. Roosevelt begins his presidency as fairly progressive, inviting the great educator Booker T. Washington to a White House dinner. However there was an incredibly negative reaction, especially in the still racially segregated South, which caused Roosevelt to begin an almost frantic backpedaling on his policies. He certainly makes a few other forays to try and advance the cause of racial equality, but they are very few and very early on in his administration. By his second term he seems to have almost regressed when he dismisses an entire regiment of black troops for alleged wrongdoing, despite an incredible lack of any evidence that they were guilty of anything. Foreign policy wise, Roosevelt is a very typical late nineteenth, early twentieth century Imperialist, determined to expand American influence, both military, political, and economic across the globe but most especially in the Western Hemisphere. His statement that it is the duty of the United States to “spank” any misbehaving Latin American republics is discouraging to say the least. These shortcomings are understandable, considering the time period, but still frustrating to say the least.

I will also say that this book has continued making me interested in reading more about other historical figures. As the last book made me curious about Grover Cleveland and his policies, which seemed to be fairly reform minded, I was also made curious about William Howard Taft who very much did not wish to become president and was forced to do so by his wife, Helen. I'm also a little curious now about J.P. Morgan as well, who is described in this book as a brilliant economic mind bu also painfully shy and socially awkward. Of course this doesn't mean that J.P. Morgan wasn't an asshole, he certainly seems to have been one, but it definitely makes me interested in reading more.

Overall I think this book is pretty good, although it has some definite faults. The biggest of course is the lack of focus on Roosevelt's second term, which included the historic Treaty of Portsmouth and Pure Food and Drug Act, both of which were major achievements of his presidency and could be the center of their own monographs, if they haven't been already. As a basic grounding of Roosevelt's presidency and his policies, it's a fairly good book for just that. The lack of exhaustive detail is certainly disappointing and leaves me wondering about finding other books that are far more detail-oriented. I will hopefully be reading the final book in Morris's series, Colonel Roosevelt, provided, of course, that I can find a copy in the first place. Believe it or not, I can never see to find one whenever I go to Half Price Books. Oh well, back to good old science-fiction next week.

- Kalpar