Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Long War, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

This week I've returned to the Long Earth with the sequel, The Long War. As you may remember in my review of The Long Earth, I was a little dissatisfied with the preceding book. However, I am usually one to give something a second try, especially after the first book because it might take a while for a series to find its stride. Unfortunately, The Long War simply wasn't it. With the series continuing in The Long Mars, I find myself not terribly interested in seeing where this series is going, and I'll try to explain why. But despite the enormous potential of this series it just continues to fail to deliver and the result is unsatisfying to say the least.

As you may recall, The Long Earth introduced us to the concept of a series of worlds, perhaps an infinity of worlds, similar but different to our own Earth, that can be reached simply through the use of a device known as a Stepper. Instead of being confined to a single world with a degrading ecosystem and diminishing resources, humanity now has access to millions of verdant worlds with practically unlimited resources. Suddenly the solution to all the pressures of humanity are literally just a step away. To be honest, the existence of a nearly infinite supply of worlds and resources poses interesting social, economic, and political questions and it would be interesting to see how humanity responds. (As well as the discovery that we are not alone and we have sapient hominid cousins throughout the Long Earth.)

Although initially ambitious, and promising to investigate several really interesting ideas about how the Long Earth would reshape society, The Long War spreads out too quickly and suffers from an incredible lack of focus. There are something in the neighborhood of five or six different plots going on in The Long War, ranging from the distant "colonies" of the outer worlds demanding equal treatment and representation in old Datum Earth's government, to humanity's treatment of the trolls, to China's expedition to the world of East 20,000,000. I almost feel like this is akin to a Philip K. Dick novel where there are a ton of interesting ideas presented but the authors go off into a lot of different directions instead of focusing on one story. I think if the authors had focused on one story for this novel, instead of splitting attention between five or six different plotlines, it would have resulted in a more coherent story overall. The result is a muddled mess of five different stories, none of which were developed or resolved much to my satisfaction.

Another thing I noticed, although this seemed to get better as the book went on, was a lot of things happened off-screen or were told in past tense or passive voice. It would have been interesting to see the rebellion against the Datum government develop as the pioneer's rights were slowly stripped away by a government pandering to increasingly xenophobic masses at home. Instead we're told about it after the fact as background material. Again, it's something I really noticed in the beginning of the book, and this may be because the authors decided to jump forward ten years from the ending of Long Earth so they had to cram in exposition somewhere, but it's pretty unsatisfying on my end.

For me the greatest sin of The Long War was that it became boring. An infinity of Earths for humanity to explore, colonize, and fight over offers practically limitless potential for numerous interesting stories. Unfortunately five plots which could have been interesting if properly developed in their own direction, become five lackluster plots that I ended up not caring terribly much about. I honestly found myself over 80% of the way through the book and just saying to myself, "Oh my god, when will this be over?" Instead of getting excited I just found myself bored, something you never want to be when you're reading a book.

I'll be honest, I'm probably not going to read The Long Mars because I have a very strong feeling it's going to be more of the same. As much as I love Terry Pratchett, this just doesn't seem to be his best work. I personally do not know much about Stephen Baxter and I may want to look at his books in the future, but I feel like this particular collaboration of authors simply isn't working.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hamalainen

This week I'm returning once again to a stack of history books which I picked up when a colleague of mine was moving and needed to get rid of a ton of books. (Books can get downright heavy, man!) Anyway, among the tomes I selected for my self-improvement was The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hamalainen. (And sorry in advance for not getting all the proper accent marks. I unfortunately do not know how to do that.) As I have only a very vague knowledge of Native American history, learning history from a Euro-centric point of view, I figured this would be a very good text to help expand my knowledge of American history as well as the Southwest. (Plus, another one of my work colleagues has some Comanche ancestry so she recommended this book to me as well.)

Hamalainen begins with the very noble goal of revising our understanding of history, especially in the American Southwest, which has often been depicted as a region between the borders of two large colonial empires, first France and Spain, and later the United States and Mexico. If the Comanches are mentioned at all, it is usually in passing and as a reference to their savagery and violence. Hamalainen attempts to tell the Comanche story from their own perspective, although even he admits that this is a challenging task. Traditional historical methods rely largely on written documents for source material, something many indigenous cultures across the globe did not leave behind, resulting in the Euro-centric view of much of history. Hamalanien does utilize numerous documents, but has also delved into oral histories, anthropological research, and a variety of other stories to create a more complete and accurate picture, however Hamalanien admits that not even his treatment is complete and future analysis may prove more accurate.

However the main objective, which Hamalainen readily achieves, is the depiction of Comanches as actors in their own right within the American Southwest rather than passive reactors to the actions of European imperial and colonial powers. Hamalanien successfully explains how Comanches were able to play a grand diplomatic game with other major powers for their own benefit, as well as engage in trading and warfare depending upon their own needs and larger political objectives. Really my only quibble is Hamalanien's decision to call this Comanche organization an empire. While definitely grand in scope and behaving economically and militarily as an empire, the Comanches never had the strong, centralized government apparatus that is the hallmark of empires across the globe and history. Yes, the Comanches included many ethnic groups within their fold, and yes they were able to utilize military and economic power to their benefit in negotiations with other polities, but at the end of the day there was no central unification.

Hamalainen does go into great detail about the political structure of the Comanches and while there were large tribe-level and even nation-level meetings, Comanche social structure tended to be more a confederation of many smaller groups. To me, it's sort of like saying that the Vikings had an empire. Strictly speaking, no they did not. Yes, they were able to launch successful raids throughout much of Europe, and they had great economic, military, and even political influence throughout many parts of Europe, but there was no single centralized "Viking" government. At most the Vikings were a loose confederation, but more likely it was a larger Northern European culture with shared values. The Comanches certainly seem to be more tightly-knit than the Vikings, but I'd say they're a successful confederation rather than an out and out empire. Ultimately, of course, this is an argument over semantics, but that's what keeps historians going.

Overall I rather liked this book. Although I may not gain any immediate benefit by expanding my knowledge about the Comanches in the American Southwest, I'm sure there are plenty of people who will find this a useful resource. Plus, I am always in favor of expanding knowledge, especially in areas that may have been largely neglected beforehand.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Fuzzy Nation, by John Scalzi

This week, possibly because I was reminded of John Scalzi from last week's novel, I'm reading another book from Scalzi called Fuzzy Nation. As Scalzi himself says in the introduction to this novel, Fuzzy Nation is actually a reboot of an earlier novel, Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper. I myself have not had the fortune of reading Little Fuzzy, and it is not necessary to do so to enjoy Scalzi's work. However, I personally am now interested in reading the original material at some future point and comparing it with Scalzi's own reinterpretation.

Fuzzy Nation is set on the planet Zara XXIII, a metal-rich world currently being exploited by the interstellar mining Zarathustra Corporation. What makes Zara XXIII particularly valuable to Zarathustran holdings is the presence of sunstones, gemstones found only on ZaraXXIII, and which emit a faint glow from someone's body heat. Rarer than diamonds, Zarathustra hopes to maintain dominance in the interstellar market with a treasure trove of sunstones. Our main character is Jack Holloway, a surveyor under contract with Zarathustra to do all the hard work of finding the valuable resources which Zarathustra can then swoop in, mine, and then ship off-planet back to depleted and resource-hungry Earth. When Jack discovers the veritable mother lode of sunstones, it looks like he and Zarathustra will be financially set for decades to come. However when a family of hitherto unseen fuzzy critters shows up at Jack's compound, it may spell trouble for everyone planetside. If the fuzzies turn out to be sapient, as some people suspect, then all mining on Zarathustra will have to cease immediately.

Aside from a really good story about what we would consider to be sentient life on other planets, Fuzzy Nation raises really good questions about the ethics of a resource-hungry economy and if it can successfully coexist with, and help sustain, a vibrant ecology at the same time. The answer has always seemed to be a no, especially true where strip mining is involved. And as farms, cities, and human industries expand it leaves less and less space on our little blue marble here for the billions of other species that we share the planet with. Plus as of 2014 we're still stuck on our little blue marble so we don't have an option to move stuff off-planet if it's inconvenient to have it here. On the other hand, the fact that I was able to read this book and then write this review is largely because people mined materials out of the ground which then went into the electronic devices I used. It doesn't look like there's any easy answer, not soon at any rate, but it's definitely something we should be thinking about.

Fuzzy Nation also raises a very excellent point which sadly isn't explored terribly much because the book reaches its climax very soon afterwards. Characters point out that even if the fuzzies get protected status, it may actually cause them to go extinct more quickly. This is the double-edged sword of protected status that many creatures have encountered here in the United States and I'm certain elsewhere as well. In many cases it is illegal to disturb the nesting or breeding grounds of protected creatures and the discovery of those creatures mean any and all activity in that area must end immediately. However, as there is a financial motive for continuing activity in that area, whether it be house construction, mining, logging, or something else entirely, very often the animals will be quietly killed off so that humans can continue their activity, rather than descend into the red tape and bureaucracy of accommodating a protected species. Unfortunately, although this is a very real issue in conservation and protection efforts today, it doesn't get terribly fleshed out and quickly gets eclipsed by the fantastic climax.

I will admit that there were some things that seemed altogether far too convenient at the very end of the novel. Well, specifically one thing but I won't go into it because spoilers. Anyway other than that the ending had a ton of courtroom drama which actually made sense because it was a preliminary hearing instead of an actual trial. (Interestingly, the American legal system tries to make trials go as smoothly as possible so all evidence and witnesses are actually submitted ahead of time for use in the trial. Despite what movies and TV would have us believe, surprise witnesses are actually an exception.) Anyway, with a bit of downright awesome legal chicanery we get our resolution, which was probably my favorite part of the book to be honest. If anyone enjoys a good debate you'll definitely love the ending to Fuzzy Nation.

Overall, I really liked this book. I will admit that I felt it had its shortcomings because there was a really good opportunity there to examine human industry, needs, and desires and whether they can ever coexist with a sustainable ecology. However, that may have ended up overshadowing the fuzzy plotline, which is what the book's really about. I'd definitely say it's worth a read.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 5, 2015

NPCs, by Drew Hayes

This week I'm reading a fantasy satire titled NPCs, originally published as an e-book by Drew Hayes. For those of you unfamiliar with the term (Which I suspect will be very few of my readers) NPCs, or Non Player Characters, are supporting characters at best and obstacles at worst for the players who are the main characters in whatever narrative it happens to be.  As I'm sure you can imagine from the title, this book explores the lives of the NPCs in a tabletop fantasy akin to Dungeons & Dragons and how they deal with the incredibly strange people called Adventurers that wander into their world and start killing all of the local wildlife.

The plot actually follows four characters originally NPCs content to live out their lives in the village of Maplebark: Thistle a gnome and retired professional minion; his friend Grumph, a half-orc bartender and brewmaster; Eric, a local member of the town watch; and Gabrielle, the mayor of Maplebark's daughter. When four adventurers come into Grumph's tavern late one night, take a single drink of mead, and suddenly keel over dead everyone's lives suddenly became infinitely more complicated. This unlikely foursome will have to take up the quest of the now deceased Adventurers and fake their newfound roles long enough to survive. At least, that's the plan anyway.

Overall, this book was rather enjoyable for me, especially as an experienced tabletop player. I especially found the DM's frustrations with the players that just want to murder and loot everything as a familiar experience considering some of the people I've played with over the years. I will say the opening chapter is a little weird because it explains concepts like NPCs, which is helpful for people who are unfamiliar with tabletop games, but I'd think the overwhelming majority of people picking this book up would be familiar with such concepts. Once you get into the fantasy adventure from the perspective of the NPCs, though, the book really takes off and I found it really enjoyable. It reminded me a lot of John Scalzi's Redshirts because it's taking the same theme of looking at the lives of background characters but in this case a tabletop fantasy game rather than a science-fiction TV show. And because they're different in terms of genre and the mechanics of the setting it results in different books that are still able to talk about similar themes.

In that same vein, towards the end there was a lot of playing with the fourth wall in a very similar way to Redshirts where fiction influences reality and reality influenced fiction. I'm not quite sure if I understood all of it because frankly it's some pretty deep stuff, but it's still a very good book. I think my only real complaint is that the writing at times got a little purple with its prose, something I've experienced in the limited amount of fanfic I read, but I'm willing to tolerate a few literary flourishes from the author because he's bringing something both familiar and new and perhaps most importantly enjoyable. This book manages to be both insightful and fun, something I really like encountering in a novel.

As I may have mentioned in my review of Redshirts, I've always had a certain fondness for the background characters in stories. Often because I always sort of assumed I'd be one of them. So there was a lot of appeal in reading about NPCs and how they marvel at Adventurers who treat life as something that they can simply buy more of from a merchant. (And when you think of some of the stuff Adventurers do it's downright crazy if you think about it logically.) Furthermore, as an avid tabletop player I quite enjoyed a little poke in the ribs at the inherent silliness of the genre. If you're a fantasy gamer and an old hand at D&D, Pathfinder, or something similar, you'll probably get a few good chuckles out of this book. Or at least a good adventure.

- Kalpar