Thursday, April 30, 2015
Plot wise this book is also set in the days of the Final War between the Terran Concordiat and the Melconian Empire, but in this case on the distant planet of Jefferson. Located on the border between humanity's on-again off-again enemy the Deng, Jefferson merits the strategic investment of a Bolo for its protection. However, due to its remote location from the major battlefronts of the escalating Melconian War, all the Concordiat can spare is a practically antique Mark XX Bolo named Lonesome Son, and his commander Major Simon Krushtinov. Sonny and his commander prove his worth rather quickly, defeating a Deng incursion on Jefferson in the space of a few days, but at the cost of most of Jefferson's infrastructure. (This all happens within the first hundred pages, by the by.) The majority of the book is focused on the growth of a political movement known as POPPA that advocates economic and social equality for all, decreased military spending, and environmental protection. The book then follows POPPA's ascent to power, dramatic restructuring of Jefferson's social and economic fabric, and then ultimately a revolution. Deprived of his commander, Sonny becomes a tool of the increasingly corrupt POPPA regime, utilized in quashing protests and rebellions, until he finally has a change of heart at the very end of the book and joins the side of the rebels in the last ten pages. And then the book...ends. Just like that.
My apprehensions about this book were centered around Ringo's... I'll call it an attempt at political commentary which had been described to me in other reviews as strongly pro-conservative and anti-liberal. (Under current American definitions of the terms anyway.) The reason that I call it an attempt at political commentary, with some space ships and a Bolo thrown in, is that the bad guys of POPPA are never remotely anything like the Democratic party, to the point where it's practically political satire more than anything else. Towards the beginning of the book POPPA wants to basically abolish the military, enforce stronger environmental protection measures on Jefferson, and remove government investment in the reconstruction of Jefferson's agricultural and industrial economies. The military abolition looks silly simply because there's still a very real threat of Deng invasion. (And Jefferson had maintained a military despite experiencing roughly a century of peace.) The government investment in agriculture and industry just comes across as stupid, and the heroic characters flat out say as much, because people are still rebuilding from the Deng invasion, yet no one makes an effort to try and convince the masses otherwise. Like the people getting taken in by POPPA are just too stupid to understand the truth. Finally the environmental protection measures, which remain a sort of undercurrent through the book, are really an apples to oranges comparison. Jefferson is a planet with a population of ten million people, sparsely settled, and with large areas of land still not under human habitation. While it makes sense to want to protect some of that unsettled land for future generations, it's just plain dumb to try and return already terraformed land into Jeffersonian wilderness because, hey, we need that to live on. Furthermore, Jefferson isn't the only planet with humans on it in the neighborhood, nevermind the galaxy. Running out of resources isn't too much of a problem. However, in real life we have a population of over six billion on one planet with an environment that appears to be heating up considerably and an ultimately finite amount of resources. It makes sense on Earth to return unproductive and unprofitable farms back into wilderness, as some people have done, to help preserve species with less and less space to live. As a Take That to environmentalism, Road to Damascus simply doesn't work.
From there POPPA goes directly into the nightmares of pretty much any conservative in the United States and fails to reflect American politics whatsoever. A system of childhood indoctrination begins with government-mandated daycare centers, regular inspections by government agents to make sure parents are "appropriately" caring for their children with the threat of losing their children to a foster care system, increasing regulation and restriction of firearm ownership, and widespread unemployment subsistence benefits which more and more people end up on due to a slowly collapsing economy. And said "Subbies" are left with nothing better to do but create more parasites on the government treasury. Certainly what Fox News claims is happening in the United States, but again, in no way a reflection of reality. Ringo then starts going into Soviet and Chinese agricultural collectivism where farms are taken over by the government, farmers are demonized as profiteering off of high food prices and hoarding food, and farmers are forced to work a minimum of fifty hours on state-run collective farms. Eventually a police state is established with its own paramilitary arm, any and all forms of dissent are brutally crushed, and work camps are established to hold the growing number of convicts. Pretty much every terrifying and awful thing gets thrown in until POPPA goes full-blown Nazi with actual, literal death camps, a "final solution" genocide, and plans to expand their regime to other planets. The result is like a slippery slope argument that just comes across as dumb more than anything like an actual commentary on American politics.
Ultimately the book just seems to play out like persecution porn for conservatives. I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that in real life conservatives are probably one of the least-persecuted groups in the United States. In fact, I think in some cases the conservatives are often the persecutors. However, nothing stirs up righteous indignation more than a good persecution story, which is why Fox News is still around. The Road to Damascus just reads as a story where dangerous, out-of-control liberals are out to completely ruin the world and it's only through the resistance of brave, gun-toting conservatives that the world is saved. There's even an Easy Evangelism moment where one of the characters slaps her POPPA-brainwashed daughter and shouts how everything's wrong with POPPA and her daughter pretty much instantly believes her. I'm almost left wondering who the heck this book is meant for because it's got all the traces of persecution porn, but I don't know how many conservatives are going to pick up a book about robot tanks.
Well ostensibly about robot tanks. The reviews that I had looked at before reading this had also mentioned that Sonny the Bolo was barely in the book. I feel like he's certainly in it enough to be a main character, but he doesn't seem to do terribly much. He does an excellent job of ending the Deng incursion on Jefferson, but spends most of the book sitting on his shiny behind wondering why anyone would listen to POPPA's demonstrably false manifesto and why POPPA would take actions which will destroy the planet's economy in six point seven years or so. Sonny feels no obligation to inform anyone of these facts (although they probably wouldn't listen anyway) and when he does get out of the maintenance depot, whether to crush some protestors in the streets, literally, or fight against some rebels, he comes across as not terribly clever. Now, there might be some leeway since he's a Mark XX Bolo and therefore of the first types to be fully sentient, but it's explicitly stated that Sonny's as good as a Mark XXIV or XXV because of his century of field experience to call on. But time and again he keeps getting outsmarted by the rebels and stumbles into their traps, making you seriously doubt his effectiveness as a Bolo. I think the title, The Road to Damascus, is supposed to be a reference to Sonny's ultimate conversion to the rebel cause because he realizes POPPA was committing genocide and simply "following orders" isn't good enough, but while we get to see Paul's work after his conversion on the road to Damascus, the book ends right after Sonny's conversion. It's ultimately very disappointing.
Finally, for a book that's nearly 800 pages, Ringo somehow manages to make me want him to show rather than tell. Important events are often described to the reader, rather than actually happening. For example when one of the main characters is assumed dead, the eulogy which practically canonizes her as a saint of the farmers resisting POPPA, it's described as incredibly moving instead of actually being written. There are dozens of examples like this throughout the book and while some exist to let the horrors of POPPA be left to the reader's imagination, it feels just plain lazy most of the time. In addition, the book has quite a few time jumps, which are necessary to an extent because the book's set over twenty years, but this feeds back into the telling instead of showing where we're told characters have developed over time instead of getting to see that development for ourselves. In addition, the book is divided into four parts, which do not in any way correspond with any developments in the book. It reads like one big long novel instead of a story told in four acts. It just further adds to the frustration with the book when it's already clearly persecution porn.
To its credit, the book is at least readable through the first five hundred pages or so. It wasn't until I got towards the end that I just wanted the book to be over already. But for the most part, this is probably the one Bolo book you can probably safely skip. As I've said in other reviews, when the Bolo series tries to talk about bigger issues it always seems to fall incredibly short. The Road to Damascus is no exception. It feels like an attempt at political commentary that's really conservative persecution porn with a Bolo thrown in from time to time. It's certainly proof I'm dumb enough to read anything with spaceships in it, but nowhere close to the fun, gripping, pulp action that made me fall in love with the Bolo series in the first place. Definitely not worth your time and can be safely skipped.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
This book is an attempt on the part of the author to create a comprehensive history of cholera from the first recognized outbreaks of 1817 to the modern day where it continues to linger in less industrialized countries. I want to say that this book is an attempt at a deconstruction because it veers away from the standard cholera narrative which idolizes John Snow and his research around the Broad Street Pump. Hamlin by contrast depicts Snow’s efforts as one of many competing attempts to define what exactly the cause of cholera was, as well as part of a larger movement for clean water. Hamlin also mentions Robert Koch, the Prussian scientist credited with identifying the bacteria that causes cholera, however Koch’s work seems undermined in this particular text because of more recent research that shows Vibro cholerae, the bacteria generally credited with causing cholera, is more susceptible to mutation than originally thought. However, Hamlin’s conclusions seem almost to be that nothing can truly be understood which seems fatalistic at best.
In his chronicle of cholera research, Hamlin depicts a stumbling, staggering process in which science advances in fits and starts with only gradual progress. The result is a rather confused narrative that seems to jump about from topic to topic in a mostly disorganized manner. It may be that because I read this book a bit at a time I was left rather confused because I kept picking it up and putting it down, but the overall disorganization of his text seemed rather consistent through the book. I seriously doubt that was a stylistic choice as this is an academic text, and reflects rather poorly on the author in my opinion. Hamlin does follow the attempts to define cholera, beginning in the early nineteenth century where cholera goes from a seasonal, non-contagious, and largely survivable affliction of diarrhea to a highly contagious and largely fatal disease; at least according to contemporary reports. Hamlin does call into question the fatality of cholera considering several reports were highly inflated and the number of dead rounded to the nearest thousand. However there are also confirmed reports with at least a fifty percent mortality. It seems like Hamlin is trying to have it both ways in his argument, which brings the whole thesis into question.
As I said, Hamlin depicts the scientific research into cholera as a stumbling process where scientists aren’t always sure what they’re looking for, which you get the impression he sees as a defect. Yet that’s the whole benefit of the scientific method. We’re never entirely sure about anything. Scientists can create entire theories around existing evidence and experimentation which may answer our questions about life, the universe, and everything, but science also takes into consideration that new evidence may turn up which will totally redefine our understanding of the universe. The very nature of a scientist is to be unsure about anything and ultimately we’re hazarding a best guess. Of course, this best guess may be backed up by boatloads of evidence, but there can always be more evidence to consider. It seems like Hamlin is accusing science of being flawed because it’s not one hundred percent certain about everything all the time and often gets things wrong.
From a more cultural perspective, this book also seems to be significantly lacking. Hamlin makes an effort to explain the cultural significance of cholera as well and how it became a major fear of popular consciousness. However, very little of the text seems dedicated to an analysis of the cultural aspect. There is mention that it gets tied to sanitary reform movements (which considering its vector of infection is certainly valid) as well as the early attempts by governments to try and do something to combat cholera, even if they weren’t sure what that something would be. There was also a struggle among nations to prevent the spread of cholera through quarantines, which received some resistance due to their hampering of trade. However any cultural analysis takes a definite backseat to the scientific analysis. In the end, cholera becomes a social stigmata, implying uncleanliness and a primitive inability to maintain basic hygiene, resulting in a hesitation to even announce an outbreak of cholera. However, as the industrializing world still faces challenges in providing clean water supplies, cholera remains a problem today.
Overall this book is just a mess. I did learn some new things about cholera from it, but the book is highly disorganized and provides a very muddled narrative with very little structure. Hamlin’s almost yet not quite critique of science and its inability to provide the correct answers right away seems petty and ignorant, especially coming from a researcher. I don’t think I’d recommend this book just because it’s such a jumbled mess.
Thursday, April 16, 2015
The result is now that I'm in a very delicate situation and I'm not really sure what to say about this book. My friend is a very big fan of this series, perhaps for reasons which will be revealed in later books, but I have yet to be certain about that. However, this book has been out of print for nearly thirty years and so that leaves my blog in a position to say something that may prove influential. So I'm going to proceed as carefully as I can, and try my very best to be as just as I can.
The plot of the book starts off with disparate threads that are woven together into a larger plot dealing with the Inquest, an interstellar government which rules over the Dispersal of Man, the millions of worlds settled by humans throughout the galaxy. The Inquest is able to do so through ships which can travel through the Overcosm, a plane of existence parallel to our own which makes interstellar flight practical. However, a key component of travel through the Overcosm is a brain of a delphinoid, an alien that sees only in the Overcosm, and acts as the navigational computer of a spaceship. Of course, delphinoids can only be found on the planet Gallendys, which makes control of Gallendys extremely vital for the continued dominance of the Inquest over the Dispersal of Man. The main characters of this novel are brought together by this particular plot, however there is a much larger plot going on as well which I suspect may be continued in later books as well.
The other plot, which is sort of brushed upon but definitely seems to take a back seat, is of a more philosophical bend and deals with the Inquest's firmly held belief that man is a fallen creature and so does not deserve to be happy. Because when man is happy and content then there is no drive forwards, no attempt at improvement, at least according to the Inquest. Member of the Inquest actually specialize in hunting down utopias, finding their hidden flaws and dragging them down so that man does not become content. However over the twenty thousand years of the Inquest's existence there is a growing belief that perhaps man does deserve to be happy, and are seeking to push over the already tottering and creaking Inquest.
The issue I take with this is that all of the "utopias" we find in this book have some sort of secret, hidden flaw, such as everyone has to kill themselves at the age of fifty. Which makes me want to argue that they are not really utopias, but rather dystopias that create a semblance of happiness. And so you might say that the Inquest was justified in tearing them down, if it weren't for the fact the Inquest itself is rather awful in its own way. However I also found myself thinking about utopian fiction independent of this work, and often there's something wrong with the utopia, some sort of horrible secret it's founded upon. The story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas sort of sums it up best in my opinion, because for whatever reason we simply cannot imagine a society that's perfect. There always has to be at least one flaw. You can even look at the Federation in Star Trek and how it goes from Rodenberry's vision of a perfect future with no war, no crime, no poverty, and no sickness, to by the end of Deep Space Nine, an imperfect government with its own dirty secrets, and lots of economic plenty in the center which makes the Federation look perfect, but less economic plenty on the edges, which leaves plenty of motivation for crime. In a way Somtow is taking the opposite argument, that a utopia can exist, without being founded on some horrible secret or awful sacrifice, but this plot thread definitely takes a backseat to the less philosophical plot dealing with the fate of the delphinoids and the Inquest.
I did notice that the writing seems to jump between flowery purple prose and being refreshingly and almost exposition-dumpy direct. (Of course, as someone who reads encyclopedias for the fun of it, I usually don't mind exposition dumps in a work of fiction.) This seemed to be most prolific towards the beginning of this book, but either it died down or I got a better grip on the plot of the book as it progressed. Somtow did develop a sort of vocabulary of special words in his Inquisitorial High Speech, which varied from klomet, a logical corruption of kilometer over millenia, to zul, a term for a fermented beverage made out of fruit. Seriously, just call it wine. I was probably most annoyed with the words which I went to look up in the book and the definition was the word or the explanation provided within the text. It made looking at the glossary feel unnecessary and so I ended up ignoring it for most of the book. The result is a writing style which I found initially maddening, but eventually got used to as I got further into the book.
Ultimately, I really don't know what to think about this book. There are three other books in this series, and I'm left with the feeling that this book merely establishes the larger plot which will be dealt with over the course of the next three books. Some progress was made and the conflict was established, but ultimately nothing was terribly resolved and we're left with a larger conflict that's still to come. I think I'm going to have to withhold final judgement until I can look at the rest of the series. Because Light on the Sound definitely doesn't work as a stand-alone book.
Thursday, April 9, 2015
As I've mentioned before whenever I read a historical fiction novel, I usually have extreme pet peeves with the genre in general. The worst is when the books are poorly researched, which thankfully is not the case here, but the Sharpe series in general seems to suffer extremely from what I like to call the Forrest Gump effect: where one fictional person is responsible for so many important things in history and it turns out they were best friends with (or simply met) most of the people we usually read about in the history books. Of course, in the case of Sharpe it makes sense to have his career follow Wellington's because Wellington is much easier to research, opposed to some poor blighter in the ranks. But I often find myself pretending that this all happens in an alternate timeline separate from our own so that it all makes sense.
Of course, there's also the author's need to give their main character something to do as well, which leads to fictional characters elbowing in on the real achievements of historical people. To his credit, Cornwell does explain that the 33rd Regiment of Foot was nowhere near the Siege of Gawilghur, and it was in fact Captain Campbell of the 94th Regiment who manged to storm the walls with his company and open the gates for the British attackers. Captain Campbell does get a cameo, but within the narrative Sharpe is credited with the idea. I am a little worried about the next book, Sharpe's Trafalgar, which I feel may be the most egregious example of this casual alteration of history, considering Sharpe is a footslogger of the infantry and has no logical reason to be at a naval engagement. At least, as far as I can tell, anyway.
I'm also getting the feeling that the Sharpe books are going to be fairly formulaic, which is an issue I ran into with the Warhammer 40,000 version of this series, Gaunt's Ghosts. There's a war going on, Sharpe has to do some fighting, Sharpe fights, Sharpe wins, day is saved. Well, maybe not saved, but carried for the British at any rate. And I can see how this might drive people away from the series because (at least since we know Sharpe survives at least to Waterloo), that he's going to at least survive that long, so where's the tension? While the series was new, I'm sure the concern that Sharpe might not survive was very real for readers, but that might make it a tough sell for new readers.
So despite my issues, why do I keep reading the Sharpe books? Well, quite simply, I really like Sharpe as a character. Sharpe is in many ways, the ultimate underdog. Now promoted to an officer, Sharpe has been shoved into a world he doesn't belong to, and his fellow officers constantly remind him that he doesn't belong there. The officer corps of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars is dominated by aristocrats and gentlemen, people who are able to pay the hundreds or thousands of pounds necessary to gain a commission. But Sharpe is a common, lower-class person. Maybe not much in common with you or me, but an ultimate underdog who's been kicked around a lot of his life and hasn't had a lot going for him. And it feels good to watch Sharpe fight, to watch him struggle and, ultimately, succeed. It just feels right somehow, and because of that I love reading these books.
And I think that's really the main selling point of this series, the character of Sharpe. He is the main character after all. There's a certain amount of charm in his defiance against all odds and determination to fight and survive, no matter the odds. Sure, he may be uneducated and perhaps a little brutal, relishing in the fight a bit much, but that doesn't make him any less fun to watch. As long as I'm still enjoying the character of Sharpe, which I think I will, then I'll keep reading these books, no matter how historically silly they may get.
Thursday, April 2, 2015
Structure-wise, this book is a collection of short stories written about Colonel Alois Hammer and his armored mercenary regiment. In Drake's universe civil war and conflict is a regular occurrence, generating a market for companies of highly trained and well-equipped mercenaries. Hammer's Slammers, with their core of 170 tonne battle tanks are the absolute cream of the mercenary crop, and while a government can only afford to hire them for a few months, those months could determine the fate of an entire planet. As a result Colonel Hammer and his men are in great demand and are constantly shifting from one battlefield to another and so a collection of short stories works as a means to tell many different stories across many different battlefields.
The problem that I noticed, at least in the first half of the book, is that the stories felt disjointed and disorganized. I'd finally start understanding what the heck was going on in a story before it'd end abruptly and we'd get shifted to another story. It may have just been that these were chronologically the first stories Drake wrote and so he was still developing his style and technique as a writer, but it made it very hard for me to get into the series. Weirdly enough about halfway through the book I started enjoying the stories more but I noticed the Slammers were often side characters rather than the main focus. I may have to just read the second volume at this point to get a better feel on the series, but I'm definitely left confused more than anything else.
I did have a couple of quibbles technologically, although the merits of debating technology in a sci-fi work where fusion generators are common place and interstellar travel is a routine occurrence may or may not be moot. Specifically the tanks of Hammer's regiment, and really most vehicles as a matter of fact, are all hovercraft that utilize large fans to create a cushion of air that supports the vehicles. Personally, as a fan of vehicles that stay firmly on the ground, this seemed rather impractical as a means of transportation, especially when the characters in the books mention the countless maintenance issues that these hover tanks require just to keep moving. Granted, vehicles with treads or wheels have their own drawbacks, but it feels like less of a headache.
The other big thing that bugged me technologically was the weapons technology. Drake actually includes little essays on various things in his universe like religion, politics, and technology. Pretty much anyone who can get their hands on them uses powerguns, which have zero recoil, are fairly simple to use, and small-arms versions will cut through anything unarmored and most lightly armored targets. The problem I have with powerguns is they're ridiculously complicated devices and the drawbacks seem to outweigh any benefit you'd get from using them. Basically, powerguns run so hot that they include tanks of liquid nitrogen to cool the weapon between rounds to keep the iridium from melting. And even then you can't holster a pistol powergun right away because the barrel still might catch your clothes on fire. Plus, the poweguns use plastic casings on their ammunition so if a gun jams the casing will melt all over the action of the piece, meaning you have to spend time carving the melted plastic away from the action to get the gun working again. (This happens a couple of times in the books, most characters just pick up another weapon.) And, on top of that, the weapons utilize a magnetic technobabble field to release a ton of energy at the enemy, which is awesome, but a slight irregularity in the manufacturing process means the weapon could blow up in your face instead. So powerguns basically can only be made on the most technologically advanced planets and cost an arm and a leg to produce. Yet all the mercenaries use them, and plenty of other people as well. I almost feel like this is an example of Drake over-explaining his awesome new technology which just raises questions about its impracticality. Personally, if he had just left it at "pew-pew, lasers!" I'd have been satisfied. As you can see by the length of this paragraph, the powerguns are probably the single biggest problem I had with this series.
I also noticed a certain amount of amorality with a few of the characters; people who were willing to get the job done, no matter the cost. Of course, that's what you'd expect from a band of mercenaries. They're not really interested in right or wrong or politics, they're just fighting for a paycheck. (And hopefully stay alive long enough to cash said paycheck) This might honestly just be a case of this series not being for me because I take issue with how casually some of the Slammers will kill civilians and prisoners or ignore collateral damage. And that's kind of the point of the Slammers. They're focused on getting the job done, as efficiently and ruthlessly as possible. I'm more a sucker for heroics and noble ideals, so the tone of this series just might not be for me. But this doesn't mean that other people won't enjoy it.
I will say that the stories seemed to be getting better as the book went on and I may have to check out volume two and see if I can get a better feel for the series. I do, however have some pretty serious personal reservations about the series as a whole. However, obviously this series is pretty popular among quite a lot of people so you may find it interesting yourself.