Thursday, July 30, 2015

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

This week I'm reading another book from Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys, which some people may see as a sequel or spin-off to American Gods. I read American Gods a few years back, and I may decide to reread it again for the blog at some future point. (Listen, the to-read pile keeps getting bigger and bigger! There's just too many books to read and not enough time!) Anyway, after my introduction to both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman through Good Omens, I have since become a fan of both their works, although Gaiman certainly has less of a library to go through than the voluminous works of Pratchett.

Anansi Boys is set in the modern day and begins with the death of Fat Charlie Nancy's father, the incredibly flamboyant Mr. Nancy. It is eventually revealed that Mr. Nancy was in fact the west African trickster spider god, Anansi, and Charlie has a long lost brother named Spider. Things get a little more complicated as Charlie deals with the loss of his father and reconnects with his brother, throwing Charlie into a world of gods and magic that he had always assumed never existed.

Because it deals with the themes of gods and hidden magic, (although hidden magic is practically a constant in anything Gaiman writes), this book is similar to, and yet at the same time remains distinct from American Gods. Much like American Gods and Neverwhere, we have a fairly normal protagonist who lives an uninteresting life, is suddenly exposed to a secret world filled with magic and belief that tenuously coexists with our own, and then there is some crisis which our hero then has to resolve. Certainly, this could get very boring if the books were all the same, but Gaiman manages to make them all very interesting, and I think it's because he's very good at creating characters. Characters we love, characters we hate, characters we may have run into in our own lives at one point or another, and most importantly characters we remember. The formula may be essentially the same, but the elements that Gaiman includes, and the characters he creates make the stories much more interesting.

I will say that there are some things you have to infer for yourself from the book, although I suppose that's better than having everything explained for you by the author. I rather liked this book, even from the beginning, so it's kind of hard for me to say anything beyond it was good. For whatever reason these sorts of stories really appeal to me and they become my favorites. There's not really much I can do about it.

If you're a fan of Gaiman already and haven't read this, then you'll definitely enjoy it. If you haven't read Gaiman yet, this is just as good a book to start on as any of his others. Although it shares some things in common with American Gods, Anansi Boys stands firmly on its own without having to read anything else.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Civic Wars, by Mary P. Ryan

This week I'm reviewing a book by Mary P. Ryan titled Civic Wars, which is an attempt on the part of the author to analyze and make sense of civic life in three American cities between roughly 1825 and 1880. By the author's own admission she also attempts to draw parallels with the era of the book's writing, the mid 1990's, and make predictions about the trajectory of American cities in the twenty-first century. This is certainly an audacious attempt and the result is it comes across as poor history because of its very attempt to predict the future based on events of the past. Although I'm sure every historian has had that temptation, myself included, it ultimately smacks of hubris to try and predict the flow of events. Although in hindsight the worries of the 1990's seem almost trivial compared to the increasingly militarized police state and stagnant economy we've been facing in recent years.

I will confess some initial hesitation in going into my review of this book because I am certainly no expert on American urban history. Well, I'm becoming an expert in one city in the United States, but the development of Cincinnati does not necessarily reflect the development of cities in the rest of the country. Furthermore I do not have any claims to fame such as being published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, I do have some serious issues with Ryan's arguments and the conclusions she draws from her research. Along with an invitation in the introduction for other historians to challenge her arguments, I plan to proceed with at least a raising of serious concerns regarding her book.

As I mentioned, this book focuses on the growth and development of three American cities over about half a century of history. Ryan specifically chose New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco because they provide contrasts in culture and in the case of San Francisco very little history. New York is a northern, mercantile, industrial, and rather "American" city, while New Orleans, despite being an equally important port for the United States, is thoroughly southern and has extensive influences from French and Spanish cultures, as well as until the 1860's the experience of slavery. San Francisco, finally, is little more than a Spanish mission until the gold rush of 1849 and grows explosively as a city, in some level of isolation due to its location on the other side of the continent. Ryan ties all three cities together by similar events and ideologies that take precedence in the cities through the nineteenth century, showing a shared urban development in the increasing industrialization of the 1800's.

The arc of Ryan's narrative talks about how New York and New Orleans, at least, being under an enlightened, Republican patriarchy where wealthy landowners engage in government out of a sense of obligation to provide for the greater good. This smacks very much of Gordon Wood's utopian interpretation of the late colonial and early American period in his Radicalism of the American Revolution. However, Ryan also delights in the expansion of the franchise under Jacksonian Democracy and the emphasis on public meetings and the "common man". As the country enters the 1850's, however, things begin to turn violent and nativist sentiment runs high against immigrants, with some nativists seizing control of local governments through violent coups. This violence continues into the Civil War, and afterwards the effort becomes putting the cities back together. However, increased corruption of machine politicians creates discontent with American politics, spawning reform movements. Increasingly government becomes dominated by secret caucuses of wealthy interest groups. Public meetings increasingly decline, and there even is a movement to restrict the franchise, already secured as the privilege of white men, to once again institute property requirements on voting. Ryan concludes with the gloomy prospect, jumping forward to the 1990's as well, that decreasing participation in the electoral process has lead to a decline in American democracy and only increased public participation can hope to revive it.

To first address her historical conclusions, the first problem I had was her assertion that the nativist struggles of the 1850's were merely a prelude to the American Civil War and they are in fact connected. Personally, I find this assertion patently false because it's trying to draw a connection between two very different phenomenons. The nativist movements of the 1850's, such as the Know-Nothings, were motivated by a large influx of immigrants to the United States in the 1840's and 1850's. This influx was caused by a number of factors, including cheaper oceanic transportation making immigration an option for a wider class of people, the political struggles on the European continent of 1848, increasing industrialization which reduced the demand for traditionally skilled labor, as well as the devastating potato famine in Ireland. This influx of immigrants caused the established Anglo-Protestant majority to become threatened, especially for example in Cincinnati where 40% of the population by 1860 were recent arrivals. The nativist movement is a response by Anglo-Protestants to the threat of being marginalized in a country by immigrants (many of whom are Catholic), and so their actions are focused on maintaining the political and economic superiority of their group.

The American Civil War, by contrast, is essentially about slavery. Now, I'm sure there's plenty of people who just read that and exclaimed. "But, Kalpar! What about states' rights?" Well, yes, the state's right to enslave people based on their skin color. The Civil War is motivated because of a desire by the south to expand their agricultural, slave-based economy, which came into conflict with the northern free-labor, increasingly industrial economy. With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who did not initially seek to end slavery, merely contain it, the fear that slavery would go extinct with no room to expand precipitated the Civil War. Ryan's assertion that the primarily urban, immigration based nativist struggles are a direct ancestor to the slavery-centric, national struggle of the Civil War is an attempt to draw a causational relationship when no correlation even exists.

After the Civil War there is, of course, the problem about enfranchising black men. Radical Republicans, who had fought so hard for the abolition of slavery, ardently support this expansion of the franchise in the Reconstruction South. This, of course, meets significant opposition from the white population which remains after Reconstruction ends and begins the process of rolling back the reforms of the Radical Republicans. Meanwhile,  New York previously had expanded the franchise to black men, but had instituted a property requirement when none had existed for white men, but the franchise remains rather limited in New York. Despite the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, the right to vote remained highly restricted to non-whites, and even in San Francisco the Chinese population, the focus of much of the racially-based rhetoric in San Francisco, was denied the right to vote. Although there is some rumblings about reducing the right to vote to taxpayers in the 1870's, the right to vote remains the privilege of white men. Ryan asserts that this is a turn away from the Jacksonian efforts of the earlier 1800's, extending the franchise to all white men and removing the property requirements previously attached. However, once the Jacksonians secure the right to vote for white men, they were never interested in expanding the electorate beyond that. The claim seems wholly inadequate considering racial ideology becomes black vs. white rather than native vs. immigrant.

Throughout this book Ryan also includes over forty illustrations to provide further support to her arguments, citing cultural evidence. The problem with this inclusion is that many of the pictures are referenced only obliquely in her arguments and are given no explanation whatsoever. An image taken out of context can be interpreted to mean whatever you want it to mean, so the prime importance in including images in an argument is providing the necessary historical context to support your interpretation. Ryan does succeed in providing adequate context for some of the images, however an equal number are simply thrown in, as if to add flavor, and fail to add any real substance to her historical arguments.

The final thing that really struck me was the inclusion of the Workingmen's Party of California (WPC). By Ryan's own admission the WPC, despite uniting labor from numerous sectors of the economy, and being some of the early clashes of labor and capital in the late nineteenth century, the WPC ultimately focused on a racial agenda and the exclusion of Chinese immigrants. Ryan tries to tie the WPC to later labor movements, specifically because it includes the usage of terms such as labor and capital, but the WPC does not focus on an eight hour day or better wages or increased business regulations. Instead, it focuses on the exclusion of Chinese labor from competition with free white labor, ultimately pushing for the Chinese Exclusion Act. This has very little to anything to do with labor struggles that would come to dominate American economics and politics. The fact that Ryan cuts off at 1880, before the Populist and Progressive movements, further undermines her arguments, especially since they involved considerable grassroots support.

The narrative Ryan presents appeared, at least to me, to be meandering, unfocused, and eclectic in its inclusion of sources for the creation of its arguments. It certainly all comes falling apart at the end when the narrative is abruptly halted at 1880 and then jumped a century forward to 1995 to try and make predictions. In so doing, Ryan blatantly ignores a century of American history, acting as if everything that happened in the intervening hundred years was inconsequential in the development of the culture of the 1990's. If anything, the decline of cities and increasing civic isolation we began to notice at the end of the twentieth century was caused by the growth of suburbia and automobile culture, rather than anything from the nineteenth century. Ryan's argument, as far as I'm concerned, ultimately fails to pass scrutiny as it is built on the flimsiest of evidence. Civic Wars simply doesn't work, especially twenty years later.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Boredom of Suzumiya Haruhi, by Tanigawa Nagaru

This week I'm reviewing another book in the Haruhi series, The Boredom of Suzumiya Haruhi. This particular novel is a collection of four shorter stories rather than being one long story as in the previous novels. In particular this book contains The Boredom of Suzumiya Haruhi, where the SOS Brigade enters a baseball tournament at Suzumiya's insistence; Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody, where Kyon learns a little bit more about the incidents of three years ago; Mysterique Sign, where the SOS Brigade investigates the mysterious disappearance of the Computer Club president; and Remote Island Syndrome, where the SOS Brigade takes a summer vacation trip to a remote island.

Because this is more an anthology of short stories rather than a full-length novel, the book kind of wanders around a bit without purpose. The stories are fairly close together in terms of chronology. (This book is set between the events of Melancholy and Sigh) But each story is fairly self-contained so it feels sort of abrupt jumping from one story to another. As a light novel this book is pretty short and I read all of it in about four hours, which probably made it feel even shorter to me than other books that I've read as well. It just sort of felt like filler until you read the next book in the series to be perfectly honest. On top of that, these are all stories which have also been turned into episodes for the anime adaptation, so having seen that first I'm already familiar with the plot and it's mostly review for me more than anything else. I just don't have a lot to say about this book beyond that.

The stories do expand a little bit on the world and we get a little bit more information about various characters, but at the same time it feels like we're just being made to wait for more important stuff. Like it's a calm before the storm of all hell breaking loose. Granted, I am interested in all hell breaking loose, because that'd result in some conflict, but I feel like we're just waiting for that to happen. Granted, the characters are ostensibly working to keep that exact thing from happening in the first place, but it'd be a little more interesting I think.

Aside from the feeling that this is mostly filler, I do have two issues with this book, which come back to Kyon. The first is the author's choice, and this turns up in the other books as well, to have the other characters respond to Kyon's internal dialog. At least, it looks like he's saying this stuff internally but I have to conclude he's saying these things that are written as if he's thinking them because the other characters respond like it's a normal conversation. If nothing else it's bad editing. The other issue I have is Kyon lusting over Mikuru, which I guess makes sense because he ultimately is a hormone-addled teenager, but it frustrates me at the same time. I realize I'm probably just ranting at this point, but there you are.

Overall I'd say you could probably just skip this one and watch the episodes that adapted this book instead because you're not really going to miss anything by doing that.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov

This week I'm reviewing just one of Isaac Asimov's books, in this case going to the robots series with the first book, The Caves of Steel. This book follows the adventures of detective Lije Baley and his robot partner, R. Daneel Olivlaw as they try to solve a murder. Ostensibly this book is supposed to be a murder mystery story, but personally I didn't find it to be a terribly good mystery novel and it seems to exist more to set up a later story more than anything else. Which is weird considering I didn't think that was Asimov's intention when writing it in the first place. At least, not according to the introduction from him anyway.

Time-line wise this book is set hundreds of years after humanity has sent colonists to the fifty Outer Worlds, but well before humanity has expanded in a second wave of emigration and colonization, which will ultimately result in the First Empire. Earth is currently inhabited by eight billion people, with the population slowly inching upwards, and all of humanity is packed in great hive Cities across the globe. To the point Earth-born humans have forgotten life outside the Cities and many find the prospect of life in an uncontrolled environment terrifying. The fifty Outer Worlds, although technologically superior to Earth, amount to only about five and a half billion people, and are incredibly vulnerable to disease due to generations of people with no exposure to earth-borne pathogens. The result is two cultures that do not understand each other, and don't really tolerate each other as well. A small delegation of Spacers maintain a presence on Earth, but this delegation is tenuous at best. The situation becomes much worse when a prominent Spacer gets murdered and the Spacers are convinced an Earth conspiracy is to blame.

The biggest issue I have with this murder mystery is that there are no clues, no evidence, and only one possible suspect. However the only suspect is dismissed because of a sci-fi technobabble test that proves he doesn't have the personality to commit murder, which leaves Lije and Daneel with basically no clues or anything to work on. The result is that Lije and Daneel just kind of stumble around through most of the book trying to make any connection whatsoever. Left with no possible solutions, Lije and Daneel consider half a dozen impossible solutions which prove, eventually, to be impossible. I feel like it's unfair to the reader to make a mystery with absolutely no clues, because that makes it impossible to solve the mystery. It seems like a deliberately low trick.
But as I said earlier, the mystery also feels secondary to the story, which is kind of weird if this is meant to be a detective story. For quite a lot of this novel, although you get a lot of this in science-fiction novels, it's just the technological exposition. Look at all the things that are different in this future I've created! Most humans eat yeast! How weird is that? That's not really the most annoying part, though, because I'm just used to that in science-fiction books and the exposition has to go in somewhere. The problem is that this book sets up its society, shows what's wrong with it, and then proposes a solution to fix it, to the detriment of the detective story. I feel like this book could have either been a science-fiction commentary on overpopulation and humans' fear of technology, or it could have been a science-fiction detective novel, but by attempting to do both the book suffers. And while I don't doubt that Asimov has the writing skills to make a story, for whatever reason it just doesn't work out in this novel.

I am going to read the next book in the robot series at some later point and if it improves any I'll probably look into reading the other ones, but I've got a guarded opinion at the moment. While some of my favorite stories come from Asimov, he also produced a book I ended up throwing against the wall so clearly his work can range from very good to very bad. I'll just have to see where it goes.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Bolo! and Old Soldiers, by David Weber

This week I'm knocking out two books at once and have come at last to the end of the Bolo series. So alas there will no longer be any more posts with me squealing about giant robot tanks and how awesome I think they are. Technically there is one more book, Their Finest Hour: Best of the Bolos, but that is an anthology of previous stories which I have already read and so I probably am not going to be reviewing it here. The reason I'm tackling two books today is that Bolo! specifically is a collection of four short stories written by David Weber, and three of them have been published before in other Bolo anthologies. The only new story is With Your Shield, which actually is sort of a prologue for the full-length novel Old Soldiers, and gives backstory for the main human character, Maneka Trevor. I'm also aware that I already talked about the other main work of Weber's that I've been reading last week, but I assure my readers that this blog isn't going to turn into just another David Weber fan club. ...I hope.
Anyway, the plot of both of these books is set during the Final War, an event that looms large in more than a few of these books. For anyone who hasn't read any of my other reviews of these books: the Concordiat of Man and the Melconian Empire, through a failure of diplomacy and a battle where neither side was sure who shot first, get engaged in a galaxy-spanning war. The Concordiat has a technological edge, including the mighty Bolos, but the Melconians aren't too far behind and have sheer numbers which more than offset humanity's edge. As the war continues, it escalate into a genocidal campaign known as Operation Ragnarok, where both humans and Melconians begin burning each other's planets to cinders, both sides hoping that the enemy will run out of planets before they do. As the war drags on the Concordiat realizes they've grossly underestimated the size of the Melconian Empire and there's a very good chance humanity is going to lose, even with the Bolos on their side. This begins plans for Operation Seed Corn, an attempt by the Concordiat to send human colonization fleets beyond the explored edges of the galaxy to ensure that humanity, in some form at least, will continue to exist.

Included in this expedition are an aging Mark XXVIII Bolo, named Lazarus, and his commander, Maneka Trevore, both the only survivors of their unit from a Melconian attack on Chartes. Both are suffering from survivor's guilt and will have to work together so they can protect one of humanity's attempt to ensure something survives beyond the Final War.

I will admit that I'm not as huge a fan of Final War stories because it ultimately results in the fall of the Concordiat and the Melconian Empire in a final maelstrom of destruction. Granted, there are stories showing at least fragments of both sides surviving afterwards, but it's small comfort considering what we lose in the process. The writing is fairly good and at least in this one I didn't notice too much extraneous exposition, but that may just be me and my usual love for exposition. What I liked about both these stories the most, though, is that Weber was able to answer a question which had been raised in earlier books and had never really been answered to my satisfaction. Previous books had raised the question is it really right for humanity to create sentient beings that exist merely to fight and die on our behalf? The Bolos are fully-developed people. They have personalities, idiosyncrasies, they make jokes, they have friends, and in a way they can also know fear. Is it truly just for humanity to create a race that you could very well call slaves to do all our fighting for us?

Previous books had raised this question before and had sort of glossed over it or not really looked into it very deeply. And it made me wonder if maybe the Bolos actually resented us for making them our warriors. However, in this book Weber actually manages to answer the question to my satisfaction through the voice of Lazarus. See, Bolos are aware that they exist to fight and die on the behalf of their creators, but they don't see that as a bad thing. Bolos respect humans because humans created them far better than humans could ever hope to be. A Bolo after all is a building-sized weapons platform capable of standing up to fusion warheads and an ability to make decisions in milliseconds. No human could ever hope to out-perform a Bolo on the battlefield. But more importantly, humans made Bolos the epitome of honor, duty, obligation, and other ideals that humanity constantly strive and often falls short of achieving. Bolos believe that humanity has made Bolos better than humanity could ever hope to become, and they feel not only honored by this decision, but an obligation to protect their creators. And the humans have not failed to appreciate this, either. Even though a human commander will probably have very little they can accomplish from the cockpit of a Bolo, humans still ride in Bolos out of an obligation to share the risk with their armored protectors and ensure they do not fight alone.

Although this book has some really sad parts, it has what I thought was a very touching and appropriate ending for the Bolo series as a whole, with hope for the future of mankind. As much as I hate to have finished this series, I'm also very glad I read it as well.

- Kalpar