Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov

This week I'm reviewing the second book in Isaac Asimov's Robot Series, The Naked Sun. Like the previous book, The Caves of Steel, this follows the adventures of Lije Baley and his occasional partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. As Asimov states in the introduction his intention with this series was to first write a murder mystery on a world where humans are abundant but robots are scarce, as shown with Earth's population of eight billion crammed into underground cities of concrete and steel. In the second book, Asimov wanted to do a murder mystery on a planet where robots were abundants, but humans were scarce, which is this story.

In this particular instance, a murder has occurred on the Outer World of Solaria. The first murder in three hundred years, as a matter of fact, which means the Solarians are utterly unequipped to handle the situation. At the insistence of the Aurorans, the most powerful of the Outer Worlds, the Solarians have invited Earth detective Lije Baley to investigate, accompanied by Olivaw. Once again Baley is confronted by a murder with no weapon, no readily apparent motive, and only one suspect which he believes is incapable of committing the murder. As a result Baley has to dig deeper into Solaria's society and find out how a seemingly impossible murder could have happened.

I will admit that I was a little prejudiced against this book once I found out the Solarians were involved again. I had already run into them in a book I'd previously read, Foundation and Earth. As my readers may remember, I ended up throwing that particular book against the wall as punishment for its mind-numbing and never ending argument on the same damn topic. The Solarians, or rather a stagnated and decadent descendant of theirs thousands of years into the future, are not depicted flatteringly in the future and as a result I was prejudiced against them. Even without having read Foundation and Earth, (which I recommend, it's not a very good book) I think most readers can tell that there's something rather wrong with Solaria as a society, which is probably the point of this book more than the murder mystery. Much like Caves of Steel, more time seems to be dedicated to talking about the science-fiction society that Asimov is portraying rather than clues about the murder mystery itself. Granted, Baley gets to show his chops as a competent detective in this instance, but I feel like the murder mystery is really an excuse plot to get to this crazy planet with robots.

At the conclusion of the book Baley asserts that Solaria is a dead end in human development, but Earth has also become one. The humans of Earth need to break free from the confines of their great cities and travel the stars once again, and seeing as I've read the Foundation series I know this will definitely happen and humanity will become the masters of the galaxy.So it's definitely encouraging to see that humanity isn't going to stagnate and eventually go the same way as so many other species before. The ending also sets up the third book of the series with Baley stating he should probably go to Aurora to see what the Outer Worlds are really like, since Solaria is really an exception rather than the rule. And as Asimov said he wanted to finish with a story that has a more even blend of humans and robots, which hopefully will be interesting to read.

Overall this book is okay. It certainly doesn't make my top favorites in Asimov literature, but there is a lot of Asimov literature out there, and you can certainly do a lot worse. I'm kind of looking forward to the next one because I'm hoping it'll be a little bit different, but that will remain to be seen.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 17, 2015

John Adams, by David McCullough

In a continuation of my quest to expand my knowledge, this week I'm reviewing the widely-acclaimed biography of John Adams by Davide McCullough. This text focuses on Adams's life, starting with his early years and entry to Harvard at age fifteen, to his eventual death on July 4th, 1826, the same day as Thomas Jefferson and the fiftieth birthday of the United States. Fortunately for historians Adams was a prolific writer during his lifetime, engaged not only in correspondence with dozens of people over the years but also writer of a handful of essays and pamphlets and a regular diarist. This provides a great amount of insight into Adams's own thoughts, feelings, and motivations, as well as how other people perceived him in their own writings. Although by no means the final word on John Adams, it provides a very good look into one of the oft overlooked founding fathers.

John Adams has often been overlooked in American history, and no one was more aware of this fact than John Adams. And I suspect part of it was the fact that Adams is, in a way, rather boring. He doesn't have the wit, charm, and skill with the ladies like Benjamin Franklin. He doesn't have the imposing stature and dignity of George Washington (Although Adams certainly shared Washington's reputation for honor and integrity.) And he doesn't have the reclusive genius of Thomas Jefferson. Adams is described consistently in this book, as well as in the writings of his contemporaries, as a man of integrity; who's candid, forthright, honest, and reliable. Practically the very epitome of New England Puritan virtue. And I personally rather like those virtues in a person and find them something to aspire towards, but it certainly doesn't make for interesting copy. Adams is simply overshadowed by the more colorful characters that inhabited the same time period as himself and so definitely merits reappraisal.

I will say that this biography paints Adams in very glowing terms, and there definitely seems to be a lot to admire, such as his aforementioned virtues, but it makes me wonder how much this should be taken with a grain of salt. There are numerous points where McCullough makes a point to talk about how exceptional or, in many cases, self-sacrificing Adams's behavior has been. McCullough exults in Adams's eight years and thousands of miles travelled in Europe calling upon the governments of France, the Netherlands, and England as an emissary of the United States, as well as his years of painful separation from his wife Abigail. Although other figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had to suffer separations from loved ones as well as difficulties in Europe. Adams's efforts in supporting the Declaration of Independence, his drafting of the Massachusetts state constitution, and his service as the first Vice President of the United States are all given glowing reports from McCullough. To be fair, Adams doesn't get terribly much praise for these efforts as part of his overall neglect in history, but I feel sometimes that McCullough was laying it on a little thick, as if to make up for all the decades of neglect. And considering McCullough's criticism of other figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, it almost feels like McCullough is on Adams's side.

Thomas Jefferson specifically plays a large part in this book, which is reasonable considering his friendship, then enmity, then friendship with Adams over the years. McCullough even talks about the contrasts between the two men, such as Jefferson living off the backs of slave labor while isolated at his mountaintop villa, while Adams works on his own farm surrounded by family and neighbors in the small-town spirit of New England. Considerable focus is spent on Jefferson's habit of rebuilding practically any structure he inhabited, usually at great personal expense, which contributed to Jefferson's eventual bankruptcy by the time of his death. By contrast Adams wholeheartedly embraces the Puritan ideals of thrift and independence and remains fiscally solvent for most of his life, despite considerable fiscal pressures. I feel like McCullough almost goes a little too far in building up Adams and tearing down Jefferson as a biographer, and I'm not a terribly big fan of Jefferson in the first place.

I'm also interested in trying to read more about Alexander Hamilton, who plays a large role during Adams's Vice Presidency and Presidency and certainly was no friend to either John or Abigail. In this book he's portrayed as the consummate power-hungry schemer with almost imperial ambitions for America. Personally I don't know terribly much about Hamilton beyond his advocacy for a strong central government and a national bank, both measures I find to be rather reasonable. (I'll admit it, I'm a Federalist.) So to see this more ambitious side of Hamilton is a bit of a surprise and it makes me curious to say the least.

Ultimately I feel like this is a fairly good biography, if nothing else then because it educates people about one of our more-overlooked presidents and Founding Fathers. It is a little effusive in its praise so reading of different sources for more information on this subject material is probably a good idea as well.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Shepherd's Crown, by Sir Terry Pratchett

Hello, everyone. I'm messing with the schedule a little this week because I received my preordered copy of The Shepherd's Crown the other day and managed to read through it rather quickly so I wanted to get a review out to everyone this Thursday. As my readers are probably aware, The Shepherd's Crown is the last novel from Sir PTerry, published posthumously after his death this past March. As such it feels very much like an end to the adventure of Discworld, as well as a personal farewell from Pratchett himself. And in a way we get to see how the Disc has changed over the years from parody of swords and sorcery to its own blend of magitek. I for one greatly enjoyed this book and I think it will bring a tear to the eye of more than one Discworld fan.

This is another Tiffany Aching adventure so we get to follow Tiffany as she comes into her own as a witch. The previous books have been about her training and learning what being a witch is really about, and by the time we get to Shepherd's Crown Tiffany is undoubtedly a full-fledged witch. Granted, she is struggling with the levels of responsibility that being a witch entails, but a tremendous number of people have great faith in her. However, as always, there are far greater problems afoot. It seems the elves are trying to return to the Disc once again, wishing to take their place as the "rightful" rulers. It will fall to Tiffany and the other witches to bring the fight to the elves.

Long-time readers of Discworld will remember that the elves have been dealt with before, in both Lords and Ladies and The Wee Free Men, so it makes sense for the elves to desire revenge. However, there is something almost idiotic in their desire to return to the Disc to spread terror. As the King of Elves said in Lords and Ladies, there was too much iron in the world then. And not just iron that people produced, there was iron in people's minds, which is why they got driven back to where they came from. And if it was bad enough back then, what about the Disc now? There are railroads on the Disc now, thanks to Raising Steam, practically the spirit of iron made manifest! In a world ruled by iron the elves are doomed to failure from the start. So in a way, I felt like the elves plot was almost a minor inconvenience compared to Tiffany struggling with being a fully-fledged witch and the transition to adulthood. It's still a good story, I was just smirking the entire time because I knew the elves were going to get it good this time.

I will also say that this book feels a little unfinished around the edges, like it's an earlier draft of what might be a much longer novel. And in the afterword they say basically that was Pratchett's entire process. He'd start writing a book, and then go back and add things, throw in details, link passages together, and if his publishers didn't pry the book away from him and run it off to the printers he probably never would have stopped tinkering with it. And so yes, I can see how it could have been extended a little bit here and there. But I feel that the decision to publish the book as-is, without someone else trying to expand on what Pratchett was trying to write, is a very respectful one and I'm very happy for the book we got, rather than no book at all.

As much as Raising Steam felt like a bit of a good-bye to the series for a lot of readers, The Shepherd's Crown feels like one as well. And personally it's a good-bye that I think we all needed. It's good to see some of our friends one last time, just to check up and see that everything's all right. And the Disc is there. The Disc will always be there, with things running along smoothly. The railroads and the clacks are bringing the Disc together, and even trolls and dwarfs are getting along together. And Tiffany Aching will be there, keeping an eye on the Chalk, calling in on people that get overlooked, making sure old men on their own have a hot meal every now and then. As much as I hate to leave the Disc behind, I think it's in good hands.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Expedition to Earth, by Arthur C. Clarke

This review probably isn't going to be terribly long because once again I am reviewing a collection of short stories. And in this case it's a particularly short collection from one of the greats of science-fiction, Arthur C. Clarke. Now for my readers this book was originally published way back in 1953 so there have been many, many, many covers in its numerous reprints. I just decided to show the one for the kindle edition which I read. These short stories don't have an overarching plot like the Foundation short stories, but are simply a collection of Clarke's writings.

For those of you that aren't familiar, Arthur C. Clarke is seen as one of the "Three Greats" in the classic pulp era of science fiction, along with Isaac Asimov, whom I've talked about on this blog before, and Robert Heinlein, whom I have not. As someone who grew up reading a lot of my mom's old pulp sci-fiction novels I have a great amount of fondness for pulp works, especially older ones that may not have aged as well as other stories. In a way there was a relationship readers had with the Three Greats. Clarke was your badass science uncle who hung out in the garage with your badass science grandpa Asimov building robots and shit. Meanwhile, Heinlein was your creepy uncle who lived in a shack out in the woods in constant fear of the men from the government with his AR-15 and....lack of clothing for some reason. Whatever their foibles, and as people they certainly had a lot of those, they were prolific and influential writers.

Expedition to Earth contains a handful of stories from Clarke and in some ways kind of reminds me of The Twilight Zone, where the story leads up to a twist that you might not have been expecting. Of course, sixty years later the twists are easier to see coming in some of the stories, but that doesn't make the stories any less entertaining. And trying to guess the twist sometimes becomes part of the fun. However there were still a couple of stories that I honestly didn't see the twist coming and were pretty entertaining. Although some of the stories definitely have Cold War era fears, namely the threat of atomic war, that doesn't make them any less interesting to read.

Overall if you haven't read this book yet, I'd definitely recommend picking this one up. It's fairly short so if you have a day where you're free and just want to read some short stories you can definitely get this one under your belt.

- Kalpar