Thursday, November 26, 2015

Make Room! Make Room!, by Harry Harrison

Hello everyone and happy Thanksgiving! That is, if you live in the United States anyway. If you're Canadian and reading this, happy Thanksgiving like six weeks ago. Anyway, in celebration of a significant number of us having enough food to gorge ourselves sick I'm reviewing Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison. If you're not a classic science-fiction fan you might not have heard of this book, but there's a pretty good chance you've heard of the film adaptation of this book, Soylent Green. And for those of you who have not even heard of Soylent Green through pop culture osmosis, let me just make the obligatory reference right now. SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!

Okay, to put that into context, both the movie and the book deal with an overpopulated future where humanity has reached a whopping total of seven billion. (A number we actually reached in 2011.) Due to pollution and squandering of natural resources humanity is shoved into increasingly smaller places leading to a great amount of overcrowding and New York City alone has a population of over 35 million people. Food is hard to come by, most people survive on products made out of soybeans and lentils (hence the name soylent) if they're lucky. If they aren't then they're surviving off of various foodstuffs made out of plankton and seaweed. Soylent green is the final, logical step in which people are turned into food, creating a self-sustaining cycle. Interestingly enough the soylent green so famous in the movie actually doesn't show up in the book, making it an original creation of the movie. I kept expecting it to show up in the book, but was surprised when it never did, which was very interesting for me.

Harrison does a very good job of depicting the decay and desolation of an overpopulated world. His descriptions of the decay, the filth, and the utter desperation definitely gives you a feeling of how bad the world has gotten. The description of Sol's improvements to his home stove, adapting it as more and more types of fuel become unavailable really drives home the desperation and sense of hopelessness. I was reminded greatly of the novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a book written by a Ghanian author dealing with the rampant corruption and decay of Ghana (and many other African nations) in the 1960's. (Incidentally I highly recommend checking that book out to get a really interesting look inside life in Africa in the 1960's.) Anyway, Harrison really makes you feel and understand how bad the world can get when basic necessities like food and water become difficult for people to obtain.

The whole purpose of this atmosphere of desperation is to eventually let Harrison make an author tract through the character of Sol in support of birth control. Which, aside from contraceptive methods like the pill or condoms, would include the option of abortion as well. Today the book looks rather antiquated because we freely talk about birth control and it's actually been an issue as to whether or not employers should be required to provide it through health insurance to their employees. The fact that we can actually talk about this subject shows how much progress we've made in the last fifty years. Although there had been some progress made starting from the late 1870's, by the 1960's it was still almost taboo to even talk about birth control, much less make a decision about it. The fact that we can, in theory, talk about it like rational adults means that a ton of progress has been made. (Thanks, second-wave feminism!)

Ultimately Harrison is making a strong argument that we need to have access to methods of birth control because if we let human population continue to grow exponentially then there will be serious consequences, something which I've seen in other stories such as The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. Most specifically, food supplies not growing to meet the demands of the population, a realistic concern in the 1950's and 1960's as expansion of health care across the globe helped decrease infant mortality and we also began seeing longer life expectancy for people as well. Fortunately we had the Green Revolution which significantly increased crop yields across the world and meant things haven't fallen apart. Yet.

Despite declining birth rates in industrialized countries like the United States, we are still facing a growing population, especially in places like South America, Africa, and Asia. Scientists are fortunately already working to bring about the next Green Revolution to try and make food supplies meet demands, but there is concern that their work will not be enough. Whether they will be successful or not remains to be seen.

Overall Harrison's work is an interesting look into the fears and concerns of the 1960's, but it definitely feels outdated by modern standards. The concern of population outstripping food supplies is a very real problem for the twenty-first century, but the availability of birth control makes Harrison's arguments unfortunately outdated. The book ends with a overall sense of desperation which makes you feel like if nothing is done now, the future could very easily end up like it is in the book. Certainly we have different challenges to face in 2015, but we still need to take action now if the future is to be liveable for all of us.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Darkling Wind, by S.P. Somtow

This week I'm finishing the series referred to as The Chronicles of the High Inquest with the final book, The Darkling Wind. Again, as this is pretty soon after my review of the previous book, Utopia Hunters, it's because my friend foisted the last two upon me at once and I'd like to return these books in a timely manner. Largely because I hate people who borrow books for two years and then never read them. Anyway, this is the very last of a rather odd series of books which by the author's own admission is a five book trilogy contained in four novels.

I'll begin by saying that everything that happens in the previous three books definitely feels like it's been building up to the final book. And it opens very triumphantly with prologues and a dramatis personae of the seven Inquestors at the center of this story so it certainly feels like you're getting into an epic adventure. The problem I had was as you start getting into the novel it felt less like an epic adventure and more like a chore. The one thing I noticed about this book was that it dragged for so long. I think it ties back to that the ultimate fate is sort of known to the reader. We know the Inquest falls, mankind enters a ''dark age'' of sorts, and the facts about the Inquest become shrouded in myth and legend. We're told as much in the prologue, we know what the ultimate ending is going to be. It's not a matter of if the Inquest is going to fall, it's just a matter of how. Sort of like in the third of those movies which shall not be named. We already knew the Jedi were going to be wiped out and Anakin Skywalker was going to become Darth Vader, we just didn't know the how. And so while you've got characters walking around, fighting over the fate of the galaxy, I just couldn't get invested in the conflict because I knew how it was going to end. The fact that at one point one character explicitly says he doesn't care about the Inquest and their war made it even more difficult for me to care as a reader.

During this war there are also half-hearted attempts at arguing philosophy and the characters themselves even state they're bored with going over the same arguments again and again. No, literally, one character actually says that. So hearing them argue about philosophy when they themselves aren't even really interested is tedious at best. And you might even say it's not really an argument because one side wants to perpetuate the Inquest with their ''compassion'' and pretend wars, while the other wants to end the Inquest and doesn't really offer anything as a replacement. Granted, humanity doesn't really need the Inquest as far as I'm concerned because they don't accomplish anything useful, But I feel like the Shadow Inquest's arguments are underdeveloped to say the least. Mostly ''The Inquest is bad. We should stop them.'' So it sort of lurches along and eventually the Inquest just...self-destructs. And that's it. We're done. War's over. All the Inquestors are dead. Just like that. It feels very anti-climatic considering the pomp that went into launching the book.

The absolute final ending is a little interesting but also confusing. Well, the confusing part involves time-travel and people in stasis and I don't entirely understand it so let's not worry about it too much. But at the very end there are two short appendices which in a very weird way claim that the entire thing is mythological claptrap and in our enlightened future age we're not even sure that the Inquest exists or not. It's a little meta considering that Somtow himself is writing these stories, and then appendices to these stories, claiming that they're all made up. It's...interesting to say the least.

Basically when I was reading this book I just couldn't wait for it to be over, and I'm a little surprised I made it through the entire thing if I'm being honest. It just sort of ends and you're finally glad the ordeal is over more than anything else. Personally I feel kind of bad because these books mean a lot to my friend, but for whatever reason I'm just not getting the appeal.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Somme: The Darkest Hour On the Western Front, by Peter Hart

This week I'm reviewing something a little more serious, a history text from Peter Hart, The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front. For my readers who may not be aware, The Battle of the Somme was a battle of World War I that took place in and around the Somme River valley from 1 July to mid to late November in 1916. This battle was one of the worst in the nightmares of trench warfare, with some 300,000 men killed on both sides, and another 700,000 wounded, although exact totals are hard to verify due to the inability to account for the thousands of men missing, presumed dead. Clearly this is a topic that requires a very sober approach to give it the full historical weight it deserves. And while I have nothing wrong with Hart's methodology and he does a very fine job researching the material, I feel like this book leaves much to be desired.

The greatest strength of this book is the incorporation of primary sources as the basis of its research. Hart incorporates numerous entries from diaries, letters, and official memos which provide an intensive ground-level look at the Battle of the Somme as it was experienced by the Tommies of 1916. However, this becomes the book's bane as well. There are numerous points where Hart incorporates long citations from primary sources, and often includes at least two examples of the same event he's talking about. And while this is certainly good methodology, it quickly becomes very tedious to read. And many of the results are the same. There are so many ways to talk about how you climbed over the top of the trench, watched as people got cut down by machine-gun fire, and then took refuge in a shell hole. The plethora of accounts that tell that same story show how common it was to the experience of the Western Front, but I felt like Hart included more examples than was necessary to prove his point.

Another shortcoming in this work is how incredibly Anglo-centric this work is, which isn't necessarily a flaw. Hart is, after all, a British historian and has interest in British things. The problem for me, however, is the very, very brief inclusions of German sources and near total dearth of French sources in this work. The result is a story that seems very one-sided and while going into great detail about the British plans to create a breakthrough on the Western Front and return to mobile warfare, it barely talks about German plans responding to the Somme and their (largely effective) efforts to stop the British advance. If Hart had focused just on the British experience and explicitly said that, I would have less problem with it, but the bare inclusion of German and French perspective makes the overabundance of British views all the more jarring.

Hart also explicitly sets out to provide an exoneration of the British high command, specifically the chief commander, General Sir Douglas Haig. This proposition is not entirely without merit considering Haig has often been portrayed in a negative light. The example in Blackadder Goes Forth of Haig, portrayed by Geoffrey Palmer, callously sweeping tin soldiers off a map into a dustpan certainly comes to mind. However, the evidence that Hart marshals to counter the "lions led by donkeys" (itself a claim which is under much revision) actually supports the very argument he is trying to bring down. Take for example, the decision to launch a major offensive on the Somme River valley. The decision for this location was entirely based on the politics of the Anglo-French alliance. The Somme was intended to be a mutual offensive occurring at the point where the British and French sections of the Western Front met. As Hart goes into great detail, there was nothing else to recommend the site. The Germans had control of the high ground in the region, constructing three independent lines of very strong defenses, which proved to be incredibly difficult to capture. The existing transportation infrastructure was utterly inadequate to supply an army numbering in the hundreds of thousands which required food, water, spare parts, ammunition, and the thousands of other things an army requires to stay in the field.

On top of that, plans which Hart attributes to Haig show absolutely no realistic expectations for combat on the Western Front, and it is his subordinate, General Henry Rawlinson, who comes across as the far more realistic. From the start of the offensive in July, Haig fully expected the British to be able to break through all three lines of the German defenses, allowing the cavalry to rush through and exploit the breach. In reality, most of the attacks utterly failed and it was only small portions of the first line that were taken. By the end of the Somme offensive in November, the British still hadn't reached the objectives they had hoped to take in July, and the Germans had only built more lines of trenches further back, preventing any chance of a breakthrough. Haig even hopes the cavalry will be useful in October, when rains had turned the ground of the Somme into a thick semi-liquid mud that made it difficult to impossible for the infantry and artillery to get through, never mind the cavalry. And yet Haig is still hoping for the breakthrough that will win the war in a few short weeks.

To an extent there is an incorporation and adaptation of new methods of warfare, such as the creeping barrage, the tank, and the use of aerial reconnaissance, but much of the conflict is still the same for the Tommy and every foot of ground is gained at enormous human cost. Personally I have not read much that portrays the high command of either side of World War I in a terribly positive light, but Hart certainly fails to achieve his goal of exonerating Haig of his inability to adapt and learn from the brutal experience of the Somme.

Finally, I personally detected an almost jingoist tone to some of Hart's analyses of individuals and their actions during the course of the Somme. An example is a contrast between three officers, all of whom went home to England for medical reasons. In the case of the first two officers, they served in a front line capacity, being heavily involved in taking and holding German trenches, before finally getting wounded and sent back to England to recover. The third officer, however, reaches the front line and is set by a sudden attack of nerves before encountering combat and is sent back home on a medical discharge for weak constitution. In Hart's descriptions of the first two officers they're brave and noble warriors, both recipients of the Victoria Cross, who earned their trip back to England by facing the foe manfully. With the third officer, he doesn't out and out say it, but there is a very strong implication that the man was merely a coward who couldn't face danger and chickened out before experiencing a baptism of fire. Quite frankly I find this a rather outdated and unenlightened attitude, especially for a book published in 2010. Combat is a trying experience for even the most stout-hearted of people and I'm sure there were hundreds, if not thousands, of men on both sides who were gripped with absolute terror at the prospect of going over the top into combat. Some were able to head home before becoming another casualty, while others were left with no choice. To treat their experience of the war and the terrors it involved as somehow less valid or less worthy of praise is merely an extension of the outdated, militaristic jingoism of the turn of the century that resulted in the Great War in the first place.

Overall I have nothing wrong with Hart's methodology as a historian. He has certainly done exhaustive research and introduced a plethora of primary sources to provide a worm's-eye view of the Battle of the Somme. However, the conclusions that Hart draws from these sources seems both outdated and fallacious. He utterly fails in his attempt to redeem Douglas Haig as a general and only succeeds in making his subordinate, Rawlinson, seem the more realistic of the two. His use of primary sources becomes a handicap as we are submitted to yet more letters and diaries saying the same basic failures of trench warfare. I personally would not recommend this book for students of the First World War and would recommend trying to find something far less frustrating.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Utopia Hunters, by S.P. Somtow

This week I'm reviewing the third book in the series which is referred to, by my friend anyway, as The Inquest. I will also be reviewing the fourth book later this month because my friend foisted the last two books upon me at once so I want to read them as quickly as possible and return them because unlike certain other slackers I could name, I try to return books loaned to me in a timely manner. Anyway, for my readers who haven't read my reviews of the previous two novels, you can find Light on the Sound here, and The Throne of Madness here. Onwards with Utopia Hunters.

To provide a bit of a refresher for people, The Inquest occurs in a distant future where humanity is scattered across the galaxy, inhabiting thousands or perhaps millions of worlds. The only thing connecting all of humanity is their rule by the distant Inquest, viewed by most people as immortal god-kings, watching humanity from their starship palaces as they drift through the galaxy. However, figuring out even that much is a little difficult in the beginning if you start with Light on the Sound. As I've said in my previous reviews, Somtow has a habit of interspersing lengthy passages of purple prose with some refreshingly direct exposition, but until this book I had felt like I was missing some vital pieces of the puzzle. I had an overall idea of what seemed to be going on, but I feel much more aware thanks to Utopia Hunters.

The book is a collection of short stories set within Somtow's universe, some of which feel relevant to what's going on, some of which don't. With Somtow's writing I almost feel like I have to guess what bits are going to be relevant and what bits won't be later on, and if I'm wrong I have to go back and poke around again. The short stories to me seem rather unrelated, and having one of the main characters say she doesn't understand why people keep telling her stories makes me ask the same question. Surrounding this is the frame story of Jenjen, a lightweaver artist who has come in contact with the Inquest and, much like us ordinary humans, is desperately trying to understand their seemingly ineffable motivations. To the book's credit, the short stories do manage to shed some light on that, as well as the Inquest's terrible flaws. I finally got confirmation of several things I suspected before in Throne of Madness, which leaves me rather disliking the Inquest as an institution overall. Hopefully this book will have provided useful information for the final book in the series.

Most importantly we're told the Inquest's philosophy, which I had kind of guessed at before but was trying to piece together from disparate bits of information. Basically, the Inquest believes that humanity needs chaos from time to time to keep from becoming stagnant or entering the dead-ends of utopias. So the Inquest (in their compassion) has taken it upon themselves to create ''war'' from time to time in the galaxy and shoulder all the guilt for killing people. Basically the Inquestors play a game called makrรบgh, and based on who wins or loses certain planets will be destroyed to keep humanity from becoming stagnant. And in their compassion (that gets repeated a lot) the Inquest tries to mitigate the destruction by shipping as much of the population off-world in people bins before they totally destroy the planet. To summarize: The Inquest blows up planets from time to time to keep things from getting too boring for humanity.

As my readers may have guessed, this annoys me to no end because this is the Broken Window Fallacy taken to the extreme. For those of you unaware of the Broken Window Fallacy, it runs a little something like this. There's a bakery in the center of town, and one day some yahoo chucks a brick through the front window of the bakery, completely shattering it. The people of the town gather around and make the usual comments of kids these days. However, one person speaks up and says maybe the vandal did a good thing for the community. Because now the baker has to buy a new window, which is money that will go into the pocket of the window-glazier. The window-glazier in turn will spend that money on other things, causing a ripple of productivity to go through the community. So perhaps, a little destruction can be good for the economy! The purpose of this thought exercise is to explain the economic booms in the United States, Europe, and Japan after World War II. Perhaps the destruction of World War II caused such a need for capital to be spent that it allowed economies around the world to prosper.

The simple fact of the matter is that this idea is utterly fallacious on every scale. On the micro scale, the fact that the baker has to buy a new window doesn't help the baker. He's now out the money he needs for the new window. Money which he could have spend on new equipment for his bakery, or a new suit of clothes, or any number of other things. Instead that capital is spent on repairing things that they shouldn't need to fix in the first place. With World War II, the economic prosperity for the United States can be explained by the absolute destruction of the industrial infrastructure of pretty much every other nation in the world at the time, leaving the United States the sold industrial superpower. However, extensive investment under the Marshall Plan ensured that Europe and Japan were also able to quickly recover their industrial power. All the resources that are used in a war on things like planes, tanks, guns, bombs, and so on, are resources that can't be used elsewhere and for possibly better purposes. Wanton destruction is only detrimental when it's inflicted. The Inquest's approach of randomly destroying planets in an effort to keep humanity from becoming stagnant is perhaps worse than the Broken Window Fallacy because humanity doesn't even get anything tangible out of it. It seems to be destruction for destruction's sake, which is completely pointless and wasteful.

The worst part is that the Inquestors insulate themselves from the destruction they cause, and Jenjen actually calls them out about it in the book. A lot of Inquestors surround themselves with art in various forms. Paintings, sculptures, music. The idea is to keep from ever having to think about the destruction they cause. There are people whose sole job is to remind Inquestors of the worlds they've destroyed, but they seem to often be shunted aside so as not to harm the Inquestors' delicate sensibilities. It's like the Inquest are children who are given the power to do anything they wanted, and they decide to use that power to burn anthills down, call it compassion because the ants have to leave their hill, and then assuage their guilt over the whole matter with pretty things.

My friend has told me we're not supposed to like the Inquest, but it makes me wonder about these books to some degree. Because ultimately liking characters helps you get invested in a story and care about whether they succeed or fail. Since I don't care one bit for the Inquest I rather hope that they collapse with the oncoming civil war and absolutely nothing is left in their wake. Humanity is left to ponder the galaxy without the Inquest, and considering the Inquest seems to do nothing but burn planets, I think the galaxy will be much better off. We'll just have to see what the next books brings.

- Kalpar