Thursday, February 25, 2016

Atomic Robo, by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener

This week I'm doing something a little more unusual and talking about a comic series known as Atomic Robo. I have talked about comic books on this series before. In fact, I've even talked about webcomics before too, but it's certainly not my usual fare when it comes to what I talk about here at the Arsenal. However, I was recently exposed to Atomic Robo through a secondary source on the internet and it seemed like a rather interesting comic to read. When I found out that many of the Atomic Robo books were free to read online, and finding myself with some spare time, I decided to go ahead and read these comics. I have to say I rather enjoyed this series and its pulpy science-fiction adventures and I highly recommend it to other people to read.

The basic premise of this series follows the adventures of the titular Atomic Robo. As you probably guessed, Robo is an atomic-powered robot designed and built by awesome real-life mad scientist Nikola Tesla in the 1920's. Throughout history Robo has been involved in a variety of different adventures, all of which are incredibly pulpy and quite frankly kind of awesome. These vary from fighting a literal Lovecraftian horror from beyond time and space, fighting Nazi super weapons during World War II, and dealing with an incredibly persistent and very likely delusional dinosaur. They're all pretty fun adventures and if you're a fan of pulp stuff like dieselpunk and raygun gothic as much as I am, you're definitely going to enjoy these stories.

One of the things I really like is that there's a conscious decision by the creators to avoid what seems to have been numerous sins of the comic book industry. They say so explicitly in their About section on their website that they want to keep their comic book true to its roots of Robo punching other robots, or occasionally some sort of monster or something. Which he does a lot of. And sometimes all you really want to read is a story about a robot punching another robot, because it can be fun! But they also want to avoid other problems such as the continual reboots, the angsty emotions, and the biggest problem comics seems to be facing recently: portrayal of women. I am in no way prepared to go into an in-depth discussion of the portrayal of women in comics or why it's such a problem, and numerous other people have done it elsewhere, but suffice to say I find this refreshingly progressive and worthy of praise.

I think one of the best things about this series is that I can come in, without any prior knowledge or backstory or lore, and I can start from Volume 1 and read all the way up to where they are in Volume 10 with no problems whatsoever. Granted the story jumps around a little bit as the authors go from idea to idea, and there are some things that are talked about at greater length in other stories, but I never felt utterly adrift reading this comic series.

A problem that I have had reading superhero comics, that I have attempted on a few occasions, is that I find myself unable to follow a consistent plotline, even within trade paperbacks. A good example for me is when I read a paperback containing stories from Blackest Night, a large Green Lantern event from 2009-2010. When I went in, I didn't know terribly much about Green Lantern or really much else but I thought since this would contain all of the storyline it'd be easier to follow. Unfortunately, I found myself reading quite a few summary pages during the course of the book which briefly covered events which were covered in other comic books but not included in this book. So to understand the complete story I'd have to go elsewhere to find other books that contained small parts of the story or references to plot elements. It just seemed like a very confusing proposition.

Quite frankly, I find the whole thing rather off-putting to be entirely honest. For whatever reason to me it feels like comic books, at least superhero comics, have gotten to a point where you can't sit down and read a single story without having to cross-reference half a dozen other stories first to make sure you're getting all the details properly. With Atomic Robo, there are other storylines which are contained in other works, and yeah I'd have liked to know a little bit more about Majestic 12 before they kind of suddenly show up in Volume 6, but it didn't completely ruin my enjoyment of the series because I hadn't read these other books. It just worked as a story from start to finish.

If the idea of an atomic-powered robot invented by Nikola Tesla who goes around punching problems for science sounds like your sort of deal, then this is definitely a series you'll want to check out. If you're not a fan of robots for some strange reason, then I recommend that you pass.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller

This week I'm reviewing another biography, in this case about Wild Bill Donovan, who did a variety of things during his long and somewhat varied career but is most famous for heading the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA during World War II. I am often fond of saying that a good historian tries to maintain an air of neutrality, or at least pretends to be neutral, when talking about the past. When we are presented with extremes that go from the bounds of subjective morality to objective morality, however, this carefully constructed facade of neutrality is stripped away. And while I certainly wouldn't say Bill Donovan is a figure who is plainly objectively bad, he certainly straddles the line and goes into very grey areas.

The largest section of this book focuses on Donovan's service during World War II as director of the OSS and the myriad operations he supervised to gather and analyze intelligence, as well as launch propaganda against the Axis forces. His life before World War II, such as his work as a lawyer, service as an officer during World War I, (for which he'd be awarded the Medal of Honor) work with the Department of Justice, and construction of an informal information network during his global adventures, are all covered rather quickly and serve as a prelude, as it were, to the main event. Yet early on in his life the less savory aspects of Donovan's personality become apparent.

Donovan was a notorious womanizer, to the point where Washington society where extramarital affairs were common thought he was too libertine. Personally I have nothing against open and poly relationships but Donovan's was anything but that, much to the frustration of his wife, Ruth. I actually even feel bad for Ruth because in many letters he tells her to buck up and be happy, rather than empathizing with her problems. Donovan explicitly tells Ruth to get lingerie and be a good little cheerful wife for him because that's what he wants and what she wants is of no concern to him. Waller points out that Donovan was fairly progressive in hiring women as lawyers for his law firm and other jobs, but I feel like it pales with his attitude towards his wife.

Donovan was also an insatiable fighter throughout his life. There are plenty of examples of people who have served as soldiers, such as William McKinley and Dwight Eisenhower, who have seen the horrors of combat and become reluctant to commit soldiers to warfare because they understand the true human cost. Donovan belongs in the other camp of people, such as Theodore Roosevelt and George Patton, who absolutely revel in fighting and never seem to lose their taste for bloodletting. Donovan was absolutely ecstatic to be a front-line commander during World War I and actually looked forward to the possibility of a noble death in combat. During World War II, despite approaching his sixties and being the mind behind every covert operation the United States had running, Donovan repeatedly tagged along at Allied beach landings for no apparent purpose other than to sight-see. Donovan even placed himself at grave risk during the D-Day landings at Utah beach and despite explicit orders from his superiors that he was not to tag along. The absolutely cavalier attitude Donovan took towards his own safety, especially when he's the only one who knew everything the OSS was doing, bothers me the most and pushes Donovan from an unpleasant individual to despicable.

Donovan does deserve credit for cobbling together an intelligence network from practically nothing in the early days of the war. The United States did not have a centralized intelligence network during the interwar era. The Military Intelligence departments of the Army and Navy, under the name Magic, had managed to break Japanese codes, Director J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI utilized his agents to gather a large amount of information on a variety of people, and the State Department had their own patchwork system of informants, but there was no single group directing and organizing America's intelligence programs. As war loomed ever closer the need became even more apparent to Franklin Roosevelt who eventually approved Donovan's plan for a central office which was started with some help from the British.

Because Donovan was building from the ground up, there were quite a lot of oddball ideas and more than a few mistakes and false starts, much to the irritation of the more experienced and professional British MI-5 and MI-6. One thing that I found interesting was that in some cases the more ridiculous aspects of spy fiction that get satirized, such as the womanizing and alcoholism, could be fairly rampant in the OSS. In fact there was an example of an American agent in Istanbul who didn't even try to maintain his cover and the band at the nightclub he frequented played a song with the words ''Baby I'm a Spy'' whenever he'd come in. It feels like Stirling Archer, ridiculous as he is, would fit in with the rest of the OSS. Donovan spent some time curbing excesses, but he seemed far more interested in results.

Overall the book is okay, but there are issues. Depending on your personal mores Donovan may seem like a globe trotting man of action and adventure, much like James Bond the most classic spy. To me, however, he just comes across as an arrogant jerk more than anything else. Towards the end of the book Waller spends considerable effort justifying Donovan's approach as well as the need for the CIA and other intelligence agencies, which goes onto some shaky ground. I would say we do need an intelligence agency so we're aware of what's going on, but the actions of the CIA in the past such as toppling governments to establish friendly regimes, and the more recent security state trawling of internet activity has certainly raised doubts about what intelligence agencies should do rather than what they can do.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi

This week I'm reviewing Agent to the Stars, another novel from science-fiction writer John Scalzi whose work has appeared two other times on my blog before. And I'm willing to admit I'm becoming a bit of a fan of Scalzi's work, at least in occasional doses. This particular book is Scalzi's first novel, originally released through his website for people to read, before getting published in both hardback and paperback editions. (Of course, I was reading the e-book version myself.)

The plot is an interesting idea, if perhaps a permutation on some older concepts. Of course, almost nothing in this world is new, so it's good to see some old ideas utilized in new ways. The book follows Tom Stein, an up and coming agent in Hollywood who's managed to start making it big time thanks to one of his clients. His boss mysteriously calls him into a meeting one day at work, and begins asking Tom his opinion on aliens. Tom is of course rather confused by this line of reasoning until his boss reveals that aliens have contacted him and asked him to find someone to represent their species on Earth.

The reason the aliens are seeking an agent is really quite simple. The aliens are friendly and only want to exist in peace with humans. However, they have received quite a lot of human television and radio broadcasts and they're well aware that humans, in movies at least, have a very bad habit of not responding well to aliens. Even if they're benign. To make it even more difficult, the aliens basically look like giant, clear blobs of gelatin and communicate primarily through smell, very pungent and malodorous smells to humans. So the aliens have hatched a plan: hire a Hollywood agent to help pave the way for their eventual arrival to earth. Hollywood is a powerful shaper of popular opinion, after all, so what better place to start?

The novel has a very interesting premise and I rather enjoyed the idea of friendly aliens who are well aware their arrival at earth might not go over so well. And furthermore they know that clear blobs that smell like week-old garbage certainly aren't going to be welcomed with open arms on earth without some amount of preparation. It's really an interesting idea and I enjoyed reading about it. Plus there's a lot of stuff that makes you feel that Scalzi did a lot of research into the workings of the movie business and how agents operate. I felt like it was a really fascinating look into two alien cultures at the same time.

My biggest complaint with this book, though, is I felt like it kind of ran out of steam about halfway through the book. Basically there's a big twist at the halfway mark and after that I could predict where the rest of the book was going. Maybe it's just because I read far, far too much science fiction, but once the initial premise gets laid it just sort of...peters out so to speak. I was a little disappointed, but not overly so.

 Plus there are some really important moral and philosophical questions that get raised during the course of the book and I don't feel like they were given enough time to explore adequately. And these are some really big, big, big questions that get brought in. People have spent their entire lives discussing these questions and I felt like it wasn't given quite enough space. Ultimately, that's my own opinion, though.

Overall, the premise is interesting and getting it all set up is pretty fun. But as I said, after the halfway mark the book rapidly starts running out of steam. Scalzi's writing is a delight to read, though, in my opinion and there were some really enjoyable moments in this book. If you're a fan of Scalzi you'll probably enjoy this, but I would recommend reading some of his other works first if you haven't.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, by Jung Chang

This week I'm talking about a fairly recent biography of Empress Dowager Cixi, or as she was known to contemporaries as the Empress Dowager of China. There may have been other people who held the title but as far as the rest of the world was concerned, she was the only one who counted. In this biography Jung Chang not only charts Cixi's life, from a low-ranking concubine of the Manchu Emperor to her eventual place as absolute monarch of the most populous country in the world, but the history of China in the nineteenth century. The two topics are so inextricably linked that it is impossible to talk about one without the other.

The importance of this biography, as Chang points out, is that Empress Dowager Cixi is an often maligned figure in history and already during her lifetime her name and legacy were greatly blackened. But as Chang illustrates through numerous primary sources, and the Imperial Chinese were extensive record-keepers, many of the accusations are either grossly inflated or absolutely unfounded. To be certain, Cixi was not a perfect individual and had quite a few faults of her own, and made a few very high-profile mistakes during her life, but they provide an incomplete picture compared to the whole person.

Cixi was from a prominent Manchu family and was actually relied upon by her father to help manage family affairs, giving her extensive experience most women didn't have at the time. Cixi was given the great honor of being selected as a bride for the emperor, but was originally a mere concubine and one of fairly low rank as well. Cixi would have meant a life locked away in the imperial harem, with little influence at court and regulated to the women's sphere. However, Cixi had the good fortune of bearing a son for the emperor, the all-important male heir. Although her son would be raised by the Empress, the emperor's official wife, Cixi had a good working relationship with the Empress and they both cared very deeply for her child. When their husband died in the aftermath of the Second Opium War, Cixi and the Empress became co-Empresses and actually worked together to topple a council of regents and have themselves installed as regents instead, although Cixi was far more interested in the actual business of government than her partner. Cixi would end up ruling off and on as Empress until the early 1900's, bringing about many reforms to China and helping to push it into the modern era.

Cixi is often depicted as a reactionary, trying to keep China embedded in its Confucian, hierarchical past and expelling foreigners from its shores. The truth couldn't be any more different. During the events of the Second Opium War, Cixi understood that the attempts to keep the Europeans out of China only made them more determined to force their way into the country. Furthermore, China's antiquated military, despite its considerable size, was utterly unable to even slow Europeans armed with modern arms and equipment. Cixi knew that if China, and more importantly the Ching Dynasty, were going to survive then China would have to learn from the West. During her reign, Cixi introduced numerous reforms to the country, beginning with a reform of the customs collection service, which greatly increased the state's income and allowed Cixi to fund her other projects. A modernized army and navy, the telegraph, electric lighting, railroads, overhaul of the Chinese education system, reformation of the legal code, and the abolition of foot-binding were all projects Cixi introduced to China during her years as Empress. Some met with more success than others, but it was a step in the right direction to make China the Great Power she knew it could become.

If Cixi was such a supporter of progressive reforms in China, why is she often looked upon as a vile reactionary a century later? Especially when there is extensive evidence to the contrary? Well the answer is complicated because there are numerous reasons. First, Cixi was fighting a lot of institutional inertia during her reign. The Chinese government was dominated by men educated in the classic Confucian texts which made them extremely resistant to almost any change. During Cixi's brief retirements when first her son and then later her nephew ruled as emperor in their own right, a large number of reforms Cixi undertook were rolled back by the conservative establishment. A second reason, as Chang points out, is that as a woman Cixi wasn't strictly allowed to rule in her own right as empress. Instead she was often acting as regent and working through a ruling council of men, making decisions in their name rather than in her own. The result is that most of the credit for Cixi's efforts go to the men who were taking orders from her, rather than Cixi herself.

Probably the biggest reason Cixi is labeled as a reactionary is because of her decision to side with the Boxers in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The Boxers were a popular movement who believed their skills with martial arts would make them immune to bullets and allow them to repel Europeans from China. As Chang illustrates, Cixi's alliance with the Boxers was one out of necessity. An alliance of eight western powers were sending troops to attack Beijing and with the Imperial Army in utter disarray, Cixi found herself dependent on an alliance with the Boxers to protect the capital. This was a decision she would later deeply regret for its unfortunate consequences. Cixi also made several poor decisions during her lifetime which would become ammunition for her detractors in later years. In a moment of weakness Cixi accepted lavish presents for her sixtieth birthday at a time when the country was at war and making extreme sacrifices. In addition, Cixi skimmed money from the navy's budget to help fund the restoration of the Summer Palace, a decision of definite moral dubiousness but the amount she embezzled was hardly the amount which later critics would attribute to her. Certainly these are excesses of royalty, but as Chang argues, not on a scale generally attributed to her.

Ultimately, Cixi was the victim of bad press in her own time, especially from Kang Youwei. Although Kang is often held up as a proponent of creating a constitutional monarchy or republic in China, Chang counters that Kang had less than honorable intentions and sought to put himself at the helm of China. When Cixi effectively banished him from China, Kang spent many years trashing the Empress in print and accusing her of a variety of excesses and misdeeds. Cixi never responded to these allegations because she believed they were beneath her and it would only be demeaning to respond to his attacks on her character. Unfortunately for history, Kang's story became the definitive version of events and Cixi became infamous as a result.

As I was listening to this book, I was unable to check the sources so I cannot say definitively how well-researched Chang's book has been. Doing a quick search I've been able to see there has been a great amount of debate as to whether or not Chang takes a completely impartial view of Cixi, veering somewhat into overly laudatory praise of the Empress Dowager, which definitely came through in the book. However, the utilization of primary sources to back up her arguments makes the book an interesting challenge to long-held assumptions if nothing else. Overall I'd recommend people take a look for themselves and see what they think.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Swords of the Emperor, by Chris Wraight

This week I'm taking a short foray into the world of Warhammer Fantasy. As my readers are probably aware, I have spent considerable time trekking around in the universe of the younger and more famous brother of the Games Workshop family, Warhammer 40,000. However there was a time when there were no Space Marines, no Imperial Guard, no Traitor Legions, and no foul xenos menace. Instead there was a fantasy setting with elves, dwarves, men, orcs, vampires, and the ruinous powers of Chaos. Although Warhammer Fantasy has been overshadowed considerably by its younger brother, it retains its own following and is even getting its own Total War game. So I decided to pick up one of the many, many omnibuses and see what the fuss was about.

Swords of the Emperor is an omnibus collection of a duology, a story divided into two parts, as well as two short stories. The short stories are both character vignettes of Ludwig Schwarzhelm, the Emperor's Champion, and Kurt Helborg, master of the elite Reiksguard. Personally I would have placed the short stories at the front of the book rather than the end because they provide a little bit of characterization for both, who are major characters in the novels but are just kind of thrown at us without much by the way of introduction.

Plot-wise the province of Averland, one of the major provinces of the Empire (totally not a fantasy Renaissance Holy Roman Empire, we swear) has been without an elector-count for too long. As a result the imperial tithes and levies have been somewhat lacking, especially since Averland is located in the south of the Empire, far from the constant wars in the north. Emperor Karl Franz of Schleswig-Holstein, I mean Holswig-Schlestein, has decided this nonsense has gone on for long enough and is sending his Champion, Ludwig Schwarzhelm, to go down and kick the necessary butts until a decision is made. However, as always, there is far more at work than a petty squabble over who gets to sit in the fancy chair and inevitably things get worse.

I will say I felt out of my depth at certain points because I didn't know terribly much about the Warhammer Fantasy universe so I found myself asking why characters are important. Because other characters treat them as important, but at least initially they don't really go into why they're Very Important People. If you're not familiar with the Warhammer Fantasy universe this probably won't be a good book to start with because there are a few things that aren't explained and it's just assumed you're going to know what they are. For example, the Reiksguard feature prominently in both books, and while I knew from my own research that the Reiksguard were elite warriors dedicated to the service of the Emperor alone, they never really explained that in the book. It was just kind of assumed you would know it. Which you can do in a shared universe, but it's confusing and off-putting to a new reader.

My biggest complaint is that I found myself bored with the book at various points, especially during fight scenes. And there are a lot of fight scenes in this book. There were other parts which I enjoyed and found far more interesting, but for whatever reason the fight scenes in this book just started feeling the same and for me it was kind of “Ugh, great, more poking things with halberds.” There are just so many ways you can describe people decapitating greenskins before it starts getting repetitive.

Another weakness of this book was I felt nothing was really at stake. One of the biggest criticisms lobbied at both Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy is that the status quo can never be upset. The forces of Chaos and Order have been fighting for decades now and things still stand pretty much the same as they did when everything began. So on some level I knew that everything would be set to rights at the end. In a way, Warhammer Fantasy has even less room to play around than Warhammer 40,000. At least in 40k the author can create a planet or three in some forgotten corner of the galaxy and sacrifice them to whatever baddie they're writing about. In Fantasy, you've kind of already got all of the borders sketched out and if you start messing with things too much it's going to upset the balance one way or the other. So while some really bad things went down in Averland, I kind of knew it would all get reset by the end which made the in between bits kind of meaningless.

If you're a fan of Warhammer Fantasy and actually know who Emperor's Champion Schwarzhelm, Reikmarshal Helborg, and Grand Theogonist Volkmar are and are invested in their stories, then this book will definitely get your interest. If you're new to this universe you're going to get thrown in the deep end and probably get confused very quickly. Other than the fight scenes which felt painfully repetitive, this book was really interesting. I just felt like it was a lot of wasted effort because everything got reset at the end.

- Kalpar 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Stranger in A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein

I want to preface this review by going a little bit into my experience with Heinlein who I don't think I've really talked about on this blog terribly much. Way back in the 1960's and 1970's Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, became the famous ''Big Three'' of science-fiction literature. Which isn't to say they were the only authors writing at this time. Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven, and Ray Bradbury were all writing stuff at the same time, the Big Three just happened to be the most famous. My mom, happening to be a sci-fi fan during this era, accumulated a small library of cheap science-fiction paperbacks including what's been described as an ''unhealthy'' amount of Heinlein books. Being a budding science-fiction fan myself, she handed me a copy of Tunnel in the Sky when I was in eighth grade and I spent a good part of my high school years reading a variety of Heinlein's works.

Anyone who's read several of Heinlein's books can tell you Heinlein gets....odd. His early works tend to be thrilling space adventures when a young man (and it's almost always a man) uses grit, ingenuity, and some extensive mathematics and engineering skills to conquer space problems for fun and profit. His later works get...weird. Creepy, lecherous old man weird. Let me put it like this: Asimov was kind of like your awesome grandpa who let you help him build robots in his garage and Clarke was like your cool uncle who let you help him build rockets and took you scuba diving. (Clarke really liked scuba diving.) Heinlein was your creepy uncle who lived on a farm somewhere out in the backwoods to get away from the ''gubment'', lived with a bunch of ''special lady friends'', obsessively carried an AR-15, and walked around stark naked when the weather would allow it. Individually these would be eccentricities, but together they make up a whole big barrel of crazy and it really started showing in his later books. The odd thing is I'm not sure Stranger in a Strange Land, published in 1960, was after he went into his crazy old man phase but it's definitely got a lot of the hallmarks.

I will admit that I hadn't read (or in this case listened) to it, but I was always a little curious about Stranger in a Strange Land. Whenever I'd look at another of my mom's books they always seemed to have the phrase: ''by Robert Heinlein, author of Stranger in a Strange Land'', as if that was the only book of his worth noting. Starship Troopers occasionally got mention, but Stranger took unusual precedence. So, much like my decision to take a class on Nietzsche, I decided to look into it to see just what all the fuss was about. Unlike Nietzsche I have come to greatly regret my decision.

Our plot begins with a human child, Valentine Michael Smith, being born during the first manned expedition to Mars and very quickly becoming an orphan. Much to the surprise of the second expedition that comes some twenty years later, V.M. Smith has been taken in by the native Martians and raised as one of their own. So although Smith is biologically a human, he thinks like a Martian in a manner utter alien to all human understanding and devoid of the thousands of bits of emotional cues, social proprieties, and other bits of information that human beings accumulate through their lives and don't realize they know. Which makes human beings, and Earth itself, confusing and downright baffling for Smith. On top of this he happens to be heir to a fortune beyond comprehension, doubly so for Smith since Martians don't have stocks, corporations, or even money, and by a technical bit of human law the de jure sovereign of Mars. On its own these would be interesting plots that could be used for an entire book exploring all of the complexities of just one of these problems. Unfortunately two of the three are resolved by the halfway point of the book and Smith spends the rest of the book being Space Jesus. I wish I was kidding about that but no, he becomes Space Jesus. I don't even feel bad about spoiling the book in this review because while it may have been groundbreaking and scandalous in 1960, it's little more than bigoted pseudo-philosophical trash half a century later.

This book is filled, and I mean absolutely filled, with tedious and long-winded arguments about differing philosophies and in this case religion as well, some of which I've heard before in other places. Of course, Heinlein is almost famous for his author tracts which range from the vaguely fascist culture of violence and force espoused in Starship Troopers to the communist eugenic utopia depicted in Beyond this Horizon. But in Stranger in a Strange Land, especially the second half of the book, it feels like the book's just absolutely filled with author tracts. It wouldn't be so bad if they weren't just littered all over the book and filled with the same pop-philosophy garbage that makes sweeping generalizations about cultures and civilizations that can either be refuted with a bit of research or are so vague and general that they're difficult to refute because of their incompleteness. Heinlein even goes so far as to try and defend cannibalism, claiming every culture has practiced it at some point and claiming transubstantiation of bread and wine is the exact same thing as roasting someone and eating them. It's so broad an argument that it'd take forever to refute it in detail and utterly ridiculous in its conclusion.

The religion ones especially just go over the same tired points that have been iterated a thousand times elsewhere, and much better than they were here. There's the pointing out that with the plethora of religions in the world, many claiming to be the One True Religion, it certainly raises the possibility that none of them are right. Or maybe all of them. But it's done in such a high-handed and imperious manner that I found myself, a more or less atheist, wishing they'd just shut up about it already. And of course there's the pointing out that while the Bible contains some teachings of peace, it contains some fairly awful teachings as well. In this case the story of Lot, and his decision to offer his daughters up for a gang-rape instead of offering up his mysterious guests, is given as an example.

But the decision to criticize Lot for offering his daughters up for a gang-rape comes across as absolutely hypocritical considering the sheer amount of sexism that seems to pervade this book. Part of it is definitely a product of its times. The rampant casual sexism of the 1960's was one of many things that touched off Second Wave Feminism, after all, and rightly so. But I feel like this goes a step beyond  that. Heinlein goes to considerable lengths to argue that a woman's natural state is to be an object to be viewed with lust by men, and women should feel honored by the attention and enjoy such attention. This is utterly offensive to both sexes in a number of ways and I'll try to enumerate here but I'm sure this argument will be incomplete. First of all, people are not objects. This should go without saying but unfortunately even today there are people who appear to be somewhat confused on the subject. Every woman is a living, breathing, human being with her own wants, desires, fears, ambitions, and the thousand million things that make her a fully developed human being. To this day we are still fighting against this...assumption that women exist on this earth merely to be eye candy for men. This assumes that a woman's worth is entirely wrapped up in her physical appearance and everything that makes her more than just her tits and ass is utterly irrelevant.

If this was true for both sexes, and men exist only to be attractive eye-candy for women to lust at it wouldn't be slightly better. Equally demeaning and equally awful, but better by a tiny fraction. But oh no, instead Heinlein argues that women don't care about a man's physical appearance. (Something which I know is patently false from first-hand experience.) Women care about a man's inner being, his soul if you want to call it that. So go ahead, don't put any effort into your appearance. Be a giant blob for all we care. It's your soul that women really care about. The ridiculous double standard isn't even the worst part, it's just this assumption women have no value beyond being sex objects. I will admit that there are people who are exhibitionists and do get some measure of pleasure from being objects of desire, especially strangers, but I feel that's on a different level. First, it's their choice to put themselves on display in situations of their choosing, rather than constantly being on display all the time. Or all the time if they choose to be. The point is, they make a conscious decision. This leads to my second point that exhibitionists, at least I hope most of them, understand that this is not the normal state of affairs. To put it in BDSM terms, you don't force your kink on other people, you only share it with their consent. What Heinlein argues in this book is a woman's value is directly proportional to her sex appeal.

The absolute cherry on top of this ice cream sundae of rampant sexism was the statement, and I'm more or less quoting here: ''Nine times out of ten when a girl gets raped she's asking for it.'' Casually stated by a female character as if it were a matter of fact. At that point I seriously considered throwing my Kindle across the room, consequences of broken electronics be damned, because if there is one thing I cannot abide it is victim blaming. (Well, okay, Nazis certainly top my list of things I cannot abide, but victim blaming takes a very close second.) If I had a physical copy of this book I probably would have thrown it against the wall repeatedly and then began tearing it apart. As a bibliophile I do not like to see books defaced or damaged, but in one line this book earned all the wrath I could possibly bring to bear on it. Amazingly I had the presence of mind to keep pushing through and managed to finish it with much exasperation and eye rolling, but no further incident.

Beyond the sexism the book indulges in a variety of other forms of casual bigotry which, again, half a century ago may have been acceptable but are absolutely abhorrent by today's standards. The example of a Muslim character, Dr. Mahmoud, being nicknamed ''Stinky'' and eventually called that by everyone, including his wife strikes me as casual racism. I can't see why he'd be nicknamed that except out of some assumption that Arabs can't be bothered to bathe on a regular basis and I can't see someone, especially a highly educated linguist able to learn Martian, tolerating being called such a demeaning nickname. (Perhaps I am overreacting, but it certainly bothered me.) Furthermore there's a casual homophobic remark which establishes a firm heteronormativity within the book, dismissing homosexuals of both genders as poor deluded souls or aberrations that cannot truly understand happiness. Again, this was perfectly acceptable by the standards of fifty years ago, maybe even encouraged, but it's absolutely unacceptable by today's standards and, hopefully, the future's as well.

Finally, on at least a stylistic note, I cannot count how many times I noticed a character being a response with ''Eh?'' or ''Huh?''' or ''Hm?'' before answering the question they've just been asked. It got absolutely infuriating after a while, as if every character in the book was going deaf and needed things to be repeated. Yes, it probably makes for more realistic dialog and I know that I've done that myself in the past, but the sheer number of times it was repeated began to grate on my nerves after a while.

I do not know if Stranger in a Strange Land enjoys the prominent place it used to in the pantheon of science-fiction literature. At least among my group of friends Starship Troopers, even with its fascist leanings, is the more famous of Heinlein's books. If Stranger is still held in some vague sense of esteem, I will say that it definitely should not be in any respect. It's pop-philosophy attempts at pseudo-intellectualism fall far short of rigorous study and make typical sweeping generalizations Furthermore they feel like a never-ending parade of intellectual masturbation where we make absolutely no progress whatsoever and discover nothing that hasn't been talked about more competently somewhere else. In addition, the rampant and casual sexism, a step beyond what you might typically find in a Heinlein book, is so extreme as to be positively abhorrent and push the book into utterly intolerable ranges. To quote an old bibliophile saying, ''This is not a book to be set aside lightly; it is to be thrown with great force.''

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Paradox Initiative, by Alydia Rackham

This week I'm reviewing a book which came to my attention through one of those pesky e-mails Amazon sends out reminding me about all the books I don't own. Seriously, why don't I own all the books? It's not fair. Anyway, so I took a look at this one and was promised adventure, mystery, time travel, and a bit of romance. And while those are all technically true statements about this book, I don't think that's an accurate reflection at all. Overall I don't have a very good opinion of this book, and I gave it a chance, I really did. It got better towards the end, but I had to slog through so much to get there it just didn't feel worth it.

Our book basically has two characters, the first of which is our point of view character, Kestrel Evans. Kestrel is a twenty-something with a degree in Linguistics trying to break out of her dead-end retail job. This happens rather literally when a mysterious cylinder appears in the stockroom, deposits a strange man, and then promptly explodes. The stranger is Jack Wolfe, a mysterious figure who is hunting for the scientist William Jakiv. When Jakiv kidnaps Kestrel's family Wolfe recruits her (rather forcibly) to help him navigate the twenty-sixth century.

And this is where the novel starts running into problems. The first part is kind of interesting what with the explosions and kidnappings and going to get help from a crime boss that owes Wolfe a favor for some reason, But then Wolfe and Kestrel get on an interstellar cruise ship and the story comes to a screeching halt. Basically they're on this cruise ship for two weeks and a good third of the book is dedicated to days where nothing important happens. It's just Kestrel and Wolfe hanging out, doing normal people stuff like go to a bar or hang out at an arcade. I feel like this was supposed to be a romance plot where Kestrel and Wolfe start bonding and come to like each other, but it just felt like two people I didn't really care about doing very normal and uninteresting things. We even watch Kestrel and Wolfe go to a movie and start watching said movie. So we're literally watching the characters in the book watch a movie. I can watch movies on my own time in real life! I don't want to watch fictional characters do it! Of course, it's on a spaceship, but it's so irrelevant they could have easily made it an ocean-going cruise ship. Eventually the science-fiction comes back, to an extent, but it plays such a very small role that it's hardly a science-fiction book in general.

As I mentioned earlier, I don't really have any reason to care about the characters and part of that is for two-thirds of the book I didn't know anything about Wolfe. I could guess that he suffered PTSD and that he was involved in time travel (because the plot blurb told me that much) but other than that I really didn't know anything. We eventually learn Wolfe's backstory, partly through what amounts to a Google search, at the two-thirds mark in the book, which is just way too late after having to follow him to movie theaters and pubs. Kestrel we know plenty, like she knows languages, is interested in old things, and is a fairly good shot because of her job, but she just feels flat. Other than her barely mentioned desires to work in a museum and get her family back, she just doesn't seem to have much by the way of a personality. She just sort of exists. With both of these characters you spend so long watching them do normal stuff with no reason to care or be interested in what they do that it makes most of the book terribly boring.

To call this book a "sci-fi novel of adventure and mystery" is simply an outright lie. There are science-fiction elements yes, but what the characters do hardly counts as an adventure and for such a long time the only mystery was Wolfe's background, which was so delayed I practically didn't care by the time I got to it. The greatest sin this book commits is being so godawfully, terribly boring, which makes it nothing more than an unentertaining waste of the reader's time. I'd recommend avoiding this book.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow

This week I'm reviewing the first of what I suspect will be many biographies to be featured here on the Tuesday slot. Although yes, The Secret History of Wonder Woman was vaguely biographical, but in this case it's a biography of one person in specific, our illustrious commander in chief and first president, George Washington. This particular book, as Chernow outlines in the introduction, is intended to be a cradle-to-grave narrative about the life of George Washington. Perhaps more importantly, Chernow utilizes the voluminous personal papers of Washington, expressly saved for the benefit of posterity, to peel away the holy facade that has built up around Washington in the past two centuries. The trouble with talking about George Washington is that even within his own lifetime Washington developed a larger-than-life reputation and has become almost a secular civic deity of the United States. One of the fifty states is named after him, as is the nation's capital city, and numerous counties, streets, parks, and high schools. No other figure in American history, save perhaps Abraham Lincoln, has become so enshrined in the popular consciousness. Chernow's task, therefore, is to reveal the deeply flawed human being that was Washington of historical fact rather than the demigod Washington of legend. Certainly this is no small task, but it is a vital one.
One of the things that first struck me was how much Washington was a beneficiary of privilege in his early years, which helped to launch his later successes. Washington was the son of a wealthy Virginia planter and although he lost his father at the age of eleven, Washington ended up inheriting a small amount of land and a handful of slaves. Despite not having the benefit of a college education, Washington was guided by his older half-brothers, especially Lawrence, and was introduced to the upper echelons of Virginia society including the Fairfax family of Fairfax county with Colonel Fairfax being highly influential in getting Washington some of his first military commissions and surveying assignments. Furthermore, although Washington suffered the repeated tragedy of the deaths of family members (a fairly common occurrence in the eighteenth century in general and in the southern colonies in specific), he also inherited large amounts of land and slaves from his relatives, including the now iconic plantation estate of Mount Vernon.

And yet, despite his extensive land holdings and other advantages, Washington was often in dire economic straits, much like fellow Virginia planter Thomas Jefferson, although the two could be hardly any different in temperament. Washington was extremely diligent, refusing to waste an hour of the day and driven by an industrious work ethic. Jefferson, at least as he's traditionally portrayed, was a far more relaxed individual and although he kept account books nearly as meticulous as Washington, he made hardly any effort to pay off his accumulated debts compared to Washington. And what is perhaps more interesting to me is Chernow intimates that this was a condition far more common among the landed aristocracy. With easy credit extended to them by London merchants, many Virginia planters would indulge in the most luxurious items that could be ordered from England in displays of conspicuous consumption, advertising to the world their success as farmers and utter lack of concern with such idle affairs as mere money. Inevitably Washington and other planters would drive themselves into debt with their extravagant purchases, but find themselves utterly powerless to economize for to cease purchasing luxury goods would be to announce to the world that you had fallen on hard times and result in a catastrophic loss of social status. For whatever reason I find this entire situation of land-rich and money-poor wannabe aristocrats fascinating, if somewhat abhorrent as the entire system was built upon the backs of slave labor.

Another one of the things that Chernow disassembles in his work is the stoic calm of Washington which we often associate with him in our popular consciousness. As has been jokingly remarked, we cannot imagine George Washington naked. And certainly this is largely a result of design on Washington's part. Washington was enamored with the philosophy of the Roman stoics and always sought to project an aura of calm and cool detachment. Washington very rarely showed emotion in public, always striving to maintain a facade of propriety and this is the image that has been passed down in the popular imagination. However for Washington's circle of intimates, a very small circle of people, a variety of emotions could be displayed. Washington was no stranger to personal tragedy and let those emotions show sometimes, but he also laughed heartily at bawdy jokes as much as the next person. However, the emotion Chernow states Washington experienced the most, and is most commented upon by his circle of intimates, was wrath. Whether it was sullen resentment at the patronizing treatment Washington received at the hands of Englishmen from the Mother Country, or the sheer mind-numbing frustration of trying to keep the Continental Army together, Washington seemed to carry an internal rage with him all his life that occasionally exploded in fits of apoplectic fury. Certainly a far cry from the perpetually calm and collected Washington of legend.

Even Washington's military career is not above reproach, although many more historians have already commented on his service extensively. Upon becoming Commander in Chief in 1775, Washington was certainly not a professional soldier. His experience in the French and Indian War was fairly limited and left him insufficiently prepared for the challenges of command. Looking at Washington's battlefield record alone he's a middling general at best. His attacks at Princeton and Trenton were audacious and extremely successful, but could have ended as badly as his equally audacious plan at Germantown. Yorktown, his other great victory, was accomplished through the help of a French squadron and French engineers, which would have made a siege impossible otherwise. So it is certainly not as a battlefield tactician where Washington deserves praise. However, as Chernow makes abundantly clear, Washington faced considerable challenges just keeping the Continental Army together, sometimes through sheer force of will alone. The Continental Army often lacked sufficient food, clothing, shelter, gunpowder, or even weapons, and Congress was often several months in arrears in regards to pay as well. Compounding this problem was the practice of enlistments of only one year, which resulted in Washington and his officers spending half the year training their men into effective fighters, only to watch these men go back home and start the process of training raw recruits all over again. The fact that a Continental Army existed at all during the years of the Revolution and didn't melt away in the face of such challenges is a testament to Washington's determination and leadership.

Washington's tenure as president was no less challenging than his stint as Commander in Chief. Although beginning with a team of some of the brightest minds in the United States, including Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, Washington's administration began to divide along differing interpretations of the Constitution, eventually coalescing into the Federalists led by Hamilton and the Democratic-Republicans led by Jefferson. For his first term, the infighting remained fairly civil and restrained, but Washington's health suffered greatly and he had to undergo at least two operations to remove tumors from his thigh. Despite his hopes that the new federal government would soon be established and he could retire to Mount Vernon in two years, Washington's sense of duty called him to serve a second term. The resentments and differences that had been boiling eventually spilled over into open fighting through newspaper proxies and even Washington, who tried to remain above party politics, was slandered and assaulted in newspapers, no longer a figure above criticism. With the resignation of his cabinet officers, Washington had to make do with less talented individuals, providing further fuel for his critics, and by the end of his second term Washington was utterly exhausted. It's hardly surprising that Washington gladly left for what he believed was a well-deserved retirement to Mount Vernon.

No biography of Washington would be truly complete without taking a critical view of his involvement with slavery, something which is usually glossed over or even euphemistically omitted from the more hagiographic biographies. By the time of his death Washington was responsible for over three hundred slaves, about half of whom were dower slaves and legally the property of Martha, who would revert to the ownership of the Custis family upon her death. The other half were slaves which Washington owned outright, and would become a problem that would vex him off and on for years. There is of course, a certain irony in Washington being a proponent of liberty and the equality of man while at the same time owning some hundred and fifty people as property. Washington also sought to get as much work as possible from his slaves, exhorting them to greater efforts even when he took time for relaxation and amusements. George and Martha seemed to remain for their entire lives utterly oblivious as to why slaves would not be motivated to work hard and felt equally baffled and betrayed whenever ''well behaved'' slaves ran away. At the same time Washington seemed vaguely aware of the unsavory moral character of slavery and, to some extent, bothered by it, trying to keep ads for fugitive slaves as discreet as possible and striving to avoid breaking up slave families. But Washington also had practical, economic reasons to dislike slavery. Constantly strapped for cash, Washington calculated that the amount of upkeep spent on his slaves, such as food and clothing, was insufficient to the amount of work he managed to get out of them, especially when including slaves to young, old, or sick to do any meaningful work. Mount Vernon ultimately had far more slaves than Washington could gainfully employ and so manumission seemed the best option for him, both morally and economically. Of course, he only decided to manumit his slaves after the death of both himself and his wife, and this was only done for the slaves he owned outright, Martha Washington's dower slaves reverting to the Custis estate upon her death. It certainly was not an area of moral strength for Washington.

Overall, this biography is rather interesting because Chernow goes into such great detail to show  Washington as a real person instead of the demigod of American legend. Towards the end of the book Chernow slips a little back into the awed reverence which Washington more frequently receives, but for the most part he takes a far more critical view. It certainly expanded my knowledge of Washington as the man he was and removes quite a bit of the mystique he's developed over the past two hundred years. The version that I listened to was read by Scott Brick which was adequate, but nothing exceptional as far as I can tell. If you're looking for an in-depth Washington biography, this seems to be an excellent choice.