Thursday, April 28, 2016

3001: The Final Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

This week we finish up the month with a review of the final book in the Space Odyssey quartet, 3001: The Final Odyssey. And I have to admit, there are some significant changes in the series from the very first book, written in the 1960's, and the very last book written thirty years later. Not only are there differences in technology, scientific knowledge, and cultural references, but the tone and style are changed significantly to the point they almost sound like they weren't written by the same author. And I'm definitely going to say 3001 almost doesn't fit into the series at all, if only because the monolith, so iconic and central to earlier plots, is reduced to the point of being an afterthought. It doesn't make this book bad, just very different from its siblings.

Our story begins as you probably guessed in the distant year of 3001, as humanity is cleaning up celebrations from the end of the third millennium and entering the fourth. A comet-mining expedition out beyond Neptune is informed there's a strange radar signature and they've been asked to go investigate. This mysterious object turns out to be Frank Poole, one of the two crewmen from the original Discovery expedition a thousand years ago. With a little medical treatment and a quick de-thaw Frank finds himself alive, but further from home than he could ever imagine. And certainly, considering the dates involved I was definitely reminded of Futurama, but it seems Clarke came up with the idea first so this may have been one of the inspirations for the tv show. Although the idea of people somehow surviving through a period of time to wake up in a world they don't recognize is a fairly old one with Rip van Winkle and Looking Backwards serving as just two examples.

I said that 3001 is different from its siblings, and I feel it's because in this story you get the biggest dose of ''Hey, it's the future! Check out all these crazy things people are doing, because it's the future! We've got velociraptor gardeners now!'' I mean, if I'm being completely honest there were elements of that as early as the very first book with its extensive descriptions of what ''routine'' space travel from Earth to the Moon might be like, but there's also the plot with the monoliths. In a strange way, I feel like as you go through the series the monoliths end up playing a smaller and smaller role and the fascination with what the space future could be like becomes a much bigger part.

I think I'm only noticing this because it was pointed out to me once what a big deal science-fiction as a genre sometimes makes of fairly mundane activities that wouldn't even be mentioned in other forms of literature. Things such as how people travel, how people eat, what they wear, how their cities are organized, it all becomes part of a writer's picture for what the future might look like according to their own interpretation and imagination. And there are plenty of books like that, some of which are entertaining because of how wrong they ended up being, but it's one of those things where once you notice it you can't stop noticing it. And to an extent I felt that with this novel, the majority of it was showing off Clarke's ideas for where technology and society could go in a thousand years and Frank Poole being amazed by all of it.

One of the main things that ostensibly ties this entire series together is the presence of the monoliths, the mysterious black slabs which act as a catalyst for the evolution of intelligent life, among other manifold and mysterious tasks at the bidding of their masters. But as I said before, in 3001 the monolith almost feels like an afterthought rather than a major part of the story. I'm not really worried about the story being left open-ended, with humanity's fate left uncertain to the future because that's been done elsewhere in other works and it's seen as a generally acceptable way to end a series. What does frustrate me is the fact that something which drove the plot in the very first novel, something which was an absolute mystery and chillingly answered the question are we alone in the universe, becomes little more than a footnote by the end of the series. It's an interesting idea and I personally wish Clarke had developed it more.

Overall I think I'd say this book was okay. It's neat to see some of Clarke's ideas for the future, such as space elevators, the giant orbital ring of shipyards around the earth, genetically modified animals as servants, and direct brain-to-computer interfaces, but I also get the feeling that by the 90's some of those ideas were hardly groundbreaking either and by 2016 they're practically old hat. I think this series as a whole is okay, but it definitely and unsurprisingly goes through quite a few shifts over the years as Clarke came back to it and expanded upon it.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Better Part of Valor, by Tanya Huff

This week I'm taking a look at The Better Part of Valor, which apparently is the second in a series of science-fiction books written by Tanya Huff. These books, I think, follow the adventures of Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr, a member of the Confederation Marine Corps. I imagined this would be a pretty by the numbers space opera pulp adventure nonsense which I have a special fondness for, but there's something about this book that just doesn't sit right with me for some reason. I'll try to define it in the post, but I think it's a lot of little things that add up in the long run.

The biggest problem, and I'm really trying not to hold this against the book, is that this is actually the second book and this is where I came into the series. This is definitely my fault as a reader and I probably should have started at the beginning rather than jumping in. I say this because I rapidly felt out of my depth as the book continued and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what exactly was going on and the backstory to the world. Fortunately there was a fair amount of exposition included to make me not completely lost, but I was left with the feeling I should have listened to the first book instead.

The plot basically goes that Sergeant Kerr has been ''recruited'' by a major general for a top-secret reconnaissance mission. A very large and mysterious ship has been discovered floating out in space, which doesn't match any known Confederacy, Alliance, or Other ships. A squad of twelve marines is being put together, along with a hotshot marine captain of a politically important species in the Confederacy parliament, to investigate the ship and find out what the heck it is and who sent it. If you've been around sci-fi as long as I have, you know we're just waiting for something to happen on the ship. Personally I was betting money on horrifying face-eating aliens, but the result was more..subtle.

One of the things I was confused about was whether the author meant for this book to be a parody or not. There are a couple of things that kind of felt like it should be a parody, such as one of the characters totally expecting the big, friendly marine everyone likes to buy the farm on this operation and being super mad about it. It's almost like he can see the red shirts they're wearing. There's also everyone chanting ''Ours is not to reason why'' when confronted with something they don't fully understand. Although personally that saying bothers me because that saying refers to a military disaster that happened because someone failed to reason why. And finally there's the incredibly vain, out of touch, Zapp Brannigan-esque marine captain who butts heads with the competent Sergeant Kerr. I will say I liked the Will Shatner voice the reader affected to read that character's lines, but it also made it feel like a parody even more. The problem is there were a bunch of serious things too that felt like the author was trying to play everything straight.

There are also things that just don't make sense, further made obvious by the characters pointing them out. For example, to put the marine team together for this mission the major general decides to pull twelve different marines from twelve different units on the logic that the media doesn't follow individual marines so it'll help keep this mission a secret. This of course proves entirely wrong as the idiot captain let word slip to the media, who followed Sergeant Kerr to the super secret mission anyway and could have, conceivably, just followed Sergeant Kerr without being tipped off. And as Kerr herself points out, they don't have a lot of time to put twelve different marines into a functioning combat unit, a disadvantage when you're going into a ship possibly infested with face-eating aliens. I think you probably could have pulled a squad of twelve or even a full platoon of about thirty to fifty marines and discreetly shipped them somewhere else via military transport. I mean, the galaxy is a big place and I'm sure the Confederacy military is a fairly large organization with millions of people. The media can't possibly devote their time to following platoon sized units being moved around. It'd be a little odd, sure, but not unusual. Or heck, just move an entire unit like a regiment, and then pull a company or platoon or squad or whatever you need while the regiment's on shore leave or whatever.

Another thing that doesn't make sense is the level of freedom and access the media has to the military in this series. This is explained that the majority of races in the Confederacy are actually pacifists and so they don't understand military needs. Which is why when war broke out with the Others, the Confederacy recruited humans and a couple other warlike species to make the Navy and Marine Corps. And apparently the media can force the military to tell them everything going on in any military operation anywhere in the galaxy, but the reporters aren't required to answer any questions the military asks them unless they want to. Like, I understand that your main enemy, so far as you know, isn't capable of communicating with you on an understandable level, but it makes sense to not have the media telling all your military secrets to anyone who will listen.

Finally there's a whole subplot where Sergeant Kerr deals with a civilian salvage pilot who actually found the mysterious ship in the first place. They start out not liking each other and Kerr makes it abundantly clear she doesn't like the salvage pilot from the start. But by the end we have an ''Oh look, they really do like each other!'' Moment. So my question is, where the hell did this trope come from? Someone told me to blame Jane Austen, but seriously why should characters who can't stand each other want to get together by the end of a book? There should be some reason they're attracted but if you don't like someone, you don't like someone. I just never really understood it and it's a larger issue because it's used in a lot of other works, but it was sort of another detail that bothered me.

Overall I feel like this book is okay at best, but not terribly good. Leaving aside my confusion at entering the series partway in, there are just a lot of other things in the series that don't make sense. On top of that I'm not entirely sure if this is trying to be a parody or if it's trying to be played straight. If it's being played straight it's almost too melodramatic for its own good, and if it's a parody it's too subtle to be very funny. Personally it just doesn't fire on enough cylinders to be worth pursuing further.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 21, 2016

2061: Odyssey Three, by Arthur C. Clarke

We continue this week with the third of the Space Odyssey series, 2061: Odyssey Three. The selection of this year by Clarke is chosen to line up with the next return of Halley's Comet to the inner solar system, an event I hope I may be able to witness myself when I'm some seventy-odd years old. Of course, in this rapidly changing timeline from our own, humanity is in a position to launch a manned expedition to visit the surface of the comet. While we have managed to land robotic probes on a comet fairly recently, for right now the possibility of a manned mission remains unlikely. Although I may have the good fortune to be proven wrong in forty years.

I'm not sure if I have as much to say about this book opposed to the other two books. The monoliths and their mysterious creators, with their plan to foster intelligent life through the galaxy, are barely mentioned at all in this book. It's more a case of things happening in the same universe, but at an almost mundane level instead of the fantastic. There is, of course, the issue of Lucifer which I held off talking about because it was a massive spoiler in the last book, but I can't really talk about this book intelligently without mentioning it. So, of course:

 Spoilers Spoilers Spoilers! Skip the following paragraph to avoid!

At the end of 2010 the monolith or perhaps monoliths, it's a little vague because they may have the ability to warp time itself, altered the mass of Jupiter and forced it to implode, creating a small star and turning our solar system into a binary system. The new star is named Lucifer and its moons, especially Europa and perennial favorite Ganymede, become hospitable to life because of their new proximity to a star. Humanity is also given a brief message, stating they are welcome to populate as many worlds as they wish, except for Europa. Ostensibly this is part of the monoliths', or their creators', plans to foster intelligent life in the galaxy, with Europa being identified as another potential cradle of intelligent life. Humans are of course intrigued by this forbidden fruit, but for now all attempts to interact with the planet's surface have been mysteriously intercepted.

The book has two plots which run sort of simultaneously, although the second one ends up taking over the plot and forces the first one to wrap up pretty quickly. The first is the aforementioned manned mission to Halley's Comet, an event of incredible historic, scientific, and cultural interest. Included among these delegates is Heywood Floyd, now just over one hundred years old, one of the handful of men who first examined the monolith on the moon, and now practically the only survivor of the mission to recover Discovery from Jupiter. More importantly, it shows how far humanity has come in the development of space travel, now being able to take a pleasure cruise to a comet.

The second plot involves Dr. van der Berg, a geologist working on the newly founded colony on Ganymede. Van der Berg has been very interested in the mysterious cloud-shrouded Europa and a chance satellite image begins van der Berg on an investigation that reveals Europa may have far more interesting secrets to reveal. And while I won't reveal them here, let's just say I think it's hardly a coincidence that it's a Boer, Afrikaner geologist that happens to discover it. Ultimately this plot ends up taking over the second one and in its own way helps set up the final book in the series.

I'm sort of left with the feeling that Clarke had two ideas for books but couldn't quite flesh them out long enough so he melded them together to create one longer story. Once the excitement of landing on Halley's Comet is over, you kind of come to the realization, ''Oh yeah, it's basically a giant, dirty snowball.'' Which, you know, neat, and I'm sure there's tons of things to learn from it, but after the initial discovery it kind of wears off. I definitely feel that the second story, with the discovery of a massive secret on Europa and the intrigue that's involved could have used further development. We're introduced to shadowy organizations like Der Bund and Shaka, although in the case of Shaka I'm not really sure on whose side they're supposed to be on. But that definitely could have been expanded into its own book with a little bit more corporate intrigue, IN SPACE!! But instead it gets welded to the comet story. Neither of them are bad, it just feels a little awkward.

Overall it's not a bad book. I kind of like the two adventures in space and Clarke's ability to take the utterly fantastical and make it seem commonplace really comes to the fore here. There's almost none of the incredibly dramatic, flowery prose that came with the other books, which I personally don't care for and certainly didn't miss at all. By far this is probably the one that can stand on its own the most and reads as a pretty simple sci-fi adventure. Next week we conclude with 3001: The Final Odyssey.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America, by Annie Jacobsen

This week I'm taking another look at World War II with Annie Jacobsen's Operation Paperclip, which was actually read by the author in this audio book. Although to me it wasn't read with the same level of passion as say, The God Delusion or The Secret History of Wonder Woman, I always appreciate it when an author is able to take the time to read their book for the audio edition. Furthermore, this is a very serious subject matter so I can understand why the author might not take a terribly light-hearted or conversational tone when it comes to talking about the subject material.

To provide some background for those of you who aren't aware, Operation Paperclip was a program run by the United States right after World War II, which was initially to retrieve military technology from the Nazis to help equip America's arsenals for the next war, assumed to happen with the Soviets within a matter of years. This very quickly expanded to a project of retrieving the actual scientists and technicians themselves and bringing them to America, giving them employment contracts with the U.S. government. There had been protests both within the government and from among the public who were aware former Nazi scientists were being hired, but these protests were soon drowned out by the interests of national security.

Jacobsen talks about three main areas where Operation Paperclip concentrated its focus: chemical warfare, biological warfare and medical research, and aerospace engineering with jet engines and rockets. These were three areas the Nazis invested considerable time and resources for development and, more horrifically, utilized large portions of unwilling test subjects or slave labor to contribute to the war effort. Thousands of political prisoners, forced into slavery by the Nazi regime, were worked to death in underground factories assembling Wehrner von Braun's V-2 rockets. Thousands more were worked to death at the chemical factors of I. G. Farben at Auschwitz, or were used for tests of nerve gases. And many more people met their deaths in horrific medical experiments at Dachau, experiments devoid of any morality. And yet the United States was all too eager to utilize not only the information gleaned from these atrocities, but also bring back the scientists who perpetrated such atrocities and place them in government employ.

One of the biggest challenges behind researching this topic is the amount of white-washing that has occurred over the past seventy years. Intelligence officials were well aware the United States ''officially'' had a policy against granting immigration visas to former high-ranking Nazis and if the records of many Operation Paperclip recruits had been thoroughly examined they never would have been accepted. So the recruiters purposely omitted certain details and provided sanitized histories of hundreds of scientists to help ease their entry to the United States. In interviews with the public, scientist such as Wehrner von Braun perpetuated this myth, claiming they'd been forced to join the party against their will and were interested in science rather than politics. The paperwork proving this wasn't the case was buried under a smokescreen of misinformation and to this day remains difficult to obtain under the Freedom of Information Act or, perhaps also likely, it was intentionally lost decades ago. If there is no other reason for this book, it's to remind people that Americans compromising moral values for short term gains in ''national security'' is hardly a new thing. It in fact has a long and depressing history in the United States.

I think the worst thing about it was this program was sold to the American people as promoting American industry through peace technologies. In fact, at least within the focus of Jacobsen's book, the researchers they recruited were almost entirely for military purposes. Certainly there are peaceful uses for the medical research performed by Nazi scientists, especially in the areas of aeronautical medicine and hypothermia research. (Which isn't to downplay how truly horrific that research was under the Nazis.) But research and production of deadly nerve gases and mind-altering drugs, as well as the weaponization of biological contagions hardly has very useful peace purposes. Thankfully the tons of nerve gas manufactured by the United States was never used, but there's a certain irony that we spent a great amount of money manufacturing it, only to spend even more money safely disposing of them.

The most visible, and probably memorable, use of Nazi technology was the budding space program which eventually culminated with American missions to the moon. However, even this had military purposes, at least initially. Wehrner von Braun argued stridently that the United States should weaponize space before the Soviet Union did and advocated the construction of a space station capable of launching nuclear weapons from orbit. Thankfully these plans never came to pass, but it certainly takes some luster off of the American space program.

Although the bulk of the book talks about the researchers in the fields of rocketry, biological, and chemical warfare, Jacobsen also spares some time to talk about the Nuremberg Trials and operations such as Camp David and the Gehlen Organization after World War II. Although much press is made over the high-ranking Nazis who were convicted and some of whom were executed at these trials, there were many others who were quietly acquitted because they were needed for the interests of ''national security''. And some war criminals were released after serving laughably short prison sentences considering the enormity of their crimes. It tragically undermines the morality the Nuremberg trials were supposed to espouse, making them seem more and more like the show trials of victorious nations. On top of that, the CIA pioneered the use of blacksites, sometimes with former Nazis employed as agents, at Camp King in Germany, beginning yet another unsavory part of American history.

Overall this book is rather depressing but extremely necessary. All too often we like to think of America, especially during World War II, as being nothing but good guys. However as the Cold War began America proved there were no depths they weren't willing to stoop to in the sake of keeping the world ''safe'' for democracy. Unfortunately, even today we're all too willing to compromise principles for the sake of national security, which I'm sure will have unfortunate consequences for us in the future.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 14, 2016

2010: Odyssey Two, by Arthur C. Clarke

We continue Space Odyssey month with the second installment of Arthur C. Clarke's series, 2010: Second Odyssey. I will say that these books are going to be a little bit different from the first one because they're written about fifteen to twenty years later than the first. As Clarke himself says, we hadn't even landed on the moon yet when 2001: A Space Odyssey went to print. By the time he began writing sequels in the eighties we had expanded much further into space with probes, but had also fallen back, making manned missions only into orbit. (Which, as of 2016, is the limit of our abilities. Although NASA has high hopes of sending someone to Mars in the future.)

From this point forward, Clarke makes use of the elements of the movie plot rather than the original novel. The chief difference between these is that the mysterious monolith sends a message to Jupiter rather than Saturn, but this is a fairly trivial change in the grand scheme of things. How Dave Bowman reacts to HAL's rebellion is a little different, but the end result is the same. The biggest thing I noticed most about 2010: Odyssey Two is that there are references to real-life events which had helped expand our knowledge of space, as well as shape science-fiction as a genre, which occurred after the 1960's. Specifically Clarke mentions the Galileo and Voyager missions which gave us far more information about Jupiter and revealed that the moons of Io, Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa were far more interesting than we could have imagined. Clarke also slips in a couple references to Alien and Star Wars, which definitely updates the book and as those movies are still science-fiction classics it certainly doesn't date the book. (References to the Soviet Union aside.)

Plot-wise the book picks up a few years after the ill-fated Discovery expedition to Jupiter, in which all the crew except Dave Bowman perish and Dave, after a cryptic final message, appears to vanish. The United States is eager to recover their lost ship, especially before the Soviets or Chinese can claim it as salvage, but the construction of Discovery II is still underway and it looks like the Americans won't be the first to reach Jupiter. More pressingly, Discovery's previously stable orbit is decaying and it is in very real danger of crashing into Io in the next few years, taking all its information with it. Somewhat reluctantly the Soviets and Americans join forces with the agreement to share all information and find out just what the heck happened out at Jupiter with the mysterious monolith.

The thing that I really liked about all of this is the book took on a far less flowery and dramatic tone than the previous novel. In 2001 Clarke tended to lapse into purple prose and speak about the great destinies involved and the unknown but inevitable fates that humanity was moving towards, almost to the point of being melodramatic. Which is fine, but I had a bit of a hard time taking him seriously sometimes. 2010, by contrast, takes a far more pedestrian tone, which is really cool. Characters have discussions about launching a mission to Jupiter like it's something that happens all the time. And if it happened in our lives it would almost certainly be a huge deal, but I find it absolutely amazing that people could talk about this like it was no big thing. That almost makes it more convincing science-fiction for me than all the alien intelligences and mysterious monoliths. At certain points Clarke sort of lapses into his flowery prose once again, but for the most part I just sort of enjoy how mundane it all is.

In this book, much like the previous one, conflict with HAL is fairly minor and Clarke decides to put much more focus on the monoliths and the forces behind them. There is some concern that HAL may rebel once again and human lives will be put in danger, but it's handled very easily. I mean, Clarke may be making a point that most conflict can be avoided if you handle it properly and it doesn't have to be resolved with force, but it's such a minor part of the overall story. It almost feels like it was shoe-horned in because Clarke had to tie up some loose ends so he could get back to talking about monoliths.

And, on some level, I don't find the monoliths terribly interesting. Once the main mystery of what is their purpose is explained, they become kind of boring. It's all part of some vague plan by ancient aliens to promote intelligent life throughout the galaxy because they were lonely. If we got to speak with these ancient aliens and get to understand them a little bit better they'd probably be a bit more interesting, but they're basically described as ineffable beyond that little bit I've already talked about and having vague and mysterious purposes. It's just hard to get interested in characters that aren't described terribly well.

Finally I personally felt like this book was sort of a middle in the series. There's a book that comes before it, and a book Clarke wants to write that comes afterwards, so he has to write something to connect the two. It's okay, but it's serving as a bridge at best. I'll see if my assessment is correct when I read the next book, but by the end I was left with a bit of a mediocre feeling about this one. Next week we jump forward to 2061: Odyssey Three.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, by Dan Jones

This week I'm talking about a...sort of biography by Dan Jones about the Plantagenets. I say sort of biography because the book actually covers the lives of dozens of people over about a century of history, but it's a narrative driven by the individuals that make up the dynasty referred to as the Plantagenets. Although this is today referred to as the monarchs who ruled England from Henry II to Richard II, who was deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke who became Henry IV. Really the only person who referred to themselves by the surname Plantagenet was Henry II's father, Geoffrey of Anjou, who never ruled England. However historians love giving names to things so ultimately the name has stuck, and it's much easier than saying ''those guys who were all related to each other and ruled England during that time.''

The Plantagenets are some of the most important kings in English history, both from the development of England today, as well as in the popular imagination. The Plantagenet dynasty included Richard the Lionheart, Bad King John, Edward Longshanks, Edward III, and the Black Prince, all major figures in England's historic folklore. This is no accident as several of these kings, such as Edward I and Edward III understood the power of propaganda and purposely cultivated their images for posterity. So it is no exaggeration for Jones to state that these are the monarchs who made England.

I was already passingly familiar with the history involved, if nothing else than because there are plenty of English-language sources for English history. The most interesting resource I've seen on the subject is the documentary series Monarchy with David Starkey which I highly recommend. (It used to be on Netflix but as of the writing of this post it's been taken down, which is a crying shame.) So of course there's a deal of overlap between what I already knew from Monarchy and Jones's book. There is of course the perennial problem with sources in medieval history, and sifting through to come at something approximating the truth. Chroniclers during the middle ages were hardly impartial recorders and while there are plenty of overt biases, there can be fare more subtle ones as well. How accurate Jones's sifting through sources I'm sure other historians have utilized is I cannot say, but it's still informative and interesting.

The Plantagenets are important for a couple of reasons, most importantly establishing English dominance in the British Isles and the creation of Magna Carta. Although the struggles between England, Scotland, and Ireland would continue for centuries and in some cases remain unresolved to this day, the campaigns of kings such as Henry II and Edward I established English dominance and Edward I's campaigns permanently annexed Wales as part of the English kingdom. The Plantagenet kings were also responsible for alternately extending English holdings in France, such as Henry II and Edward III did, or losing them almost entirely, like John or Richard II. The other major contribution, however, was the Magna Carta and the precedent of parliaments.

If we were to ask the Plantagenet rulers, Magna Carta, the charters that followed, and the parliaments that resulted would not be proud accomplishments. Many rulers attempted to overturn or repeal the charters and act unilaterally without the consent of Parliament. And in a way, the Magna Carta did not affect the ''little people'' when it was sealed in 1215, primarily concerned more with the rights of the barons who had rebelled against John than the commoners. However it has become enshrined in popular imagination and is generally credited today with being the origin of English democracy and the uniquely English tradition of common law. As someone who has grown up in the Anglosphere which carries on the tradition of common law, even I am not immune to the worship of these principles that go back centuries. Truly it's the Plantagenet era where the concept that the monarch rules with the consent of the governed becomes codified in the English tradition.

Overall this is a pretty good book, although it tends to focus more on the narrative and a lot of the gory details of ruling in the middle ages. There was a certain amount of big-picture stuff to keep me satisfied, but when you get to Edward II and especially the misrule of Richard II Jones doesn't hold back on the blood. If you're interested in learning more about the rulers of England during the middle ages, then this is a good resource, but I still recommend Monarchy as well.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 7, 2016

2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

Amazon, in their never-ending plot to get me to buy more books, some time ago offered a large number of Arthur C. Clarke e-books for the reasonable price of two dollars. Being a man willing to part with large amounts of money two dollars at a time, I ended up with a small collection of various Arthur C. Clarke books to read, him being the one of the three Greats of science-fiction whose work I've definitely read the least of. (I definitely spent far too many of my teenage years reading my mother's collection of Heinlein and Asimov which gave me some interesting insights to life.) So this month I'm reviewing the entirety of the Space Odyssey series which I've been told is a little easier to understand than the very famous film.

Warning to my Readers: As both the book and film 2001: A Space Odyssey have now been out for nearly fifty years, I no longer consider it necessary to avoid ''spoiling'' the story. Especially the more esoteric bits that aren't really explained in the movie. If you have not seen the movie by now, then go borrow it from the library or something, it's not my fault you can't be bothered to watch an old school science-fiction movie every now and then. 

This edition of the book begins with some rather lengthy introductory material from Clarke himself which goes into some of the details about the making of both the book and movie. According to Clarke,  he met with Stanley Kubrick in New York City and they began discussing ideas for a science-fiction movie. Building on a concept from a pre-existing short story of his, The Sentinel (Contained in Expedition to Earth), the duo began developing story ideas for a feature-length movie. 2001 is an odd case where instead of the book being written first and then later adapted to film, or the less common case of a film being created and then later novelized, both the film and book were created in tandem and released at roughly the same time, with Kubrick managing to finish the movie first. There are some slight differences, but they tell roughly the same story. Inevitably, having now gone through both I'm going to be doing a bit of comparison and contrast.

The main difference, though, is the amount of explanation that goes into the novel. The film of 2001: A Space Odyssey is famous for having incredibly little dialog and Kubrick relies heavily on visuals to tell the story. From the monkeys in the beginning of the movie and their encounter with the mysterious black Monolith, he transitions to the scenery porn of space travel in the then still-distant year 2001 and the discovery of a second monolith buried on the moon. There is the tense sequence of events on the ship Discovery as Dave Bowman fights against the incomprehensible mechanical malice of HAL 9000, and then the final bit which...just gets weird. Really, really weird. But the important thing is Kubrick used visuals to tell the story.

Quite simply, unless you're writing a graphic novel, which Clarke was not, you cannot communicate with visuals in a novel. You have to use words. And so while in the film Kubrick leaves a great many things unexplained and up to the viewer's own interpretation, in the novel Clarke goes in the opposite direction and explains perhaps a little bit too much. Intelligent viewers of 2001: A Space Odyssey probably concluded that the Monolith acted as a sort of catalyst for the evolution of our simian ancestors into human beings. Where it comes from, why it's there, what its purpose is, that's all left up to the imagination of the viewer in the film, but in the book Clarke goes into extreme detail.

The monoliths, all of them scattered through our solar system, are the result of a race of aliens experimenting with life and trying to push life towards intelligent forms and report on the success of such an experiment. At times Clarke's descriptions and explanations can be a little bit overwhelming and I find myself thinking less is actually more in this case. His descriptions certainly explain the end part of the movie which is famously the most incomprehensible part, but on the other hand it takes away part of the mystique and tries to make up for the visuals with purple prose which I felt didn't carry as well in text form.

One thing that I did notice was the conflict between the crew of Discovery and HAL 9000 is a much smaller part of the book compared to the movie. In the book it's sort of sandwiched between other parts of the story and happens fairly quickly. It's also heavily foreshadowed in the book and, having seen the movie before, it takes quite a lot of tension out of the situation. In the film, the conflict between the crew and HAL is central to the plot and forms an incredibly tense, nerve-wracking, and memorable story. Who doesn't get a chill at the phrase, ''I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.''? And once again, we get far less an explanation why HAL decides to murder the crew in Kubrick's rendition. Which leaves it to the audience's own twisted imagination or in the realm of perhaps the utterly incomprehensible. In the novel, however, it's sort of blandly explained that having been instructed to tell the crew the truth, but to lie to them as well, it creates stress in HAL's psyche that pushes him to murder the crew to remove the apparent conflict. Which, although concerning in its own right, isn't nearly as terrifying as a computer going wrong and not knowing why.

(I will also make the comment that Clarke's explanation of HAL's name totally not being a one letter substitution for IBM leads me to claim he doth protest too much. The fact that HAL supposedly stands for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer sounds far too much like a backronym to me. And there are certain other elements of evidence which lend credence to the IBM theory.)

If you find yourself a little bit confused and perhaps irritated by the film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey then the novel will definitely help clear things up, although you may get a little tired by the amount of detail that Clarke goes into explaining things. And the book has definitely given me new appreciation for the film. I'd say the book is an important supplement, but I'm left with the feeling the film is possibly the stronger of the two. Next week we'll see how the series continues with 2010: Odyssey Two.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The End of Tsarist Russia: World War I and the Road to Revolution, by Dominic Lieven

This week I'm reviewing a somewhat complex book from Dominic Lieven, The End of Tsarist Russia: World War I and the Road to Revolution.  Perhaps misleadingly for the title, the book focuses rather little on World War I and the eventual revolution in 1917 which led to the creation of the Soviet Union. Instead the book focuses heavily on the history of Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as well as the larger context of Europe, imperialism, and Pan-Slavism, which leads to the fateful decision of Russia's entry into the growing conflict between Russia and Austria. The fall of Tsar Nicholas II's regime is covered, fairly briefly, and the books end with some speculation on Lieven's part about both the past and the future. The book is okay and Lieven states he makes extensive use of Russian government archives, however as it was an audio book I couldn't really confirm the sources and the fact that these resources are once again inaccessible is...concerning, but not necessarily a cause for alarm.

The first chapter of this book is a little confusing because it actually doesn't talk about Russia at all and instead goes into great deal of the psychology of Europe, as well as the concept of Great Powers and the Balance of Power which had dominated European diplomacy since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Although I was a little annoyed by this distraction, especially because having studied this period before I'm already familiar with the concepts explored, I suppose it's necessary for readers who are unfamiliar with the subject. Providing this contextual framework, Lieven then goes into talking about Russia. The picture that Lieven paints is that by the early 20th century Russia was a country at a crossroads. Russia had been among the victorious powers in 1815, and the tsar had even marched his troops through Paris. Russia's position as one of the Great Powers, unlike Prussia or Spain, had long been assured because of its large population, vast territory, and large military capacity. However by the late nineteenth century the diplomatic scene in Europe was rapidly changing. Prussia had grown stronger through the unification of Germany and the unification of Italy under Piedmont had created two new Great Powers in central Europe, drastically altering the Balance of Power. Furthermore, Germany's industrialization was putting it well on the way to becoming the economic giant of Europe.

Russia, by contrast, had fallen behind the other powers Where other nations had become industrialized economies with extensive railroad networks, Russia remained largely agrarian and with limited rail networks, putting it at a distinct disadvantage when it came to a modern, industrialized war. The Russians were acutely aware of that, especially with the disastrous defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. This backwardness put Russia in very real danger of losing its Great Power status, a situation which was only made worse by the amount of territory Russia controlled. Much like the Hapsburg Austrian Empire, the Romanovs of Russia ruled over a large variety of ethnicities. Depending on how you counted ''Russians'', mainly whether or not you included Ukrainians, Russians made up only a plurality in the expansive empire. Russia was in just as much danger from the enthno-national forces which fracturing the Ottoman Empire and threatening to collapse the Hapsburg monarchy.

However, this did not have to be a permanent state of affairs. Much like the United States, one of the new powers on the scene, Russia had a large frontier that could be settled and exploited, as well as enormous potential to become an industrial power. The United States, after all, began as an agrarian experiment, so Russia could follow the same path. Lieven also points out that most of the development decisions, such as railroad construction, were made by a central authority which set a tradition of planned economies in Russia. (As well as a strong tradition of communal ownership of land, rather than the private property tradition in Western Europe.) Despite numerous setbacks, Russia still had great opportunities provided it had the peace necessary for growth.

So why did Russia go to war? Lieven makes extensive argument stating how it wasn't in Russia's best interests to go to war in 1914. Russia needed the army to maintain order across the empire, rather than fighting in a costly war. Russia's army and navy were still recovering from the catastrophes of the Russo-Japanese war a decade before, and despite extensive increases in budget they were still inadequate to the task of tackling Germany. Finally Russia simply did not have the civilian resources, whether it be railroads, strategic industry, or financing to prosecute an extended war. The answer, as Lieven explains it, boils down to Russian pride. Russia had expended considerable time and resources in cultivating the Balkan states such as Serbia as allies and Pan-Slavic sentiment meant the Russians could not stand idly by while the Austrians dismembered Serbia. If Nicholas II hadn't gone to war, and instead submitted to another Germanic demand, it's very possible Pan-Slavic extremism could have toppled his throne anyway. At least, that's Lieven's conjecture, but I think he indulges into it overmuch.

The two biggest problems I had with this book was the sheer number of people that Lieven talks about and Lieven's speculations. Lieven talks extensively about government officials, mostly Russian but also from the other powers, as well as their opinions on the political spectrums that made Russian policy. This is a good thing on the one hand because it provides a ton of different perspectives but since I was listening to the book rather than reading it I had a hard time keeping track of the various individuals. The other issue is the sheer amount of speculation Lieven does on both the past and the future. Lieven spends a good portion of the end of the book speculating on how World War I might have not happened or, perhaps, been avoided entirely. I think this is largely pointless as by the 1910's there was a strong assumption among the European Powers that a war was going to happen in the near future anyway, which created a self-fulfilling prophecy for when the war finally did occur. If it hadn't been the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it would have been another of a dozen different crises that would have set all of Europe off to war once again. Lieven also speculates on the future and vaguely on the possibility of a large war between the rising Asian powers. Although possible, it feels like a pet theory of Lieven's rather than any actual research.

Overall the book is okay, and does an exhaustive job of talking about the Russian perspective going into World War I, as well as why Russia went to war and why, at least with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that it was a very poor decision. The greatest weakness in my opinion is Lieven's speculations on could-have-beens, some weaker than others.

 - Kalpar