Thursday, January 18, 2018

Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis

Today I'm looking at an apocalyptic novel from 1980, Mockingbird. This book is set some three or four hundred years into a crumbling future where almost all labor is performed by robots. Humanity has been programmed to chase nothing but self-pleasure and the religion of ''self-development'', spending all their time strung out on drugs and enjoying pleasant hallucinations. Even basic social activity such as talking or spending time with other people is discouraged by this morality of self as violations of the rule of Privacy. Humanity has been shaped to be easily managed by the robots. Humans never ask questions, never venture outside the boundaries established for them, and don't seem to notice or care that the world is decaying around them.

The book itself focuses on three main characters. First we have, Robert Spofforth, the last remaining Make Nine robot and the only brain capable of understanding what's really going on in the world and unable to find the will to try and fix anything because humanity's become such a shadow of its former self. Next is Paul Bentley, a university professor who rediscovered the long lost art of reading and shows intellectual curiosity that no other human has shown for generations. Finally there is Mary Lou, a free-spirited woman who escaped from the institutional system when she was a teenager and has received an unorthodox education which makes her, much like Paul, the only curious person in decades.

I will say overall that my impression of this book is rather mixed. There are some really good passages and scenes in this book that capture how far everything including the intellectual state of humanity has decayed. There was an especially memorable scene of a toaster factory which, due to a defect in the assembly process, has not produced a working toaster in years. The robots running the factory are incapable of stopping to discover the fault in the assembly process so the factory has been producing defective toasters, and then recycling them into sheet metal to produce more defective toasters, for years. It's only when one of the characters visits the factory and removes the blockage in the system that the factory begins operating again. I just felt like that was an excellent example of how the world's systems are continuing onward with their tasks, which have become useless, without anyone ever asking why.

Or there's the example of a human asking for a certain breakfast side item at a restaurant, only to be told by the robot wait staff that that item only comes with a particular meal and since the machine for that meal is broken, they're unable to serve his request. This is despite an entire bin of the requested side item being available and in plain view. Neither the human nor the robot point this out or question why, if the machine for the main item is broken, the robots are bothering to make the side item. Instead, the human merely pops some pills and selects a different breakfast item. These are just two ways that Tevis illustrates a world that is almost Kafkaesque and reminds me in some ways of the 1985 film, Brazil.

Where this gets mixed for me is a combination of the almost anvilicious qualities of the points Tevis is trying to drive home and the explanation at the end of the book for why the world has ended up in the state it is. I can't really talk about the second one because it's a spoiler, but I will say I feel like it undermines a lot of the work that Tevis did in the rest of the book. As for the less than subtle morals, Tevis does a great deal of arguing in favor of reading and writing, as well as spending time interacting with people rather than retreating into a world of self-pleasure. Obviously these are all points which are fine on their own and I support them but even at less than three hundred pages, I feel like Tevis keeps worrying at these points over and over and over and it starts to feel needlessly repetitive. I've also taken up a hobby recently of noticing when authors make a point of saying how important reading is. Obviously I'm in no position to cast stones because I try to read as much as possible myself, but it seems a little funny that reading as an activity has so many authors working to defend it. Of course this is in their own self-interest, but it strikes me funny in a way. I don't know, maybe it's just me.

So there are a lot of things that I can appreciate in this book and Tevis does a really good job of setting up a universe that's decaying merely because nobody's thought to ask why it's decaying but how Tevis ultimately chooses to use this universe leaves me feeling a little disappointed. If any of this sounds interesting to you, I'd say go check it out.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Mission of Honor, by David Weber

Today I'm looking at the twelfth, count them, twelfth book in the Honor Harrington series. And this is just the main series, this doesn't include the side books and short stories where additional plot has been going on. (More on that later.) But since this is the twelfth book the following obligatory statement must be made.

Dear and gentle readers, it is basically impossible for me to talk coherently about this book without going into spoilers. If you wish to avoid spoilers about this book or series please cease to read at this point. Thank you for your patience. 

At the end of the last book Queen Elizabeth III sent Honor and Eighth Fleet on a mission to the planet Haven to negotiate a peace treaty with the Republic of Haven, hopefully to end the war that's been going on for two decades and has effectively broken both nations after the casualties of the Battle of Manticore. Hence the title, Mission of Honor. However, there are a lot of other things going on in this book and ultimately leads to a fundamental shift in the narrative of the series so far and how it's going to play out in the other books.

As I've mentioned, there have been other plotlines developing in supplemental books to this series, books which I really wish I'd taken the time to read at this point. As I've always said, I'm of two opinions on having a plotline spread and grow from just one medium into a multi-medium series. In this case it's intertwined book series, but another example I could use is the Marvel cinematic universe where TV shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are starting to cross over with each other (and possibly other series as well). Or like the current Star Wars universe which is growing to be very much like the old Expanded Universe they were trying to avoid where films, tv shows, books, comics, and video games are all interconnected. On the one hand, I can see how cool having a story that arcs across multiple forms of media can be and the potential it has. There are simply stories that you can tell better with a book or a tv show than you can with a two or three hour movie and connecting them together can be really neat.

On the other hand, it makes it all the more difficult to track down all the plot threads and fully understand what's going on. It can also make the universe difficult or intimidating for newcomers to delve into, leaving only a gradually diminishing fanbase. And this is exactly the reason why I never was able to get into traditional superhero comics either. Inevitably every time I would try to start reading comics, there would be cross overs or plot events with other books that you'd have to hunt down and investigate. I personally found it very difficult to get into superhero comics as a result. Obviously this doesn't pose a problem to the huge audience of superhero comic fans, but I think it's a valid concern.

Now I will start by saying that I liked this book. There were things that I enjoyed quite a bit, even if they were loudly telegraphed and I could predict where the plot twists were going to go because Weber so neatly laid them out that even a blind person could follow them. So while this book didn't have any real surprises, I still had a very emotional reaction to this book. And so I think that's a good thing. Unfortunately I gave this book a poor rating on GoodReads simply because I think Weber's gotten to a point where he's thinking, ''Okay, where the heck do I take the series from here?'' And some of the things we're supposed to accept as plausible are a little...extreme.

As I may have mentioned in previous books, the organization known as Manpower which specializes in the genetic slave trade has started popping up, so they're not exactly coming out of the blue. And we've known that they've been stirring the pot and hatching evil schemes for a while now so I can see them influencing certain events for their own advantage. Especially since they intend to create some sort of genetic caste system across the galaxy in a next step of human evolution. The problem I have is that this plan by Manpower/Mesa is a centuries-long plan and apparently these guys have been responsible for pushing both Manticore and Haven towards war for the past seventy to a hundred years. And nobody outside the conspiracy has gotten wise to this plot until the events of this book when people working for Manpower decide to defect.

Obviously this is a work of fiction. With interstellar travel, psychic cats, laser weapons, life prolonging technology, and a variety of other incredibly difficult or impossible things in it. A massive, centuries-long conspiracy involving thousands, if not millions of people should not be all that strange. Except everything that I know about human nature makes me doubt that a conspiracy that big going on for that long could possibly have been going on in the dark. I mean, we have mathematical formulas at this point showing it's basically impossible to keep a conspiracy from being blown if more than a handful of people are involved. So as much as I hate to say it, suggesting that a massive organization of genetic superpeople have been manipulating entire galactic governments from the shadows for centuries just strains credulity. I know, I know. Fiction with interstellar travel and psychic cats, but for whatever reason I'm still stuck up on this point.

I also feel like this diminishes the series on another level. When this series began it was the conflict between the People's Republic of Haven and the Star Kingdom of Manticore. The People's Republic (which was a libertarian's nightmare of a corrupt, bloated welfare state), needed a source of income to prop up their social programs and Manticore with its lucrative wormhole junction was an obvious target. Manticore, of course, did not want to be annexed so warfare was inevitable. And I felt like this was a believable premise, especially with the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars but in Space angle. And it was believable that a well-meaning government like the People's Republic of Haven could establish a robust welfare system, resulting in massive government deficits, and resulting in them looking to territorial conquest as a means to keep cash and resources flowing in the system, with empire eventually becoming something of a bad habit. It was believable, and there were people on both sides we disliked and people we liked.

Except now we're expected to believe that the conflict between the People's Republic of Haven and Manticore was the result of interference by the Manpower faction. They're the ones that turned the noble Republic of Haven into the despicable welfare state People's Republic of Haven (have I mentioned Weber seems to have a libertarian leaning?). Manpower was responsible for the Peep solution of annexing other star nations to fill the coffers to support the welfare state. And because the Peeps and Manties were the two powers most vocally against the genetic slave trade, Manpower decided it needed to take both of them out. You know...in a couple of centuries. (And as a side note, now that I think about it, I'm kind of surprised Manpower didn't try to corrupt either or both of the star nations into changing their stance on genetic slavery. That seems like it would have been easier.) So now the reason bad things happen hasn't been because people were just people, it's because there was a conspiracy of bad people behind everything. Ultimately people are selfish, short-sighted, petty, and a variety of other negative traits which make us not the best at planning things in advance. Bad things happen because people are, at the end of the day, people and we don't always make the best decisions. But now we have a bad guy, someone with obviously evil intentions, and we get to pin everything on them. It just feels dishonest somehow.

Another way Weber kind of got to ''what can I blow up next'' is what he did to Manticore's industrial infrastructure, basically blowing it to smithereens through a surprise attack by Manpower using new, mysterious, undetectable superweapons. It kills several million more people and trashes Manticore's industry and economy, effectively knocking them out of the war until they can get missile and ship production back up and running. Something which promises to be an extremely difficult task. I feel like Weber was looking for a way to both up the stakes and further force Manticore and Haven into an alliance of necessity. And for me it just feels like too much.

So, all this being said, I have mixed feelings about this book. There are a lot of things that I enjoyed, but there are a lot of issues that I had as well. I'm going to continue with this series because I am interested in where it's going, but I suspect it's not going to be the same series that it began as.

- Kalpar

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Guns Above, by Robyn Bennis

Today I'm looking at a steampunk novel titled The Guns Above, by Robyn Bennis. This book is the first in a planned series chronicling the adventures of Captain Josette Dupre, Lord Bernat, and the crew of the Mistral as they fight to save their nation of Garnia from enemies on all front. This book is good, but I don't think it pushes any envelopes or goes into any new ground which means it fails to stand out among all the other stories that are out for the reader of steampunk fiction.

The book is set in the fictional country of Garnia, a nation that seems to be perpetually at war with its neighbors over territory or other petty reasons. Garnia may have been a military superpower in the past, but the situation has definitely deteriorated to the point Garnia is utilizing women soldiers in ''auxiliary'' capacities, theoretically non combat roles but in reality whatever role they need to fill. This is especially true in the Air Signal Corps, where getting volunteers courageous or insane enough to fly and fight on the incredibly dangerous airships is particularly difficult.

Josette Dupre is one such auxiliary and through the circumstances of everyone above her dying, she ends up in command of her airship and helping to save the Garnian army outside the city of Arle. As a dubious reward for her actions, Dupre is appointed captain of the new, revolutionarily designed airship Mistral. Forced upon her as well is the foppish Lord Bernat, nephew of the commanding Garnian general, and definitely a spy to find Dupre's every weakness and expose it so Bernat's uncle can get rid of Dupre once and for all and ensure the army remains a man's institution.

As I said, this doesn't feel like it's really pushing any envelopes. As I've pointed out before and will probably point out again, it seems almost obligatory for a steampunk work of fiction to have a feisty, female airship captain, scientist, or engineer who defies societal convention by being a woman in a ''traditionally'' male field. And may, horror of horrors, shock and tribulation, wear pants! I'm all for women being captains, scientists, engineers, spies, doctors, stockbrokers, greengrocers, bakers, telegraph operators, locomotive engineers, or any other profession they darn well please. But in 2018 having a woman as captain and it being a shock is quite frankly kind of passe. We've had female captains since the 1990's. Is it accurate for a Victorian society to be surprised at women doing things like being airship captains? Yes. Is it necessary for a fictional steampunk society to have the same surprise at women being captains? No, I don't think so.

So with most of the conflict being ''Dupre's a woman, and women shouldn't be airship captains'' I feel like this book didn't cover ground that hasn't already been covered by who knows how many books before it. Honestly I think an improvement would have been just have Dupre be unpopular with the Garnian high command because she's a commoner and more competent than the nobles are, which is why they send one of their own to spy on her and try to bring her down. Otherwise I thought this book was okay. I could have used a map of the countries to get a better understanding of where everything was geographically, but otherwise it was okay.

If you're looking for a steampunk military adventure, this is a pretty good choice, but don't expect it to bring anything particularly new or innovative to the table. At least, that's my opinion.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Rogues, edited by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois

Today I'm looking at Rogues, a collection of short stories written by a variety of authors and edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. The idea behind this anthology was that Martin and Dozois would ask famous writers from a variety of genres, not just science fiction and fantasy but horror, thriller, mystery, and romance, to write a short story about a rogue or scoundrel character. The result is a collection of stories ranging from Martin's Westeros and Gaiman's London Below, to somewhat ordinary adventures in Texas. Because I usually stick within the SFF genre this was a nice opportunity for me to break out of my genre constraints and see a couple of stories from authors I might not have otherwise heard about. And there are a couple of stories that leave me thinking maybe I'll want to check up on the authors when I get the chance.

Unfortunately, much like a lot of other short story anthologies which I've reviewed, there isn't a lot that I can say. I liked some of the stories. I thought some of the stories were really good. And some of the stories I didn't care for. But that's ultimately a matter of personal taste and with an anthology you're sometimes going to get things that just don't appeal to you. And that's okay. Although I will say the cunning plan to get back at your brother because he had the nicer sousaphone in high school by stealing the high school marching band he directs's sousaphones so you can then sell them on the black market to Mexican banda groups isn't exactly up there in the top levels of ''cunning criminal master plans''. But really it was just that one story.

Aside from that, I think my only criticism was a couple stories tried to push the rogue element a little too much. Like, ''Hey. Remember the title of this book? This is how it ties back to the theme!'' I especially remember a story about college kids going to a movie theater and having a debate over the definition of rogue and scoundrel and frankly it felt a little forced to me. Otherwise it's an anthology. There're some good stories and I think it's worth your time to check out. Even if, like me, you're not big on rogues in specific.

- Kalpar

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Oil Kings, by Andrew Scott Cooper

The seventies were a very bad time for America. Vietnam, Richard Nixon, ugly cars, ugly clothes, and the only colors you could get furniture in were avocado green, blaze orange, and harvest gold. On top of all of this there were the problems of a recession, double digit inflation, and a rapid increase in oil prices. In fact the increase in oil prices rocked the global economy, almost causing a financial panic in Europe and leading to unemployment as high as 8% in the United States. But what caused this dramatic increase in oil prices? At least part of the cause can be explained by the odd relationship between the United States and the Shah of Iran.

After World War II, and especially after Operation Ajax, Iran became an important client state for the United States. Its shared border with the Soviet Union made it an ideal location for CIA bases, and it also controlled one side of the strategic mouth of the Persian Gulf, an important waterway for the transport of oil from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Iraq to Europe and Japan. A blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, the mouth of the Persian Gulf, could strangle the western powers by cutting off their oil. Having Iran as a strong, friendly power in the region was vital to U.S. global security.

As the Vietnam War dragged on, Nixon began pursuing a policy of localization. This policy, known as the Nixon Doctrine, would arm and equip local powers with hardware provided by America and other Western powers so they could handle local security threats and fend off the encroachment of the Soviet Union and other communist powers. Mohammad Reza Shah had always sought newer and better technology for his military, but American policy had put strict limits on what Iran could buy so the Shah didn't wreck his nation's economy on a military spending spree. With the Nixon Doctrine, Nixon and Henry Kissinger chose to let the Shah buy however much military hardware he wanted, including everything but the atomic bomb. This led the Shah to go on a spending spree, buying planes and hardware he simply didn't have the people or infrastructure to maintain, much less use, such as orders for dozens of F-14 fighters. (F-14s incidentally are carrier-based aircraft. Iran had no aircraft carriers at the time so there was no advantage to using F-14s over other aircraft.)

In order to pay for these military toys the Shah had to get revenue from somewhere, which is where another agreement with Nixon and Kissinger became important. The Shah asked Nixon if, with the cooperation of OPEC, he could raise oil prices. Nixon and Kissinger gave their assent, assuming the Shah only meant to raise the price of oil by only a small amount. The Shah, however, meant to raise oil prices to a point where alternate energy methods, such as shale oil and the gasification of coal, became competitive with crude oil, bringing in significantly increased revenues for Iran. On top of his military spending, the Shah intended to launch a massive industrialization program for Iran, turning it into a modern economy. The end result was the price of OPEC oil went up by 400% in the course of one year.

Needless to say, when a basic commodity which is necessary for fuel, as well as dozens if not hundreds of other derivative products, increases by that much in a year there are going to be aftereffects. Especially when Europe, Japan, and the United States relied on oil imported from OPEC. Recession, financial panic, inflation, shifts in international balances of payment, loss of consumer confidence, all this and more threatened to topple the governments of western Europe and the global economy. The situation was only exacerbated when the United States, to help stem the tide of dollars flowing into Iran, increased the prices of its military equipment. This only spawned a spiral of increased oil prices to pay for the more expensive equipment.

Attempts by the United States to get the Shah to stop or at least slow down the oil increases proved unsuccessful and so a gap began growing between the United States and its client state. Eventually the United States shifted its Persian Gulf strategy from Iran to Saudi Arabia, especially after the Saudis broke an OPEC price hike in 1976. Dramatic decreases in Iran's oil revenue meant that the Shah had to drastically cut back not only on his military spending but on his civil spending as well, which in turn caused Iran's own economy to falter. By 1979 the economic troubles in Iran had toppled the Shah and ushered in a new Islamic republic.

I have really only summarized this book, and very poorly at that, because it goes into so much detail and makes use of so many sources, such as transcripts from the Nixon white house, Henry Kissinger's own meetings and phone calls, cables from the Iran embassy, state department papers, treasury department papers, and information from foreign governments as well. Cooper does an excellent job of researching this text and provides a vivid economic picture of the 1970's and U.S. relations with Iran, providing additional explanation as to why the Shah's government was overthrown in 1979 and the tension between the United States and Iran to this day.

If you're interested in Middle Eastern history, twentieth century history, economics, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, or getting a better understanding of Iran this book is definitely a must read. Cooper does make some allusions to the 2007 crisis which saw a spike in oil prices as well, but the comparison gets vaguely mentioned at best so I consider it hardly a major topic for the book. But as history of where economics meets politics this is an excellent read.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Sun and the Moon, by Matthew Goodman

Today I'm looking at a history of one of the most famous newspaper hoaxes of the nineteenth century, when Richard Adams Locke wrote a series of articles purportedly about discoveries made by Sir John Herschel with a new type of telescope that discovered the existence of life, including sentient life, on the moon. When the story it was widely circulated and reprinted in newspapers across the United States and later the world, with many people arguing over its veracity. However, this book talks about quite a few other subjects beyond the moon story, putting it within historical context.

The early nineteenth century saw developments in printing technology, which had remained fairly unchanged since the fifteenth century. Printing presses could previously only produce about two hundred and fifty copies an hour, but the invention of cylindrical presses and application of steam power meant thousands of copies could be produced cheaply and quickly. By the 1830's the United States saw the development of the penny press, daily newspapers that cost only a penny making them affordable to far more people than the six cent papers at the time. The penny press exploded newspaper readership in the United States and also dramatically changed the content of newspapers. Previously focused towards the upper classes interested in financial and international news, penny papers focused on local news, sports, true crime stories, and the introduction of humorous and not always true anecdotes.

Goodman goes into considerable detail talking about the nineteenth century institution of ''humbugs'', stories or objects that might be real or might not be, the foundation of P.T. Barnum's career. (A biography of Barnum makes up a significant part of this book as well.) And I'm pretty sure society hasn't changed much considering the popularity of urban legends and other stories that may not be true, but have just enough verisimilitude to make their veracity plausible. The thrill then, as of now, is debating whether the story actually is true and so humbugs, both in Barnum's museum and on the pages of newspapers, made endless entertainment fodder for the nineteenth century.

I have a couple of criticisms about this book, but they're fairly minor. The first is that I feel like this book kind of lacked focus. Goodman jumped between talking about Benjamin Day and his creation of The Sun, New York's first successful penny press, talking about Richard Adam Locke's life and career, P.T. Barnum's life and career, and even the life and career of Edgar Allan Poe. Granted, all these subjects are interrelated. It's difficult to talk about Locke's moon story without first talking about the newspaper it was published in. Barnum is a great example of how hoaxes were popular entertainment and how newspapers helped spread them. And Poe himself wrote a story about a voyage to the moon shortly before Locke wrote his own story. The problem is it feels like Goodman had two or three different topics he wanted to write about but he didn't have enough material to make any one of them into a book by itself so he melded them together. So yes, they're connected, but it still feels disjointed to me.

The other issue I had, and this is purely because I'm a trained historian, is that Goodman goes into purple prose territory at times, making grand, literary statements. Really the only reason I take issue with this is because I personally don't think it's proper historical writing, but that's really a personal bugbear of mine. If you're a casual reader of history it probably won't bother you too much.

Finally Goodman tries to argue towards the end of his book that Locke's moon writings were supposed to be from the beginning, as Locke claimed much later, an elaborate satire of religious astronomy. During the early nineteenth century astronomy was the science most in concord with religion and many religious figures argued that other worlds must be inhabited by beings to further increase the glory of God. Some would go on to say that these beings from other worlds would be in a state of natural grace, having never fallen to sin like humanity did, so their worlds would be paradises. The problem I have with this argument is Goodman doesn't devote considerably much time to it in his book. The inclusion of P.T. Barnum and other examples of humbugs, hoaxes, and diddles certainly undermines Goodman's assertion that Locke's work was meant to be a satire and he devotes considerably less time talking about it than the hoaxes.

Overall, I thought this book was interesting. It feels disjointed because it talks about a lot of different things which are related, but it gives a good view of the culture of nineteenth century New York. If any of the topics listed in the (fairly long) title interest you, I think this book is worth taking the time to check out.

- Kalpar