Thursday, August 16, 2018

Darth Bane: Dynasty of Evil, by Drew Karpyshyn

Today I'm finishing the Darth Bane trilogy with the last book, Dynasty of Evil. As I mentioned in reviews of the previous books I hadn't known quite how to feel about these books. On the one hand, the books don't try to make the Sith out as misunderstood bad guys or the Republic as little better than terrorists. But on the other hand with the ending of the last book I was unsure where the series was going to go from where it ended. The final book is okay but it leaves me ultimately wondering if we needed the story to be told at all.

The book picks up another ten years after the last book, with Bane and Zannah living in secrecy, slowly building their plan to destroy the Jedi and the Republic. The problem for Bane is that so far Zannah hasn't made any attempt to challenge him and take the mantle of leadership. Bane has become worried that Zannah is merely waiting for the ravages of time to do him in, completely violating the principle of the Rule of Two. But if Bane is to successfully replace Zannah with another apprentice he'll need to find a way to cheat death itself.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Serra, the daughter of the healer Caleb who Bane intimidated and then murdered, has married into the royal family of the planet Doan. When her husband, the crown prince, is murdered by a rebel group, Serra ends up on a path of revenge that will take her to face her greatest fears and confront Darth Bane.

The biggest feeling I was left with at the end of this book was did we really need to tell this story? I mean, I kind of like Serra's arc and discovering that revenge truly isn't worth it in the end and making her peace with that, but this is really the first time she's a character in these books. I think I'd have preferred a more in-depth plot with the Jedi across all three books, rather than the haphazard sort of approach we have to the non-Sith characters. It's not that Serra's a bad character, but it feels like they had a couple different ideas for protagonists against the Sith and went with all of the instead of just focusing on a few. I think it would have made the books feel more connected, because as they are they feel like episodes rather than a complete arc.

As for Bane and Zannah, I feel like we didn't need to see the ending of their conflict. We knew one way or another that Zannah would eventually replace Bane and continue the line of the Sith which would end with Palpatine and Vader. I kind of took it for granted that Zannah would be the one to succeed in this conflict and the biggest question was who of the three Force-sensitive characters we have in this book would end up being the next apprentice. I'm just left wondering if this was a story that needed to be told.

I think what would have improved this series would have been more development on the light-side of things, maybe having a few consistent Jedi characters, perhaps motivated slightly by revenge or tempted by the dark side, to serve as a contrast or foil to Bane and Zannah. Instead we end up with multiple characters who get far less spotlight time than Bane and Zannah. It also could have produced a better arc over three books than each book feeling like its own story. These books are okay, but definitely leave room for improvement.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy

Today I'm looking at a science-fiction book by Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time. In the introduction, Piercy explained that the book was written during the second-wave feminist revolution of the late 1960's and 1970's and put it within the genre of feminist utopian literature that sought to critique current society and provide alternatives for the future. In this rerelease some forty years later Piercy argues that her book has become even more relevant because of the decreasing resources available for mental health, the increasing wealth inequality, and the threat of environmental destruction. And on some level, I have to agree.

This book focuses on Connie, a Mexican-American woman in her mid thirties, living on welfare in New York. Connie has been abandoned by her family, her daughter taken away by the state, and been in and out of government institutions for a significant part of her adult life. Recently Connie has been seeing an individual who identifies themselves as Luciente. Luciente claims they come from the year 2137, a society that has returned to a closer-knit and more ecologically sound way of living. Connie and Luciente are able to connect mentally across time and communicate, learning about each other's society.

The main conflict comes from a fight Connie had with Geraldo, her niece's pimp. Geraldo knocks Connie out and gets her recommitted to an insane asylum. The rest of the book focuses on Connie trapped within the ruthless institution determined to crush her into a predetermined form of socially acceptable. This is the part where Piercy's research especially shines, she says she got workers to sneak her into mental institutions and did countless interviews with both workers and patients to get insights into the mental health system. Through her writing Piercy manages to capture the tedium, the helplessness, and the desperation of people trapped in a system that sees them as a problem to be fixed, rather than people to be helped. With the evocative portrait Piercy creates, it really shows the deep-seated problems of the mental health system and if not how it needs to be reformed, at least revealing the desperate need for reform.

I will say that in my experience there seems to have been changes for the better in the past forty years, but my experience is far, far different from Connie's. First, I'm a middle-class white man opposed to a poor latinx woman so people are more likely to listen to my thoughts and concerns than Connie's just because of background. Second, I've spent the equivalent of a long weekend in a mental health institution while Connie spends at least one year and probably longer trapped in an institution. So while the glimpse I saw looks a lot better than what Connie experienced, my own experience was very different from Connie's and it's certainly possible that things haven't improved for many other people.

As for the life in the future that we saw, I feel like that's weaker compared to Piercy's commentary on society in the seventies. There are some interesting ideas but a lot of things are left a little too vague and just raise more questions, specifically the practice of defense. The people in the culture of 2137 volunteer to spend part of their time working on defense, fighting against enemies. It's implied that these enemies are last vestiges of the old corporation-dominated way of doing things and we get to see a little bit of that different society, but I would have liked just a little bit more exposition.

Overall I think the time travel and alternate society that Piercy establishes in her book are the less interesting parts of the book. The best parts, for me, were Connie's struggles against the system and revealing just how a woman of color can be disempowered by a system that sees her as a problem rather than a person. If the future society is underdeveloped and maybe a little confusing Connie's own story more than makes up for it. Definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber

Today I'm looking at what turned out to be a far more philosophical book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. As readers probably noticed, I've been on an economics kick lately and the title alone seemed like an interesting concept so I put this on a list of things to try from the library. This book takes more of an anthropological and sociological look at debt as an aspect of human social groups rather than a historical and economic perspective. While Graeber does a fairly good job of critiquing specific accepted wisdoms of economic thought, his approach to debt as an institution is fragmentary at best and really fails to provide an overarching explanation. Obviously talking about debt from ancient Mesopotamia to the current era is a huge task and to go into detail would be impossible, but I feel like Graber leaves something to be desired in his work.

The main argument of Graeber's text is that humanity has used debt and virtual currency for most of recorded history and the usage of hard money, specifically coinage, is actually an aberration rather than the standard. He begins with the assumption made in many economic textbooks that barter as a system of exchange existed before money, with the problems involved as economies became more complex and the issue of a coincidence of needs became harder to fill. Graeber argues that barter as a system is actually fairly rare and usually only occurs when people used to a cash economy no longer have money to do business. Instead, Graeber argues that trade has mostly used virtual currency even before physical currency existed. The units of currency, such as talents, minas, and shekels, were merely a way for people to keep track of exchanges and overall balances of credits and debits, rather than actual units of coinage that passed from hand to hand. When gold and silver entered the equation at all it was for international trade rather than local transactions.

Graeber then argues that for a period of about 800 B.C.E. to 600 C.E. we see the emergence of a cash-based economy and coinage with coins becoming part of the day-to-day economy. Graeber's explanation for this is the creation of large, professional standing armies which, inevitably, require equipment, food, medicine, and a thousand other things that makes armies function. To streamline the process, governments issued coins to the soldiers as pay, and then collected the coins from their subjects as taxes. This meant that the subjects had to find a way to get the coins from the soldiers to pay their taxes, and the easiest way was to sell the soldiers something the soldiers needed. There is a certain elegance to this explanation so it makes a decent amount of sense, and explains why coinage was able to circulate at a purchasing price well above the market price of the metals. In addition, armies are interested in portable wealth, one of the largest benefits of using coinage instead of credit-based systems. Graeber goes into a lot more detail, obviously, but this is his main argument. Once the program of imperial expansion ended, most of the world reverted to a credit-based system until the fifteenth century.

Graeber also argues that we only returned to a cash-based economy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because of ideas by people such as John Locke and Adam Smith who idealized a cash economy and people entirely free of debt. This also ties with an expansion of European empires across the globe which brought European ideas and institutions, incredibly violently, to the rest of the globe. Because this sees another increase in militarization and violence, Graeber argues that this was merely a repeat of what happened in the Mediterranean, Middle East, India, and China for over a millennium. However the fact that the U.S. dollar, and all currencies, are now backed by credit rather than precious metals, means to Graeber at least that we are entering a new era of currency.

The biggest problem I have with this book is that Graeber gets far too tied down in the philosophical questions behind currency. This is an age-old debate, especially during the nineteenth century, when people questioned what exactly counted as money. There were hard-money advocates who strongly supported that only gold and silver could serve as money because of their intrinsic value. This, however, causes a problem for several reasons. First, gold and silver have no intrinsic value aside from what we give them. In fact, aside from ornamentation, electrical conductors, or tokens of value, they have no real use. This led to credit-based explanations for money, that really money is just a token of value that stands in for other things and it doesn't matter what we use for currency as long as we all agree to accept and use it. The problem is that Graeber seems to accept the credit-based position throughout most of his book, with his argument that credit-based systems of accounting have been used for most of human history. However when he gets to the decision to abandon the gold standard in 1971 he seems to then turn on credit-based systems because they can manufacture money from nothing There is room here to make a sophisticated argument, but Graeber simply leaves insufficient time to build such an argument and left me disappointed with the result.

Overall the result was kind of disappointing. Graeber makes arguments which are so broad it's difficult to refute them because of their own generality. Although there are times where Graeber gets into the history of credit institutions throughout the world, for the most part he seems to get bogged down in the philosophical questions about money which for me were a lot less interesting. The result is a fragmentary book at best and fails to examine perhaps the most important developments in the past two centuries which have created our current economic and financial system.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Crucible of Gold, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm finally getting back to the Temeraire series with Crucible of Gold, which took me a while to get from the library because of a waiting list. As I've said before with this series the books kind of feel the same, sort of like with the Sharpe series. However, that doesn't mean that the series isn't enjoyable to me. It's kind of like literary candy, not necessarily substantive but a fun time to enjoy and this book continues much in that same vein.

When we left off with Temeraire and Laurence they were settling on the edges of Botany Bay colony trying to make a life for themselves. This of course is upset at the start of the book when Arthur Hammond, ambassador plenipotentiary for the British Empire, arrives from China to announce that the war has taken a turn for the worse and Britain needs Laurence and Temeraire to help their Portugese allies in Brazil who have been invaded by the Tswana of Africa, determined to liberate and repatriate all the slaves. Once more on the Allegiance Temeraire, Iskierka, and Kulingile must fight for king and country.

There actually was a point I liked about this book and it was when we got to see the Inca Empire in South America with its own unique dragons and their own system of government. If there's one thing I like it's Novik's different approaches to how cultures treat their dragons and it seems that the number of people compared to dragons is a huge influence on this. In Europe there are a large number of people and relatively few dragons, so dragons are kept separated from people and are at the start of the series basically pets or property. In China, the number of dragons is much greater and so dragons have a roughly equal status with humans. And with the Tswana in Africa, dragons are believed to be the reincarnations of revered ancestors and occupy leadership and advisory roles for their descendants.

The Incan Empire is a far different example. The majority of the Incan population, much like in regular history, has been wiped out by smallpox and other diseases. This has resulted in significant changes to Incan society and now the humans are practically the pets or arguably property of the dragons. Much like historical Andean cultures, the Incans are organized into ayllu, which function as both a local government and as an extended family group. Previously ayllus would compete for the honor of having a dragon as a member, but after so much of the Incan population has been wiped out the dragons took responsibility for taking care of and protecting the allyus. It has gotten to the point where the dragons guard the members of their allyu jealously and if humans are found alone a dragon will capture the human for their own allyu. It's an interesting inversion where the dragons appear to rule and the humans serve, in distinct contrast to the other books.

The thing that bothers me, though, is that I wish Novik had spent more time talking about the culture of the Incan Empire and seeing more of how their society works. I kind of got an impression based on the information but so much of the book is focused on other stuff that it feels kind of shortchanged. Part of the book focuses on their leaving Australia and then their various misadventures in the Pacific Ocean. After experiencing a five-day storm, a fire breaks out on the Allegiance and hits the powder magazine, bursting the ship to splinters. The dragons and survivors get picked up by a French ship and get marooned on a remote island in the Pacific. Because they manage to find a wrecked ship on the island our main characters are able to reach the Incans on their own and that whole part of the plot feels like a massive distraction. It makes me really wish Novik had spent more time on the more interesting parts of the series instead of the stranded on an island drama.

I'm hoping the last two books will go well and hopefully provide a nice conclusion. But as I said, this series feels a lot more like literary candy to me.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Darth Bane: Rule of Two, by Drew Karpyshyn

Today I'm looking at the second book in the three-book Darth Bane series, Rule of Two. As can so often be the case with trilogies, I felt like this book was meandering around rather than setting up the third act in the series. There is conflict and Bane and his apprentice, Zannah, move closer towards their goals, but I don't feel like they were brought to the lowest point in their story arc, like in other stories such as Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers, just for sake of example. Depending on how the last book, Dynasty of Evil, goes I'll have to see where the series goes. This isn't to say there weren't things I enjoyed about this book, but rather I really wished there were some things that were done differently with the book.

Basically this book starts with Bane and Zannah having several problems they need to overcome. Bane gets infested with Dark Side Force-eating parasites called orbalisks. The orbalisks are impossible to remove and cause Bane excruciating pain, but they form armor over his body that is impervious to even lightsabers, so that's kind of neat. Bane is also trying to create his own Sith holocron but keeps failing for reasons he doesn't understand and he suspects there's some secret to forming holocrons still concealed from him. Zannah meanwhile is performing her Sith training and is slowly working to become more powerful than Bane so she can finally kill and replace him, but she has to bide her time until Bane can teach her nothing more.

The thing that bugs me about this book is that for most of it the Jedi assume that the Sith are extinct after the thought bomb exploded on Ruusan. It's really only because one Jedi, Johun Othone, won't give up the idea that there are still Sith out in the galaxy and he manages to find Zannah's cousin who witnessed her and Bane attack him at the epicenter of the thought bomb. Once Othone, Valenthyne Farfalla, and a couple other Jedi find out, they go to hunt down Bane and end up...dead. Like, really anticlimactically dead, and once again, the Jedi think that the Sith order is extinct. So in that respect it feels like we got reset back to where we were at the beginning of the book which makes me wonder why we bothered in the first place. And the deaths of Othone and Farfalla are even more disappointing because I felt they weren't well-developed as characters but with intriguing possibilities for development that are literally cut short.

And the shame is there are some things that I really liked about this book and other stuff set thousands upon thousands of years before the movies when Jedi and Sith battled each other across the galaxy. There seems to be a freedom to include whatever weird cool stuff you could think of and throw it into the stories. I think it's kind of neat that a Sith alchemist came up with a way to use the Dark Side to turn flesh into metal and circuitry and create an army of cyborg zombies. I thought that was a neat idea. And I find it intriguing that the Jedi have a far more militant bend prior to the Ruusan Reformations and seem to allow things like emotional attachments. I say this because Farfalla has this ridiculously pimped out bed showing key scenes from his life including his birth and becoming a Jedi Master which seems like a really important emotional possession that the Jedi Order I'm more familiar with wouldn't permit. There's just a lot of neat stuff in how things look different compared to how they look in the movies.

Maybe if I want more of the cool, different, but still Star Wars stuff I need to go track down the comics and/or books set even further back in the history of the Republic. This book is okay, but I find the stuff that makes it so much like the movies I like less than the stuff that makes it different.

- Kalpar