Sunday, December 23, 2007

Death Traps

I just finished up Belton Cooper's memoir Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War II. Like any memoir it is largely a narrative account of one individuals experiences. And thus has all the benefits -- and drawbacks -- of the format.

Cooper was an ordinance officer with the 3rd Armored Division "Spearhead" in Europe in WWII. His primary responsibility was organizing, filing, and delivering loss reports as well as organizing equipment replacement. As such, while he was not a front line soldier, he saw much of the after effects of war -- specifically knocked out tanks. As one of the first soldiers on the scene after a battle, he would assess the likelihood that a specific wreck was repairable, or whether it should be written off and a replacement acquired from the depot.

This is where the title of the book comes in. The US Army primarily relied on the M4 Sherman series tanks as their primary medium tank. Cooper is less than charitable about this vehicle, which he feels is markedly inferior to German designs such as the Panther and Tiger. To an extent he is probably right. However, this is a one-way bias, as Cooper could not see things on the German end. Many German tanks, while they had excellent firepower, protection and (in some cases at least) mobility, they suffered in reliability. While tanks like the Panther could (when working properly) overwhelm the Sherman in a straight on gun duel, it had issues with a weak final drive, transmission, and other reliability problems. Not to mention very early marks spontaneously catching on fire when the fuel line failed and sprayed the engine compartment! As a famous Civil War general quoted, its all about who gets there "the fastest with the mostest," and this is what the Sherman did for the US Army.

While one can amiably disagree with Cooper's assessment of the Sherman, a more vexing problem is the number of factual errors in the book. Cooper goes out of his way pointing out the flaws of the M4 Sherman's R975 Radial engine (it had issues with spark plug fouling while idling for an extended period of time), and is more praiseworthy of the later Ford V-8 powered machines (I assume he's talking about the GAA engine), he refers to the R975 Shermans as the M4, and the Ford V-8 Shermans as the M4A1. This is problematic as both the M4 and the M4A1 has the R975 engine (the M4 was basically an M4A1 with a welded -- rather than cast -- armor hull). I presume he is referring here instead to the M4A3, which besides having a better engine, also had more horsepower to play with.

There are other errors, such as referring to most of the 75mm German cannons as PAK (or KwK) 41's, when these should either be 40's (for the PAK 40 L/46 or the KwK 40 L/48 in the Panzer IV), or the KwK 42 in the Panther. While the average reader would never notice (or perhaps care) about the difference, someone looking at the book with a more scholarly or professional eye will find it suspect.

That aside, there were a few areas I found very interesting. Apparently, Cooper was involved with the Super Pershing project. This tank was to be the answer to the German King Tiger tanks. It mounted a longer, 90mm L/70 cannon designed to kill Tigers. When the 3rd Armored took issue with its example, it was uparmored with scrap armor plate salvaged from knocked out German vehicles. As such it was a bit overweight and nose-heavy, causing it some reliability issues. It also totally failed to get an opportunity to fulfill its designed role (it encountered no Tiger IIs). Also interesting is Cooper's discussion of the immediate post war period. I would have liked to seen more information on the rebuilding and occupation of Germany, but unfortunately, there was not much devoted to this. The 3rd Armored was slated to depart for the Pacific and the War against Japan (though fortunately for them, the Atom Bombs cut short that assignment).

To diverge in a bit of irony, I found it interesting comparing Cooper's complaints about the Sherman in Europe, and its performance in the Pacific. The Japanese did not have a tank park that was anywhere near as effective as the Sherman. Nearly ever Japanese tank was obsolete, or of poor quality compared to the Sherman. I suspect if the 3rd Armored were to enter the War in the Pacific during the invasion of Kyushu, roles would have been quite reversed.

In the end a memoir is more like an anecdotal look at war. I found it entertaining, but then I also didn't think it revealed any new information about the war. This is not to say it is any less of value (the more veterans that die each year, the more of their stories are lost to posterity), but perhaps the book is best approached when one has already a general background on the subject, or at least used in conjunction with such a work.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Left Hand of Darkness

Sometimes you're just not ready for a certain book. That was definitely the case for Ursula K. le Guin's classic _Left Hand of Darkness_. I has started reading it some time ago -- perhaps ten years ago or more -- and at that time I'm not sure I had the mental maturity to appreciate the book (I was still in High School when I started reading it). Now that I've had a bit of life experience as well as reading exposure, I came back to the book and thoroughly enjoyed it!

This book firmly belongs in the camp of "Soft Science Fiction." What technology and science existed in the novel were there merely for background. Instead, she explores the meaning (or our preconceptions) about gender. This is accomplished through a species of Man inhabiting a forgotten colony world that has no gender. Or rather, has both genders in one. It would be a mistake to call these people hermaphrodites, since their sexual role (as either male or female) only manifests itself in the short period of "heat (called "Kemmer)," with either individual capable of going in one direction or another.

Into this is thrust Genly Ai, an emmisary from the Ekumen, a cultural and trade alliance uniting the lost colonies of mankind after some sort of unspecified disaster (war?). And of course his struggles to deal with these people who could be both men or woman -- often at the same time.

I must admit wrapping my head around such a gender disparaty was a challenge. Perhaps it is my own ideas about gender roles that intruded itself on the narrative. I found it difficult at times to remember that the characters (other than the protagonist, which is male). It was easy to fall into assigning those gender roles, since most of the characters are either gender neutral (and thus because of my male oriented bias I naturally assigned the male gender to those characters), or show a slight male bias. It didn't really start falling together for me until Genly and Estraven began fleeing across the ice, and Ursula challenged the reader with the two characters closeness.

Nonetheless, I also felt the book was too short, and there were issues I would have liked to seen explored more. I'm not convinced of Ursula's handling of (for lack of a better term) mating customs. There is no marriage per se, and when individuals feel the "need" they seek out others in Kemmer and ... well... let nature take its course. Families, therefore, are clannish rather than nuclear, with participation in rearing by other clan members (except in Ogoreyn, where socialism seems to have taken root, and children are wards of the state or such). I'm not so sure such types of organization would necessarily work, especially since my biological need to protect and nurture my daughter (as a father) is a very powerful one, and I can't imagine a society in which all fathers would not feel a similar attachment (despite the fact that there are plenty of fathers today who apparently feel no special attachment to their own brood...). I think a bit more exploration of this aspect was necessary.

Another aspect is that Ursula introduced a sort of supernatural mental abilities into the book that didn't serve any purpose except to show that despite the mutual affection Genly and Estraven had, such a level of intimacy (I think here Le Guin may have been making a point about the "mentalities" that separate men and women) is still not possible or sometimes even desirable (but at times -- especially when under stress -- become natural). The Gethenites (as the natives referred to their world) developed independently their own traditions of super-ordinary mental abilities (mostly focused on prescience it seems). The questions I would have is why did they develop abilities in this area, but not in the area of mindtalk that Genly's traditions developed? How does this relate to their unique gender? Is fortune-telling a feminine trait (doubt it)?

In the end, I think it would be illuminating to talk to a woman that had also read this book independently, and see if her perspective is different than mine, and to explore the book more fully.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Big Eagles in a Big Book

It's been a little while since I last posted. Next up is _Spirit Gate_ by Kate Elliot. A rather thick fantasy novel, per a burb I saw on Amazon, she intends to extend the series to 7 volumes in total, a "Jordan" run so to speak. However, unlike Robert Jordan (RIP), Kate's book has better characterization, even if it doesn't move along quite as fast.

In the setting, a land called The Hundred (for reasons not revealed in the book...yet...) has been patrolled by a group of peacekeepers called the Reeves. In the execution of their duties, they have as partners and transportation a race of slightly more intelligent giant eagles. In this way, they have kept peace in the Hundred for quite some time.

However, things have deteriorated over time. A hinted at race of beings that had previously administered justice has dissappeared sometime previously, with no hint at their return. It falls to the Reeves to step in and administer justice. As things often happen in fantasy novels, there is unrest in the land, and armies bent on conquest afflict society.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, a vaguely asian inspired Qin officer (very much a Mongol analouge in many ways) flees from certain death as a political pawn in his own nation with his new wife, her uncle (hardly older) and a number of followers, making their way to the Hundred to serve as mercenaries...

That's about it.

Like Jordan, Elliot appears to be long and heavy on the characterization. In fact, the entire 1st book appears to be a setup establishing the characters. Although we start to see the beginnings of what I think the main thrust of the story will be, its only a glimpse. As such, a pure setup book of this length (I don't have the book handy at the time of this writing, but approximately 500 pages) might turn off some people, but the writing is lucid and the characters interesting (in one form or another) . However, if you're not interested in a 7 book series, you might want to avoid this one for that reason...

Monday, September 3, 2007

Revenge of the Mongols

Next up is Victor Milan's _A Rending of Falcons_. This book is another genre book, this time in the Mechwarrior (Battletech) setting. Genre fiction being what it is (soap opera for young men, though I like to think at a higher level of sophistication than pro-wrestling), this book was merely OK.

Victor continues with the Jade Falcon's storyline. Malvina, generator of the so-called "Mongol" doctrine (i.e. using utter brutality, far beyond the pale, to keep subject people in-line) returns to the Jade Falcon Occupation Zone. This time she has her sights set at usurping the Khanship of the Falcons.

The development of the character of Malvina is starting to get a bit unrealistic. In a genre where caricatures is pretty much expected, this character is going a bit beyond the pale. The utter brutality and lack of regard for other human life makes her worse than any of the Clans, and perhaps worse than the Smoke Jaguars (known for their brutality before their...comeuppance). She furthermore comes off as being totally self-centered, a despot and (worse) a demagogue. What's more, throughout the book I kept hoping someone would stick a bullet or some other sharp object in this turkey, but alas not to be.

Speaking of caricatures, the Hell's Horses makes an appearance in this novel, with plenty of stereotypes of their own. The Horses have appeared to have totally gone the way of the Mongol (historical peoples, not the above-mentioned doctrine), top knots, sabres, and all. Battletech/Mechwarrior has been going down this route for some time (just look at the Draconis Combine, a bunch of Samurai wanna-be's, including katana swords and dueling), but I find it dissappointing nonetheless. It would be nice to see a return to the setting as it was during the "Golden Age" (IMHO) of the House books (approx 1987-88). There was definitely a multi-cultural feel here, and despite attempts to bring it back (a memoral picture for me is in the Handbook: House Steiner, where a ethnic Pakistani or Sikh from Bolan is arguing with a merchant, turban and all), has been crushed under the iron-heeled boots of Stackpole and others...

Ysabel time...

It's been a while since I last posted (around a month or so!), but during that period I haven't been lax.

I started reading _Hammer's Slammers_ and got...bored. I may not be ready for it (yet). I sometimes find if I put a book on the shelf for a while, I can come back with a fresh perspective and enjoy it. For example, when I first started reading _God Emperor of Dune_ I couldn't get into it. Later when I came back to it I enjoyed it. I'm sure _Hammer's Slammers_ will be the same...

In the meantime I read instead Guy Gavriel Kay's _Ysabel_. I'll not try not to deny it: Kay is one of my favorite authors. After reading the superlative _Tigana_ I always look for his books eagerly.

_Ysabel_ is along the lines of his other fantasy books, in that it freely mixes history with fantasy. Unlike Kay's other books (a historical pastiche with fantasy elements...you can almost read the books and guess what historical personalities he's writing about), this book is very much set in the modern world with a barely-glimpsed at fantasy world behind the scenes.

The action starts out in Provence, France. A young boy...so on and so forth. What is interesting about this book is that the main character is a witness to the drama, rather than a true participant. It involves an age-old rivalry between a Celtic warrior and a Greek merchant -- and the clash of cultures that come with it. What is maddening though, is that he sets up a number of mysteries and doesn't follow through with a resolution. Does this mean there will be a sequel (maybe, probably not)? Only time will tell...

While this book was not one of Kay's best (there have been others), its interesting enough, and I think it is a book that might have a more popular appeal to those who generally don't read SF/Fantasy. In that sense, it was almost a fantasy version of a Chrighton book...

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

More Star Wars Action

Amongst the many books I read during my hiatus from the blog include Book 4 of the Legacy of the Force series of Star Wars books. This entry, called _Exile_ is brought by the pen of Aaron Allston. I like genre fiction; I won't deny it. It's comforting, can be fun, and every once in a while you get a real corker. This one, however, is lots more of the same.

Jacen Solo, Jedi Knight, continues his slide to the Dark Side, assisted along by a half-Sith with motives of her own. And there's this krazy female Twi-lek in it..

Blah, blah, blah...

Reading this series, I get the feeling it could have been compressed into a trilogy. It's not. I felt like not a whole lot went on here: more politicking, more mistrust, more Luke concerned about his son Ben. I already have quite a bit invested in the series, so I HAVE to finish it now (I'm a little obsessive to boot...). Hopefully later books will pick up more on the action...

For my next entry, I'm going to write about Mike Stackpole's latest ( and rare) entry in the Mechwarrior franchise of genre fiction, _Masters of War_. There's been a bit of electrons spilled on this book --well written but plot holes you can drive an Atlas through. I like to make up my own mind on that. And while I've always liked Stackpole's writing (the Warrior trilogy is amongst my favorites), the words I've read in response to this book have me concerned. We'll see.

I'm also going on vacation, and plan to read while down on the beach. I have an omni of Drake's Hammer's Slammers, so I think that'll go into the queue. After that...?

Little Green Men

In a departure from my normal routine, I picked up _Old Man's War_ by Scalzi, and started reading the first few pages. That was a mistake. Over the next couple of evenings (I has a little girl -- 18 months at the time of this writing -- so my time can be limited) I finished the book.

According to the blurb in the book, this is Scalzi's first work of fiction. It was a pretty good entry into the cut-throat competition of the bloated Scifi literature industry...(yes, I'm being a little sarcastic).

Here's the premise. In the future, competition for galactic real-estate is fierce. Sitting down and talking about it takes time, and it's just easier to send over a few divisions and secure the planet via "aggressive negotiations." Earth's answer is to recruit OLD people. People way past their prime. But before sending these geriatric 75 year old shock-troopers to the front line, everything that makes them who they are are transformed into the body of a green skinned, high tech super trooper. And away they go.

Scalzi sets up the premise well. I have no idea what I would do as a 75-year old geriatric transformed into the body of a virile early 20-something, but his idea of nonstop green-skinned nookie sounds about right to me... And while the main character shows a sufficient amount of pluck, he is in no way one of the ├╝bermensch of the book (in fact, besides his ideas an leadership ability, he's quite average...for a supersoldier). Oh, and why are they green? It's the chlorophyll...

There was only one point in the book that bothered me. A small aspect of the plot is an incident where human oil-rig jockeys go on strike. The green-skinned supertroopers escort scabs in to get the rigs working again. The strikers go berserk, assault the troops, and feed them to some shark-like creatures. The oil rigs are retaken, and in a fit of battlefield justice, the ring-leaders are fed -- alive -- to these creatures. While one can argue the crime done was rather inhumane, the fact that the troops perpetuated this action (and it seems had some sort of official license) smacks less of "justice" and more "revenge." But then a long murder trial wouldn't be as kewl and wouldn't show what kind of bad-asses we're dealing with, I suppose...

Next up, more Star Wars...

Roman Twilight, Part 1

It's been a while since my last post, but I have hardly been standing still!

As I indicated in my last post, I would be reading the Heather book on the Fall of the Roman Empire. Let me say this is a weighty book, but a good one. With that in mind, I have decided to split up my treatment of the book into sections. This also helps with my occasional book ADD I sometimes suffer from...

Naturally, here is section one.

Heather divides his book into sections, with the first being a general broad overview on the political institutions, general picture, and state of the Empire in the 4th C. More importantly, he analysis the meaning -- what it meant to the 4th C inhabitants of the Empire -- of being Roman. It was no longer an aspect of being a citizen of the city of Rome, or a descendant thereof. During Rome's slow but inexorable advance across Southern Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa, it brought Roman culture with it. And with it, it brought its best means of integrating the disparate and diverse ethnic groups inhabiting the Mediterranean Basin into a cohesive whole. These subject people, Heather maintains, "bought into" the Roman culture, and while they may have still maintained aspects of local culture, over time they were transformed into Romans, and looked at the Empire as part of their birthright. This, in the end, would be part of the problem behind the collapse of the Empire: essentially the Empire was no longer able to contract its borders and defend areas important to its maintenance. It would be like the United States abandoning California, or New Jersey.

Furthermore, the popular image of the hairy, uncivilized barbarians may also be incorrect. Heather maintains that the Germanic peoples had begun to adapt their civilization thanks to close contact with Roman (and Mediterranean) civilization. Where previously Germanic tribes were an almost ad-hoc political organization centered around a strongman and his warband, the later Germanic tribes began to organize themselves more centrally, with aspects of Kingship and hereditary leadership developing. Furthermore, the material and political culture of the German people began to transform through trade and cultural contact, enriching them immensely.

Finally, and while the greatest threat of this time was the Sassanid Persian Empire to the East, the Romans had adapted their political and economic organization in order to deal with this upstart -- and increasingly powerful -- rival empire. The disasters of the 3rd century were painfully dealt with, and at the dawn of the 4th, Rome had regained a semblance of stability again.

How long would it last, and what was the stake in the Roman heart? More on that later...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Welcome to the Dark Side of the Force...

I finally finished up _Tempest_ by Troy Denning, third in the Legacy of the Force novel series in the ever-popular Star Wars line. Here we have the story of a powerful young Jedi, strong in the force, slowly descending to the Dark Side because he is convinced he can use it to protect the Universe from those it would harm...

Wait, sound familiar? In a lot of ways this is a retelling of Eps. 1-3; the names have been changed to protect the innocent (or not so innocent, as the case may be).

With genre fiction, one needs to read these books with the same level of conviction one would when watching a popcorn movie at the movie theater. While finishing up this book, I went and saw the new Fantastic Four movie, and the parallels here are very appropriate. The movie was fun, entertaining, and a good way to blow 2 hours of my life (in a way that does NOT want me to get them back). If you go to see the new Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer with the idea of gaining some sort of existential insight into the meaning of humanity or the condition of life, you may be disappointed (but then, perhaps it is there and I'm just not being observant enough?). The same thing with this book: Tempest is a fun romp with a lot of the elements we look for in Star Wars: the struggle between Good and Evil, those that walk the line, and space battles. Oh, and some cool lightsaber action thrown into the mix.

Ultimately, this series needs to develop a bit more before any conclusions can be made. At this point, it is like watching the first half-hour of Empire Strikes Back, and the Big Secrets haven't been revealed yet. That being said, the fact that this series so far resembles the Prequel trilogy makes me wonder where this is going to go, and whether there will be enough differences to make it worth the journey.

Next up in the queue is a book I picked up at Barnes & Noble this weekend. I had intended to read and post about Pirenne's _Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe_. For those of you that do not know, Pirenne is a student of the Annales school of historical analysis, which combines a multi-disciplinary approach to analysis with an emphasis on social and economic roots. To say this school of thought has not had a profound influence on historical thought is an understatement. It also helps that I am a fan of this school and very much respect many of its adherents (even if much of the work is out of date compared to current research).

So we've set that aside, and instead I'm going with Peter Heather's _The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and Barbarians_. I've already started the book, and so far it's a winner, with some very nice analysis (to start off with) on what it means to be Roman in the 4th C. Here's what the back has to say:


"The death of the Roman Empire is one of the perennial mysteries of world history. Now, in this groundbreaking book, Peter Heather proposes a stunning new solution: Centuries of imperialism turned the neighbors Rome called barbarians into an enemy capable of dismantling an Empire that had dominated their lives for so long.

"A leading authority on the late Roman Empire and on the barbarians, Heather relates the extraordinary story of how Europe's barbarians, transformed by centuries of contact with Rome on every possible level, eventually pulled the empire apart. He shows first how the Huns overturned the existing strategic balance of power on Rome's European frontiers, to force the Goths and others to seek refuge inside the Empire. This prompted two generations of struggle, during which new barbarian coalitions, formed in response to Roman hostility, brought the Roman west to its knees. The Goths first destroyed a Roman army at the battle of Hadrianople in 378, and went on to sack Rome in 410. The Vandals spread devastation in Gaul and Spain, before conquering North Africa, the breadbasket of the Western Empire, in 439. We then meet Attila the Hun, whose reign of terror swept from Constantinople to Paris, but whose death in 453 ironically precipitated a final desperate phase of Roman collapse, culminating in the Vandals' defeat of the massive Byzantine Armada: the west's last chance for survival.

"Peter Heather convincingly argues that the Roman Empire was not on the brink of social or moral collapse. What brought it to an end were the barbarians. "

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Guadalcanal heck...

Just because you can't say h-e-l-l on the Internet...
I finished up _On the Canal: The Marines of L-3-5 on Guadalcanal, 1942_ this week. The best way to describe this book is as something between an oral history and a memoir. Mainly the book is a collection of memories of the author Ore Marion, a participant in the initial Marine landing on Guadalcanal, late Summer to Winter 1942. The Guadalcanal campaign marked one of the first offensive actions by the US in WWII and, despite hardship, privation, and the Japanese, was eventually successful. Guadalcanal, therefore, marked one of the first stepping stones to returning the war back to the Japanese.
As one can expect from an oral history and memoir, it is a collection of anecdotes from the campaign Marion participated in. Thus, by its nature, it is packed with plenty of action, amusing stories of military life on the 'Canal, as well as a very strong human element. Several times the author mentions how he disagrees with more professional or official histories. "This is how it really happened." Despite this, the author is free enough to admit when his recollections may not be fully accurate, and a few times he includes the same event, but from the perspective of one of his compatriots (who may remember the event differently).
While I enjoyed the author's writing, and generally I'd recommend the book to anyone that wants the "human" element to the conflict (I would probably not recommend it to someone that has no knowledge of the campaign in general, since context is important in this case), I was a bit annoyed at the forward. Written by Thomas Cuddihy, he quotes Henry Ford ("'History is mostly bunk'" p.2) as well as states Ford's "opinion about history is generally agreed to have some merit." Generally agreed by whom? And why is Henry Ford, auto mogul, considered some sort of authority on history? While this book is definitely geared to the non-specialist, I don't think that excuse is valid for playing loose with the writing. I think Cuddihy should have stopped with the quote by Austrian sociologist Ivan Illich (but even then, why should someone interested in history take the statement of a non-historian as authoritative?), and expanded on the quote ("Historians who rely on previously published material perpetuate falsehoods" p.2) to demonstrate the Historical Process, and how sources are analysed to create a synthesis of information. I'm not sure if this was even his intent, but nonetheless, in my mind, a missed opportunity.
Next up on the rack is a little genre fiction: _Star Wars: Legacy of the Force - Tempest_. Here's what the sleeve has to say:

"Forty years after the Battle of Yavin, a dangerous new era has begun as civil war threatens the unity of the Galactic Alliance. In the wake of Corellia's failed bid for independence, Han and Leia Solo cannot stand by and do nothing. They've decided to risk everything to help end the war as quickly as possible, thought their willingness to join Han's fellow Corellians has enraged their family and the Jedi, fighting on the side of the Alliance.

"The Solos draw the line when they discover the rebels' plot to make the Hapan Consortium which rests upon the Hapan nobles murdering the pro-Alliance queen and her daughter. Yet Han and Leia's selfless determination to save the queen cannot aver the inescapable consequences of their actions -- consequences that will pit mother against son and brother against sister in the battles ahead.

"For as Jacen Solo's dark powers grow stronger under the Dark Jedi Lumiya, and his influence over Ben Skywalker becomes more insidious, Luke's concern for his nephew forces him into a life-and-death struggle against his fiercest foe, and Han and Leia Solo find themselves at the mercy of their deadliest enemy...their son."

Friday, June 1, 2007

_Variable Star_ varies...

I finally completed reading _Variable Star_, written by Spider Robinson based on an unfinished outline by Robert Heinlein. As usual, if you want to stay spoiler-free, do not read on.

Science fiction can often be divided into several different categories. Most readers will be familiar with the old stand-bys: Hard, Soft, and Space Opera SF. One of my favorite writers, David Brin, suggests a few more categories. While I am paraphrasing from content he presented on the "Star Trek: The Motion Picture Director's Edition," he further divides Science Fiction into "Progressive" (i.e. this is what we may be capable of and is optimistic), and "Cautionary" (i.e. warns us what can go wrong if we are not mindful, and is pessimistic). _Variable Star_ definitely falls into the latter category.

But what did I think of the book? Well, it certainly held my attention! The quality of writing was very good, what one would expect from Robinson. However, I'm not sure the book could decide whether it was Hard SF or something different. I think where the book "jumped the shark" was when it was detailed how interstellar communications is handled, and how the ship achieves its high sub-C performance.

Interstellar communications are handled by psychics that, when paired with a twin on Earth, are capable of instantaneous FTL communications. The ship of the story, furthermore, uses a "Quantum Ramjet" of some sort, collecting the quantum fluctuations and turning it into thrust (of approx .5G). I think this is where the story "jumped the shark" a bit for me. It mixes elements of Hard SF (i.e. relativistic travel through acceleration/deceleration), but throws in psychics in the mix. It may just be my bias showing here (I don't particularly care of psychics as an element in Hard SF), and while I don't think it ruined the story, it did drop the book down a few notches in my mind.

The ending also was not as satisfying for me either. The main point of the book is that a colonist ship is targeting a planet some 80+ LY from Earth. During the trip, the Sun explodes, wiping out the seat of humanity. Now, except for a few scattered colonies, this ship is the remnant of human civilization, and must face the impending doom of a Gamma Ray burst following them at C (so therefore they can never outrun it). The ending...didn't really end the book. It certainly provided closure for the main character, but what happens to human civilization now? Why did the Sun blow up? Etc. I would have liked a bit more here (or perhaps I need to only wait for the sequel).

As I mentioned above, the book is a cautionary one: don't put all your eggs in one basket. In order to survive, humanity must expand into space. I was also surprised by the rationalism of the book as well; in the last 3rd of the book, after knowledge of the Sun's demise is disseminated amongst the crew, one of the characters has a fairly long monologue that, in my opinion, very strongly hinted at the current War on Terror. I'll let the individual reader's make up their minds on this point, but I think it definitely indicates rather much where Robinson's politics lie (and, I think, Heinlein's libertarian leanings).

Overall not a bad book. Next up, a bit of history: _On the Canal: the Marines of L-3-5 on Guadalcanal, 1942_. Here's what the back has to say:

"Eight months to the day after Pearl Harbor, US Marines landed on the Pacific
island of Guadalcanal. Their mission: to seize the airfield the enemy
was building and stem the southward tide of the Imperial Japanese Army. Initially
unopposed and ultimately triumphant, for four months these young soldiers
engaged in ferocious combat and endured debilitating heat, hunger, and
disease. Sometimes with humor, always with brutal honesty, U.S. Marine Ore Marion takes readers into the jungle hell that was the Canal.

"Ore J. Marion served with marine company L-3-5 on Guadalcanal and later on Iwo Jima. Promoted to sergeant during the Guadalcanal campaign, he served in the US Marine Corps until 1970. Marion died in 2003."

Monday, May 28, 2007

The First in a New Series...

My first post on my new Blog!

In keeping with the theme of this blog, the book currently at the top of my stack is some good ol' (well, not so old) SF. Right now I'm reading _Variable Star_, by Heinlein, or is that Robinson??? Well the truth is per the introduction, the book is based on a detailed outline Heinlein created, but never completed. The Heinlein estate hired Robinson to finish the text.

Robinson does a good job in creating the "feel" of a Heinlein. But there is enough of the author in it to make one feel that the book is an homage, not a rip-off (I shudder to think I should read Brian Herbert's _The Sandworms of Dune_). Robinson also "updates" it with elements current readers appreciate (such as on p.34 of my text, in which it is explained why Jinny refers to her butler as "Smithers." Simpsons reference in the first 50 pages? How could you go wrong!). Also google is used here as a verb, not a proper noun (people -- including myself -- already do that, so no surprises here...but it is nice to find that my abuse of the English language is considered standard slang a century from now).

So far so good, and I haven't set the book aside for other reading amusements. We'll just wait and see how it goes...