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 It also helps that I am a fan of this school and very much respect many of its adherents (even if much of the work is out of date compared to current research).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."