Monday, December 10, 2007


This blog will no longer be updated. I started the blog to explore a different way of publishing my book reviews (I was bored and looking for purpose in life). It's been fun (not really), and I've learned a lot about Blogger in the process (it sucks). But ultimately, the blog must give me something of value (I want my own groupies) to justify the time and effort I spend maintaining it (I'm really lazy). After six months of updates, the blog has given me nothing of significant value (snarky comments by Thainamu don't count).

I will continue to write my book reviews. They will continue to be available online at, or you can subscribe to my RSS newsfeed. They will no longer be available online.

Update: You can read them at

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Land That Time Forgot, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Rating: 3
Pages: 153

The Land That Time Forgot is the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Caspak trilogy. It begins with terror on the high seas: a German submarine torpedoes an American liner in the English Channel. Our hero, young Bowen J. Tyler, Jr., clings to life in a single surviving lifeboat. He rescues his dog, Nobs, and a beautiful young woman named Lys La Rue--whom he instantly falls in love with.

The three are picked up by an English tug, which has the misfortune to run into the same German submarine which sunk the American liner. This time, the Allies get the upper hand. They trick the Germans and storm the submarine, taking control of U-33.

Tyler and the rest try to sail the submarine into an English port, but sabotage by the German prisoners (or somebody) gets them lost. They stumble upon the lost island of Caprona in the Antarctic Sea. Caprona--or Caspak, as the natives call it--is a huge island rearing hundreds of feet out of the sea. The sides are sheer impassable cliffs. Over the cliffs, on Caspak, lies an ancient primitive land from Earth's forgotten past. Volcanic heat creates a tropical atmosphere that supports lush forests. Dinosaurs and savage, pre-historic beasts roam the land. Ape men eke out a meagre existence. Out of oil for the submarine's engines and out of food and water for the men, Tyler and his crew must survive on Caspak.

Most don't survive, of course. And the German prisoners are up to no good. This book was written during the first World War, and it shows.

It's a good book, marred by a few throwaway lines of subtle racism.

The Land That Time Forgot is out of copyright. It is freely and legally available online at Project Gutenberg: The Land That Time Forgot.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Day of Their Return, by Poul Anderson

Rating: 3
Pages: 185
Spoilers?: Minor
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

The conflict between Mersia and the Terran Empire is a primary focus of all Poul Anderson's Technic series books. The Day of Their Return is no different. Commissioner Chunderban Desai is sent to the frontier planet Aeneas, to restore order after a recent insurrection. The recalcitrant Aeneans still desire independence. The Terran Empire is afraid the Mersians will try to use Aeneas to drive a wedge into the Empire and hasten the beginning of the Long Night.

The seeds of rebellion are still strong on Aeneas. Young Ivar Frederikson, Firstman of Ilion, stirs the people's hearts when he attempts an attack on a Terran patrol. The attack fails and Ivar is forced into hiding; Commissioner Desai tries to bring him to justice, but is constrained because he fears to create a martyr.

While Ivar hides out among various nomadic groups, strange things are going on elsewhere. Aycharaych, a mind-reading Mersian agent, is loose on Aeneas. An Ythrian agent is also operating on Aeneas--and Ivar hopes to secure Ythrian aid for the Aenean independence movement. Finally, the prophet Jaan claims that the fabled Elder Race--which built the ancient ruins on Aeneas--will shortly return and free the people.

Minor spoiler: the nomadic tinerans of Aeneas keep pets which they call lucks, and which the Ythrians call slinkers. Unbeknownst to the tinerans, the slinkers are emotional amplifiers, reflecting emotions back at those around them.

The Day of Their Return to be one of Anderson's better books. It rates a strong 3. I wanted to give it a 4, but Anderson doesn't follow up on the slinkers--they're a throwaway plot element.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Warriors of Day, by James Blish

Rating: 2
Pages: 160
Better than Moby Dick?: The Warriors of Day are giants who eat Moby Dick for a snack, like a sardine.

The Warriors of Day is a useless book. It would never be published today, but standards were lower in the 1950s. The book starts out promisingly: Tipton Bond goes toe-to-toe with a Kodiak bear and emerges the victor. It's a gripping fight scene. But the book goes downhill quickly.

Tipton Bond finds himself magically transported to another world, called Xota. On Xota he stumbles upon the Temple of Mahrt, where he discovers that he is the Sword of Mahrt. Apparently, the Warriors of Day have vowed to destroy Xota as part of their quest for galactic domination. The legends tell of the god Mahrt, who will call forth his Sword to defeat the giant Warriors of Day.

It's all ludicrous and not in the least interesting. Tipton Bond taps into the planetary consciousness of Xota, which has some sort of gaia collective subconscious mind. He uses that power to destroy the huge spaceships of the Warriors of Day. It's all rather inexplicable.

It's too bad The Warriors of Day is such a poor book. Blish is a good writer, and flashes of his brilliance show through. But the plot is so utterly outlandish that it comes across as nothing but a cheap third-rate fantasy. I am tempted to give it a rating of 1, but it isn't quite that actively bad. The Warriors of Day rates a 2.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Missile Gap, by Charles Stross

Rating: 3
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

This short novel--really more of a novella--begins with a bizarre premise. At the height of the Cold War, the Earth suddenly becomes flat. Instead of a spinning globe wheeling through space, all the continents and oceans of Earth are spread out on an enormous flat disc. And the disc is unfathomably huge: its surface area can hold billions of Earths. In the oceans beyond the continents of Earth lie strange continents peopled by unhuman beings.

Humanity has no idea how it has come to be transported to the disc, but the change has severe geopolitical consequences. The nuclear deterrence between the superpowers is based on the ability to launch missiles in a polar orbit; polar orbits no longer exist, and nuclear missiles from America can no longer reach the Soviet Union. Consequently, the Soviets overrun Europe, and extend communism across their continent.

Both superpowers explore the unknown continents on the disk. The Soviets send Yuri Gagarin off in a huge Ekranoplan (a ground-effect aircraft), on a five year cruise to "boldly go where no Soviet man has gone before, explore new worlds and look for new peoples, and to establish fraternal socialist relations with them." Gagarin's expedition discovers an eerie secret: there are other Earths on this disc, and one of these alternate Earths has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust.

It's a pretty good book, and it's short enough to read in a couple of hours.

You can read Missile Gap online for free at Subterranean Press.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Horror in the Museum, by H.P. Lovecraft and others

Pages: 453
Spoilers?: Minor
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

These are not Lovecraft's best stories. The early ones particularly show a lot of racist sentiment. Medusa's Coil relies on a racist premise as a key plot point: Marceline is revealed to be black (which is supposed to be the ultimate horror.) I found The Last Test to be interesting enough to hold my attention, though not unpredictable. The Mound is better; the exploration of the subterranean world makes the story worthwhile. My favorite story, by far, is 'Till 'A the Seas'. Also good are The Horror at Martin's Beach and The Loved Dead. The rest are second-rate fare.

  • A Note on the Texts, by S. T. Joshi

  • Lovecraft's "Revisions", by August Derleth

  • The Green Meadow, by Elizabeth Berkeley and Lewis Theobald, Jun. - A meteorite contains a notebook with a message from a man who has passed over to The Green Meadow, "where young men are infinitely old."

  • The Crawling Chaos, by by Elizabeth Berkeley and Lewis Theobald, Jun. - A drug-induced vision of the end of the earth. "And when the smoke cleared away, and I sought to look upon the earth, I beheld against the background of cold, humorous stars only the dying sun and the pale mournful planets searching for their sister."

  • The Last Test, by Adolphe de Castro - Dr. Alfred Clarendon experiments with a deadly black plague, which is revealed to be not of this world.

  • The Electric Executioner, by Adolphe de Castro - A train ride with a madman and an electric chair.

  • The Curse of Yig, by Zealia Bishop - The snake-god Yig wreaks his vengeance on an Oklahoma family.

  • The Mound, by Zealia Bishop - A mound patrolled by a phantasmic Indian guard is a gateway into a vast subterranean world of Tsathoggua worshippers.

  • Medusa's Coil, by Zelia Bishop - Marceline, the wife of a young American man, is actually a fantastically ancient evil being.

  • The Man of Stone, by Hazel Heald - To get revenge on his cheating wife, a degenerate hillbilly perfects a potion that turns people to stone.

  • The Horror in the Museum, by Hazel Heald - Spending the night in a wax museum filled with living horrors.

  • Winged Death, by Hazel Heald - Mad scientist murders fellow scientist with a strange African disease spread by fly bites--but those bitten by the flies lose their souls.

  • Out of the Aeons, by Hazel Heald - An old statue found in the Pacific Ocean is actually a living man, frozen forever because he looked upon the god Ghatanothoa without carrying the proper protective charms.

  • The Horror in the Burying-Ground, by Hazel Heald - Burying people alive.

  • The Diary of Alonzo Typer, by William Lumley - Diary of a man whose old family home draws him in and kills him.

  • The Horror at Martin's Beach, by Sonia H. Greene - A lurking sea creature engages the villagers in a macabre tug of war.

  • Ashes, by C.M. Eddy, Jr. - Mad scientists turns assistant's girlfriend to ashes.

  • The Ghost-Eater, by C.M. Eddy, Jr. - A traveller through the forest at night stays with a strange old man/werewolf who tries to eat his soul.

  • The Loved Dead, by C.M. Eddy, Jr. - A twisted serial killer gets his only satisfaction from surrounding himself with death.

  • Deaf, Dumb, and Blind, by C.M. Eddy, Jr. - A blind deaf-mute records his final moments on a typewriter as some horrible presence draws near.

  • Two Black Bottles, by Wilfred Blanch Talman - The undead.

  • The Trap, by Henry S. Whitehead - A sorcerer traps a young boy in a mirror.

  • The Tree on the Hill, by Duane W. Rimel - A tree on a hill is a glimpse into another world.

  • The Disinterment, by Duane W. Rimel - Mad scientist transplants the narrator's head onto a non-human body.

  • ‘Till A’ the Seas’, by R. H. Barlow - The extinction of mankind comes at the hands of a merciless, scorching sun.

  • The Night Ocean, by R. H. Barlow - A vacationer spies something unhuman in the ancient sea.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Pool of Fire, by John Christopher

Rating: 4
Pages: 218
Spoilers?: Major
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

The final installment of the Tripods trilogy is as good as the previous book. In The City of Gold and Lead, Will Parker and Fritz infiltrate the Tripods' domed city. Will escapes from the city and brings back much-needed information about the Masters, including the news that the Masters are planning to destroy the Earth's atmosphere. Humanity has only a few short years to defeat the Tripods before every last creature on Earth will choke to death in the poisonous air of the Masters.

The Pool of Fire moves quickly. Will and Fritz spend a year traveling through Asia recruiting freedom-minded boys to their cause. Then Will helps the Resistance capture a Tripod and kidnap a living Master for their scientists to study. Will serves as the Master's prison guard, and inadvertently makes a discovery: alcohol incapacitates the Masters.

That leads to a plan: small teams will sneak into the Masters' domed cities and dump alcohol into the city water supply. Will and Fritz are chosen to lead the attack on the domed city in Germany.

The attacks succeed. The Masters are incapacitated, and the Resistance cracks the city domes, asphyxiating the Masters in Earth's oxygen atmosphere. Except at one city: the attack on the domed city on the Panama Canal fails.

The Resistance has a backup plans: primitive airplanes and bombs. This plan fails too. The backup backup plan is balloons and bombs. Will, Fritz, and Henry are among the balloonists who attack the domed city. The attack is nearly a failure, because the bombs keep bouncing off the city dome before exploding. Finally Henry lands his balloon on the dome, and, cradling his bomb and holding it against the dome, sacrifices his life to ensure the bomb cracks the dome. The Masters are defeated.

The Pool of Fire--and the whole Tripods trilogy--makes a big deal of Will's shortcomings. Will, as the first-person narrator, is frank about his impatience, his rashness, and his foolish pride. His struggle to control himself is a constant throughout the story.

John Christopher comments on humanity, too. When the Masters are defeated, Will assumes that men will remain united. Why should they war with one another, as they did in the past? That would be foolish. But Will is in for a shock. At the first Conference of Man, bitter partisanship rules the day. The Americans and the Chinese leave in a huff, the Germans blame the French for instigating trouble, and the English delegation withdraws in disgust. Will, Fritz, and Beanpole realize that although they have defeated the Masters, their work is not done.

Fritz said, "I think perhaps I will give up my farming. There are things more important."
Beanpole said, "I'm with you."
Fritz shook his head. "It is different for you. Your work is important, mine not."
"Not as important as this," Beanpole said. "What about you, Will? Are you ready for a new fight--a longer, less exciting one, with no great triumphs at the end? Will you leave your seas and islands, and help us try to get men to live together, in peace as well as liberty? An Englishman, a German, and a Frenchman: it would be a good start."
The air was cold but exhilarating. A gust of wind scattered powdery snow from the face of Jungfrau.
"Yes," I said, "I'll leave my seas and islands."

Monday, November 12, 2007

The City of Gold and Lead, by John Christopher

Rating: 4
Pages: 218
Spoilers?: Major
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

The second book in the Tripods trilogy is far better than the first. The White Mountains chronicles the adventures of three young boys on their journey to the community of free men in the Swiss Alps. In The City of Gold and Lead, the free men decide to strike back against the Tripods that rule the world.

But first they need information. Little is known about the Tripods, and nobody has ever entered the Tripods' huge domed city and returned. The Resistance comes up with a plan. Will, Beanpole, and Fritz Eger are fitted with false Caps sent to compete in the Games. The winners in each sport are selected to serve the Tripods in the City. If the boys win, they must gather as much information as they can, and escape the city.

Will wins the boxing championship, and Fritz wins the sprint. Both are selected by the Tripods. Inside the great domed city, they meet the Masters. The Tripods are merely mechanical vehicles. The Masters are tall, thin, tripedal, tentacled, hideously ugly creatures. They breathe a poisonous atmosphere--hence the domed city. Will, Fritz, and the other slaves wear gas masks as they serve the Masters.

Will and Fritz gather much information about the Masters. Will's Master is particularly forthcoming, and he confides to Will that the Earth will soon be rendered uninhabitable for humans. A thousand great atmosphere will spew out the poisonous concoction the Masters breathe, and soon the world will be ready for fullscale colonization. All this is set to occur within four years.

Shocked--the Resistance had expected to have decades to plan a decisive strike against the Tripods--Will and Fritz realize they must escape immediately. The Resistance must be warned so they can act right away.

The City of Gold and Lead is a fun book. My one objection is that Beanpole should never have been permitted to compete in the Games. His brilliant mind and his inventiveness would have been too precious to risk.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The White Mountains, by John Christopher

Rating: 2
Pages: 214
Spoilers?: Minor
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

My dad read the Tripod books to me when I was a kid. When I saw a set at Half Price Books, I had to buy them. The White Mountains is not as good as I remembered. The book does little more than set the stage for the sequels. The sequels are awesome, though, so it's worth it.

Giant metals tripods from outer space enslave humanity. People live simply in rustic villages. Technology as basic as clockmaking has been lost. They tell dimly-remembered stories about the time before the Tripods came, when men overpopulated the Earth and fought wars amongst themselves. At the age of 14, every boy and girl is Capped. The metal Cap melds with the skull and ensures complete loyalty to the Tripods.

In a small hamlet in England, a 13-year-old boy named Will Parker has just lost his only friend. He has just watched his only friend Jack get Capped; Jack is now a man, his personality has changed, and Will realizes he wants no part of Capping.

A passing Vagrant called Ozymandius notices Will's dissatisfaction, and tells him about a community of free men. He tells Will to travel south, cross the English Channel, and continue on the the White Mountains. There, in the cold mountains where the Tripods never go, he will find the last remaining community of free men.

Will sets off to find the White Mountains. He picks up traveling companions: Henry, a boy from his village; and later Beanpole, a brilliant young French boy with a penchant for inventing. Together they find the White Mountains--but not before they have a run-in with a Tripod, which Will manages to destroy with a hand grenade scavenged from a weapons cache in a bomb-out subway.

Most of the action is boring, though. We learn very little about the Tripods--that comes in the sequel, The City of Gold and Lead. Beanpole is annoying--he keeps trying to invent things like the steam engine. And half the book is about how hungry the boys are, because they have to subsist by stealing food along the way. That's realistic, but it's not an interesting story.

Monday, November 5, 2007

At the Earth's Core, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Rating: 2
Pages: 210
Spoilers?: Minor
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

Edgar Rice Burroughs has a pretty good formula. A hero gets stranded in a strange alien world, sees a princess, and falls in love. The princess is kidnapped, and the hero rescues her. Along the way everybody does lots of fighting with swords, knives, arrows, and other honorable weapons. At the Earth's Core does not deviate from the formula.

The alien world is Pellicudar, a world inside the hollow crust of the Earth. A tiny sun at the center of the Earth provides eternal daylight in Pellucidar. Without day and night, time in Pellucidar is variable. What seems a month to one man--as he fights his way through the savage jungle--is a mere hour for his companion studying quietly in a library. It's a ludicrous concept, but no more so than the idea of a hollow Earth.

The hero is David Innes. No Tarzan or John Carter, Innes is nonetheless a true Burroughs hero: athletic, educated, but a man of bold action rather than study. The love interest is Dian the Beautiful. Unfortunately for Innes, in his ignorance of Pellucidarian culture, he offends her grievously. He must go after her, but he is captured and enslaved by the Mahars.

The Mahars are intelligent winged dinosaurs, and are the dominant species in Pellucidar. They are served by the Sagoths, a race of primitive ape-men. Together, they enslave the true men of Pellucidar. Innes and his companions escape from the Mahars, Innes gets the girl, and then--in a surprise twist that surprises no one--Innes unites the men of Pellucidar and frees them from the tyranny of the Mahars. Hooray for happy endings.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Space Skimmer, by David Gerrold

Rating: 4
Pages: 218
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

Mass, a young man from the heavy world of Streinveldt, is on a quest to find out what happened to the Empire. Once it had spanned thousands of planets. Then one day, centuries ago, the Empire simply disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to it.

Mass leaves from Streinveldt, which no one has done for hundreds of years. He quickly uncovers a link between the Empire's collapse and the invention of a new kind of super-fast spaceship: the Space Skimmers. Naturally, Mass tracks down a Space Skimmer. It is a pure energy construct, controlled via the mind. Along the way, Mass picks up some unwelcome friends, including an unlucky young prince named Tapper. Tapper, although his royal line has been bred for luck, is extraordinarily unlucky. He appeals to Mass to transport him to Liadne, where he can be treated for his unluckiness.

Mass reluctantly agrees to help Tapper. In their adventures together, Mass learns more about the Empire's collapse.

The plot of Space Skimmer is good enough, and Gerrold acknowledges his debt to Niven for the whole "breeding for luckiness" idea. But the best part is the poetry. Gerrold sprinkles the book with poems and songs, and for once, I read and enjoyed the poetry. Good stuff.

I don't want their crimson skies, nor their weeping, bleeding suns,
Nor their haunted glowing auras, nor their atmospheres that run,
I won't breathe their rusty airs of colors not like blue,
The sky of home has a yellow sun; the yellow sun is you.

I'll stand erect on a cloudless day beneath your yellow light,
I'll bare my head and breathe deep breaths; the colors will be bright,
No goggles dim, no breathing mask, no pressure suit to bind,
I'll take my home-filled sky with me, for I can't leave it behind.

But ere I go, I'll pledge to you this timeless bright blue dream,
Home is for the wanderer an ever-changing stream,
He never drinks from it so sweet a draft as sweet as this--
As sweet and tumbling easy as love's first tender kiss.

The memory so sweet and clear, it must be taken with,
And kindled into life again, by sunlight and by myth.
On hills so far from you that your light has not yet roamed,
I'll keep your bright blue sky, for the bright blue sky is home.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Star King, by Jack Vance

Rating: 4
Pages: 160
Spoilers?: Minor
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

Star King is the first of the Demon Princes novels. The hero is Kirth Gersen. Not Keith Gersen, as the blurb on the back of the Daw paperback says. Oh well. At least Daw SF paperbacks are plentiful. They're probably my favorite line of books.

Kirth Gersen is a complex protagonist, but unlike a typical Vance character, he is not wholly self-centered. Orphaned, he was raised by his grandfather. His childhood consisted of training for a lifelong mission: to rid the galaxy of evil men. Gersen's grandfather left him a letter:

Actually the triumph [of good over evil] consists of two processes: first evil must be extinguished, then good must be introduced to fill the gap. It is impossible that a man should be equally efficacious in both functions. Good and evil, in spite of traditional fallacy, are not polarities, nor mirror images, nor is one merely the absence of the other. In order to minimize confusion, your work will be the destruction of evil men.

Gersen's first task is to find and kill the five pirate captains who operate in the Beyond, outside of the reach of the Oikumene. The first of these five Demon Princes that Gersen goes after is Attel Malagate. The true identity of Malagate "The Woe" is a jealously guarded secret. In Smade's Tavern on the desolate Smade's Planet, Gersen witnesses the murder of one Lugo Teehalt. The murder was ordered by Malagate, so Gersen follows the trail of the hitmen in an attempt to locate Malagate.

Gersen traces Malagate to the campus of Sea Province University on Alphanor. Malagate's alter ego is apparently an academic: but which one? Gersen's attempts to ferret out the identity of Malagate come up empty. At the same time, Gersen strikes up a romance with the university secretary, Pallis Atwrode. He becomes introspective, wondering whether he will ever have a normal life. If his life's work is to destroy evil men, then, as his grandfather told him, "you may never know a life of peace. However, I guarantee you ample satisfaction, for I will teach you to crave the blood of these men more than the flesh of woman." Gersen wonders if he ever had a real choice; his life's work was thrust upon him before he had the chance to decide for himself, and now he finds himself unable to deviate from the path his grandfather laid out.

Getting back to the matter at hand, Gersen narrows down the search for Malagate, and hatches an ingenious plan to learn Malagate's identity. Using the monitor filament from Teehalt's spaceship--which he stole on Smade's Planet--Gersen lures three university administrators out into the Beyond. They are searching for an uncolonized idyllic planet whose location is recorded only on Teehalt's monitor filament.

Gersen wins, of course. He has to. Well, he doesn't have to. This is a Jack Vance story, after all, and Vance would just as soon kill off his hero as let him win. That's what I love about Vance. He creates weird settings, populates them with complex characters that have their own motivations, and then doesn't force the characters to act in ways that are contrived to advance the plot. You never know quite what will happen.

Star King rates a solid four.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner

Rating: 4
Pages: 280
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

The world of The Shockwave Rider is dominated by the plug-in lifestyle. Citizens live fast-paced, high-tech lives, never putting down roots. People change jobs, change apartments, change friends as easily and as thoughtlessly as they change their clothes. One man, Nickie Haflinger, is a natural genius at writing worms. He can log into the net from any v-phone and punch in a worm to change his identity, or to manipulate the stock markets. His ability is critical, because he is running from the big bad government.

Interestingly, although John Brunner got a lot of things right, he got it wrong when it comes to surveillance: we don't need to be worried about the government as much as we do about private businesses. In The Shockwave Rider, the only malevolent force is the corrupt government. In the real world, corruption exists everywhere that power exists--government and private industry.

Further, Brunner falls back on his familiar socialist propaganda. Nickie Haflinger outwits the government hounds by writing a worm to reveal all the government's corruption. That's fair enough. But he's not content to stop there: Nickie offers the citizens two propositions:


#1: That this is a rich planet. Therefore poverty and hunger are unworthy of it, and since we can abolish them, we must.

#2: That we are a civilized species. Therefore none shall henceforth gain illicit advantage by reason of the fact that together we know more than one of us can know.

Brunner would have you believe the correct vote to both propositions is Yes. But it isn't. Proposition #1 states that "this is a rich planet," which is a meaningless statement. A planet cannot be rich. Earth has many natural resources, but none of these are useful or valuable until an industrious, enterprising man figures out how to make good use of them. That is the source of property--and hence, ownership. A better proposition would be "That we are an industrious and enterprising people." But that doesn't segue into the whole socialist agenda of eliminating poverty and hunger, because it requires that each man work for his own living.

The second proposition is basically asking the people to choose between secrecy and transparency. I would choose transparency, but it's phrased in such a way as to make business seem an evil endeavor. Brunner's collectivist leanings betray themselves again.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Today We Choose Faces, by Roger Zelazny

Rating: 2
Pages: 174
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

I read Today We Choose Faces on the strength of its title. It does not live up to my expectations. Zelazny gives us a novelette's worth of story stretched to novel length. The plot is straightforward enough: Lange and his fellow clones are telepathically linked, and they are the secret architects of the House. All humanity lives in the House, an artificial environment that shapes and molds humanity. The ultimate goal is to better mankind and produce a race that will not destroy itself through war, as previous human civilizations have done.

As Lange and his clones reshape mankind, they operate on themselves too: using a machine, they excise portions of their personality that they find repulsive and outdated.

But of course it won't last. A mysterious Mr. Black objects to the reshaping of mankind, and is out to kill Lange and the rest of the clones. To combat the deadly assassin, Lange is forced to undergo memory therapy to recover the lost portions of his personality. His lost memories include the violent, primitive tendencies from his past life as a mafia hit man--the qualities that will enable him to kill Mr. Black.

The big secret is that Mr. Black is one of the clones, who long ago decided he didn't like the idea of castrating humanity by destroying its capacity for violence. Zelazny takes a hundred pages to build up to this revelation, but it's too obvious, and Zelazny isn't a good enough storyteller to hold my interest when I already know what's coming. Today We Choose Faces rates a two.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Guardians of Time, by Poul Anderson

Pages: 254

I am not a fan of time travel stories. Poul Anderson's Time Patrol stories are the best of the whole silly subgenre.

  • Time Patrol: Manson Everard is recruited by the Time Patrol, and goes back to fifth century England to stop a 30th century merchant from changing history.

  • Brave to be a King: Everard tries to rescue a friend who is stranded in history and has been forced to play the historical role of King Cyrus.

  • Gibraltar Falls: A fact-finding mission to the formation of the Mediterranean sea almost ends in disaster.

  • The Only Game in Town: Everard and Sandoval head to pre-Columbus America to sabotage a Mongol expedition to the Americas.

  • Delenda Est: When the timeline is changed radically, Everard and van Sarawak must locate the critical event that was changed--which turns out to be related to Hannibal--and fix it.

  • Of Time and the Rover by Sandra Miesel: A brief essay about the celebration of individualism in Poul Anderson's Time Patrol stories.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Out of Time's Abyss, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Rating: 2
Pages: 139
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

Out of Time's Abyss is the conclusion of the Caspak trilogy. It's not so much a trilogy as a three-part story, so it doesn't make sense unless you've read the previous installments.

Burroughs is not at the top of his form here. The action feels largely perfunctory. The plot is merely a device to allow Burroughs to explain the curious mode of evolution in the land of Caspak.

In Caspak, evolution is central to the lives of all men. The pinnacle of Caspakian evolution, the Galu people, do not have children. Instead, members of the lower races spontaneously rise and become Galu. Likewise, members of the highest order of apes spontaneously rise and become men. Thus in Caspak, even individual creature experiences the full evolutionary development from primordial tadpole to fully developed man.

Women in Caspak spend an hour each morning in the river water, releasing eggs that wash out to sea. There they begin the evolutionary process that will eventually come full circle. Because the women do not bear children, one might expect this to have an impact on Caspakian culture. Burroughs passes up this opportunity for building an interesting society, sadly.

Instead, Burroughs creates a whole new race of man: the Wieroos. The Wieroo are winged men who claim to be the pinnacle of human evolution. The Wieroo and the Galu compete for dominance on Caspak. Both groups are anxious to develop the ability to give live birth--which they call cos-ata-lu, as they hope this will allow them to increase their numbers and conquer the whole of Caspak.

A few Galu women are able to give live birth, but they are rare. The Wieroo can all reproduce cos-ata-lu, but they only have male offspring. To keep the race alive, the Wieroo steal any Galu women who shows signs of being able to bear children.

In Out of Time's Abyss, our hero Bradley is kidnapped by Wieroo. In captivity, he meets a Galu woman. They escape together and have many adventures. It's a boring story, though, except for the glimpses into the Wieroo culture.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Terror in the Mind of God, by Mark Juergensmeyer

Pages: 243

In his 2000 book Terror in the Mind of God, Mark Juergensmeyer explores the relationship between religion and violence. He begins by examining a number of case studies, including

  • Radical right-wing Christianity in America

  • Protestant-Catholic issues in Northern Ireland

  • Jewish terrorists and assassinations is Israel

  • Islamic terrorism

  • Sikh violence in India

  • The Tokyo subway nerve gas attack

In all these cases, Juergensmeyer notes that the sects that turn to violence are marginal, and are not accepted by the mainstream religions to which they claim affinity. On the other hand, the mainstream religious community can often understand the motivations of the terrorists, if not approve of the methods.

Juergensmeyer identifies several key qualities that tend to lead to religiously-motivated violence:

  • A worldview that interprets history as a cosmic war between good and evil. The struggle is not against earthly institutions, but against heavenly powers. Often this happens when a culture fears for its existence, like the Sikhs fear becoming subsumed into India's dominant Hindu culture.

  • The unavailability of other options, such as the democratic process, to achieve one's goals.

  • The satanization and dehumanization of enemies, as when Islamic fanatics paint America and all Americans as evil, or when radical right-wing groups in America refer to all non-Aryans as mudpeople.

As for the terrorist acts themselves, Juergensmeyer interprets them as performance violence. They are not intended to directly achieve one's goals. They are symbols of a culture war. When Paul Hill murdered an abortion doctor, he wasn't expecting to significantly reduce the number of abortions performed in America; rather, he felt compelled to act to send a message that abortion is murder, and that deadly force is justified to defend the unborn.

The weakest part of Juergensmeyer's book is when he tries to interpret terrorism as a form of male sexual aggression. That, and his continual attempts to paint Timothy McVeigh as a religiously-motivated terrorist. I have just read two McVeigh biographies, and Juergensmeyer is deliberately misrepresenting McVeigh's motives for the Oklahoma City bombing. It is true McVeigh had contact with the radical Christian militia groups--notably the Christian Identity movement--but Juergensmeyer does not distinguish between contact and motivation. He sprinkles his book with unspecified comments about McVeigh's associations and links to Christian Identity--links which are often nothing more than an innocuous phone call, but you wouldn't know that from Juergensmeyer's insinuations. Then he goes into detail about Christian Identity's stated motivations for religious violence, and makes the unwarranted assumption that McVeigh shared those motivations.

I don't know why Juergensmeyer felt he needed to stretch the truth about McVeigh. Not all terrorism is religiously motivated, a point which Juergensmeyer admits more than once. There are plenty of other terrorist incidents that can be legitimately tied to Christian Identity groups, so there is no need to conjure up a fictional version of McVeigh. It calls Juergensmeyer's credibility into account. Even worse, in his public speeches Juergensmeyer is now apparently using McVeigh as a counterpoint to Osama bin Laden, claiming that McVeigh is as "Christian" as bin Laden is "Muslim." That's a lie, of course. McVeigh's motivations were wholly secular (although his crime was enabled and encouraged by a fringe group of Christian lunatics), whereas bin Laden's fatwa against America specifically uses religion to justify violence.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Hrolf Kraki's Saga, by Poul Anderson

Rating: 2
Pages: 277
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

Hrolf Kraki's Saga is Poul Anderson's retelling of the Danish legends. The legends are not complete, so Anderson fills in the gaps with his own bits of fiction. The result is a unique story. It reads very much like Beowulf--which is no surprise, because Beowulf makes an appearance in the Danish legends.

As a novel, it's unsatisfying. It's tedious. But it does portray a non-Western culture, so it's interesting in that regard. The Scandinavian culture glorifies violence, views powerful women as witches, and expects its kings and heros to father numerous illegitimate children. The kings often employ berserkers to complement their warriors, but the berserkers are universally reviled. Strong fighting men were above the law; in a world before modern weapons, a great warrior could kill anyone who crossed him. Even the kings were terrified of their own warriors.

Hrolf Kraki's Saga is probably a great way to learn about Danish legends. As a novel, I am generous to give it a rating of two.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Apocalypse in Oklahoma: Waco and Ruby Ridge Revenged, by Mark S. Hamm

Apocalypse in Oklahoma: Waco and Ruby Ridge Revenged, by Mark S. Hamm
Pages: 242

Mark S. Hamm wrote Apocalypse in Oklahoma before the trials of McVeigh and Nichols were complete, so it is missing some of the facts. Still, it is a valuable book because it explores the culture of violent right-wing militias that gave McVeigh the support he needed to become a terrorist.

Instead of beginning with McVeigh, Hamm begins with an exploration of the right-wing survivalist militia groups in America. In particular, he examines the Christian Identity movement. Christian Identity (and numerous other similar groups) were steeped in racism, religion, and a deep distrust of the government. They turned violent and carried out domestic terrorist attacks on government targets, but by 1990s, the FBI had broken their power.

It was this community that Timothy McVeigh entered when he returned from the Gulf War. Although Hamm presents no evidence that McVeigh was religious or racist, it is clear that McVeigh found validation for his anti-government view among these separatist paramilitary groups.

McVeigh's association with the radical right is well known. Hamm presents another theory, too: McVeigh was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the Gulf War. Further, he spent much of his time drugged up on crystal meth--a drug whose side effects include paranoia. Consequently, he developed a paranoid personality. The Waco incident was the final straw that convinced McVeigh that a violent response was necessary and appropriate. Hamm leaves unsaid the obvious conclusion that if it hadn't been Waco, it would have been something else. McVeigh's violence was inevitable.

Hamm's book is marred by his various agendas. He blames the military for not detecting McVeigh's personality problems when he enlisted, for not treating him for PTSD upon his discharge. He blames the FBI for failing to catch McVeigh before the bombing, and again for bungling the investigation. (This is perhaps the most curious of Hamm's criticisms. Hamm lambasts the FBI for not acting swiftly enough, thereby allowing John Doe Number 2 to escape. But Hamm later mentions that John Doe 2 was identified and turned out to be uninvolved.) Then Hamm takes potshots at the NRA and the Republican party, while going out of his way to all but deify President Clinton.

If you can get past Hamm's obvious agendas and his incomplete presentation of the facts, Apocalypse in Oklahoma is an excellent look at the culture that provided Timothy McVeigh with the support network he needed to become America's deadliest domestic terrorist.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Home Rule in America, by Andrew Carnegie

The Gospel of Wealth, by Andrew Carnegie

Part X: Home Rule in America

In 1887, Andrew Carnegie gave a speech before the Glasgow Junior Liberal Association. A major issue in British politics of the day was the question of Irish home rule. Ireland demanded a degree of self-governance; the rest of the nation was generally opposed, and the Home Rule act had been defeated in the House of Commons the previous year. Carnegie related Irish home rule to American federalism. Carnegie explained that home rule, or federalism, is not a first step toward secession, but is merely the most reasonable and most democratic form of government for any large nation.

Carnegie urges that Irish home rule be established as quickly as possible, using the US Constitution as a model. After all, it is a tried and tested method; no sense starting from scratch. The "great, beneficient principle of Home Rule" will bring peace and strength to the English-speaking world, with Britain as its leader, Carnegie promises.

Home Rule for each of the divisions, with a central authority over all to keep them in order; and in that congregation of English-speaking people, in that future Parliament - I know not how many divisions, I know not what their size or number, I know not their positions, but I know the position of one power is fixed, immovable, perpetual, and secure - that of this glorious little island. There may be many children clustering around her in that Parliament of Man; there can only be one mother. I say cursed be the arm and withered the tongue of any man, wherever found, who would strive to keep apart, by word or by deed, those children from that mother.

Although Home Rule was eventually enacted, by that time Irish politics had shifted such that they would settle for nothing less than independence. One wonders whether the independence movement would have lost support had Ireland been granted Home Rule in the late 1880s as Carnegie urged, rather than thirty years later.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

One of Ours: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, by Richard A. Serrano

One of Ours: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, by Richard A. Serrano
Pages: 321
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

One of Ours is a decent but flawed look at Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. Decent, because Serrano presents the facts, gives the history of McVeigh's life, and shows the influences that lead to the bombing plot. Serrano shows how McVeigh's experiences during and after the Gulf War lead him to distrust the US government.

The actions of the FBI and ATF in the Ruby Ridge incident and at Waco were the final straw. McVeigh saw those incidents as massacres. Because he had surrounded himself with like-minded antigovernment radicals, McVeigh thought the general public was as outraged as himself. By bombing the Oklahoma City federal building, McVeigh hoped to spark a revolution. In fact, the public response was revulsion and horror.

But One of Ours is flawed, because Serrano does a poor job of putting McVeigh into context. Serrano gives the dates, times, the events, and the people who McVeigh interacted with. But he doesn't explain the big picture of the militant radical right in America. This community of militias and antigovernment loonies provided McVeigh with the support network he needed. They fed his appetite for conspiracy, reinforced his antigovernment views, and ultimately provided him with a co-conspirator: Terry Nichols. But by Serrano's account, you would hardly know this loose network of radical right militants existed. Serrano presents McVeigh's friends as individuals, devoid of connections.

One of Ours is also marred by Serrano's anti-gun feelings, which are out of place. A history book with an agenda loses much of its credibility.

Still, it's a valuable book. Serrano provides the facts. I suggest that if you read One of Ours, you also read other books about McVeigh, to give you a more comprehensive picture.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Game of Empire, by Poul Anderson

Rating: 3
Pages: 278

Yet another Flandry book. What to say? The plot is nothing new: the Terran Empire is in decline, the Roidhunate of Merseia is waxing. An ambitious Terran general decides he can best serve humanity by declaring himself Emperor and reinvigorating the Empire. General Olaf Magnusson is a popular war hero, and followers flock to him.

Dominic Flandry plays only a bit piece in The Game of Empire. The real hero is his daughter Diana, who teams up with a Tigery (Targovi) and a Wodenite (Axor) to investigate unsettling reports about Magnusson's supporters.

The big secret is hardly a secret. Anderson telegraphs it from the first chapter. Magnusson is in league with the Merseians. They trained him, arranged for his military victories to vault him to hero status, and are supplying him with war materiel for his coup attempt. Magnusson is so completely under the Merseian thumb that if he becomes Emperor, the Empire will be little better than a Merseian vassal.

It's not a bad novel, but it's uneven. Anderson ruins the fun by making the secret so easy to guess. Then, after he spends most of the book leading up to the final revelation, he stints on the denouement. Everything is wrapped up in three short perfunctory chapters. It's a feeble ending to an otherwise respectable story.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Retief in the Ruins, by Keith Laumer

Pages: 247

Retief in the Ruins collects three of Keith Laumer's satirical novellas about Jame Retief, a low-level assistant in the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne (CDT). The CDT is rife with institutional incompetence; Retief generally always saves the day, over the objections of his boss, Ben Magnan.

None of these stories are any good. Retief in the Ruins in particular is hard to read. The humor in all three is more irritating than funny. This kind of humor might sustain a short story, but it fails at novella length.

I wanted to enjoy this book, but was unable to find anything enjoyable. Well, that's not completely true. Laumer names his ambassadors well: one can't help but laugh at Ambassador Gropedark and Ambassador Nipcheese.

  • Retief in the Ruins: Retief defeats a Groacian plot on the planet Popu-Ri.

  • There is a Tide: The Groacians are hiding a fleet on the moon of the planet Slub; on Slub, Retief thwarts a Groacian plot to steal the planet and turn it into a Groacian resort.

  • The Woomy: On the planet Snotch, Retief uncovers a Groacian plot to cow the natives with a giant dirigible shaped like the mythical Woomy.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Cold War at 30,000 Feet, by Jeffrey A. Engel

Cold War at 30,000 Feet: The Anglo-American Fight for Aviation Supremacy, by Jeffrey A. Engel
Pages: 303

View this book at
Read a detailed review by Max Hastings

After World War II, Britain's cities and infrastructure were in ruins, and her treasury was empty. To survive the Cold War as more than a vassal of America, British officials realized they need to re-establish themselves as a great power. The only avenue to great power status was aviation. This put them in direct competition with the Americans:

Only Britain and the United States possessed viable aircraft industries immediately following the war; only these two countries wielded the manufacturing capacity, the technological know-how, and the financial resources to compete for dominance in global aircraft and airline markets.

Britain hoped that by taking the lead in the global aircraft market, they could improve their economy and earn the money necessary to become a great world power. The British had about a five year lead over the Americans in jet engine technology, and they hoped to parlay that lead into dominance of the global airplane market.

America had different ideas. Security was their primary concern. Where the British saw business opportunities that would help them rebuild a shattered economy, the Americans saw red--Commies, that is. America's only concern was preventing technology from falling into Soviet hands. Without long-range jet bombers, the Soviets couldn't drop nuclear bombs on America, so US policy was geared entirely to preventing the Soviets from developing jet engines. The poor British were already within range of Moscow's bombers, so they had nothing to lose by selling their aeronautical secrets to the world.

The Americans' fears proved prescient. In 1946, over strenuous American objections, the British sold a number of jet engines to Moscow. The Russians reverse-engineered the jets, copied them, and used them to power MiG-15 fighters. MiG-15s were sold to the Chinese, who used them in Korea in 1951; the MiGs out-performed the best that the Americans and British could put in the skies.

Despite the MiG-15 affair, the British were still keen on selling aircraft to the world. The de Havilland Comet, the world's first jet-powered passenger plane, seemed poised to take the lead. The British were willing to risk their special relationship with America by selling Comets to the world, in violation of international export restrictions. Technical problems with the Comets--they tended to explode spontaneously during flight--delayed British plans. By the time de Havilland worked out the bugs in the Comet design, Boeing had developed its own jetliner, and the Americans had taken an insurmountable lead in the aviation industry.

In the 1960s, the UK and America clashed numerous times over proposed British aircraft sales to communist China. The British believed that trading with China would ease Cold War tensions; America's policy was to destroy the Chinese economy by isolating them from trading with the Western world. In the end, the British were unwilling to risk their special relationship with Washington for the sake of a few sales. They held the party line.

America's attitude toward communist China finally changed in the 1970s, when aircraft technology was no longer cutting edge. But by that time, the British aircraft industry was not competitive, and the British had given up their ambitions of becoming a great world power.

The British never really had a chance to beat America in aviation. America's strong domestic economy and its huge military need for airplanes gave US aircraft manufacturers too great an advantage over the British, who depended almost wholly on foreign sales.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Recalled to Life, by Robert Silverberg

Rating: 2
Pages: 238

How would world react if a medical breakthrough made it possible to bring a recently dead man back to life? That's the premise of Recalled to Life. The problem is that Silverberg's conception of the social and political impact of the discovery are wildly unrealistic.

Initial announcement
When the lab announces its breakthrough, the press and the public believe immediately and wholeheartedly. The lab is mobbed by reporters, and is inundated by letters from the public. In the real world, crackpot scientists and scam artists make wild claims all the time, and nobody pays attention.

Negative reaction
The reactions are almost uniformly negative. The public believes the new reanimation technique unnaturally interferes with the process of death. Come on, Silverberg. In the real world, people would view reanimation as a glorified form of CPR.

The Catholic Church
The worst part of Recalled to Life is Silverberg's offensive portrayal of the Catholic Church. First he offers some throwaway comments about the Church reversing its position on birth control, as if the Church had no integrity in the face of public disapproval. Then he offers this reasoning for the Church's objection to reanimation:
"In such a case [as your reanimation procedure] there has been a definite discontinuity of the life processes, and a clear-cut separation of body and soul. You say your scientists have given no consideration to reuniting body and soul, and I see no way they could do so in any event."
"Wouldn't the restoration of consciousness imply a restoration of the soul as well?"
"Can we be sure that it's the same soul that the body possessed before death? Or are we getting into questions of reincarnation, perhaps drawing souls out of a floating pool of spiritual matter of which we have no revealed information, offering a body a change of souls--which would be theologically impossible? It sounds like the devil's work, Jim."

A floating pool of spiritual matter? This is what Silverberg thinks is good Catholic theology? But wait, Silverberg doesn't stop at making up theology: he accuses the Church of wholesale hypocrisy.
"I've had conversations with Rome. I have it on good understanding that when your technique is perfect--that is, when you have the capability of restoring body and mind every time--the Church will lift its ban on reanimation."
"You have to be joking."
"No. You can't imagine the extent of the debate that's raging. The prevailing feeling in Rome, though, is that we mustn't let ourselves be caught on the reactionary side of a technological development ever again."

Great. Let's skip the theology, forget trying to do what's right, we're going to do what's politically and socially expedient. Robert Silverberg, you make me sick.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Democracy in England, by Andrew Carnegie

The Gospel of Wealth, by Andrew Carnegie

Part IX: Democracy in England

In this 1886 essay, Carnegie congratulates the British on their decision to extend vote to all adult males, and to realign the districts to better represent the public. These changes, Carnegie says, made Britain a democracy for the first time in her history.

Carnegie says that Britain is undergoing a process of Americanization. Meaning, that the principles of liberty and democracy athat took root in America are now beginning to flourish in Britain. A major force behind this push for change was public education.

The first and by far the most important step ever taken in this direction was the adoption some years ago of a system of public education. Every child in the land now receives an education equal to that which we bestow. ... Attendance is compulsory. The first generation of those who have benefited by this system are now appearing upon the stage of action with the inevitable result: they are radical. Education is everywhere a sure destroyer of privilege. The boy who can read the Declaration of Independence may be trusted to feel its force sooner or later. The doctrine of political equality, once known, enters the heart of man a welcome guest.

Carnegie further asserts that as Britain assimilates the concept of democracy, she will once again become a major world power. But instead of returning to her imperial ways, she will adopt the national habits of America: Britain will refrain from meddling in foreign affairs, and will become a great, peaceful world power.

Is the British democracy to be pacific or belligerent? Is Britain to continue to embroil herself in wars in all parts of the world? Is she to maintain her costly and useless interferences in the quarrels of Europe? I think not. I believe that the British democracy is to be pacific, and that the American doctrine of non-intervention will commend itself to it. Britain will be more and more inclined to follow the example of America in regard to foreign affairs, as she has done in home affairs.

It is a short essay. The political analysis is simplistic, and Carnegie offers scanty support for his optimistic predictions. This is the future as Carnegie would like it. It is not a realistic analysis.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Bedlam Planet, by John Brunner

Rating: 2
Pages: 159

John Brunner started with an interesting idea: colonists on an Earth-like planet must stop thinking like Earth-men, must break with millions of years of evolution that has shaped them to survive on Earth, and attune themselves to a new planet and a new evolutionary track. The realization of this idea is Bedlam Planet, and it's crummy book.

The planet is Asgard. It is almost perfect. The air is breathable, the climate and weather are welcoming, and natural resources are plentiful. Slight differences in biology make humans immune to local diseases. What more could colonists ask for?

Ascorbic acid. Man must have ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to live, but a local microbe has settled in the intestines of the settlers, absorbing all the ascorbic acid that the people ingest. Only massive doses of vitamin C supplements keep the settles from dying. Ascorbic acid is not present in the local flora; the colonists' supplements are running out. There is an epidemic of scurvy.

So far so good. This is an interesting book, with a decent science fiction puzzle to solve. But Brunner decides to go the surreal route.

Hoping to stave off scurvy, six volunteers begin to eat a diet of Asgard-grown Earth crops, despite not knowing if these are safe for human consumption. All six go stark raving mad. Brunner spends huge chunks of text describing their feverish visions. It's not pretty.

But they're not really insane, see. They are Asgard-sane. The temporary period of craziness is just their bodies forcing their minds to adjust to the new reality of Asgard.
"Did you ever keep a dog?" she said after a moment for thought. "Did you ever see one drag itself across country when it was so sick it could barely stand, in search of a special kind of grass which would make its belly reject the poison it had swallowed? We've got to be our own dogs, as it were. Our bodies know things which our minds never can. So what we have to do is turn our minds off, and bit by bit we're figuring out how."
Dennis stared in dismay at Dan.... "But if one has to go insane in order to stay alive--" he began, and Parvati cut him short.
"No, Dennis! That's the whole point! Don't think of what's happening to Dan, or what happened to you, as 'going insane.' It's the exact opposite. You went sane--totally and completely sane."

Asgard-sane just happens to look a whole lot like Earth-insane. Since they live on Asgard, they're A-OK. Eventually they force the other settlers to eat the crops and all become Asgard-sane too.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Space Folk, by Poul Anderson

Rating: [I do not rate collections]
Pages: 303

I find Poul Anderson's non-Flandry stories to be better than his Flandry books. (Flandry isn't particularly likable.) So Space Folk is excellent. Most of the stories here are good. Deathwomb and Quest are my favorites, Elementary Mistake is good, and Horse Trader is great. Wherever You Are isn't as much good, and I didn't enjoy Murphy's Hall at all--too abstract.

  • Pride: A deep-space expedition to Nemesis turns sinister when Nemesis goes into its active state earlier than expected. A pilot risks her life to recover a probe with priceless data before it falls into Nemesis.

  • Vulcan's Forge: Captain Ashe and his Kittiwake help the Mercury outpost explore the asteroid Vulcan; Kittiwake runs into a solar storm and her computer--the thoughts and memories of Ashe's late wife--is damaged.

  • Escape the Morning: A young boy who lives on the moon rescues Achille Kamolondo, a Zairian who is stranded when a meteorite damages his Go-Devil.

  • Quest: A lost colony of 13th century spacegoing Britons mounts an expedition to find the Holy Grail--but Sir Eric is wary that the grail may be a trap.

  • Wherever You Are: A crash strands two explorers on a remote part of a planet whose atmosphere shrouds the planet and allows no view of the stars. Without a way to navigate or even find their location, they will never find the lone human outpost on the planet.

  • Elementary Mistake: Disaster threatens when the crew of Widsith lands on a new planet, but cannot find the raw metals to construct a mattercaster to return to Earth. They race against time to find alternatives to the missing metals, because the alien atmosphere renders them drunk.

  • Symmetry: An alien device duplicates an explorer and places two copies of him inside a box. The man cannot get out because each copy of him takes the exact same actions, at the exact same time. He must find a way to break the cycle of symmetry before they both starve to death.

  • Hunter's Moon: The dromids and ouranids of Medea are at war. The dromids blame the ouranids for the rising infertility of the dromids.

  • Deathwomb: A Berserker story, with permission from Fred Saberhagen. The planet Adam makes a deal with the berserkers: they will lead the berserkers to a planet teeming with nonhuman life, and in exchange the berserkers will leave Adam alone.

  • Murphy's Hall: The extinction of humanity.

  • Horse Trader: Auchinleck Welcome runs an interspecies trading post, where knowledge is bartered and exchanged. The theft of a disc of high-pressure chemistry data puts the integrity of the trading post in jeopardy. Welcome must discover the thief.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The People That Time Forgot, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Rating: 3
Pages: 153

The People That Time Forgot is the second of three books that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about Caspak. The three books are best read together (so I hear), but I had no trouble reading this one out of order.

Caspak is a land populated by beasts and men from Earth's prehistory: dinosaurs, mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and cave men. Caspak is a huge island in the Antarctic Sea; the coasts are vertical cliff walls, completely cutting the island off from the rest of the world. Volcanic activity heats Caspak and maintains a year-round tropical temperature.

Tom Billings leads an expedition to Caspak to rescue his friend Bowen Tyler, who was stranded in that savage land. Billings scouts the terrain in an airplane, and meets with disaster: he is attacked by a pteradactyl and crashes into the jungle. Then he rescues a native girl from a band of savage apes, and together they make their way to the land of the Galus, where Billings hopes to find Bowen Tyler.

On their way north to Galu, the girl (named Ajor) teaches Billings all about Caspak. It is home to beasts from all of Earth's lost ages. The complete evolutionary history of Earth is represented, with the oldest and most savage creatures living in the south of Caspak. The farther north one goes, the more advanced and developed are the denizens of the forest--and more advanced are the people.

For Caspak is peopled by multiple groups of ancient men. First, the Ho-Lu, who are mere apes. Next, the Apu, the speechless men. Next the Bo-Lu, or clubmen, followed by the Band-Lu (spear men), Kro-Lu (hatchet men), and finally, at the pinnacle of evolution, the Galu (rope men). The girl Billings rescued, Ajor, is a Galu.

The most curious thing about Caspak is that the men themselves evolve. The Galu do not have children; instead, the most advanced Kro-Lu evolve and become Galu. Similarly, the Band-Lu become Kro-Lu. And so forth, with each tribe being made up of risen members of the tribe below it.

"[The Band-Lu] are no longer my people," To-Mar replied proudly. "Last night, in the very middle of the night, the call came to me. Like that it came into my head"--and he struck his hands together once--"that I had risen. I have been waiting for it and expecting it for a long time; today I am a Kro-Lu. Today I go into the coslupak" (unpeopled country, or literally, no man's land) "between the Band-Lu and the Kro-Lu, and there I fashion my bows and my arrows and my shield; there I hunt the red deer for the leathern jerkin which is the badge of my new estate. When these things are done, I can go to the chief of the Kro-Lu, and he dare not refuse me."

The basic question is: where do the Ho-Lu come from? Do they have babies? This question Burroughs does not answer--but he leaves clues. The precise nature of the curious accelerated evolution of Caspak is revealed in the next book, Out of Time's Abyss.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Masters of Everon, by Gordon R. Dickson

Rating: 3
Pages: 244

Everon is a newly colonized planet. The planetary ecology is still adapting to the introduction of Earth plants and animals. In addition to fruits and vegetables, two species of livestock have been brought from Earth: wisent, the European bison; and eland, a large African antelope. The native Everon wildlife is hostile to the newcomers. In particular, the maolot, a giant Everon cat, routinely destroy herds of wisent.

The story begins when Jef Robini arrives on Everon to study the maolots. He hopes to gain some understanding that will unravel the mystery of the native Everon wildlife. The key to Jef's research is Mikey, a maolot that Jef has raised from a cub. Mikey has lived on Earth nearly all his life, and Jef intends to watch Mikey as he is reintroduced to his home world.

Jef has another agenda, though. His brother William disappeared on Everon many years ago and is presumed dead. Jef intends to locate his brother's grave, if it exists.

As Jef disembarks at the Everon spaceport, he meets Martin Curragh, a fellow passenger. Curragh mysteriously helps Jef get Mikey through customs. (It takes about half a page to figure out that Curragh is Jef's brother William, whom Jef completely fails to recognize.)

Once on Everon, Jef and Mikey set out into the wilderness. As they hike, Jef gradually becomes aware that he is psychically connected to Mikey. The connection grows stronger and Mikey becomes more familiar with Everon. Soon, Mikey and Jef can communicate telepathically.

At the same time, Jef is learning that Everon is in civil war. The wisent ranchers are poisoning the eland, razing the forests, and expanding their herds onto the new swaths of grassland. The eland ranchers try to fight back, but the destruction of their forests is a terrible loss.

The conflict between wisent ranchers and eland ranchers is rendered moot when Jef finally understand what Mikey is trying to tell him. Mikey and his fellow maolots are part of a single living creature. All native Everon life is psychically connected into one planetary mind. The planet is a living creature; the maolots are its most advanced avatars, but every living creature is a part of Everon.

And Everon wants nothing to do with Earth-type life. Jef is on trial. If he can convince Everon that he deserves to live, he will be spared. If not, he and all Earth-type life will die. Dickson cleverly arranges it so that Everon comes off looking like the good guy, standing up against sinful, depraved humanity. I don't buy it. Everon is threatening genocide, and I'm supposed to believe that Everon is good and righteous? Everon is frightening. A hive mind that controls an entire world, that permits no individuality, that threatens genocide when it meets a form of life that will not submit to its control? Everon is evil.

Dickson supplies what he thinks is a happy ending: Jef proves his right to live by using his newfound powers of telepathy to reach out to a wisent, drawing it into rapport with himself. He reaches back and draws on racial memories of ancient times, when cave-man and paleo-wisent existed together in a primitive form of collective consciousness. But I don't think it's a happy ending. Everon let humanity live, but only because it has decided to reshape humanity into a group consciousness like itself. That is no victory for mankind. It means the death of mankind, the loss of individuality, and the subjugation of the self to the collective.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Long Night, by Poul Anderson

Pages: 310

These are some of Anderson's best stories. Dominic Flandry does not appear in any of them. Coincidence? Maybe not. Instead of the same old Flandry, we get to see other characters. For example, John Ridenour, a man who loves his wife and stays faithful to her even when he is thousands of light-years away on an alien planet. It's refreshing.

The cover of my paperback copy states: "Van Rijn saw [the Long Night] coming. Flandry lived through it." Who writes this stuff? Trained apes? Flandry most certainly did not live through the Long Night. Flandry lived in the waning days of the Terran Empire; he foresaw the Long Night and worked to delay it. He did not live through it. The Long Night began a hundred years or so after his death, and lasted for millennia.

  • The Star Plunderer: After the fall of the Polesotechnic League and the Commonwealth, Earth is sacked repeatedly by the Gorzuni. Manuel Argos, a slave serving on a Gorzuni ship, hijacks the spaceship and lays waste to the Gorzuni home world. Then he founds the Terran Empire.

  • Outpost of Empire: In the waning days of the Terran Empire, the agricultural planet Freehold is in turmoil: the Nine Cities are fighting their Arulian slaves, as well as the wild human outbacker population. Imperial agent John Ridenour spends some among the outbackers, and realizes they are the Empire's best bet for holding Freehold as a strong outpost against Merseia. The problem is convincing the Empire to overlook the fact of their rebellion.

  • A Tragedy of Errors: After the fall of the Terran Empire, Roan Tom tries to land his spaceship on an unknown planet. The native humans are unnaturally hostile. Eventually they discover that this is due to linguistic miscommunication--both Roan Tom and the locals speak Anglic, but the language has shifted enough to make proper communication problematic.

  • The Sharing of Flesh: A scientific expedition to a barbarous lost colony finds a race of men where every culture practices cannibalism as part of a male puberty ritual.

  • Starfog: The lost colony of Kirkasant contacts the Commonalty--but cannot navigate find its way home. Ranger Daven Laure helps the expedition search for its home. They narrow the search to a thick, metal-rich globular cluster, but the heavy interstellar gases and the overcrowded riot of variable stars makes navigation impossible. Unless the cluster is seeded with millions of beacons to aid navigation, Kirkasant will never be found.

Monday, August 20, 2007

More Things in Heaven, by John Brunner

Rating: 3
Pages: 221

The Starventure is Earth's first hyperdrive spaceship. When Starventure returns from her maiden voyage to Alpha Centauri, impossible things start happening. Colossal ethereal monsters appear suddenly in the skies, and vanish into nothingness just as rapidly. Violent solar radiation storms hit the Earth, despite the sun being in the low part of its cycle. And the UN is withholding all information about Starventure and her crew.

Reporter David Drummond, whose brother is on Starventure, has experiences a more personal surprise: before the Starventure crew returns to Earth, David sees his brother Leon on Earth. David investigates relentlessly, and finally convinces General Suvorov to tell him the whole story. Starventure has returned, but the crew have been transformed into hideous monsters. Some unknown, possibly malevolent force, has converted the crew and given them new bodies--and the crew's bodies are on Earth, being used as vessels for these unknown powers. Faced with beings of such power, David feels helpless:
Suppose an ant, immensely proud of her race's vast public works, mastery of building techniques, and the art of farming and domesticating other insects, were suddenly to become aware of the existence of man: she would feel very much as I felt now.

David agrees to hide the truth, and to feed the public a cover story. And that is the weakest part of the book. There is no compelling reason to deceive the public. The public's reaction to the sky-monsters proves they will not panic. No good reporter would agree to play part in a vast conspiracy to deceive the public for no good reason--particularly when so many people are privy to the secret that the truth will leak out within weeks if not days.

The real mystery of More Things in Heaven is: who or what changed the crew, and why? The answer is interesting enough. Earth's universe--the Einsteinian universe--is a special case of the real universe, the hyperspace universe. Humanity has been condemned to its bubble of Einsteinian reality because of some crime it committed, eons ago. The crime is long forgotten by mankind; the hyperspace creatures are watching mankind, to see whether it will choose to emerge from exile and join the greater universe.

It's a satisfactory answer, and I almost gave the book a score of four. However, the flaws--particularly the deception of the public--ring untrue. More Things in Heaven scores a three.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May 2007

Pages: 240

Surprisingly, my favorite story in this issue is pure fantasy. I stayed up until 1am reading Dead Money. The poker stories in it are engrossing, although any real enthusiast will probably be disgusted. How often does a straight flush happen anyway? (Although, in Texas Hold Em, maybe it happens often enough. I got one once. I remember the cold chill that gripped my body when the final card was turned over and completed my hand.)

The Rocket into Planetary Space is disappointingly dull and tame. The River Horses isn't bad, but I'm tired of Steele's Coyote stories. Of the others, all are fantasy except End Game (which is interesting) and Fifth Day (which is just insulting to anybody religious.)

  • Novella: The River Horses, by Allen M. Steele - A Coyote story. Marie and Lars are exiled and sent out to chart an unexplored portion of Coyote; the savant Manuel Castro accompanies them. Marie meets some settlers and helps found a town; Lars is attacked by river horses.

  • Novella: Dead Money, by Lucius Shepard - A sickly professional poker player who bursts onto the scene is an undead zombie reanimated by voodoo magic.

  • Novelette: The Rocket into Planetary Space, by William Barton - A private expedition to Jupiter's Fore-Trojans strikes oil.

  • A Small Room in Koboldtown, by Michael Swanwick - A locked-room murder mystery directs suspicion on the building's haint janitor, but it's a frame-up.

  • Wolves of the Spirit, by Liz Williams - The keeper of Baille Atha lives alone and guards the selk; she nearly falls in love with a visiting hunter, but her knife Iskir identifies him as vitki.

  • The Eater of Dreams, by Robert Silverberg - A man who eats the nightmares of the queen is sickened when he realizes the scenes of destruction lie in Earth's future, not its past.

  • Lilyanna, by Lisa Goldstein - A librarian is haunted by the spectre of a woman from the 1930s.

  • Distant Replay, by Michael Resnick - An old widower meets a young woman who looks exactly like his wife did 50 years before.

  • End Game, by Nancy Kress - A scientist finds a way to eliminate mental static, thus allowing total concentration on a task. The condition is contagious.

  • Always, by Karen Joy Fowler - A cult lead by Brother Porter promises immortality, but one by one, the adherents lose faith and die; eventually only one faithful believer remains.

  • Fifth Day, by Jack McDevitt - A brilliant scientist dies, and his unpublished papers reveal the answer to how life on Earth began.

  • Green Glass, by Gene Wolff - Alien abductees liken their position to bugs trapped under a green glass bottle.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Tanar of Pellucidar, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Rating: 2
Pages: 250

Tanar of Pellucidar is another perfunctory Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, which is to say it's exciting but forgettable. In the hollow inner-Earth world of Pellucidar, David Innes rules over a savage empire. His empire is attacked by mysterious pirates called Korsars. Tanar is taken captive. He wins a reprieve from death by promising to teach his captors the secret to gunpowder.

Tanar has no intention of teaching them to make gunpowder. Instead, he escapes with the lady Stellara, an Amiocapan woman who grew up among the Korsars. They have numerous adventures, are recaptured, escape again, are recapture, escape again, etc. As so often happens to ERB's characters, Tanar and Stellara fall in love but don't realize it until it's nearly too late.

The most interesting villains are the Coripies, known in Amiocap as the Buried People. These subhuman fiends live underground and feast on human flesh. No one captured by the Coripies has ever escaped--until now, of course.

Tanar of Pellucidar doesn't hold a candle to any of the Barsoom stories.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Tomorrow Might Be Different, by Mack Reynolds

Rating: 3
Objectionable material: Economic blasphemy
Pages: 190

The Premise: The Soviet experiment is successful. The communists lagged behind America for several decades, but during that time they sowed the seeds for success. In America, success bred a generation of decadent hedonists; in the Soviet Union, a generation of hardworking communist scientists and engineers grew up to inherit a self-sufficient nation with a well-planned economy and an enormous industrial capacity. They quickly outstripped the rest of the world.

The Man: Mike Edwards, noted American economist, works as a tour guide in Spain, showing Russian tourists the rustic sights of Europe. Edwards is lucky to have a job; the Russian industry is so far advanced that nobody can compete. Russia floods the markets with superior products at rock-bottom prices, and destroys whole industries at a whim. Robbed of the ability to compete in the marketplace, the Western world is perpetually in economic depression.

The Problem: The Soviets only flood the markets to earn a few quick dollars for their tourists to spend. If Soviet citizens stop taking holidays abroad, the USSR will stop selling its products, and the rest of the world will have a chance to break out of depression.

The Plan: The United States government is grasping at straws to end the Soviet stranglehold on the world economy. Agent Frank Jones approaches Mike Edwards and asks him to suggest ways of stopping tourism. Edwards suggests they use religion: start a religion that teaches moderation and shuns ostentatious displays of wealth--like traveling abroad. Thus is born the Old Time Religion Church.

Bishop Michael J. Edwards: Edwards is made a bishop in the new religion. He starts his ministry in the States, then sends missionaries to Moscow. The religion spreads like wildfire. After decades of atheism, the Russians are starved for some meaning in their lives.

Dirty Jokes: The economics in Tomorrow Might Be Different are laughable, so it's no surprise that Mack Reynolds is a socialist. Ah well. It's still an interesting book. Just when the seriousness of it all gets too much, Reynolds livens it up with a dirty joke about Cinderella. The book never takes itself too seriously.

The Soviet Problem: The biggest punch line of the book comes when the Soviet government figures out that the Old Time Religion Church is an American plot. Andrei Zorin, dictator of the Soviet Union, interrogates Edwards. "Will the Old Time Religion Church really work? Will Russians really become straight-laced and puritanical?" Yes, Edwards replies. Then Zorin reveals his own problem: Russia is being overrun by tourists from Communist China. With the Soviets' promiscuous ways, Zorin figures his entire country will be Chinese within a generation. Russia's only hope is the Old Time Religion Church and its emphasis on sexual restraint.

Monday, August 6, 2007

A Stone in Heaven, by Poul Anderson

Rating: 3
Pages: 234

Here's a Flandry book with a twist: Dominic ends up with the girl. That is fitting; in A Stone in Heaven, Admiral Flandry is older, wiser, and less callous in his treatment of others.

But he's still Dominic Flandry, saviour of the Terran Empire. This time, the mystery is on Ramnu, a cold heavy planet where Miriam "Banner" Abrams is studying the sapient autochthons. Ramnu is entering an ice age that will kill the natives. Banner appeals to the Duke of Hermes to save the Ramnuans. He refuses.

His refusal is unexpected; the cost would be little, and the public relations gain would be significant. Even curiouser: the Duke goes to extraordinary lengths to prevent Banner from appealing directly to the Emperor.

Banner appeals to Admiral Dominic Flandry for help. Flandry suspects the Duke, Edwin Cairncross, is plotting to overthrow the Emperor. Ramnu holds the only evidence, so Flandry and Banner sneak off to the planet to gather what information they can. There they are aided by the Ramnuan natives, most particularly by Yewwl, the Ramnuan female that Banner has developed a close friendship with.

A Stone in Heaven is one of the better Flandry books. Poul Anderson has developed one of his most alien races. The Ramnuans are unlike any human culture. Unlike some of his other books, where Anderson's aliens are modeled on human cultures, these aliens are unique.

My copy of A Stone in Heaven is massively illustrated by Esteban Moroto. There are nearly a hundred black-and-white line drawings. Sadly, there isn't much you can do with black-and-white. Many of the drawings are unrecognizable blobs. Grayscale pencil drawings would have been better, but the printing costs would have been prohibitive for a mass market paperback.

The book also contains an essay by Sandra Meisel entitled The Price of Buying Time. It explores the fall of the Terran Empire, and examines the Empire's clash with Merseia, and draws parallels to Earth history.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Agent of the Terran Empire, by Poul Anderson

Pages: 282

The best part of Agent of the Terran Empire is the afterward by Sandra Meisel.

  • Tiger by the Tail: Flandry is kidnapped by the Scothani, an upstart empire with ambitions of ruling the galaxy; Flandry manipulates the Scothani factions and turns them against each other before they can mount an effective strike against the Terran Empire.

  • The Warriors From Nowhere: An unidentified raiding party attacks Fort Lone on Varrack, and kidnaps Her Highness Lady Morgan, granddaughter of the Emperor. The clues point to Merseia, but Flandry suspects Duke Alfred of Tauria.

  • Honorable Enemies: Flandry meets his match in Aycharaych, an alien sapient who can read minds. To defeat him, Flandry's consort Aline tricks him into believing the Empire is planning to occupy Betelgeuse, goading Aycharaych into taking premature action.

  • Hunters of the Sky Cave: A mysterious fleet besieges the planet Vixen. The obvious clues implicate the Ymirites, although the hydrogen-breathers have no reason to concern themselves with oxygen-based races. Flandry travels to Vixen, runs the blockade, and works to infiltrate the alien organization and discover who is behind the well-timed attack on the Empire.

  • Lurex and Gold: Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry Series, by Sandra Meisel: A broad overview of one of the greatest SF series of all time.