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.