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.