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StormRaven's 100 and Beyond in 2012

100 Books in 2012 Challenge

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Edited: Jan 22, 2012, 12:02pm Top

Book One: Cigars of the Pharaoh by Hergé.

Short review: Famous journalist Tintin, gets framed for opium smuggling, avoids a couple of murder attempts, gets drafted, gets executed, learns to speak elephant, and foils an international smuggling operation. He does no reporting.

Full review: Cigars of the Pharaoh is the second in the main sequence of The Adventures of Tintin, and the first that seems to have been written with a complete story from beginning to end in mind. While Tintin in America had a story that threaded through the entire volume, it was disjointed and clearly subordinate to the various gags and pratfalls that dominated the events of the book. In Cigars of the Pharoah, on the other hand, the story of Tintin's pursuit (even though it is often an unknowing pursuit) of a gang of opium smugglers is the centerpiece of the book. This was the first Tintin book I ever read. When I was an eight year old traveling to Africa with my parents, my mother bought me a book to read on the trans-Atlantic flight. Opening my backpack, I found a strange book featuring a character I had never heard of, and thus began my journey through the Adventures of Tintin.

Hergé wrote six of the main sequence Tintin books prior to World War II, which were originally published in black and white. Following the war, he went back and revised these books and had them published in color. My version of Cigars of the Pharoah is a revised version, and it shows in some odd ways, ways that show up on the very first page of the book. Tintin is on a cruise talking to his faithful dog Snowy about their trip itinerary when Snowy makes a reference to Marlinspike Hall. But Tintin doesn't meet Captain Haddock until five books later in The Crab with the Golden Claws, and Haddock doesn't acquire Marlinspike Hall until three books after that in Red Rackham's Treasure, making Snowy's remark something of an anachronism. Later in the book, a sheikh Tintin comes across tells him he is a fan and avidly follows all the stories of Tintin's adventures, with one of his servants producing what appears to be a copy of Destination Moon, a book that takes place twelve volumes later in the Tintin chronology. When Tintin meets Rastapopoulos, he remarks that this isn't the first time they have met. But as this is Rastapopoulos' first appearance in the series, and unless Tintin is saying he met the film tycoon at some unknown (and never discussed) point before the series began, this comment just seems odd. These sorts of quirks don't really affect the story, but they would be mildly confusing for someone who was coming into the series fresh and reading them in order.

There are a couple of other odd quirks in the book - on the opening page Tintin is describing their projected voyage to Snowy, saying their cruise will stop at Port Said, Istanbul, Piraeus, Naples, Marseilles and then through the Straits of Gibraltar. But the accompanying map shows an entirely different voyage, that seems to suggest they are going from Port Said to Aden, Bombay, Columbo, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. I suppose one could say that the map shows the voyage that led Tintin and Snowy to Port Said prior to the start of the book, but the directional arrows on the map all point the wrong way, and Tintin doesn't reference this at all, which makes the included map seem kind of superfluous. This sort of strange continuity error shows up often enough to be noticeable in the Tintin books, and I can only guess that this is the result of translation miscues or possibly miscommunication between the artist and the writer. One wonders why this sort of thing was caught in the editing process though.

The story, however, overcomes these sorts of technical gaffes with action laced with a fair amount of humor. After a few idyllic moments on deck, Tintin encounters the quirky Egyptologist Sophocles Sarcophagus, and after a brief bit of comedy involving a lost parchment agrees to join him on the hunt for the lost tomb of Pharaoh Kih-Oskh. Immediately thereafter, Tintin and Sophocles have a chance encounter with film director Rastapopoulos, and soon after the action begins. In their first appearance in the series, the bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson (already intoning handfuls of malapropisms in every panel) show up in Tintin's cabin and arrest him for opium smuggling, uncovering a planted cache as evidence against him. As usual, Tintin has no idea what is going on, so this continues the pattern of gangsters trying to bump off Tintin when he is clueless about their activities, which leads Tintin to investigate, which results in Tintin foiling the schemes he didn't know anything about at the outset. It seems that organized crime would be much better served if they just left Tintin alone, and let him cluelessly go on his merry way while they pursued their criminal enterprises.

In any event, once he frees himself from the brig of the cruise ship and made his way ashore, Tintin runs across Professor Sarcophagus and joins him on his hunt for the lost tomb of Kih-Oskh, because there is nothing better to do when one is on the run from the law after being framed as an opium dealer than to look for a tomb in the Egyptian desert. With Snowy in tow, the pair find the tomb rather quickly (which makes one wonder exactly why it was lost for so long), and before too long it turns out that the tomb may not have been so lost after all. The as yet unknown and unseen villains capture Tintin when he ventures into the lost tomb and walks into a trap they set for him. But one has to wonder how they could have predicted that Tintin would escape the brig of the ship, meet up with Sophocles, uncover a tomb buried in sand, open the secret door to the tomb, and then wander to just the right spot so that he and Snowy could be conveniently gassed into unconsciousness. And it is made quite clear that the gangsters believe Tintin is coming along this route, so they seem to have amazing powers of precognition, which might explain why they targeted him to begin with when he was completely clueless about their activities.

In any event, Tintin and Snowy take a trip on the Red Sea, get rescued, captured again, freed, and runs across Rastapopoulos, who turns out to be remarkably affable given Tintin's previous encounter (and especially given what the reader later learns about him), gets arrested by Thompson and Thomson for gun running, escapes again, and finally finds Rastapopoulos for a third time. Rastapopoulos, apparently unfazed by Tintin's admission that he has been arrested for opium smuggling and gun running, provides him with some equipment to head off across the desert, where his life is threatened once more. And the fairly amazing thing about all of this is that Tintin still has no clue why he was framed for opium smuggling, or who is trying to kill him. And there's really no reason why he should, given that thus far neither he nor the reader have come across any clues other than some mysteriously marked cigars. This installment of The Adventures of Tintin has plenty of action, but basically no mystery, because unanswered questions with no clues is not a mystery.

So Tintin meanders along. He gets drafted into a local army during a war that Thompson and Thomson seem to have sparked, gets shot as a spy, revived, and winds up in the jungles of India. One element that is potentially lost now is that all of the places that Tintin journeys to in this book are what would have then been British or French colonies (after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire following World War I). This goes a long way to explaining why everyone Tintin meets speaks English (French in the original), but raises the question of whose army is he drafted into? This question, however, pales in comparison to the question of how Tintin figures out how to speak the language of elephants with a hand carved horn. And that question vanishes into almost insignificance next to the amazing coincidence of Tintin running into Professor Sophocles in an Indian jungle. Finally, almost two-thirds of the way into the book, and only as a result of a fortuitous accident, Tintin begins to get some clues as to who framed him and wants him dead.

Of course, this being Tintin, the clues only come after a dinner party, and then in the form of yet another attempt on Tintin's life. We finally come across an actual criminal, but he escapes and then Tintin is put in a mental ward, escapes, is caught again, runs across Thompson and Thomson yet again, Snowy angers a mob of Indians and is to be sacrificed, and finally Tintin befriends an Indian Maharajah and sets about unraveling the plot of the story. And once Tintin actually gets on the trail of the bad guys, he gets to the bottom of things quite quickly. I suppose this isn't surprising, since they had already proved themselves to be fairly incompetent by screwing up their attempts to kill him time and again in the story. After locating the villains' ridiculously easy to find secret lair and crashing their secret meeting, Tintin breaks up the gang and is exonerated for all the crimes Thompson and Thomson had arrested him for. There is a final denouement involving a kidnapped prince and a mysterious masked criminal, but most of the story is wrapped up in a bow at the end, with just a few loose ends left hanging.

And those loose ends lead to The Blue Lotus, although the stories are only very loosely tied together - unlike the later two-part Adventures of Tintin, Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Blue Lotus are more like a story and its sequel rather than one story spread over two books. Even though Cigars of the Pharaoh is a better book than Tintin in America, this is not one of the volumes that makes the series well-loved and fondly remembered. The artwork is good, having been cleaned up and colored as part of the work done on the early volumes following World War II, but it is still more or less a newspaper strip simply translated to book form, so the beautiful half-page and full page panels that show up in later books are not to be found here. However, it is a decent story, and full of the humor that makes Tintin such a likable character, and full of the action scenes that make him a dashing hero. The book just lacks the coherence, the depth of research, and the intrigue that make later volumes so good.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 22, 2012, 12:02pm Top

Book Two: The Blue Lotus by Hergé.

Short review: Tintin continues to be targeted by opium smugglers, but with the aid of a secret Chinese organization he strikes back at them. And the Japanese.

Long review: The Blue Lotus is the third of the main sequence of Tintin books, and follows directly on the heels of Cigars of the Pharaoh. The book picks up the story of Tintin's struggle with the mysterious opium smuggling ring that decided to frame him out of the blue at the beginning of Cigars and tried to kill him several times so that he would not reveal the information he didn't know about their operations. At the end of Cigars the smuggling ring had been handed a setback, but there were a couple of loose ends left hanging - the people afflicted by the "poison of madness", the destination of the opium-filled cigars, and the mysterious masked criminal who supposedly fell to his death - and if you didn't know about them, there is a convenient sidebar on the first page to fill you in. The last is more or less important, because in Cigars, when the masked villain fell off the cliff it looked like it should have been fatal, so letting the reader know he's still alive seems to be relatively critical.

The most important thing about The Blue Lotus is that after the fitful start of the previous two books, Hergé really began to hit his stride in this one. Not only does this volume have a single unifying story, that story begins to touch on issues such as racial prejudice and oppression. In addition, after Tintin merely stumbled into solving the "mysteries" of the previous two books, in The Blue Lotus the story presents him with actual clues to figure out and follow, placing our hero in the role of an active participant in the story, rather than having him merely react to the villains' evil plans. This makes the story much more satisfying, as it makes Tintin an actual protagonist rather than just a lucky guy carried along by circumstance to the secret hideout of the bad guys.

At the outset of the book, Tintin is busy intercepting radio signals that seem to make no sense when he is asked to join his Maharajah host in viewing a fakir demonstrating his powers. (The inclusion of individuals like the fakir, with apparent supernatural powers, is why I disagree with some people who assert that Tintin is "realistic fiction". Hergé consistently included mystical powers and objects in his stories, as well as throwing in some science fictional elements here and there. Though not all of the Adventures of Tintin include these elements, Tintin clearly inhabits a world in which magic and superscience are real and aliens visit the Earth). After a mysterious interlude with the fakir, Tintin gets a visit from a man from Shanghai who is immediately poisoned by the Rajaijah juice "poison of madness" and is only able to mention the name Mitsurhirato before going insane. This spurs Tintin to head to Shanghai to investigate further, and after some comedy involving Snowy and a trunk, the story moves along to China.

And China is where The Blue Lotus starts to show an uptick in the quality of story telling. China was an occupied country, forced by foreign powers to allow detachments of troops and enclaves beyond Chinese control on its territory while the Chinese inhabitants were treated as second-class citizens in their own country, and Hergé uses the story of The Blue Lotus to highlight the unfairness of this and criticize the treatment of the Chinese - which seems to be a fairly bold statement to be making in the 1930s. Tintin had already been established in previous volumes as being the sort of person to stand up for the "little guy", but now his efforts take on more significance as he stands against Imperialism in support of its victims. On the other hand, he uses a fair portion of the story to bash the Japanese presence in China at a time when the Japanese were being roundly condemned for their interventions there, so maybe Hergé wan't being all that forward thinking after all. He did write unscrupulous and loudmouthed Europeans conspiring with the Japanese in order to get petty revenge against Tintin into the story, so all of the Westerners other than Tintin (due to his basic goodness), and Thompson and Thomson (who evade being obnoxious and evil as a result of their bumbling cluelessness) come off poorly.

Tintin moves about Shanghai, meets Mitsurhirato, is arrested, released, tries to return to India, gets kidnapped, has his life threatened and saved a couple times, and finally joins up with Wang-Chen Yee and the Sons of the Dragon to fight the opium trade in China. As an aside, when he is arrested, to punish him for what he perceives as previous insolence, the corrupt chief of police for the International Settlement tries to have Tintin roughed up by three burly looking Indian policemen. The result - Tintin sending the three of them to the hospital - makes me think that Tintin is, pound for pound, the toughest fighter alive in his fictional world because despite his relatively slight build he is consistently able to knock out much larger and beefier opponents, usually with a single punch. Aside from his fighting skills, Tintin is apparently a crack cryptologist, unraveling the code that stumped him at the opening of the book, although he does the unraveling off-camera and how he hits upon the solution he tries that cracks the code is left entirely unexplained. These skills might explain why a secret Chinese society might consider Tintin's assistance to be critical to their plans, because I guess no Chinese native has impressive fighting skills, the ability to solve modestly difficult puzzles, or the ability to stumble about until the villains reveal their plans. Those tasks, I suppose, require European assistance. Well, European assistance from someone who needs to have his bacon pulled out of the fire numerous times by the secret society to get out of the life-threatening situations he unwittingly puts himself in.

One interesting element in the story is that Hergé wrote in a fairly accurate depiction of the Mukden Incident (with the bombing moved to a location near Shanghai) and the resulting Japanese invasion of Manchuria and diplomatic fallout that led to the Japanese withdrawal from the League of Nations. Hergé also ties the Japanese perfidy into the opium smuggling ring, which links it with the larger story and may be historically accurate as well (although in reality pretty much representatives from every nation seemed to have their fingers in the opium trade in China), and give the book its name, as the Blue Lotus of the story The Blue Lotus is a notorious opium den. Hergé also included the contemporaneous flooding of the Yangtze River in the story, making that another plot element drawn from actual history.

After being condemned to being executed as a spy by the Japanese forces, Tintin proves his idealistic bona fides by refusing an offer to release him in exchange for becoming a Japanese agent. of course, because his the protagonist of the story he is rescued and makes his way to Hukow, encountering the flooded Yangtze on the way. Proving himself a hero again, Tintin jumps into the swollen river and rescues a drowning kid named Chang Chong-chen, a character based upon a real life friend of Hergé's named Zhang Chongren. Hergé's friendship with Chongren is cited as one of the reasons that the Adventures of Tintin began to improve noticeably starting with this volume. Chongren provided Hergé with background information including descriptions of life in 1930's China that were incorporated into the book. It is likely that Chongren's influence served to transform Hergé's attitudes towards imperialism from the patronizing treatment of the native population seen in Tintin and the Congo to the much more sympathetic attitude found in this book and later ones in the series. Tintin and Chang have a brief discussion, probably very similar in summary form to some discussions between Hergé and Chongren concerning common misconceptions about Chinese culture, setting the tone for the Tintin series in the future.

But back in the story, Tintin finds his way to Hukow in search of the one man he thinks can come up with a cure for the "poison of madness", now with the orphaned Chang in tow. Which turns out to be lucky for both him and Chang, as Chang proves instrumental in Tintin's efforts to avoid arrest and death, and Chang ends up being taken in by Wang Chen-Yee as an adoptive son. In the end, after some intrigue and the tables being turned a couple of times, Tintin foils the opium smuggling ring and unmasks the mysterious leader. Or rather the mysterious leader goes out of his way to unmask himself, which is a little bit odd. Having foiled the criminals, Tintin is feted in the streets of Shanghai but doesn't seem to actually write a newspaper story about his exploits, instead being interviewed by another reporter. This continues Tintin's streak of never actually doing any reporting despite holding the job of "journalist".

Unsurprisingly, things turn out well for Tintin and his friends, and badly for his enemies. The opium smugglers are put in jail, the Japanese officials are disgraced, the corrupt European interlopers in China are left to sit in sullen resentment. Tintin, on the other hand, is a hero. His efforts result in a cure for the "poison of madness" and a home for Chang. In addition to the storytelling and background research getting better in this volume, so does the artwork, as Hergé is able to include some larger panels showing bigger vistas into the book. With all of these elements coming together in its pages The Blue Lotus is a real turning point for the series. Although we do not yet have the full cast of characters who will make the series truly memorable - Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Nestor, and so on - the essential story elements that make Tintin such a great series have finally come together making The Blue Lotus both a good read in itself, and an important book for the series as a whole.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Mar 20, 2012, 1:20pm Top

Book Three: Legend of a Ninja: Beneath the Shadows by Jarius Raphel.

Short review: Ninjas are awesome! And they kill stuff! And they have an Order for umm, I don't know why. But there's a cool gate to the shadow realm, and a cool katana with a cool name! And lots of posing, vaporing, and killing. And, umm, ninja stuff.

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Legend of a Ninja: Beneath the Shadows is the product of Jarius Raphel, a composite author made up of an undefined collection of individuals. The book is a fantasy story featuring ninjas along with all the usual fantasy accouterments: dark elves, vampires, wizards, knights, and so on. Although the novel shows flashes of promise, it suffers from a lack of depth, a lack of focus, and a lack of polish that overwhelms the handful of good moments and results in a story that is simply not worth reading.

The story opens by introducing Nix and Banon, the two masters of the "Ninja Order", and in their description one gets a hint of the problems to come with the book. Their description says "Most would guess they were nearing 98 years old, though their posture and grace would make it hard to believe." But this leaves the reader wondering, which is it? Would someone guess they are ninety-eight years old, or would they find that hard to believe? This sort of description is a harbinger of things to come: the authors seem to have a wide array of "cool" descriptions for the various ninjas that they more or less mix and match together without necessarily considering whether the end result makes much sense.

I suspect that the problems with the book is because the people who make up Jarius Raphel are probably bright, but young and inexperienced. From a certain perspective, the whole book feels like a group of friends watched Naruto, started a fantasy role-playing campaign about ninjas, and then decided to write the stories of their characters out in story form. It seems like the entire book was pushed into print before it was really ready, and probably needed at least two major editing passes: a first to clean up the story and strengthen the places where setting background needed to be improved, and a second just to improve the writing in the book. And this is the frustrating element: the book isn't bad because the authors didn't come up with interesting ideas or because they were incompetent, but because the authors needed an editor and some test readers.

In the story, the book quickly abandons Banon and Nix as more or less irrelevant, and focuses on the ninja Wrath of the Shadows, a self-taught ninja who is a member of the Iofrehn clan, which consists of fourteen members who almost never interact with one another and are described as not being bound to the ninja Order. They are also, supposedly, the most powerful ninjas in the world. As usual for the book, almost all of these statements are contradicted in the course of the book, which makes one think that the various contributors to the project simply didn't talk to one another when they were writing their material. This sort of inconsistency also makes the reader simply stop caring about the characters, because nothing that one reads in the book matters a couple pages later when whatever you were told before is casually tossed aside. In any event, Iofrehn ninjas are forbidden from falling in love, but Wrath wants to be allowed to be in love with another Iofrehn named Zyonel and so asks Nohran, the head of the Iorfrehn for permission. Nohran immediately casts Wrath out of the Iofrehn (on the grounds that being in love makes you a less powerful ninja, citing the "Taken" clan who can marry and who are apparently not powerful), and because he is now not part of the Order, he's an unauthorized ninja who can be killed, so she tries to kill him.

And this leads to the convoluted story in which Wrath teleports around using "vapor wills" trying to figure out a way to keep Nohran from killing him, Zyonel zips about sometimes in love with Wrath, sometimes pledging his allegiance to Aurora, the nymph ninja of the Kiss clan who he has apparently been secretly married to (despite the Iofrehn prohibition on love and relationships). And so on. Setting elements are thrown in to the story almost at random. There are dark elf ninja, vampire ninja, and a lot of posing and looking cool thrown in for no real discernible reason. In one scene, a representative of the vampire ninja clan shows up looking for a fugitive vampire ninja and begins killing bystanders to get the dark elf ninjas to hand the object of their hunt over. In another, a goddess shows up and Wrath enlists with her, whereupon we find out for the first time that there is some sort of conflict between the ninjas and the gods. What is the source of this conflict is never really stated - it is just another setting element that pops up out of left field and is never explained. Over and over again setting or plot elements are introduced without any foundation or explanation. And this is a large part of what makes it seem like the authors were transcribing a role-playing campaign or a particular anime series: they clearly had some sort of blueprint in their head as to the background of the story, but because they were so familiar with it, they didn't think to pass that information on to the reader.

The story weaves along throwing new stuff at the reader at a rapid clip: the estranged ninja child of a war god comes into the story, a shadowy realm that is supposedly the source of ninja power comes along, a magical katana (never mind that ninjas don't use katanas) turns out to be the key to the shadow realm, a book with all the names of all the ninjas in the world is found, and so on. We find out that Nix and Banon, despite being introduced as masters of the ninja Order, do not actually control the ninja Order. After the Gaiden clan, who are the enforcers for the ninja Order, is introduced, we discover that the Iofrehn are not the most powerful ninja clan when they are all killed off-camera almost as an afterthought. Once the supposed villain of the story is dealt with, the story takes a left turn and another character becomes the primary villain for no apparent reason. All in all, the story is just a mess, with plot developments thrown with no rhyme or reason other than possibly "this is cool!"

The Gaiden clan themselves are an example of this: one of the clan members always floats above the ground. The other is so intelligent and skilled at speaking that they can "emotionally devastate" their opponents by insulting them. A third is the best swordsman in the world, and the last is so sneaky he's always hiding in the shadows. This sort of hyperbole permeates the book and makes everything in it seem so silly. Everyone is "the best" or "the fastest" or some other superlative - until they aren't, at which point someone kills them, or they run away or something. Ninjas often don't fight, they just look at each other and one simply knows that the other is more "powerful", although what that means in the context of ninja skills (which presumably include a wide array of stealthy skills, magical powers, and fighting abilities) is never explained.

The book's main failing, and which if fixed would go a long way to raising this to a palatable fantasy story is that it simply never fills in the background of the setting or the characters that would make any of the story seem real for the reader. The story takes place in a poorly defined fantasy land with poorly defined characters (who are mostly defined by how "powerful" and "cool" they are as ninjas) engaged in poorly explained conflicts with poorly explained goals. Having the story shift rails more than once, and having the main antagonist of the first part of the book swapped out for another in the second further increases the confusion of the story. By trying to pack what is essentially two sequential stories into one book, the authors created a hurried and busy book heavy on meaningless action and sparse on substance. If the book had been split into two books, with each one dealing with a single villainous plot, which would have opened up room in each book to provide the setting background and character development that is simply lacking here.

With a confused, overly busy story lacking in setting depth or consistency Legend of a Ninja: Beneath the Shadows is simply a mess. Although there are a few interesting ideas here and there, they are all executed in such a haphazard fashion as to overwhelm them in a sea of mediocrity. If you are interested in a book containing super cool ninjas engaged in posing and insulting one another without any real motivations, then Legend of a Ninja is just right for you. On the other hand, if you want a fantasy story with a comprehensible setting, characters that you can care about, and a plot that makes sense, then you should probably give this book a pass.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 22, 2012, 12:02pm Top

Book Four: The Broken Ear by Hergé.

Short review: Tintin takes the initiative to track down a story involving a stolen fetish from South America and winds up neck deep in the politics of a Banana Republic.

Long review: Having been to the United States, Egypt, India, China, and in an episode we'd rather forget, sub-Saharan Africa, it is time for Tintin to go somewhere new: South America. This time, Tintin sets off hot on the trail of a stolen fetish statue and winds up in the middle of a revolution followed by a war manufactured by American oil interests. And in a twist new for the series, Tintin starts his adventure by going out in search of a newspaper story to write. This marks the first time that Tintin has (a) actively taken the initiative at the outset of his adventure to set the ball rolling, and (b) actually done something related to his supposed job as a journalist. Despite his short-lived devotion to his job, Tintin doesn't really do much of anything to gather a story during the events of the book, despite being embroiled neck deep in what should have been a half dozen or more major scoops, reverting back to his established pattern of not reporting on anything.

The story opens up with us finding Tintin at home, which is the first time in the series that we have seen Tintin at home, where he is exercising and taking a bath. He hears about a mysterious robbery at the Museum of Ethnography, in which a sacred tribal fetish is stolen and in a burst of journalistic exuberance decides to go investigate if there is a story to be found there. At the museum, he runs across Thompson and Thomson who are investigating the robbery with their usual blend of incompetence and mangled language. The next day the case seems to solve itself as the statue is apparently returned to the museum, and everyone but Tintin is satisfied. Tintin, having done a few hours of research at the local library, notices what the director of the museum does not: the returned fetish does not have a tell-tale "broken ear" like the fetish that Tintin saw in a book (as Tintin had never seen the real fetish before the supposed fake one was returned). On the one hand, this is moderately silly insofar as Tintin seems to be the only person who notices that the rare item stolen and returned appears to be a forgery. On the other hand, it is a welcome development for the series to have Tintin actually engage in some actual investigation in an effort to solve a mystery.

After tying some very thin threads together, Tintin tangles with Alsonso and Ramon, a pair of criminals who have very think Spanish accents (or what are supposed to be very thick Spanish accents), vying with them for possession of a dead man's parrot, a competition that places Tintin's life in jeopardy more than once and turns out to be a more or less pointless exercise, as Tintin figures out where the crooks are headed despite being unable to keep hold of the parrot. This sends Tintin on a voyage to South America - no specific country is mentioned, just "South America", although the country is eventually revealed to be "San Teodoro" with the neighboring country being "Nuevo-Rico". After a couple of attempts on his life on board ship, Tintin works with the crew to arrest the criminals just before the ship reaches their destination. With the pair of criminals apparently well in hand, Tintin goes ashore to figure out what happened to the real stolen fetish and is immediately framed for terrorism, arrested, and condemned to be executed by firing squad. Tintin is quite put out by this, but given that this is the third time in three books that he has been scheduled to go before a firing squad, and in the book previous to that he was strung up by a lynch mob one would think that he would be used to it by now.

At this point the book switches from a strange crime caper involving the theft of an object with no discernible value to some social commentary on the nature of the governments of South American nations. While standing before the firing squad, Tintin is apparently saved by a coup d'etat that replaces General Tapioca with General Alcazar granting Tintin a reprieve. But just as quickly General Alcazar is replaced by General Tapioca again, putting Tintin back on death row. After getting drunk with the firing squad commander, Tintin sings the praises of General Alcazar while facing execution, just in time for the tables to turn yet again and Tapioca to be deposed in favor of Alcazar, making Tintin into a hero of the revolution. Before Tintin wakes up from his drunken stupor he finds himself appointed colonel and then aide-de-camp to General Alcazar himself and is up to his neck in San Teodoran politics. Of course, this being the section in which Hergé indulges himself in some social commentary, San Teodoran politics for Tintin mostly consists of mollifying General Alcazar by playing chess with him every day while an ex-colonel fails to kill the head of state in in humorous ways.

Tintin's new found power doesn't stop Alonso and Ramon from trying to kidnap and kill him in an effort to get their hands on the missing tribal idol. Their efforts, however, pale in comparison to the dangers Tintin faces dealing with San Teodoran politics. After lampooning Banana Republic style politics, Hergé turns to satirizing the involvement of unscrupulous U.S. corporate interests in South American politics when a corrupt oil executive offers Tintin a bribe in an effort to get him to persuade General Alcazar to go to war with neighboring Nuevo-Rico. Tintin, being an overgrown Boy Scout, tosses the oil executive on his ear, a decision that is both morally correct and incredibly foolish. Hergé uses this story line to attack both war profiteering and corporate meddling in South American politics as well as set Tintin back on the trail of the missing tribal idol.

Once accusations of espionage have relieved Tintin of his responsibilities as colonel (and after Tintin escapes imminent execution yet again), the story goes from an exploration of Hergé's idea of Latin American politics to a jungle exploration story. After heading down a jungle river in search of the dreaded Arambaya tribe and clues as to why Alonso and Ramon have such an intense interest in a supposedly intrinsically valueless tribal fetish. In short order Tintin comes across the long-lost explorer Ridgewell who has been adopted into the Arumbaya tribe, and with his knack for finding trouble, also finds the Rumbaba's, the sworn enemies of the Arumbayas. After Tintin, Ridgewell, and Snowy get into and out of some scrapes, Ridgewell has a fit of exposition and reveals to Tintin that the fetish may have had a large diamond hidden inside of it. Granted, diamonds are treated as valuable, but one has to wonder if a single diamond could possibly be worth the effort Alonso and Ramon have put into recovering it (not to mention the amount of money they must have invested into their quest).

Now that he has wound his way to all the pieces of the puzzle, Tintin runs across Alonso and Ramon again and ends up having to walk back to civilization. Once Tintin makes his way out of the jungle, things begin to wrap up quickly: the oil field that San Teodoro and Nuevo-Rico went to war over turns out to have no oil, a discovery that causes peace to break out. Tintin returns home and finds dozens of statues that look like the missing fetish, leading him to track down the whereabouts of the original, a discovery that makes the entire trip to South America more or less moot. As one would expect, in the end, Tintin unravels the mystery, the villains get their just desserts, and the fetish is returned to its proper place albeit somewhat worse for wear. Oddly, despite showing up at the outset of the story, Thompson and Thomson don't play any part in tracking down the villains at the end, an absence that seems somewhat glaring. But despite the fact that this was the first story in which Tintin does any real investigating and problem solving, the story of the missing fetish with a broken ear is mostly just a framing device to poke fun at the chaotic nature of South American politics and the venality of corporate interests that was the root cause of a good sized chunk of that chaos.

The Broken Ear continues the upward trend in the quality of the storytelling in The Adventures of Tintin, as not only does the book now contain a complete story, but Tintin has become a more active protagonist, both taking the initiative to instigate the story and actually collecting and stringing together clues to unravel the mystery. One step back is the artwork, as this volume lacks any of half page or full page illustrations of the type seen in The Blue Lotus, reverting back to the straightforward conversion of what had been a newspaper comic into book form. But in addition to the improved storytelling, The Broken Ear also includes a healthy helping of social and political satire. Despite what might be considered an offensive portrayal of South American politics, Hergé comes down strongly against the influence of corrupt corporate imperialism. Although the Tintin series has not yet fully matured, this volume is yet another building block in the steady improvement of the series, and definitely a book worth reading.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 22, 2012, 12:02pm Top

Book Five: The Black Island by Hergé.

Short review: Tintin stumbles onto a ring of counterfeiters based in the exotic locale of Scotland. He does no reporting.

Long review: Having sent Tintin all over the world in previous adventures, Hergé keeps him close to home in The Black Island, as the adventure starts while our hero is on what appears to be a country walk, and the action never requires transport more extensive than a cross-Channel ferry from the mainland to Britain. Although this story involving another smuggling ring is a fairly serviceable Tintin adventure, it does seem to be a bit of a stagnation for the series as a whole - the adventure is more or less dropped in Tintin's lap through no effort of his, and the pursuit of the villains seems to follow what has more or less become the Tintin signature: while not reporting on anything, Tintin finds his life menaced by criminals. He then foils their attempts to kill him, uncovers evidence of their crimes, and exposes them to the police. On the other hand, this story does serve to more fully develop Thompson and Thomson as regular cast members, as they feature more prominently in this book than they have in any previous ones.

One thing that seems clear is that Hergé had a hard time coming up with ways for Tintin to come across a mystery, because so many of the early books start off with Tintin basically minding his own business when some crook tries to kill him, frame him, or otherwise get him "out of the way". But the odd thing about these story elements is that it is pretty clear that if they had just left Tintin alone, he would have never been "in the way" to begin with. Hergé, it seems, was under the impression that criminals think the best way to avoid being found out is to act as suspiciously as possible and draw attention to themselves by killing bystanders for no real apparent reason. In any event, the story kicks off when Tintin happens upon an unmarked plane that had to make a forced landing due to engine trouble, whereupon the pilot and his passenger immediately try to kill him. Because the way to avoid drawing attention to yourself and your unmarked plane is to leave a trail of bodies.

This draws in Thompson and Thomson, who begin the story involved in the hunt for the criminals that tried to kill Tintin, and stay on the case for pretty much the whole book. Their "assistance" isn't much help, and at times they are a hindrance - especially when Tintin is accused of petty theft and they decide they must arrest him. Just as criminals in Hergé's world try to act inconspicuous by killing everyone in their path, policemen in Hergé's fiction try to apprehend murderers by stopping to deal with every misdemeanor they run across along the way. (Actually, in Hergé's fiction, policemen seem to be either ridiculously scrupulous about arresting or ticketing people for even the slightest offense even when it seems silly for them to do so, or they are hopelessly corrupt. There is no middle ground.) Throughout the book their path intertwines with Tintin's at numerous points, and despite their continued occupancy in the "comedic relief" role they do start to become more fully realized characters than merely a pair of nitwits spouting inanities and falling on their faces. Though they keep their fundamental slapstick nature, Thompson and Thomson start to become somewhat more sympathetic characters in this volume, as the fact that they fundamentally mean well and try their best (despite being completely ineffective at actually doing much of anything useful) comes through.

The story itself is fairly straightforward. After the coincidental beginning, Tintin proactively investigates, uncovering clues and hunting down the identity of the mysterious gangsters who tried to kill him. Rather than waiting around for attempts to be made on his life, Tintin investigates wreckage, finds torn up notes, finds cables and flares, sets up ruses to trap criminals, and so on. This doesn't mean that the bad guys sit on their thumbs, but it does mean that when they do try to kill Tintin, there's a reason for it. Well, except for their first completely gratuitous attempt to kill Tintin at the outset of the book. Tintin's investigation leads him into a number of scrapes and car chases, and eventually to the exotic land of Scotland, where everyone wears kilts, speaks with a ridiculously thick accent, and Snowy gets drunk on whiskey.

And Snowy's inebriation is just one of the elements that this book establishes that become recurring themes in the series. While Snowy doesn't get drunk in every book that follows, before too long the character of Captain Haddock comes along who pretty much does. Because, as everyone knows, drunk people are funny! Or at least Hergé thought so. I recall that even as an elementary school student reading the books that I found Captain Haddock and Snowy's regular bouts with the bottle to be more sad than hilarious. Another element that becomes well-established in this book is Snowy's love affair with bones, and his amazing knack for turning up bones to chew on wherever he goes, often leading to some fairly comical sequences. Snowy's love affair with bones also seems to coincide with a reduction in dialogue for him, as the role he played in previous volumes of serving as the primary sounding board for Tintin is taken by Thompson and Thomson in this book and the next, and Captain Haddock thereafter.

Another element that gets introduced in this book is a somewhat over-the-top amount of apparent stoicism on the part of the characters in the series. it seems that Hergé was very optimistic about the ability of characters to withstand being burned - Tintin manages to escape from one sticky situation by holding a flaming piece of wood against the ropes tying his hand together to burn through his restraints. Later, some villains are tied up with electrical wire. Live electrical wire which they shock themselves with while escaping, causing them to yell, but apparently not causing them to actually be injured in any noticeable manner. This extraordinary level of invulnerability to heat and electricity crops up frequently in the series. Another element that seems to crop up in the series is the private mental institution: we've seen one already in Cigars of the Pharaoh, and we see one again now, albeit somewhat more nefariously run than the previous one was. Interestingly, one thing we don't see is Tintin in front of a firing squad, which makes this the only book out of the last five in which he is not set up to be executed for a crime he didn't commit.

Eventually Tintin's pursuit of the crime ring leads him to a remote Scottish village near a foreboding island that the locals are all terrified of. Tintin, of course, is either brave enough or foolhardy enough to want to go to the forbidden "Black Island", but in a rerun of the plot of The Broken Ear none of the locals will take him there until he agrees to buy a boat from one of them. Soon enough, Tintin is on his way to the mysterious Black Island where he finds the smugglers who have an unusual method for scaring the nearby villagers. The method, involving unleashing a large and unusually aggressive gorilla to chase down and presumably kill trespassers seems like it would be almost as dangerous for the gangsters as it is for intruders, but it seems pretty well-established that in the Tintin universe gangsters are on the whole fairly dim, so maybe it shouldn't be surprising. After some twists and turns, Thompson and Thomson arrive with some competent backup (who apparently aren't afraid of the island like everyone else), and the story comes to a fairly predictable ending.

But like the plot point in which everyone is too afraid to take Tintin to the mysterious island until he buys a boat from one of them and goes himself seems to be a rehash of a similar plot point from The Broken Ear, most of the rest of the story seems like a rehash of previous Tintin stories, just without Hergé's developing political awareness and world building skills being applied to the story. Tintin already tangled with gangsters in all of the previous books. He's already specifically dealt with smugglers. He's already been framed for crimes numerous times in an effort to get him out of the way. We've already seen mental hospitals show up as plot elements. And so on and so forth. To a certain extent, it feels like we've seen everything that shows up in this book before, sort of like Hergé put all of his previous plot elements into a big bag, shook it up, and then assembled The Black island out of the ones that fell out first. On the other hand, the story almost feels like this was Hergé's attempt to go back and do a gangster story "right" from the start, just to show how far his story telling abilities had advanced since the jumbled mess of Tintin in America.

No matter what Hergé's motivations may have been, the result is a serviceable but not particularly noteworthy Tintin story. The mystery is reasonably interesting. Tintin's investigations are fun to follow, with plenty of twists and adventure plus some humor (mostly provided by Thompson and Thomson with an assist from Snowy). The lack of any kind of politics or social commentary seems kind of like a step backwards for the series, but the story is engaging enough without it to remain enjoyable. Overall, while The Black Island is unlikely to top anyone's list of "the best Tintin stories", it is far from the worst, and is a fun and action-filled installment of the series.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 22, 2012, 12:02pm Top

Book Six: King Ottokar's Sceptre by Hergé.

Short review: Tintin happens upon a plot to dethrone the ruler of Syldavia and becomes a national hero. He does no reporting.

Long review: King Ottokar's Sceptre is the last Tintin adventure originally written and published before World War II and Belgium becoming an occupied country. It is also the last Tintin adventure before the appearance of Tintin's friend Captain Haddock. In some sense, it is the last of the "pure" Tintin books and one of the most political and serious ones as well. Without Haddock and Calculus to provide goofy humor, the only comedic relief in an otherwise fairly tense sorry of royal intrigue is the bumbling duo of Thompson and Thomson, and they are clearly a sideshow in this volume. Because of this, King Ottokar's Sceptre is one of the most adventure oriented and one of the best stand alone volumes in the series.

The book begins blandly enough when Tintin finds an unattended briefcase sitting on a park bench. After checking inside to find the owners' identity, he heads off on a good Samaritan mission to return the valise to its proper owner. This leads him to Professor Hector Alembeck, an expert in the somewhat obscure field of Sigillography, the study of seals, a subject Alembeck finds endlessly fascinating, and which seems to interest Tintin as well. Of particular note, and setting the story into motion, is the seal of King Ottokar IV of Syldavia, a tiny country with an obscure sigillographic history. Alembeck tells Tintin of his intention to travel to Syldavia and study the seals of that country in the near future, but complains that he need a private secretary to assist him when he travels.

The story would have ended there, but the villains continue in the proud tradition of Tintin villains and wildly overreact to Tintin's presence and draw attention to themselves. First by acting suspiciously they lead Tintin to a Syldavian restaurant, leading him to follow even more suspicious activity, and then by trying to warn him off, arousing his interest even further. Eventually this leads Tintin to accepting the position as Alembeck's personal secretary and sends him off to Syldavia. Once again, had the villains simply laid low and hadn't engaged in heavy-handed and clumsy attempts to dissuade Tintin's investigations, their actual plans would have remained hidden and they would have accomplished their ultimate goal. Instead, by trying to warn Tintin off (and eventually kill him), all they did was put our hero on their trail. This leads to a number of cat and mouse situations - a man arranges to meet Tintin to pass information to him, but then shows up knocked out on Tintin's doorstep having lost his memory. A package is delivered to Tintin's house that turns out to be a bomb, leading to a car chase. And so on.

Tintin's suspicions are aroused even further when he is speaking with Alembeck on the phone and hears sounds of a struggle. Rushing to Alembeck's apartment, Tintin finds an undisturbed professor packing his clothes. In any event, Tintin and the putative Alembeck head off on their trip to Syldavia, and this is where Hergé really begins to flex his story telling muscles. To this point the story has been a fairly run-of-the-mill spy story. But now, Hergé shows off his now well-developed world-building abilities, creating an entire fictional Balkan nation with an interesting history and a plausible long-standing rivalry with its neighbor. And he does so in just three pages, including one beautifully drawn full page illustration representing a medieval miniature depicting the fictitious Battle of Zileheroum in which the Syldavians defeated the Turkish troops occupying their country. In these three pages Hergé establishes the background needed for his story and does it in a manner that avoids making the reader think he has just had nothing but the critical elements dumped on his head. There is enough "extra" exposition over and above that strictly necessary to the plot to give the impression that Syldavia is a real place, but not so much more that the book bogs down in a swamp of detailed world-building background.

Having established his setting, Hergé wastes no time getting back to the plot, as Tintin becomes more and more suspicious that the individual he is traveling with is not actually Professor Alembeck. Soon enough, the tables turn and Tintin and Snowy are dumped out of an airborne plane. The sequence that follows established Tintin as (a) incredibly lucky, and (b) incredibly durable, adding to his list of superpowers the ability to survive a fall from an aircraft by landing in a pile of hay. Oddly, despite trying to get Tintin out of the way, the villains waited until they were over Syldavia to dump him out of the plane, which positions Tintin to try to foil their plan. On the other hand, Tintin is hampered by two things that make his task more difficult. First, he has no real direct information about the villains' plans, having come up with a guess based on nothing more than the fact that they were trying to get rid of him and the contents of a travel brochure he read while traveling on a plane. One has to wonder if Tintin is able to tie these ephemeral threads together and deduce the nature of the conspiracy against the Syldavian monarchy why no one in Syldavia has been able to figure this out. Second, it seems like almost everyone Tintin comes across in Syldavia is in on the conspiracy. Local police chiefs, members of the King's personal guard, the official Court photographer, and random people on the street all seem to be conspirators bent on overthrowing the Syldavian monarchy and assisting in a foreign takeover of the country.

So, Tintin manages to overcome the vast pervasive conspiracy that seems to permeate all of Syldavia and make his way to the king (along the way, he meets Bianca Castafiore for the first time in the series, and she regales him with an impromptu performance as they travel together, leading Tintin to note that it is a good thing the car they are riding in has safety glass). Although his path to get to King Muskar XII is difficult, once he does get a chance to talk to him, Tintin has a fairly easy time convincing him that his most trusted adviser is conspiring against him. Because Tintin is the protagonist, he is quickly given access to the heavily guarded Kropow Castle where the royal regalia is located, although not until it is just too late to prevent the theft of the royal sceptre, which happens to be the indispensable symbol of Syldavian royal legitimacy. Oddly, Tintin never mentions his connection to Professor Alembeck (who had been given the run of Kropow Castle already), nor does he mention his suspicions about Alembeck being replaced by a double. It seems like, having served his purpose in getting Tintin started along the path to uncovering the conspiracy, the relationship between the two men is forgotten and each follows an entirely separate path for the rest of the book.

Once Tintin reveals the plot, he and King Muskar are confronted with a locked door mystery in which the sceptre has seemingly disappeared from a heavily guarded room while everyone inside was knocked unconscious. Thompson and Thomson arrive for a little bit of comic relief, but even though they remain clumsy and full of malapropisms, they are no longer stupidly incompetent. Although the bumbling detectives are not able to solve the mystery, they are on the right track until Tintin trumps them with a flash of insight. This leads to a chase after the sceptre that leads through the Syldavian mountains to the Bodurian border. As one would expect, Tintin prevails, and uncovers some rather shocking documents from the thief. Of course, what is rather shocking is that the man Tintin takes them from had the documents at all given that he seems to be little more than a flunky, making the fact that he has detailed plans outlining the entire conspiracy signed by its leader seem somewhat odd. Having recovered the sceptre and the remarkably incriminating documents, Tintin must make his way back to the Syldavian capital Klow, and we learn that in addition to his many other super powers, Tintin is able to pilot a military aircraft that he has presumably never seen before.

In the end, Tintin finds his way back to Klow, and so does the sceptre. Some people have argued that the plot of King Ottokar's Sceptre is a criticism of the Nazi Anschluss that annexed Austria to Germany, and it might be. But if it is, it is a fairly cautious and oblique criticism, as the conspiracy in this story seems to be aimed at imposing a mostly unwelcome invader upon Syldavia, although whether the Nazi's were welcomed into Austria is a debatable point. No matter whether this story was intended as an allegory or not, what it is is an exciting and well-written adventure with strong world-building and interesting characters. As an aside, I'll note that the edition I own is a post-World War II revised edition, and this is one of the books that went through the most substantial revisions, although not to the story, but rather to the artwork. In the original edition, although Syldavia was supposed to be located in the Balkans, many Syldavian characters wore outfits that would be much more British in style, including the guards at Kropow Castle who were dressed as Beefeaters. Following the war, Hergé went back and redrew many panels to give Syldavia the much more Slavic flavor that it has today, a change that definitely improved the book. This excellent artwork combined with the strong story makes this one of the best Tintin stand-alone books. If you have a reader unfamiliar with The Adventures of Tintin who is interested in giving the series a try, and they aren't a stickler for reading things in their "proper" order, this would be the book I would hand them first.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Apr 7, 2012, 12:34pm Top

Book Seven: City by Clifford D. Simak.

Short review: The city outlives its usefulness, and so does mankind.

Long review: Winner of the 1953 International Fantasy Award, City is a collection of interconnected short stories describing the decline of the human city, and the subsequent decline of the human race and the rise of dogs and then ants as our replacement as masters of the Earth. In City, Simak's story deals with the intimate relationship between human civilization and cities, and the intimate relationship between human civilization and humanity itself. Using a set of framing pieces between each vignette that style the various installments of the story as fragmentary pieces of "doggish" history, the book skips through several millennia of the decline of man, starting with tales familiar to the reader but wholly alien to the dog historians "commenting" on the stories and moving to accounts progressively weirder to the human reader but more familiar to the fictional dog historians.

One of the most interesting points of the book is that the titular human settlement - the City - starts the book on its deathbed and effectively abolished by the end of the first story. And once the city is eliminated, human civilization begins to collapse - after all, the root of the word "civilization" is the same word that gave us the word "city". Simak posits that improved transportation technology would allow people to leave the cities behind and retreat to large family estates in the country, essentially adopting the lifestyle of the denizens of Edwardian manor houses with robots replacing house servants. In the excitement of the first story with police sweeps to drive out squatters and organized militias rolling cannons out of mothballs to oppose them, the loss of the unifying force in humanity's existence is overlooked. In the next few stories it becomes apparent that isolated in their private estates and waited upon hand and foot by robot servants, humanity has begun to fall apart.

The collapse of human civilization is subtle at first. With the story being told through the eyes of successive generations of the Webster family and their faithful robot butler Jenkins, we see mankind become isolated and fearful, some hiding in their familiar surroundings and eschewing travel even to save the life of their best friends. In an interesting contrast with Asimov's musings in his Robot Mysteries like The Caves of Steel in which Isaac had speculated that humanity might become extremely agoraphobic as a result of living in massive and crowded underground cities, Simak identifies the cause of agoraphobia among his characters as stemming from their reclusive isolation from one another.

With humanity split into tiny settlements inhabited by extreme homebodies, the world splits into factions composed of "normal" humans, super-intelligent mutants, and engineered talking dogs. The science that allows the talking dogs is fairly dated: a member of the Webster family starts performing surgery on the vocal cords of dogs to allow them to talk, and apparently this surgical change breeds true in successive generations of canines. The idea that the only alteration dogs need to be able to talk is a change to their vocal chords is implausible to begin with, but the suggestion that the results of this surgery would then be passed down as an inherited characteristic is just silly. But neither of these are any more plausible than the suggestion that all ants need to develop an industrialized society is to be protected from the elements for a year or two. But the plausibility of these plot developments is beside the point: the story is about declining humanity and the nonhuman civilizations that rise up to follow us when we go.

And by choosing dogs and ants, Simak has picked a pair of successor civilizations that each makes a different point. As mankind either leaves the planet to pursue hedonistic pleasures as transformed inhabitants of the Jovian surface or hides locked away and sleeping within the last city, the dogs pursue their doggish lives aided by the robots men left behind. But even though their rising civilization is built upon doggish preferences and not human ones, they are still mostly familiar to the human mind, and familiar enough that at least for a time the remaining humans, now renamed "Websters" are able to live in this distinctly doggish new world. But even though the new world is doggish in ways that are asserted could not be accomplished by humans, it is still heavily influenced by humanity, despite all of the efforts made to allow them to make their own way, by means of the robots they inherit from humans at the least. Otherwise it seems implausible that predatory and territorial pack animals would create a new order including all the animals of the Earth so pacifistic that they retreat rather than combat the alien threat of the ants.

And it is the contrast between the ants and the dogs that seems to be the critical distinction that forms the denouement of the book. Whereas the dogs are our familiar and well-loved inheritors, the ants are a wholly alien force, given their leg up to forming a civilization and then completely abandoned to their own devices by a member of a branch of humanity that had itself become alien to human concerns. With a nonhuman intelligence on one side, and a wholly alien intelligence on the other side, a conflict is set-up that results in a non-human oriented solution. In the end, the guardians of the dogs seek to consult the last remaining humans, but realize that a human solution to the ant problem would be antithetical to the fundamental nature of dogs, and decide to leave humans to their endless dreaming. Having given up their cities, mankind gave up their civilization, and then their bodies, and finally, their planet.

City is a difficult book to define. One might think that a book in which humankind is freed from the confines of cities to live the life of manorial lords would be optimistic. It isn't. One would think that a book in which human civilization collapses would be depressing. It isn't. One would think that a book in which humanity dwindles to irrelevance would be sad. It isn't. Despite being named for mankind's signature element of civilization, City is mostly about humankind without cities, and then the world without humankind. Told with humor and insight, Simak's tale reveals a intriguing picture of human nature by progressively eliminating humanity from the story. Even though this story is almost sixty years old now and has more than a few science related missteps as a result, it is still an excellent piece of science fiction that should have a place on every genre fan's bookshelf.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jan 7, 2012, 5:38am Top

7 books in 7 days. Wow!!

Edited: Jan 22, 2012, 12:01pm Top

Book Eight: The Crab with the Golden Claws by Hergé.

Short review: A meeting with Thompson and Thomson leads Tintin to an opium smuggling ring and Captain Haddock.

Long review: The Crab with the Golden Claws is the first Tintin book that Hergé wrote while Belgium was occupied. Although he had begun writing The Land of Black Gold just before Belgium was invaded and occupied, he shelved that book for the duration of the war and tried to write less "controversial" books. What is noticeable about this and the subsequent five books written during Belgium's occupation is the lack of political themes criticizing the Axis powers, whether the explicit criticism of Japan found in The Blue Lotus, or the implicit criticism of the Third Reich found in King Ottokar's Sceptre. It seems as though Hergé deliberately turned away from making any political statement during the occupation years, and instead tried to focus on more fantastical stories. This book is also noteworthy as the first in the series in which Captain Haddock makes his appearance, introducing the character who will become almost as iconic a member of the Tintin books as Tintin himself.

The story starts with a somewhat unusual twist for a Tintin story: rather than stumbling into a mystery and having the villains wildly overreact and try to kill him, Tintin is talking with Thompson and Thomson concerning their most recent investigation into a ring of counterfeiters when he spots a small collection of items in their office that reminds him of a can Snowy had found in the trash earlier that day. It turns out that the object came from a drowned body, and the scrap of paper torn from the can has very faint writing on it. We see a brief scene in which an Asian man inquires after Tintin, and then Tintin figures out that the scrap of paper says "Karaboudjan", the Asian man is abducted when he tries to call on Tintin, and the adventure is underway. And all of these clues are strung together without a single threat to Tintin's life or an attempt by gangsters to warn him off.

This doesn't mean that Tintin is left alone, but at least in this story the gangsters wait until he has at least some information and is actively poking their nose into their business before they try to drop a huge crate of canned sardines on his head. Apparently gangsters can sense the inherent incompetence of the Thompson and Thomson, because when they join Tintin to search the Karaboudjan, the villains leave them alone but whack our hero on the head and tie him up in the ship's hold. This development results in Tintin making two discoveries - the first of which is important to the plot of the book, the second of which is important to the future of the series. First, Tintin discovers that the cans of crab don't hold crab at all, but rather are filled with opium (which Tintin recognizes on sight). Second, while making his escape from the Karaboudjan, Tintin comes across Captain Haddock, at this point a pathetically drunk ship captain kept a virtual prisoner by his evil first mate Allan. But even at this point, with Haddock so looped on whiskey that he stutters when he talks, his fundamental goodness comes through when he learns that his ship is being used to smuggle opium and the smugglers have kidnapped Tintin. He immediately jumps in to offer his inebriated assistance to Tintin, helping him make his escape in a ship's boat.

Once the pair have escaped the Karaboudjan, Haddock quickly establishes what will become a regular pattern for the series: although sobered up, he comes across a bottle of alcohol and even though he knows he should stay sober he decides to have "just one". Before he knows it, Haddock has polished off the whole bottle and then does something destructively stupid that creates a plot complication that Tintin must overcome. Through the series, Haddock is mostly helpful, and it seems like Hergé does understand something about alcoholism, given Haddock's inability to control himself when presented with liquor. However, Haddock's alcoholism is played for laughs - because as has been established in previous books with Snowy, in Hergé's world, getting uncontrollably drunk is funny. And in this book, it is often destructively dangerous.

After some improbable escapades involving an airplane (and I will note that it seems absurdly easy to get hold of an armed civilian airplane in Hergé's fictional reality), Tintin, Snowy, and Haddock wind up on their own in the North African desert with no water and no supplies. (I'll note that the crashed airplane they leave behind should have had a fair amount of water in its radiator, and also that the captured pilots seem to have acquired Tintin's amazing resistance to fire). After some comedy involving mirages, Snowy's love of bones and Haddock's love of spirits, the three are rescued by a Foreign Legion detachment, and soon set out for the coast after hearing that the Karaboudjan had sunk with all hands. This sequence provides the cover for the book, and also provides more alcohol-related humor as Haddock's supply of liquor is shot up throwing him into a frenzy.

Eventually they arrive in the port city of Bagghar, and the coincidences fly thick and fast leading to a resolution of the mystery. Tintin runs across Thompson and Thomson, who have been assigned to track down opium smugglers. They all run across the Karaboudjan, which has been disguised, and Allan, who has not. Eventually their investigations lead them to Omar Ben Salaad, a prominent citizen of Bagghar who they suspect is the ringleader of the opium smugglers. Haddock is kidnapped, and Tintin manages to rescue him, whereupon Haddock clumsily messed everything up, both of them get inebriated, and they still manage to solve the mystery and capture the villains. Although the plot wraps up in a moderately contrived manner, the artwork in the book displays the steady improvement that has been characteristic of the series, with the regular panels regularly punctuated by beautifully rendered full page artwork. In addition, the series continues the tradition of Tintin not actually doing any reporting, despite his job title of "journalist". Despite breaking up yet another international opium smuggling ring, Tintin doesn't appear to file any story, or actually do anything related to his job. I suppose, given that this is the third smuggling ring Tintin has foiled, that perhaps he considers this to be a not particularly newsworthy event.

A decent chunk of this book was used to make part of the plot of the Steven Spielberg movie The Adventures of Tintin, lifting the portions in which Tintin is abducted onto the Karaboudjan, meeting Captain Haddock, and the subsequent adventure leading to the North African desert. Some elements were altered - in the movie the Karaboudjan is not smuggling opium, and Omar Ben Salaad is no longer an opium smuggler but rather a minor potentate who is tangled into the story via a model ship. In a small Easter egg for fans of the books, in the movie, the courtyard of Salaad's palace has a prominently placed fountain with a golden crab decoration. In addition, Haddock's character is slightly changed, making him a little bit less destructively dangerous when drunk and more comically dangerous.

Overall, this book represents both a substantial step forward for the Tintin series, and a sad stagnation. The introduction of Captain Haddock as a foil for Tintin represents an important turning point in the series. No longer does Tintin have to bounce his ideas off of Snowy. No longer do Thompson and Thomson have to fill both the role of Tintin's investigatory collaborators and comic relief. From this point forward, Haddock will become as integral part of the Tintin stories as Tintin and Snowy. On the other hand, the "Tintin foils a smuggling ring" has, by this point, been done to death. For fairly obvious reasons, the political bent that the stories had been taking is conspicuously absent from this volume, with the one exception of the appearance of a bit of appeasement thrown to the Axis powers in the form of the mysterious Asian man who turns out to be a Japanese detective hot on the trail of the opium smugglers - marking a turnaround from the positioning of the Japanese as the ringleaders of the drug trade in The Blue Lotus. Despite the "been there, done that" nature of the story, the introduction of Captain Haddock into the series makes this book a memorable one, and makes it worth reading.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 22, 2012, 12:01pm Top

Book Nine: The Shooting Star by Hergé.

Short review: Its a race between a European crew accompanied by Tintin and an American crew financed by unscrupulous villains with a mysterious meteorite as the prize. Tintin does no reporting.

Long review: The Shooting Star is the second of the Tintin books written during World War II, and one of the oddest books in the entire series. It is also one of the most disappointing. Although some minor fantastical elements have cropped up in previous books such as Cigars of the Pharaoh, this is the first book in the series that could credibly be classified as science fiction. Despite his apparent attempts to avoid controversy by making his tale as fantastical as possible, some elements of Hergé's book were seen as appeasement of the occupying forces, helping to place a post-War cloud of suspicion over the artist.

The story of The Shooting Star is unusual for the Tintin series in that it is the first in the series that is not primarily focused on foiling criminal activity, and is instead focused on a mysterious shooting star that appears in the night sky. It is also the first (and one of the few) stories in the series in which Tintin is not knocked out with a blow to the head, chloroformed into unconsciousness, or shot. (Seriously, one has to wonder how Tintin has any skull bone left after the number of knocks he takes to the noggin, and if women think scars are sexy, then he must be a lady-magnet with all the bullet holes in his body). When the night becomes unseasonably warm, Tintin sneaks into the local observatory and finds out that it is a huge fireball headed in a collision course with the Earth. This sequence gives a little foreshadowing as a spider walks across the lens of the telescope Tintin observes the object with, making it appear that the fireball is bearing a huge spider. Tintin is informed by the director of the observatory that the fireball will strike the Earth and destroy the world, sending Tintin home to wait out the remaining hours. The following sequence also reinforces Tintin's apparent resistance to heat, as he is able to walk about outside when the air temperature is high enough to cause car tires to burst, the tar in street pavement to melt, heat the metal of a window frame so much that burns when touched. Tintin's resistance doesn't appear to be all that exceptional though, as everyone else in the world is apparently only slightly inconvenienced by the presumably oven level temperatures.

In a twist that should surprise no one reading the book, the world does not end, and the flaming threat passes by the Earth without striking it, merely causing an earthquake. Rushing through the aftermath the the observatory, Tintin stumbles in just in time for the director Decimus Phostle to discover, via the use of a spectroscope, a heretofore unknown metal on the passing meteor and name it phostlite. Their elation is short-lived when they learn that the chunk of meteorite that crashed into the Earth (and caused the earthquake) fell into the Arctic Ocean, a fact that causes Phostle to assume that his discovery of phostlite has been swallowed by the sea. Leaving aside the fact that he already has spectroscopic proof of the new metal, it seems odd that it takes Tintin slipping on some bricks that had fallen into the water to figure out that the meteorite fragment might still be sticking up through the water's surface.

Before too long the characters are heading off to find the semi-submerged meteorite and claim the discovery of phostlite for the European Foundation for Scientific Research, racing against a rival commercially funded expedition. And it is at this point in the story that Hergé drew criticism. The expedition Tintin accompanies is organized by and comprised of Europeans, mostly from Axis or Axis-friendly countries, nobly setting out to advance science in the research vessel "Aurora". The rival expedition, organized in pursuit of pure profit and engaged in numerous attempts to sabotage Tintin's compatriots, is based in the Americas (originally the United States), and funded by bankers who, in the original version, had very stereotypical Jewish names. These elements were somewhat toned down in later editions of the book, but enough remains that an astute reader will be able to see what the controversy was about.

With Captain Haddock along to run the ship (and acting as the newly elected president of the Sober Sailor's Society), Tintin, Phostle, and the collection of mostly interchangeable scientists who fill out the expedition's roster head into Arctic waters. After extensive adventures involving overcoming a crazed stowaway, storms, ice, a mysterious fuel shortage in Iceland (a problem solved when Captain Haddock runs across an old friend), and a false distress signal, the Aurora launches its seaplane and Tintin finally parachutes onto the meteorite and plants the E.F.S.R. flag to claim the prize. One thing that seems odd about this race is that it seems to suggest that scientific discoveries are kept from others, and whoever gets to the meteorite first will be able to keep the phostlite for themselves. I suppose in a wartime atmosphere this would be more or less true, but there isn't an indication that there is a war going on in Tintin's fictional reality, making the race for the prize seem more or less pointless.

But it is only when Tintin reaches the meteorite and sets his mind on camping out on it overnight accompanied only by Snowy (to prevent the Americans from claiming it in his absence) that the story gets really weird. First, it seems that Tintin's amazing invulnerability to extreme heat doesn't apply to hot water, as he is scalded when jumping ankle-deep in the water to get his dog. The heat of the water is somewhat odd too, since it is supposed to be heated by the meteorite. But if the water is hot enough to burn Tintin when he steps into it, why is the meteorite itself cool enough to walk around, sit down, and lie down on? Quirky inconsistencies like this seem to me to be an indication that Hergé wasn't yet comfortable writing a story that didn't involve tracking down opium smugglers. While camping on the island, Tintin discovers that the substance it is made of has some truly odd properties - as evidenced by the gigantic mushroom pictured on the cover of the book. Once again, it seems odd that an unknown metal would have the effect of causing plants and insects to grow to enormous size, especially an unknown metal that would have to be on the extreme heavy end of the periodic table (and thus would be highly radioactive and probably deadly to anyone camping on a huge hunk of it). It is this final segment that draws The Shooting Star firmly into the science fiction genre, and almost pulls it all the way into fantasy. It stays just short of fantasy, although it is weird science fiction.

In the end, Tintin scores yet another victory against those who oppose him and once again does no reporting. As a result of Tintin's efforts the E.F.S.R. claims a piece of the mysterious metal, news agencies report their triumph, and it is never mentioned again in any of the Tintin stories. In fact, unlike many other books in the Adventures of Tintin series, no one other than Tintin, Haddock, and Snowy, and no plot elements specific to this book ever crop up again in later installments. This book produced no recurring characters, no recurring villains, no recurring plot devices, and had essentially no lasting impact at all on the series. The only thing that makes this book noteworthy in the series is the introduction of full-blown science fiction elements to the series. The book is even lacking in the full page and half page pieces of artwork that had begun to crop up in the handful of books that immediately preceded it. The Shooting Star is, quite simply, a disappointing book that represents a downturn for the series. That said, it is still Tintin, and still full of humor, intrigue, and adventure, and is, as a result, worth a read.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jan 9, 2012, 12:06am Top

Obviously, Aaron, you are indulging in a Tintin fest. Have you read these before or is this marathon related to the movie just released?

Jan 9, 2012, 12:23am Top

11: I've read them all before. I first found Tintin when I was about ten, and read all of the books over the next couple years. The biggest problem for me back then was tracking down the books - I lived in Tanzania at the time, so I was limited to the books owned by my friends for the most part. I read the books entirely out of order, essentially reading them when I found them, and never tried to figure out if they formed any kind of cohesive whole. I have read Tintin in the Congo and Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, but I am intentionally not bothering to go back and read them this go round. I intend to read and review all the other books in the series in order.

Jan 9, 2012, 8:36am Top

Tanzania? Wow. I can't help but wonder what living there might be like. Just my fascination with travel, I suppose.

Hope you'll enjoy the Tintin books!

Jan 9, 2012, 9:03am Top

13: I can't say anything about what living there now is like - I last lived in Tanzania in the late 1970s. But it was enjoyable for me. I went to a British school and absorbed a fair amount of what British culture was pushing on its boys, including Tintin. Also Asterix the Gaul and lots of stories about Oliver Cromwell.

Edited: Jan 22, 2012, 12:01pm Top

Book Ten: The Secret of the Unicorn by Hergé.

Short review: A chance discovery at an open air market starts Tintin and Captain Haddock on the trail of lost treasure. Tintin does no reporting.

Long review: The story in The Secret of the Unicorn and its sequel Red Rackham's Treasure is source from which Spielberg drew the bulk of the material for his movie The Adventures of Tintin, which was a good decision because this is probably the most loved of all the Tintin books (although I am partial to the two part series Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon). In The Secret of the Unicorn the roster of characters for the Tintin series finally takes full shape. The first of three two-part stories, and one of the best story lines of the entire book series, this volume begins the process of fully fleshing out Captain Haddock's character into the sharp edged, often inebriated, somewhat out-of-place patrician that fans of the series have come to know. This is also the story line that introduces the last regular characters on the series: the eccentric (and almost completely deaf) but brilliant Professor Calculus and the indefatigable butler Nestor. With the cast of characters complete, the story weaves together what has now become the standard Tintin versus gangsters story with some family history for Captain Haddock and a mystery pointing towards buried treasure.

The World War II era posed a problem for Hergé. Prior to the conflict in which his native Belgium was invaded and occupied, the Tintin series had begun to incorporate overtly political commentary in its stories, in some cases quite critical of the Axis powers. But with Belgium occupied and Hergé's publisher enduring government oversight, this was no longer possible, and the Tintin stories backed away from this political bent. In the first two books written during the occupation, Hergé moved back to his standard gangster driven plot (in The Crab with the Golden Claws) and experimented with outlandish science fiction (in The Shooting Star), neither of which produced particularly memorable stories. It wasn't until The Secret of the Unicorn that Hergé hit upon the formula that would work: pulp-style adventures in exotic but non-politically charged locales. The result was this story of pirates and lost treasure, and the following two book story involving Inca mummies and hidden temples found in The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun.

The book starts with some comic relief as Tintin runs across Thompson and Thomson while the detectives are in the middle of an investigation into a rash of pick pocketings in the local open air market. But before too long the real story rears its head when Tintin comes across a model ship that he purchases as a gift for Captain Haddock. The model ship draws a lot of interest as two other interested buyers immediately offer to buy the ship from Tintin, offering substantially more than he paid for it. Even after being refused, the ship collector Sakharine pursues Tintin to his apartment to renew his offer. In the Spielberg movie, Sakharine is developed into a sinister figure, but in the books, he is more or less just a minor speed bump in the story that vanishes in fairly short order. As with most Tintin stories, The Secret of the Unicorn is built on a healthy dose of coincidence, and when Captain Haddock sees the model ship, he immediately identifies it as the ship his ancestor Sir Francis Haddock captained several generations before, identifying it in the background of a portrait of Sir Francis that Captain Haddock just happened to have hanging in his apartment.

The plot thickens as Tintin's apartment is broken into and the model ship is stolen. Then when he goes to mistakenly accuse Sakharine of stealing the ship (discovering in the process that Sakharine owns an identical model ship), his apartment is broken into and ransacked again. (As an aside, Tintin is clearly a bibliophile, as his primary concern over the ransacking of his apartment appears to be the condition of his books). After some slapstick comedy when Thompson and Thomson stop by to investigate the break-ins, Tintin discovers an old scrap of paper behind a cabinet that apparently fell from the now missing model ship. Deducing that it is a clue to a hidden treasure, Tintin rushes back to Captain Haddock's apartment, and coincidence strikes again to drive the plot forward in the form of an old sea chest belonging to Sir Francis that just happened to be in Captain Haddock's possession - including a hat, cutlass, and most importantly, a journal detailing Sir Francis' exploits against the pirate Red Rackham.

It is this section more than any other that had me convinced the first time I read it that the Tintin series was set in the United Kingdom. The key element is that Sir Francis' ship the Unicorn flies the Union Jack, at least in the English language translation. Perhaps in the original French version the Unicorn hoists the Belgian flag, something that seems more likely given that the book was written during the years that Germany occupied Belgium while at war with the U.K. However, I don't know this for sure (not having a copy of the original French translation), and my twelve year-old self certainly didn't know. This coupled with numerous other small cures (such as Thompson and Thomson's references to Scotland Yard) led me to believe that Tintin, Haddock, and their other companions were British. I don't think it materially changes the story for them to be British or Belgian, but somehow it seems more aesthetically pleasing to me mentally for them to be in the U.K.

In any event, it turns out that Sir Francis had a run-in with the pirate Red Rackham which resulted in the sinking of both of their ships, but not before a hard-fought sword fight between the noble Sir Francis and the treacherous Rackham. During this confrontation, Sir Francis learned of the treasure that Rackham had acquired during his exploits, and after blowing up the Unicorn to keep it from falling into the hands of the pirates, created a series of clues to lead his descendants to the trove. In a substantial departure from the books, the movie The Adventures of Tintin changed the source of the treasure from Rackham's piratical endeavors to a secret cargo being carried by Haddock's ship on behalf of the Crown, which makes Haddock something of a traitor insofar as he failed to turn over the location of the treasure to the proper authorities when he returned home. Claiming pirate booty as one's own is one thing, claiming the contents of the cargo you are carrying for your government as your own is quite another. This whole sequence is told mostly via flashbacks as Haddock recounts the events to Tintin in his apartment (and not in a drink induced frenzy at a Foreign Legion outpost like in the movie), filling in Tintin and the reader on the key elements that make the scrap of paper Tintin found in his apartment meaningful.

But Tintin doesn't have the scrap of paper - the B-plot comes crashing into the A-plot as Tintin discovers his wallet has been stolen by a pickpocket. And then when Tintin takes Haddock to see Sakharine (and see if his model of the Unicorn has a scrap of paper hidden in its mast), they discover Sakharine has been attacked and his model stolen. Obviously someone is also after the treasure, and Tintin and Haddock almost get more clues when one of the gentlemen who had vied for ownership of Tintin's now-stolen model Unicorn at the beginning of the book shows up just in time to be downed by a drive-by shooting. When asked who was behind his shooting, he apparently has enough strength to point to some sparrows and say "there", but not enough to leave a less cryptic clue, like a name. Things begin to look up when Tintin's wallet is recovered (and Tintin has to help Thompson and Thomson with some basic detective work), but then take a turn for the worse when Tintin is chloroformed and kidnapped (as an aside, I have to wonder where the crooks in the Tintin universe get their supplies of chloroform - it seems at times that it is so common that they must be able to pick it up at the corner store).

Through his usual methods of investigation by being captured coupled with a villain who spills the beans at the first opportunity, Tintin foils the villains and solves the mystery. Along the way, there is some adventure and the first appearances of Marlinspike Hall and the long-suffering butler Nestor (who is in the employ of the villains at this point). Captain Haddock arrives with Thompson and Thomson just in time to save the day, and everything turns out okay. We also find out the meaning of the cryptic "sparrow" clue bestowed upon Tintin earlier, and it turns out to be a clue that was so cryptic that it really only makes sense if you already knew the answer. In other words, with what he thought was his dying breath, instead of giving a name, the character in question used that effort to hand out a clue that was certain to be incomprehensible to the recipients. It is also during this sequence that Tintin is once again knocked out by a couple blows to the head, and then displays his amazing punching prowess by slugging a pair of much larger men into unconsciousness.

Although this is only the first half of the story, the volume does come to a reasonable stopping point, wrapping up the portion of the story that relates to hunting for the treasure map quite nicely. Oddly, for a story about looking for lost pirate treasure from a ship that sank in the Caribbean, all of the action in the book takes place in Tintin's home country, making this the first book in the series in which Tintin does not cross any international borders. The other odd thing about the story is how quickly the villains go from antique dealers, to thieves, to attempted murderers - in Hergé's world it seems that once you get into smuggling or larceny that you are perfectly willing to scale up to murder without a second's thought. And your clueless butler will be willing to help you. All three of the two-part stories in the Tintin series are excellent, and represent the best of Hergé's work. Loaded with mystery, action, comedy, and fun, The Secret of the Unicorn is no exception, and is the first half of what I consider to be the second best Tintin story ever made.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 22, 2012, 1:05pm Top

Book Eleven: Red Rackham's Treasure by Hergé.

Short review: Following the clues found in The Secret of the Unicorn, Tintin and Captain Haddock head off in search of treasure. Professor Calculus invites himself along. Tintin does no reporting.

Long review: Following directly on the heels of the hunt for the treasure map in The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure details the search for the eponymous trove. While the previous book took place entirely in Tintin's home country (whether one considers that to be Belgium or the United Kingdom), a large portion of this book takes place at sea. Unusually for a Tintin book, there is no real opposition for Tintin and his companions other than the elements themselves. There are no gangsters, no smugglers, no scheming government agents, no corrupt policemen, or any of the usual antagonists that crop up in Tintin's adventures. Despite this, or maybe because of this, Red Rackham's Treasure is one of the most enjoyable books in the Tintin series.

This book is also where the Tintin series really finally becomes the Tintin series. When I first encountered the Adventures of Tintin as a boy living in Tanzania I read them in no particular order, but enough of the books (and most of the ones I found first) included not only Captain Haddock, but Marlinspike Hall, Nestor, Professor Calculus, and all of the other elements of the series that I took it for granted that these elements were common to all of the Tintin adventures. As a result, when I read books like The Shooting Star, in which none of these elements were present, I was confused and disappointed. This isn't a defect of the series - obviously when Hergé wrote the earlier books in the series he could not have been expected to incorporate elements he had not yet invented into his stories, but it is an argument in favor of reading the books more or less in order and following the progression of the stories as new characters and elements are added. At the very least, reading them this way would have saved my ten year old brain some cognitive dissonance.

In any event, this is the book where Professor Calculus makes his initial appearance. It is also one of the most blatant examples of Tintin failing at his job as a journalist. After unraveling the clues to where Red Rackham's treasure lies - obtaining latitude and longitude coordinates plus a cryptic reference to the eagle's cross - and helping to organize an expedition to find that same treasure, Tintin sits on the story. Other reporters are not quite so incompetent at their job, and one gets wind of the story and writes an article, resulting in some humor as dozens of claimants show up asserting that they are descended from Red Rackham and should get a portion of the treasure. This leads to Professor Calculus' appearance, and he quickly displays the traits that make him an endearing character: eccentric brilliance coupled with an almost complete inability to hear anything and an unawareness (or unwillingness to admit) to his deafness, resulting in humorous conversations stemming from his wacky misinterpretations of what others have said to him.

Professor Calculus' mission is to offer a one-man submarine he has built to the expedition that looks like a shark (and given that it is pictured on the cover, one can guess how well this works out). Calculus is convinced that a shark shaped submarine is necessary to avoid trouble with sharks, but one has to wonder why the shark shape makes a difference other than to make the submarine look cool. The other preparations made for the voyage seem to paint the expedition as a kind of catch as catch can kind of affair: Tintin and Captain Haddock find their diving gear (which one would think would be fairly critical for finding sunken treasure) by happenstance in a second-hand shop. They can charter the ship Sirius, hire a crew, and lay in supplies, but apparently need to pick up the gear they actually need to find the treasure by chance. One question that also arises is where Tintin and Haddock found the funds for their expedition, since neither is supposed to be wealthy at this point in the series. They don't appear to have any backers for their expedition, nor have they engaged in any publicity that would allow for fundraising. So one is left wondering how they managed to pay for everything.

Even at this early stage, the love-hate relationship between the excitable and boisterous Haddock and the clueless and oblivious Calculus is quickly established as Calculus shows up to make arrangements to deliver his unwanted submarine and Haddock takes it into his own hands to dissuade him. Before too long, the expedition sets out and quickly gains an additional set of crew members as Thompson and Thomson arrive at the last minute with news that Max Bird had been seen near the Sirius and may try his hand at sabotage. This is the one moment that an antagonist is mentioned in the story, but it mostly serves as a red herring to distract the reader from what is really going on. And this is the first indication that this book is mostly about misdirection and subverting expectations. Things begin disappearing from the ship, leading one to believe that Max Bird has found his way on and is causing trouble (or that Snowy is up to his usual mischief), but this turns out to be authorial sleight of hand.

After some mishaps, the Sirius finds the island where Sir Francis spent his years after blowing up the Unicorn and begin their search. Setting ashore, they discover via the native parrots that Captain Haddock's colorful language seems to have been inherited from his illustrious ancestor, and they also find their first artifact in the form of a tribal idol apparently erected in honor of Sir Francis. Heading to sea, they put Calculus' submarine to use as they hunt for the wreck of the Unicorn, raising the question of exactly what they had planned to do if Calculus had not snuck his way on board with his machine. Soon enough they have located the wreck and are recovering items from it, hunting for the treasure. Meanwhile, Calculus, having taken up divining, keeps showing up to say that his divining pendulum indicates that they need to look further to the west. There are plenty of comic moments involving Thompson and Thomson, who had been put to work pumping air for the diving suit, as well as a section in which Haddock finds bottles of wine and (predictably) gets falling down drunk. The underwater search comes up empty, and Tintin thinks he has found the answer and leads everyone back to the island. Finally, out of time, they return home.

And this is where the story transforms from being a fun adventure story, to being something really special. If they had discovered the treasure in a box in the wreck, or buried on some remote island, Red Rackham's Treasure would have been just one more very silly pirate treasure story. Because that would have meant that knowing where the treasure lay, Sir Francis had left it behind, which would have been an incredibly stupid thing to do. But what they did recover from the wreck leads them to Marlinspike, revealing that it was the ancestral estate of the Haddocks. Serendipitously, Marlinspike comes up for auction and at this point, the quirky friendship between Haddock and Calculus raises its head, as Haddock doesn't have the funds to purchase the property because they did not find the treasure (although they did find a gem encrusted cross, and one wonders what happened to the money that would have brought in). Without hesitation, Calculus offers to buy it for him to thank him for allowing Calculus to test his submarine on the voyage, demonstrating that he really does live in a world almost completely detached from reality. But it is a benign world, and as a result Calculus is a lovable character. This sequence also shows that although the expedition seems to have been a failure, it was actually a success because without the foray Calculus would have never been able to assist Haddock's purchase of Marlinspike, and as a result, Red Rackham's treasure would have never been found.

But at the end the twist is that the reader discovers that the entire book has been a masterful piece of misdirection. The earlier misdirection concerning the stowaway aboard the Sirius was just a bit of thematic foreshadowing. The sad part of the Spielberg directed Adventures of Tintin movie is that the sequence that results in finding the lost treasure is included, but all of the misdirection that sets up that moment is left out. As a result, while this moment in the film is funny, it loses most of its impact. Spielberg seems to have understood the books well enough to get the look right, but seems to have missed the story itself. In the end, the reader gets the payoff of the conclusion, and through the rest of the series Haddock will have to adjust to the expectations that come with being a wealthy landowner.

With Red Rackham's Treasure, the Tintin series has finally become the series that has engendered the enduring adoration of fans. The cast of characters is finally complete, each with their own quirks to provide humorous moments and to serve as foils for Tintin. The setting is finally fleshed out enough that Hergé could begin using the recurring characters and locales to provide elements to drive the stories. From this point forward in the series, the internal mythology built up by the previous books will begin to take over the stories as previously seen characters return and previous events have unexpected lasting consequences. But this book doesn't just set up the future of the series, it provides a strong story on its own, with a skillfully set up twist ending and beautifully rendered artwork, including a number of oversize panels. Red Rackham's Treasure is full of undiluted pulp adventure and plenty of comedy while at the same time providing a very satisfying conclusion to the story begun in The Secret of the Unicorn. This book is one of the very best of the Tintin series, and an excellent book overall.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 24, 2012, 8:45am Top

Book Twelve: The Seven Crystal Balls by Hergé.

Special note: This is my four hundredth review on LibraryThing. So, hooray for big round numbers!

Short review: Seven explorers are stricken by a mysterious malady after bringing home the contents of an Incan emperor's tomb. Calculus is kidnapped, and Tintin and Captain Haddock must figure out the answer to both mysteries. Tintin does no reporting.

Long review: After hitting on the successful formula of pulp action in the diptych of The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure that would both provide an enjoyable story and keep him out of trouble with both sides of World War II, Hergé decided to follow it up with another two-part story starting with The Seven Crystal Balls and leading to Prisoners of the Sun. Where the story of recovering Red Rackham's hoard was a pirate adventure, the story of The Seven Crystal Balls is a pulp fantasy reminiscent of the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard. Of the three two-part Tintin stories, this is the weakest, but this is a minor criticism, as the two-part stories are the highlights of the Tintin series, and this is no exception. This is also the first Tintin story that contains full blown fantasy elements. Previous books, such as Cigars of the Pharaoh, contained minor fantasy elements like fakirs from India who could stab themselves with knives and walk away unharmed, but this book is the first in which the fantasy elements are an integral part of the plot.

While not reporting on the news Tintin comes across a story in the paper that kicks off the plot of the book: an expedition returning from Peru with the ancient Incan mummy of Rascar Capc that they had found on their travels when a fellow train passenger ominously warns that disturbing Incan graves will lead to trouble. In a fit of awareness, Hergé has his unnamed kibbitzer wonder how Europeans would like explorers from South America or Africa coming over and digging up their kings without so much as a by-your-leave. Clearly Hergé's thinking had progressed considerably from the days when he had Tintin giving lessons to native Congolese about their Belgian fatherland and their benevolent King Leopold. And this is, I think, the most important point to be made about Hergé: he was willing to learn and change his positions on issues like colonialism. Even though his earlier books displayed some fairly odious views, Hergé's later works demonstrate a more empathetic position that more than makes up for them.

Having given the plot a quick kick start, the book turns to some comedy by showing how Haddock is trying to fit into his new life as a member of the landed gentry - falling off horses and going through an endless number of monocles. The book also makes a quick reference back to the opening when Calculus shows up with his pendulum and Haddock comments that the professor is convinced that his dowsing will lead him to a Saxon burial ground - just the sort of place that one expects a Bolivian expedition to Europe would not be welcomed. But before too long we are back on the trail of the plot, but in the roundabout way of Haddock's new found fascination with magic tricks, and a trip he takes to the theater with Tintin. While there to observe a magic act, they see a knife throwing act featuring none other than Tintin's old friend General Alcazar from The Broken Ear, but now deposed and in disguise. Also part of the performance is Bianca Castafiore, last seen in King Ottokar's Sceptre. In response to her appearance, Tintin observes that she shows up everywhere: Syldavia, Borduria, and the Red Sea. But this makes no sense if Tintin is sequential - Tintin and Haddock don't see her in Borduria until The Calculus Affair, five books after this one, and they won't find her in the Red Sea until The Red Sea Sharks, the book after that. Not only that, when Tintin met Castafiore in Syldavia, it was in King Ottokar's Sceptre, before he had even met Captain Haddock (and as a result, contrary to what Tintin implies here, Haddock was not with him for that encounter). This is yet more evidence, along with the references to Marlinspike and Destination Moon from Cigars of the Pharaoh and numerous other examples, that the Tintin books take place in a weird universe in which everything is simultaneously in the future and in the past. And people who were never present for events were in fact present for them.

After filling some space with Haddock driven slapstick (including a couple of very nice oversize panels), the story gets back on track when Thompson and Thomson arrive at Tintin's door the next morning to consult him in their investigation into the mysterious illness of one of the seven members of the expedition that brought back Rascar Capac's mummy. Leaving aside the question of why a pair of detectives would consult a journalist who does no journalism, the result of their consultation is that Tintin dismisses it as a mere coincidence until the detectives produce shards of crystal that were found next to the now unconscious explorer. Soon the seven explorers begin to fall one by one, each turning up unconscious with shards of crystal by their side. As quickly as Tintin, Haddock, Thompson, and Thomson can get in touch with the scientists, they turn up unconscious - and when the detectives are improbably assigned to guard one of the men, their blundering predictably results in yet another man in an inexplicable coma lying next to shards of crystal.

At this point the story establishes what will become the pattern for the series: any time anything related to science rears its head from this point on, Professor Calculus will take center stage. In this case, it turns out that Calculus is an old school friend of the last conscious member of the Peruvian expedition, Professor Hercules Tarragon. In short order our heroes visit Tarragon to try to figure out why the other members have all fallen into a perpetual deep sleep. After viewing the mummy of Rascar Capac (which Tarragon keeps in a glass case in his front hall), there is an action sequence involving some ball lightning that gives the book its cover illustration and causes the mummy to vanish. After everyone has bad dreams, Tarragon is stricken with the same malady as his compatriots, complete with shards of crystal, and while everyone is out investigating Calculus finds a golden bracelet that he decides to wear as a lark.

But before too long Calculus goes missing, and the mystery of the unconscious scientists deepens when it turns out they have regular synchronized fits. In short order the story turns into a kidnapping investigation as Tintin and Haddock hunt for the missing Calculus, a hunt that leads them to the docks and a procession of clues that lead to the Pachacamac, a Peruvian freighter that had recently left for South America. And unlike many other investigations conducted by Tintin, this one is interesting because it involves actual investigation, rather than Tintin falling into the hands of his enemies and then foiling them. Hergé's storytelling abilities improve with each volume, as he shows this here by setting up a mystery and having his characters follow a trail of clues that keep the reader guessing and interested, but once revealed, fall into place and make sense. One element that is something of note is that when Tintin and Haddock undertake to find Calculus' kidnappers, they are not assisted or accompanied by Thompson and Thomson, which may account for their success. This being the first half of a two-part story, the book ends on a cliff-hanger with nothing resolved, setting up Prisoners of the Sun. Interestingly, just like The Secret of the Unicorn, which is also the first half of a two-part story, all of the action in The Seven Crystal Balls takes place in Tintin's home country.

Coupling pulp fantasy with a good story heavy on investigation with just the right amount of humor, The Seven Crystal Balls is an excellent first half of a fun and exciting story. Despite the fact that the story is manifestly incomplete in just this volume, this is still an beautiful book with all of the elements one has come to expect from a Tintin story - bumbling silliness from Thompson and Thomson, clueless meandering from Calculus, boisterous excitability from Haddock, as well as some inebriation (and some additional inebriation for Snowy), and of course, through it all is the steady virtue and resourcefulness of Tintin. Intentionally devoid of politics save for the brief condemnation of Western imperialism, the book is almost entirely pure investigation, and is also one of the best books in the series.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 25, 2012, 11:48am Top

Book Thirteen: Prisoners of the Sun by Hergé.

Short review: Tintin and Captain Haddock travel to South America to rescue the kidnapped Professor Calculus and end up in a hidden Inca temple. Not only does Tintin do no reporting, he agrees to never tell anyone what he finds.

Long review: The story begun in The Seven Crystal Balls continues in Prisoners of the Sun as Tintin and Captain Haddock fly to Peru hot on the heels of the kidnappers who abducted Professor Calculus in the previous book. Continuing the pattern established in the diptych of The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure, the first book in this story consisted of mysteries and investigation while this, the second volume, is mostly pulp adventure in an exotic location. Unlike Red Rackham's Treasure, Tintin and Captain Haddock very definitely face opposition in this book, in the form of what appears to be a pervasive conspiracy among the Indian inhabitants of Peru.

Because Tintin and Captain Haddock flew to Peru, they arrive ahead of the Pachacamac and wait for its arrival. While consulting with the local police, Tintin spots an Indian spying on them, a fact that the police dismiss. While they wait, Hergé takes the opportunity to set up a running gag involving Captain Haddock and spitting llamas that will recur throughout the rest of the book. Thompson and Thomson also show up (despite not previously being part of the investigation into Calculus' kidnapping) just in time to provide some humor involving bird poop and bowler hats.

Once the Pachacamac arrives, it becomes clear that it had been tipped off that Tintin and Captain Haddock were waiting for it, and the ship displays a quarantine flag. Tintin sneaks on board at night and finds Professor Calculus, but he also finds General Alcazar's old knife-throwing act assistance Chiquito, who informs Tintin that the good professor is under a death sentence for the sacrilege of wearing the golden bracelet he had put on as a lark in The Seven Crystal Balls. What is unclear at this point is why the conspirators felt the need to kidnap and drag Calculus halfway across the world to carry this sentence out rather than just bump him off right away. But they did kidnap him, and now it is up to Tintin and Haddock to get him out of the hands of his captors.

After getting a lead on the kidnappers, Tintin heads off after them and Haddock soon catches up with him, but not before sending Thompson and Thomson out of any active role in the story by sending them the wrong direction (which, all things considered, is probably the best thing to do when one is trying to solve a mystery). Unfortunately, they are foiled by what appears to be a Peruvian-wide conspiracy among the Incan inhabitants, whose actions range from merely trying to hinder Tintin and Haddock, to trying to kill them. Their luck changes when Tintin comes to the aid of a young Indian boy named Zorrino when he is bullied by a pair of Hispanic Peruvians. Tintin's most dominant personality trait - the willingness to always stick up for the little guy - comes in handy as it results in their getting a guide who claims to be able to lead them to Calculus, and a talisman handed to Tintin by a mysterious Indian who witnessed Tintin's bravery. In the world Hergé constructed for Tintin, bravery and honor are rewarded with good fortune, or at least good turns done in response. In this regard, Hergé's world is a much fairer and nicer place to live than ours.

With Zorrino guiding them, Tintin and Haddock set out on a Lost World type expedition into the heartland of Peru, traveling through rocky hills, snow covered mountains, and trackless jungle having numerous exciting encounters with the local fauna and overcoming the natural obstacles of the terrain until they finally stumble onto the hidden Incan Temple of the Sun. It turns out that the Incan Empire didn't get destroyed, it just went underground. One has to wonder though, if the modern day descendants of the Incans are this organized and this devoted, why wouldn't they dominate Peruvian politics? Setting that aside, the idea of a secret Incan nation does make for interesting adventure, although they do have an awfully draconian method of dealing with transgressions: everyone pretty much gets condemned to death right away. Tintin does get a minor bonus by being kind to Zorrino again and handing off the medallion he got from the mysterious stranger, but it is a kind of Pyrrhic bonus because it consists of being permitted to choose the hour that he, Captain Haddock, and Professor Calculus will be executed.

At this point, a little serendipity raises its head, and a scrap of newspaper the Captain saved to light a fire with in the snowy mountains turns out to contain a tidbit of information that gives Tintin what he needs to formulate a plan that he thinks will save their lives. The only problem is that the plan Tintin comes up with, and the scenes in which this plan is executed show that despite coming a long way since the days of Tintin in the Congo, Hergé still has a very patronizing attitude towards non-Europeans. Tintin's plan involves an upcoming solar eclipse and fooling the Incans into thinking that their Sun God was displeased with them and rejected their sacrifice by blotting out the sun. But the Incans in the story are devoted to a Sun God, and most cultures that place a high emphasis on celestial bodies also go to great pains to become very good at astronomy and predicting the movements of the heavens. It seems almost inconceivable that Incans who have gone to such great pains to maintain an ancient temple and a continent-wide network of loyal supporters would be clueless about an impending solar eclipse.

Whether it is believable or not, Tintin's plan works and everyone is saved. To provide some comic relief beyond Calculus' usual misunderstanding everything that is said to him, Hergé incorporates some Thompson and Thomson related humor as the two detectives get hold of Calculus' pendulum and try their hand at divining the location of the missing trio. Their efforts work about as well as can be expected, and the panels of them wandering the world intercut with the story of Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus provide some silly humor. Before too long Tintin has his captors eating out of the palm of his hand, and in an almost off-hand conversation has the temple priests agree to release the explorers who unearthed the mummy of Rascar Capac from the mystic imprisonment they had subjected them to. At this point, Tintin agrees not to reveal anything he has learned, eliminating any possibility of Tintin doing anything related to his supposed job, like writing a story. In return, Tintin is shown the hidden treasure of the Incas, a massive hoard of gold and gems. And this raises another question: given that the native Americans in the story are clearly poor and oppressed, one wonders why this vast wealth isn't being used to do something about this rather than sitting in a giant vault in the middle of nowhere. A secret empire that does nothing but hoard everything valuable doesn't seem like a secret empire that would command much loyalty.

With a story that could have been penned by Arthur Conan Doyle or Lester Dent, Prisoners of the Sun is a fun romp through South American adventure tinged with fantasy and just a little bit of European arrogance. The book also includes some very nice artwork, including beautiful larger panels such as the one depicting Tintin and Captain Haddock breaking into the Incan throne room. This was the last of the occupation era books, and marks the full development of Hergé as a spinner of pulp influenced action tales, a trait that served him well once his full creativity could be unleashed after the defeat of the Axis powers and liberation of Belgium. Like all of the two-part stories, this one is a high-water mark for the Tintin series, and a must read for a Tintin fan.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 28, 2012, 3:58pm Top

Book Fourteen: Land of Black Gold by Hergé.

Short review: Cars begin exploding and the mystery leads Tintin to Arabia. Captain Haddock vanishes for most of the book but shows up just in time.

Long review: The Land of Black Gold is an oddly disjointed book. Begun before World War II and shelved for the duration of Belgium's occupation the story pulled out of mothballs and completed after the Axis defeat. The result is a schizophrenic book that is basically two disparate halves mashed together to form one strange story involving exploding cars, Middle-Eastern unrest, scheming returning villains, and a weird recurring gag resulting from a mixed up aspirin bottle. In a sense, this is the last of the pre-War Tintin stories, even though it was half-written and published after the conflict was over, and after the switch to more pulpy adventure of the previous four books, it feels odd to return to the more political tone that was set up in King Ottokar's Sceptre. Despite this, the fairly linear first half of the story melds reasonably well with the more character driven second half, resulting in a strange but readable adventure.

The most noticeable thing about the book is the paucity of supporting characters in the first half. Because Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus were War-era creations, they don't appear in the opening portion of the book other than a single panel inserted into the story in which Haddock telephones Tintin to tell him that he has been activated by the Admiralty and has to report to his ship. Two supporting characters who do show up early are the detectives Thompson and Thomson, who make their appearance in the first panel getting fuel from a petrol station. In this sequence the pair behave like jerks, which makes me wonder if Hergé had intended to move them from being merely bumbling sticklers for the law to being somewhat insufferable elitists as a way of using his then existing roster of regulars in a more expansive way. This apparent elitism never rears its head again, possibly because when Hergé got back to working on the book, he had established the cadre of now-familiar characters surrounding his hero and no longer felt the need to take his comic relief in this direction - indeed in the second half of the story Thompson and Thomson reach truly absurd heights due to an innocent mishap.

Having gotten their tiny dose of gasoline, Thompson and Thomson stumble into the plot of the book when their car blows up. It turns out that cars start blowing up with regularity, as does Thompson's cigarette lighter. While consulting Tintin, the detectives have a fit of competence and identify the petrol as the source of the problem. But they then follow up this insight by asserting that it is obvious to them that the roadside assistance company "Autocart" must be behind the epidemic of exploding cars and so they charge off into a tangent where they get employed by the company and incompetently investigate while wrecking tow trucks and getting themselves into trouble (and once again the amazingly fragile nature of tires in the Tintin universe comes in to play). In the mean time, Tintin sets out to discuss the matter with the managing director of the oil company Spedol, soon securing a position as radio operator on the tanker the Speedol Star in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery. I suppose Tintin could plausibly get an interview with a high ranking oil executive based on his alleged job as a journalist, but one wonders why the Speedol executive arranges for Tintin to investigate the problem rather than, say hiring a professional investigator. Throughout this section of the book, there is a constant background drumbeat of impending war, an element of the story that was probably at least partially responsible for Hergé shelving it when actual war broke out.

Before too long, Tintin is on the trail of the conspirators and on his way to the city of Khemikhal, but not before they frame him as a gun runner and frame Thompson and Thomson as opium smugglers. But before Tintin can be taken to jail, he is saved by a case of mistaken identity by the rebel sheikh Bab El Ehr. (Yes, that name, like most of the names in the series, is a bad pun, and a fairly insulting one to boot). The sheikh is expecting an arms shipment and rescues Tintin, but is somewhat understandably annoyed when it turns out that Tintin is not, in fact, an arms dealer. Once Thompson and Thomson clear their names, they learn that there is a substantial reward for catching Bab El Ehr and they set out into the desert in a jeep to find him, setting up a series of gags involving two incompetent nitwits wandering the desert. Tintin is dragged into the desert by Bab El Ehr and is then abandoned. This allows Tintin to wander the desert to just the right location to find the saboteurs who have been tainting the petrol supply hard at work.

This little bit of serendipity leads Tintin to the ringleader of the villains who turns out to be an old enemy last seen in The Black Island who has apparently switched from counterfeiting to fomenting war. The fact that the villain turns out to be German may be another reason that Hergé shelved the story during Belgium's occupation, and perhaps following the Nazi withdrawal continuing the story with Müller as the bad guy was a bit of minor revenge. After some twists and turns with Thompson and Thomson and a sand storm, Tintin finds himself talking to Emir Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab and at this point Müller's plan becomes clear: to get the Emirate to switch from Arabex to a contract with his employer Skoil Petroleum, and since it seems that Bab El Ehr isn't going to be able to topple Ben Kalish, he kidnaps the Emir's son Abdullah.

At this point, the story turns into the now familiar "Tintin against the mobsters" format as Tintin convinces Ben Kalish to let him try to track down where Müller has taken the child. Showing his penchant for bringing back characters from earlier books, Hergé pulls Oliveira de Figueira out of the mothballs he had been sitting in since Cigars of the Pharaoh and sets him up as Tintin's avenue into the gangsters hideout. Because bringing recurring characters back into the series has become de rigeur, Hergé also works Bianca Castafiore into the book with a radio performance. In short order Tintin has infiltrated Müller's compound and finds that rescuing the prince is not quite as easy as he might have thought. It is difficult to determine exactly what part of the story was written before the War, and what part came after: is it when Müller is introduced as the villain? When de Figueira shows up? Madame Castafiore? Perhaps, but then again all of them appeared in pre-War Tintin books. But what is certain is that when Captain Haddock shows up out of the blue to rescue Tintin from a locked basement without explanation, that the rest of the story is material that was produced after the conflict was over.

And this part of the book is more or less a fairly linear extended chase scene as Tintin and Haddock team up to try to apprehend Müller after he has run off with Abdullah. Once Haddock shows up the remainder of the book is divided between straightforward action and comic silliness. Tintin repeatedly asks Haddock what he has been doing and how he happened to find Tintin at just the right time, and Haddock repeatedly starts to answer only to be interrupted right before he can deliver his explanation. In the end, no explanation is forthcoming: Hergé just kicked the can down the road until the book ended and left it as an unexplained mystery, playing off Haddock's extended absences as a source of humor. Thompson and Thomson also give chase after Müller, in their own endearingly incompetent way, their elitist jerk tendencies of the opening pages now forgotten, and stumble into a joke that launches the humor surrounding them from a poke at bumbling incompetence to absurd heights of silliness - a joke which becomes part of the front cover of the book (and which is, incidentally, the only cover of the Tintin series on which Thompson and Thomson appear). Even the denouement of the chase after Müller takes on a humorous tone as he falls for one of Abdullah's pranks. Land of Black Gold, which started as an investigation-heavy mystery, ends up as a Keystone Kops style farce.

Stuck in the middle of the Tintin series, and sandwiched between two much better two-book adventures, Land of Black Gold is something of an odd duck out. Disjointed as a result of political circumstances that forced it onto the back burner for several years and six intervening books, this story has a very uneven quality. Even more so than most Tintin books Land of Black Gold cannot decide if it wants to be an adventure, a mystery, or a comedy, and as a result, it does a mediocre job at all of them. Having made Captain Haddock an integral part of the series during the war, Hergé had to figure out a way to wedge him into a story that was started before he even existed, and did so in a fairly clumsy manner that is used for nothing but cheap laughs. Despite all of these problems, the book is still a good read, and is actually made even more interesting because of all the flaws which were driven by outside world events and therefore give a reader a view into just how much impact the experiences of World War Two had upon the series. Although the story is messy at times, it is vintage pre-war Tintin mixed with War-era Tintin in a strange but fascinating soup that is both entertaining and revealing.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jan 17, 2012, 8:16am Top

@ 12 to 14: I discovered Tintin during at around the same age when I lived in Jordan and the Tintin books were a staple of my childhood. Our school had a fairly well-stocked library but we were extra lucky in that there was a wonderful book-store in Amman (whose name I now cannot recall) which allowed my brother and I to build up a major stock of Tintin books over the years.

Edited: Feb 1, 2012, 1:30pm Top

Book Fifteen: Destination Moon by Hergé.

Short review: Even a tiny country can have a space program if they just get hold of some uranium. Calculus builds a rocket and Tintin gets ready to go to the moon, but does no reporting.

Long review: The story that begins with Destination Moon and continues in Explorers on the Moon is my favorite in the Tintin series. When I started the Tintin series I was already a science fiction fan, and I was already fascinated by the Apollo moon landings. In fact when I was about five or six I had a board game about going to the moon. Sadly, I have no idea what happened to this game. In any event, by the time I got to reading Tintin, I was primed for a story about Professor Calculus spearheading an effort to build moon rocket and using it to take his friends Tintin and Captain Haddock on a voyage to outer space. Although the story was superseded by actual history nineteen years later when Apollo 11 actually did touch down on the lunar surface, at the time it was written, everything about the development and launching of a rocket to the moon was science fiction. It is something of a testament to the expansiveness of Hergé's vision that many elements of the story, such as a nuclear powered rocket, are still in the realm of science fiction.

As with most Tintin stories, this one wastes no time getting started. Tintin and Captain Haddock return to Marlinspike from a trip and are immediately informed by Nestor that Professor Calculus had left three weeks before after getting a mysterious visit from a foreign caller. A cryptic phone call leads to a brief bit of panicked searching before a they receive a telegram from Calculus telling Tintin and Haddock to join him in Syldavia, the fictional country that provided the setting for King Ottokar's Sceptre. Of course, the two set out immediately, even though Syldavia appears to be something of a potential nightmare for Captain Haddock given their lack of alcohol coupled with their national affinity for mineral water.

On their arrival in Syldavia, Tintin and Haddock are whisked away in a chauffeured car through mysterious checkpoints until they finally find Calculus safe and sound at the secret Sprodj Atomic Research Center. It turns out that Syldavia has rich deposits of uranium, and decided to develop an industry around this discovery. because this is the world of Tintin and the governments he likes are altruistic, the Syldavians rejected out of hand the idea of using their radioactive riches to build weapons (despite their obvious and ongoing rivalry with the pugnacious Bordourians), but instead decided to focus on humanitarian applications, one of which is to be a mission to the moon. Calculus reveals his previously unmentioned expertise in astronautical matters which has led the Syldavians to invite him to head up their moon project. And because the best way to get asked to join a mission to the moon is not to have lots of relevant technical expertise, but rather to be friends with the eccentric scientist heading the project, Tintin and Haddock are tabbed to join him on his journey. When this book was written in 1953, humans had not even put a single satellite into earth orbit, which makes Captain Haddock's mirth at being asked to journey to the moon somewhat understandable.

Although this is the fourth book since Professor Calculus was introduced to the series, Destination Moon is the first in which the Professor is really fully developed as a character. When he was introduced in Red Rackham's Treasure, Calculus was an eccentric inventor who was comically almost deaf. When he appeared in the two-part story The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoner of the Sun he served mostly as a plot device to drive the action forward by getting kidnapped. Calculus isn't actually in Land of Black Gold except as a reference in a letter. However, having finally shed his baggage from World War II, Hergé pushed Calculus to the forefront of this story, and unleashed his pulp fiction story telling abilities. In the process, he took Calculus from a source of additional comic relief and developed him into a more fleshed out character, revealing (among other things) that despite his continuous assertions that he is "only slightly deaf in one ear" that he is actually aware that he is virtually deaf. Calculus also displays a sensitivity about his work that manifests as an explosive temper, humanizing him and making one consider that maybe it is better if Calculus can't hear anyone else and is able to simply let the various questions about the merits of his work slide by without noticing them.

And it is probably the featured role that Calculus plays in this book that makes it top my list of Tintin adventures. Despite the fact that the book makes constructing a rocket that will carry a mission to the moon seem much too easy, and glosses over the enormous amount of infrastructure that would be required as well as the massive cost that such an endeavor would entail, it mostly plays fair with the science, and considering it was written in 1953 by a man with no technical background at all, it is a remarkably sophisticated depiction of the preparations for a lunar expedition. It was certainly enough to fire the imagination of my twelve year old self even though by the time I read these books the Apollo program was a decade in the past, and as a result I knew that this story wasn't anywhere close an accurate depiction of how men had actually gone to the moon. Even so, the over sized panels showing the nuclear pile, the test rocket and finally the full-sized moon rocket help give the story a verisimilitude that makes it convincing that even if people didn't go to the moon this way, they could have, at least sufficiently so to make the story believably enjoyable. The brief interlude during which Calculus loses his memory kind of ruins this to a certain extent however, as without his contributions all work on the moon expedition grinds to a halt. It just doesn't seem plausible that the entire gargantuan project would depend entirely on the contributions of a single man, no matter how brilliant he is supposed to be.

Another part of the story that doesn't make much sense is the espionage subplot that runs through the book. This being a Tintin adventure, it seems inevitable that there should have to be some sort of plot line that involves intrigue and investigation, if for nothing else to give Tintin something to do while he is waiting for the rocket to be ready to launch. And, of course, to give Thompson and Thomson a reason to make their usual fumbling and incompetent appearance in the story. This subplot is set up from the moment Tintin and Captain Haddock touch down in Syldavia as some sinister looking characters spy on the pair and talk cryptically about their arrival, although this is somewhat lost in the swirl of paranoia involving checkpoints and secret policemen that dominates this portion of the book. Later, Tintin demonstrates he is brighter than the entire Syldavian secret police organization and figures out where a parachuted enemy agent would gain access to the secret research facility where everyone in the book is working, but then shows that he is lousy at providing security by not telling anyone else so that he is easily overpowered when the villains show up to rendezvous with their contact inside the facility. This does arouse sufficient suspicion that Tintin thinks to install a self-destruct switch on the unmanned rocket that Calculus sends to the moon, which prevents the rocket from being hijacked by the mysterious enemy. But this whole plot just seems silly. Exactly what are the villains going to steal? Are they planning on reverse engineering the rocket? One would think that simply having their inside man steal the plans would be an easier way of accomplishing this. And of course, without the nuclear fuel that the rocket uses, which is apparently all within Syldavia, building their own rocket would be somewhat useless. Are they planning on trying to claim credit for the rocket flight? This seems implausible unless the Syldavians are trying to keep the flight itself secret, which doesn't seem to be the case. The only thing left would be appropriating the lunar data the probe acquired on its flight, but that seems like a pretty small prize for hijacking a rocket. In short, while one could imagine stealing the engineering secrets of the moon project, going to the trouble to divert the rocket (and as a result pretty much give away the identity of the nation that engaged in this theft), seems to be quite silly.

Fortunately, the espionage plot doesn't overshadow the remainder of the book, and what is left is a book that somehow makes planning to go to the moon interesting. Even though most of the book takes place in a mostly secret facility that seems to be mostly built underground as people shuffle blueprints and test spacesuit designs, somehow Hergé is still able to make the story fun and exciting to read. Even though taking a dog to the moon is a patently unbelievable plot point, as is having the rocket's acceleration when it leaves Earth be so intense that everyone blacks out to the point that those monitoring their transmissions fear the crew may have died, the story is still well-crafted enough to seem mostly plausible. Punctuating the dry technical aspects of the story with the humor of Thompson and Thomson's misadventures with an x-ray machine and Captain Haddock's attempts to get tobacco and whiskey on board the manned rocket prevents the book from bogging down in boring detail. Although this book doesn't deliver a self-contained story - it ends on a cliffhanger that sets up Explorers on the Moon - it is still one of the best Tintin books, and the first half of the best story in the series.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 3, 2012, 5:00pm Top

Book Sixteen: Explorers on the Moon by Hergé.

Short review: Tintin and all his friends go to the moon, but evil doers want the secrets of the moon for themselves. Tintin does no reporting.

Long review: Explorers on the Moon is the second half of the story begun in Destination Moon in which Tintin and his friends take a little jaunt to the moon and back. Just to make this entirely clear, in my opinion this is the best book of the entire Tintin series. It is also my favorite, which probably goes a long way towards explaining why I think it is the best book. A story of pure exploration and discovery leavened with just enough action and intrigue, this book represents the pinnacle of the Tintin series and a book that is sure to make any child who reads it look up at the moon and wonder why we aren't exploring it any more.

The story begins with Tintin, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, and Calculus' assistant Frank Wolff unconscious on a nuclear rocket hurtling into outer space. And of course, because it makes sense to have a dog along for a lunar trip, Snowy is riding along with them too. Having a dog along for the moon journey seems a bit strange, especially when one considers that there appear to be no Syldavians on the mission. Given the nature of the books, it is inevitable (even if it is implausible) that the crew would include a nearly deaf scientist, an alcoholic sea captain, and a reporter who never reports on anything, but it just seems odd that they would also tote along a dog as opposed to a Syldavian scientist or pilot or some other technically inclined person with skills that would be useful on a voyage to the moon. I suppose it is a nod to plausibility that Calculus' engineer assistant Frank Wolff is given a berth on the rocket ship. However, it remains a fairly glaring oddity that despite the fact that Syldavian uranium is used to power the rocket, and this presumably exceedingly expensive foray into outer space was funded with Syldavian money, no Syldavians are part of the ship's roster.

And the ship's roster has a couple of unexpected additions - Thompson and Thomson, thinking to inspect the ship to ensure there was no sabotage attempts and mistaking an A.M. launch time for a P.M. launch time, were unwittingly on board when the rocket lifted off. Once again, given that this is a Tintin story, it seems natural that the two detectives would be part of the story. However, one has to wonder how sloppy launch preparations were if two men standing in the hold could be overlooked. Given the obsession the actual Apollo missions had with weight (it being one of the most critical elements to manage), the idea that two grown men would be a slight enough matter such that the launch was not disturbed at all by their presence feels quite strange. One also has to wonder exactly how Thompson and Thomson, with no technical expertise at all, would notice attempted sabotage on a machine as large and sophisticated as a nuclear powered rocket. Plausibility aside, this turn of events does put the bumbling detectives on board the ship to join in the fun.

Although most Tintin adventures place the characters in danger, few do so as starkly as Explorers on the Moon. And few characters place themselves in danger as self-destructively as Captain Haddock, who smuggles a bottle of whiskey on board and then proceeds to polish the whole thing off. While Haddock is busy getting soused, Thomson clumsily shuts off the nuclear thruster by mistake, halting the constant one gee acceleration the craft had been under. This results in a weightless, annoyed Haddock floating about, which prompts him to apply some drunken logic and decide to get off the ship and head home. This results in a dramatic rescue as Tintin has to go outside with nothing but a length of rope to save a belligerently drunk Haddock. In another strange twist that ranps up the tension of the scene, the rocket comes across Adonis, an asteroid that orbits between Mars and Jupiter. This seems like a rather curious object to encounter on a trip between Earth and its moon, especially since the closest Adonis comes to Earth is roughly five million kilometers, while the moon is between 362,000 kilometers and 405,000 kilometers (depending on its orbital position). I am left wondering exactly what kind of circuitous route Hergé thought a lunar mission would take on its way to its destination.

Because a drunk imperiling the lives of every person on board might not be taken as comic relief, Hergé has Thompson and Thomson have their one and only relapse of the affliction they acquired in Land of Black Gold and growing vast amounts of multicolored hair. Because space is cluttered with rocks flying about, the rocket has another improbable close brush with a meteor providing a brief bit of suspense. After a bit more weightlessness as the rocket turns around to prepare to land on the moon, everyone lays down on their couches to prepare for landing. Conveniently, the ship's stores have two extra mattresses and despite having no intent to join the voyage Thompson and Thomson remembered to pack matching sets of purple pajamas. Oddly, when landing on the moon the crew suffers the same kind of crushing acceleration that they experienced when they were leaving the Earth, causing them to blackout. But the moon's gravity is only one-sixth that of Earth's, and they are slowing down from one gee of acceleration. Exactly how crushing could this deceleration be? This is even more perplexing when one realizes that the lessened gravity on the moon is explicitly pointed out not only in this book, but also in Destination Moon as well, so it is clear that Hergé was well aware of this fact. Furthermore, when the rocket left Earth, they used a chemical fueled engine to lift off, so as not to contaminate the launch site with radioactivity, but when landing on the moon they don't seem to make this change. While this would probably not disturb any of the locals on the lifeless moon, its does seem like it would make the lunar landing site a dangerously irradiated location for our intrepid explorers. It is probably too much to ask that all of the details be thought of in the telling of the story, but it seems reasonable to expect that when a plot point is plausibly dealt with in one part of the story it would be plausibly dealt with elsewhere in that same story.

However, once the characters land on the moon, the story turns from interesting space adventure to sublime beauty. Years before the first Apollo landings, before anyone had even been able to send an unmanned probe to get close up images of the lunar surface, Hergé gave us page after page of beautiful illustrations depicting a moon that almost presciently anticipated the actual pictures of the moon. While most of the Tintin books include a handful of oversize panels depicting a key scene or two, Explorers on the Moon is packed with them, including several large views of the desolate and barren moon. And this is another storytelling decision that Hergé made that sets this book apart: while he could have propped up his story by having his protagonists discover living inhabitants or alien artifacts on the moon, he instead chose to go with a more realistic depiction of a lifeless and empty place, and still made the story interesting. Tintin himself, of course, is the first human to set foot on the moon, as everyone else defers to him getting the honor on the basis of his being the youngest member of the crew. The most exotic discovery the expedition makes is Tintin's accidental discovery of ice in an underground cavern on the moon (a discovery made, incidentally, when he has to rescue Snowy who had wandered off in his dog-sized space suit while they were exploring a cave).

But a Tintin story isn't complete without some conflict. Because contending with the difficulties of making it to the moon and exploring an alien world isn't sufficiently exciting enough, the espionage subplot that began in Destination Moon continues here, with yet another stowaway (a character last seen in King Ottokar's Sceptre) popping up once everyone but Tintin and Wolff are crew out for an extended foray in the modified tank they had hauled all the way from Earth. The villains' plan, apparently, is to knock out Tintin, hijack the rocket, abandon all the remaining crew members on the moon, and fly back to his waiting co-conspirators who have been seen monitoring the activities of the lunar expedition in sinister interludes throughout the book. But this plan doesn't really make much sense: as Tintin and company are broadcasting all of their progress to the world on the radio, whatever country or organization was responsible for funding Colonel "Boris" Jorgen's attempt to steal the moon rocket would not get credit for their accomplishment in reaching the moon or any of the discoveries they made. Further, one would expect that they would receive international condemnation for leaving Professor Calculus, Captain Haddock, Thompson and Thomson behind to slowly suffocate to death. They'd end up with the rocket, but the plan seems more or less like stealing the Mona Lisa - it is both risky and difficult to pull off, and even if you are successful, you can't sell it or let anyone know you have it. It should surprise no one to find out that Tintin foils the plot and none of the series regulars are left behind to suffer slow agonizing deaths on the moon, but Hergé does make the sequence riveting anyway. But Tintin's little bit of counterespionage raises yet another question: where does Tintin get the pistol he uses to threaten Colonel Jorgen? Given that Jorgen snuck onto the ship with the intent of hijacking it, it makes sense that he would have a weapon, but why would there be an automatic pistol in the ship's stores? I suppose they brought it along for the same reason they packed two extra mattresses and extra sets of pajamas, but it still doesn't seem to make much sense to stock weapons when planning a voyage to an uninhabited world.

With all of the extra bodies showing up on board, coupled with the need to make repairs to the ship following the abortive hijacking attempt, the original mission plan has to be revised. Although they had originally planned to stay of the moon for an entire lunar day (which is about 27 days long, and is an incredibly ambitious duration: Apollo 17 was the longest Apollo mission and was only on the lunar surface for just over three days), the explorers have to cut their trip short and rush home before they all asphyxiate. Once again, the crew black out during the acceleration of launch, and once again this seems odd given that the moon has one-sixth the gravity of Earth. I suppose Tintin blacks out from the harsh acceleration of taking a Sunday drive as well. The journey home has some twists and turns, and as usual Thompson and Thomson's well-meaning efforts go awry due to their hopeless incompetence, but everything ends well as the dire oxygen situation is somewhat ameliorated as a result. Even so, in order for the expedition to successfully return to Earth, a supreme sacrifice has to be made. Given that the crew consists of Tintin, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Thompson, Thomson, Snowy, and Frank Wolff, it is fairly predictable who decides to take a walk in the vacuum. For the final time the crew blacks out when undergoing deceleration, and once again one has to wonder if they black out when flying in small aircraft (which makes one further wonder how Tintin manages to pilot airplanes in other books). There is a bit of false tension as everyone wonders if the crew suffocated on their return journey, and then a closing comedy shot as Captain Haddock stumbles about.

Despite all of the oddities in the book, the strong points more than make up for them, resulting in Hergé's best Tintin story. The only real disappointment is that despite Calculus' vow on the final page, the expedition to the moon is never followed up upon in the Tintin universe. Given that there is water on the moon in the form of ice, and they clearly have the ability to transport nuclear powered devices to the moon to provide energy, it seems almost natural that a follow-up mission would be sent, especially when one realizes that the first expedition was unable to complete their exploration due to Colonel Jorgen's actions and Wolff's treachery. If, as Calculus suggests at one point, there might be uranium or radium on the moon, it seems there would be that much more impetus to go. I can understand not wanting to turn the Tintin series into a strip about space exploration, but it seems like a glaring omission that other than a nod in Flight 714, this element of the series is essentially ignored. In my imagination, there is a spin-off series featuring a Syldavian colony on the moon. Sadly, it seems that the people in Tintin's reality took the same path that we did in our reality and abandoned the moon after making the voyage there and back, and perhaps there are children there who also look up into the night sky and wonder when we became so very timid. However, criticizing the rest of the series for failing to follow-up on the brilliantly executed themes of this story is not a criticism of this book. Explorers on the Moon is, quite simply, the best single volume in the entire Tintin series, and a great example of classic science fiction.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jan 18, 2012, 1:25pm Top

Wait. Tintin goes to the moon? OK, I'm sold.

Jan 18, 2012, 1:43pm Top

23: Yes. The two book sequence Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon is the high point of the Tintin series in my opinion.

Jan 19, 2012, 8:51am Top

I'll be making a trip to the library sometime soon to see if they can find a few things for me. :)

Edited: Mar 21, 2012, 9:53am Top

Book Seventeen: Legend of a Ninja 2: Rise of the Shadowsalve by Jarius Raphel.

Short review: Ninjas are even more awesome! And they fight each other! And they kill Gods! And stuff!

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: It is five years after the events described in Legend of a Ninja: Beneath the Shadows and a new cast of ninjas takes center stage to strike fashionable poses and look cool. As in the first book in the series, the plot in Legend of a Ninja 2: Rise of the Shadowsalve is full of lots of action and conflict, but the extremely scanty world-building and limited character development makes all of that action meaningless to the reader. Like the first book, this one needed one or two rewrites under the direction of a good editor, and probably could have been split into two books to allow for better background to be added so as to give the story context and meaning. In short, this book, like its predecessor, is a confused jumble of action and adventure involving poorly defined characters fighting for poorly defined objectives in a poorly defined setting.

One would think that because this story takes place in the same setting that Beneath the Shadows was set in, the setting would be reasonably well-developed at this point, and by the time the book ended, the reader would have a reasonably good idea of the parameters of the fantasy world. But one would be wrong. The dearth of setting background that was the hallmark of Beneath the Shadows is followed up here as the authors rummage around in the grab-bag of fantasy elements to throw random material into the story. Now there are cat people! And dragon ninjas! And more gods! And black knights! And a ninja army! And so on. The ninja roster of Wrath, Banon, Nix, Darwin, and the fearsome quartet that make up the Gaiden clan is expanded to include Leena, Rumble, Jarius (yes, the author shares a name with a character in the book), and Saydin, who grab the spotlight in this story and race around aimlessly engaged in convoluted plotting, pointless backstabbing, and generally creating a lot of sound and fury with little substance.

The plot, to the extent it matters, involves Zyonel returning from the Shadow Realm aided by the supposedly enigmatig Dark Starlet who is actually Zyonel's wife and Leena's mother somehow transformed by her sojourn in the Shadow Realm. Zyonel wants the magical katana the Dark Kry to exert mastery over the Shadow Realm and reclaim his position as Shadow Lord. Meanwhile, Leena has decided to become a ninja, though she is not part of any recognized clan and therefore is subject to being killed out of hand by the Order. She recruits Darwin and they form the Shadowsalve clan, named after Darwin's family and they set about picking up random ninjas to be part of the nascent group. Darwin's father Jayus is the god of war and ruler of the nation of Warsong, and he also holds a grudge against the ninja Order because his wife Marionne was a ninja who was killed for some reason or other by the d'Ville clan of ninjas on the orders of the Shadow Lord. To secure his revenge, Jayus has trained an army of knights specially trained to fight ninjas. Leena and Darwin claim to be "bonded" and try to get the clan recognized by the Order, but the order spurns them, precipitating some sort of crisis between the ninjas and the nation of Warsong. Then other gods get involved, the Gaiden clan has a plan involving a secret army of ninjas, the Warsong black knights try to destroy the ninja order at the behest of Jayus, the dragon ninjas double-cross people, are double-crossed themselves, the gods show up, get double-crossed, ninjas double- and triple-cross one another. If this all sounds hopelessly and needlessly complicated, rest assured that it is. Not only that, this summary, out of necessity, is a simplified version of all the convoluted doings of the characters in the book.

In the first book there were hints that suggested that the characters and plot for the Legend of a Ninja books were derived from a group of friends participating in a fantasy role-playing campaign. In Rise of the Shadowsalve, the role-playing campaign roots of the story are even more apparent. While recruiting members for their new clan, Darius and Leena come across Rumble during a bar fight, which is apparently the only qualification one needs to join a ninja clan. And of course, when given the opportunity to join an unrecognized clan and presumably mark himself as fair game for the Order to kill out of hand, Rumble immediately signs up. Later Darwin and Leena run across Jarius, the only cat-person ninja who is not a member of the cat-person ninja clan (making him a legitimate target to be killed by the other cat-ninjas), and he too leaps at the chance to ally himself with Leena and Darwin for no real reason other than they are the protagonists in the story. These and many other seemingly nonsensical sorts of decisions characters make in the book make perfect sense if one assumes that they are characters in a role-playing game and their players are putting them together to form an adventuring party. In fact, the "you meet during a bar fight" method of introducing new characters to a campaign is so common as to be a cliché. Many instances of odd behavior crystallize and make sense when viewed in this light: when the characters double-cross one another and then make-up and work together again, their willingness to let bygones be bygones is easy to explain if one assumes that they are controlled by players sitting around a gaming table.

Transforming a role-playing game into the framework for a story has been successfully done as evidenced by the example of Record of the Lodoss War and others, but if this was the actual genesis of the the Legend of a Ninja series, it is clear that such an effort can also be botched. The central flaw in the book is that the various characters seem to have little motivation for doing most of the things they do, a malady that afflicts the protagonists, their antagonists, and bystanders. The ninja Order is opposed to the gods for no apparent reason. Jayus Shadowsalve seeks revenge against the ninja Order for the death of his wife, but the ninja Order initially provoked the conflict by having her killed for no real reason. The Gaiden betray the ninja Order by training the entire nation of Merin into a secret ninja army, then they support the ninja Order by using the secret ninja army to turn back Jayrus' invasion, then they betray the ninja Order by trying to get rid of the current masters and claim the Shadow Lord title. The ninja Order seems to exist for no reason other than to be ninjas, but being a ninja seems to be a pointless exercise. And quite it is likely a boring existence for many ninjas - there are numerous references to "watch ninjas" at the dojo of the Order, which means there are ninjas whose job is apparently to stand around and guard a building, which seems like an awfully petty job to use a ninja to do. The Gaiden use their secret ninja army as foot soldiers in a war, but only after commanding them to kill each other when the battle is over - and not only do these foot soldier ninjas bravely fight in battle, they then faithfully carry out the directive to turn on one another afterwards. Some ninjas are "in" and thus safe from the Order, others are "out" and get despite the apparent lust for more power held by the masters of the Order, they demand that "outside" ninjas be killed, in many cases no matter how willing they might be to join the Order. The dragon ninjas help Jayrus, until they decide not to for no apparent reason. The reader is expected to accept that the villains want power, but it seems they want power for its own sake, and not for any other goal than to be a more powerful ninja than anyone else. What the various characters would gain from being the most powerful ninja around is never explained. It is just assumed that they would want to be powerful, just like it is assumed that the ninja Order would want to be as powerful as it could be with no other purpose than to be powerful. They don't want to change anything, or right any wrongs, or get rich and live lives of ease or any other goals other than "be powerful". And consequently, as in the first book, despite the almost constant action and espionage that the characters engage in, it all seems pointless and uninteresting.

There are some convoluted subplots involving personal family disputes, a couple of ancestral swords, and healing dust, but they just add to the confusion of the plot without really contributing much to the story. Although this may seem like a rehash of a point I made from the review of the first book Beneath the Shadows, that is only natural as Rise of the Shadowsalve shares almost all of the problems its predecessor had. As with the first book, this book probably should have been split into two books to provide a more focused plot in each volume and allow for more extensive setting and character development. And also like the first book, this volume really needed the attentions of an editor who could wade through the material and take the handful of gems in the text, polish them to a shine, and then rebuild the story around them while discarding the chaff. As the book stands now, it is simply too jumbled, too unfocused, and too weakly plotted to be worth reading.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 28, 2012, 12:38pm Top

Book Eighteen: Captured by Julia Rachel Barrett.

Short review: Mari is captured by aliens who think humans are animals, but her captor thinks she's interesting. She falls in love with him and then there's lots of sex. Lots and lots of sex.

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: I am pretty sure that I am not the target audience for this book. This fact, however, did not prevent me from enjoying it quite a bit. An erotic science fiction romance in which a human woman is abducted by an alien slave trader and then seduces him into removing her from the auction block and is in turn seduced by him into falling in love.

The book opens up in media res, with Mari, the female protagonist of the story, waking up to find herself in a cage on board a ship full of other abducted human women on her way to parts unknown. After some confusion, she sees her captors: cruel yellow eyed aliens who regard her and all other humans as nothing more than beasts, not even fit for clothing. It is in these early sequences establishing the initial relationship between the feisty redheaded Mari and her captor Ekkatt that are probably the most critical and the most dangerous for the story. Unless Barrett is able to define the extreme distance between the two characters, then their later journey towards a loving relationship would be less effective. On the other hand, the danger is if Ekkatt's point of view is not explained well, then he can become a character too abhorrent for the love story to be accepted by the reader. After all, Ekkatt's job is to travel to alien planets, abduct their women, and then profit from selling them to be used as sex slaves or to be killed for meat. Fortunately, Barrett is able to walk this fine line, and although Ekkatt at times seems just a little too able to empathize with his quarry to be in his profession, the initial animosity Mari displays towards him makes up for it.

Mari strikes up her relationship with Ekkatt purely out of a sense of self-preservation. Having woken up unexpectedly while all of the other abducted women are still unconscious, Meri finagles her way into being allowed to stay awake for the duration of the trip, insinuating herself into Ekkatt's frame of reference out of a sense of self preservation. In short, Mari has to try to cajole Ekkatt into seeing her as more than simply a beast in order to survive. An interesting point about the story is that even though Mari is the protagonist and viewpoint character, the character with the most interesting personal arc is Ekkatt as he struggles with a lifetime of prejudices and is forced to confront the horror of what he has done. While Mari does everything she does driven initially by a desire to not be made into a dinner entree, Ekkatt's motivations are a little more opaque, attracted seemingly to her feisty nature and the dragon tattoo on her back, but he does eventually see her as a thinking being, and then eventually as someone to be respected, and finally a companion.

Given that I described the book as an erotic science fiction romance, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Mari and Ekkatt eventually become lovers. The book contains plenty of intense interspecies sex as Mari and Ekkatt consummate their relationship in a variety of steamy scenes. Leaving aside the moderate absurdity that an alien would be sexually compatible with a human at all, the one element that really demonstrates (to me at least) that I am not really the target audience for this book is the somewhat idealized nature of Ekkatt as a sexual partner. He is tall, lean, well-muscled, and well-endowed. He is also, gentle, caring, and, in the heat of passion, animalistic, but only in a way that is erotically arousing for Mari. Although Mari is described as an attractive fit and sexy woman with an independent streak, she is ordinary enough in some ways that a female reader could put herself in Mari's place and enjoy the fantasy almost from a first-person perspective. Although this comparison may seem juvenile to some, Mari's attraction to Ekkatt seems to me to be drawn from the same from the same sort of impulse that makes Jean Grey lust after Wolverine in the X-Man series, although in this story there is no counterbalancing "good guy" Scott Summers for her to be committed to. Instead, the choice given to Mari is essentially between the Wolverine stand-in Ekkatt and Pana, who seems much more like Sabretooth. In short, her choice is between the "bad boy" and the even worse boy, and isn't really a choice at all.

As Mari is essentially an escaped slave, there is conflict in the book, and this is the element of the book that I wish had been developed more. Through the book there are essentially only five characters, one of which is the villain in the piece, who is dealt with in an almost perfunctory manner. And this brings me to my only real criticisms of the book: I wanted there to be more of it. As an erotic science fiction romance, the book focuses primarily on the relationship between Mari and Ekkatt, and of course the sexual encounters between the two, but I wanted to see more of Ekkatt's world, and more time devoted to the hunt for and pursuit of Mari by the slave traders. As it is, the book feels too short, and the life changing decision that Ekkatt makes to avoid the religiously driven prejudices of his home world seems to come too quickly and easily. In the end, although the development of Ekkatt and Mari's relationship was more or less complete, I wanted to story to go on to explore the new life they had made for themselves. As a general rule of thumb, wishing that a book was two to three times as long as it actually is is actually a good sign, and this book is no exception. When an author leaves you wanting more story, as Barrett does with this book, that is a testament to the quality of the writing.

Captured is an excellent science fiction romance that is only marred by the fact that it should have had a more extensive story. With a pair of interesting and ultimately sympathetic characters, a well-written romance, lots of intense sexual encounters, and a fairly interesting (although too cursorily fleshed out for my testes) fictional world, this book is a very enjoyable read. As with most truly good books, this one left me wanting more, and my only complaints are that there wasn't enough time spent exploring the world, and that the story ended too soon. But if you want some science fiction mixed with eroticism, this is definitely a book to read.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 7, 2012, 12:03pm Top

Book Nineteen: The Calculus Affair by Hergé.

Short review: Professor Calculus is abducted and Tintin and Captain Haddock must come to the rescue. Tintin does no reporting.

Long review: Coming up with an adequate story to follow a tale in which your characters all went to the moon is a difficult task. To a certain extent, almost any story Hergé could have come up with would have seemed at least a little pedestrian in comparison to a lunar adventure. However, after their foray into space exploration in Explorers on the Moon, in The Calculus Affair our heroes get embroiled in a tale of Cold War espionage worthy of Ian Fleming as Syldavia and Borduria vie for control of a potentially devastating invention developed by Professor Calculus.

Oddly, for a story that follows on the heels of a story as exotic as that of Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, this book starts in an incredibly pedestrian manner, setting up some running gags that will recur over and over again not only in this volume, but in most of the remaining installments of the series. Although the jokes about people mistakenly dialing Marlinspike Hall thinking it is a butcher shop, mishaps with umbrellas, and the annoyingly exuberant pushiness of insurance salesman Jolyon Wagg are moderately amusing and give way to the actual plot fairly quickly, they unfortunately presage the future domination of the series by what will become an almost rote repetition of these running gags in later books. It seems that Hergé began using them as a means to fill space while he was trying to work out the stories so that he could continue to publish the Tintin script on schedule, even though he seemed to be running out of plot ideas that he had not milked dry in previous books. By relying on recurring characters, recurring locations, and now, recurring gags, the later Tintin books become increasingly recursively self-referential and in some ways, less interesting. The Calculus Affair is like the canary on the coal mine in this regard, as the first book in the series to begin to show these afflictions.

In the midst of these nascent gags, the plot begins to surface, although it seems to be little more than just another running gag when it first shows up. Glass begins inexplicably breaking on a regular basis in and around Marlinspike Hall, drawing Thompson and Thomson into the story to investigate this and a mysterious disappearing body that Tintin and Captain Haddock found on the grounds of the estate during a stormy night. Of course, Thompson and Thomson don't actually do any investigating - that is left up to Tintin and Captain Haddock, who think to see what Professor Calculus has been up to in his research lab on the grounds of Marlinspike where they find a mysterious device with an enormous bell shaped attachment on top. They also come across a villain hiding in Calculus' lab wearing a Lone Ranger style black mask, which seems like it would make a lousy disguise for someone trying to be sneaky. After he dashes out, Jolyon shows up again just in time for Tintin to deduce from a note scrawled on a pack of cigarettes the masked man left behind that Calculus is in danger, and he and Haddock have to leave for Geneva at once.

This development launches Tintin and Captain Haddock into another chase after Professor Calculus, more or less reminiscent of their chase after Calculus' kidnappers in Prisoners of the Sun, but this time instead of their opposition consisting of a hidden Incan nation, their opposition is made up of the most unsubtle secret agents one could imagine. It is in this story, the fourth to deal with the fictitious Balkan countries of Syldavia and Borduria, that Borduria is finally fleshed out more fully than simply "the country that doesn't like Syldavia". That fleshing out mostly consists of expanding the definition to "the militaristic police state that doesn't like Syldavia", although the expansion does widen the array of invented expletives of the Tintin universe adding "By the whiskers of Kûrvi-Tasch" to "Sprodj" as made up pseudo-Slavic curses. After some twists and turns and obligatory heavy handed murder attempts by secret agents wearing the secret agent uniform of a grey trench coat and fedora, Tintin and Haddock manage to almost track Calculus down, but only find Professor Topolino, who had been attacked, bound, and gagged in his own basement, supposedly by Calculus. After clearing up the some misunderstandings, our heroes learn that Calculus had developed some sort of ultrasonic destructive device and consulted Professor Topolino about his concerns over its use.

Now that they know why the shadowy villains have been trying to get their hands on Calculus, Tintin and Haddock fall back on Tintin's time-honored investigative method of capitalizing on stupid mistakes by their opposition and use the extraordinarily thin clue of the brand of a discarded cigarette to track the bad guys to their secret location. This leads to a confusing brawl between rival groups of secret agents followed by the discovery that in addition to being able to pilot any kind of airplane, Tintin knows how to pilot a helicopter as well. This leads to a chase that features one of my favorite bit players of any Tintin book: Arturo Benedetto Giovanni Guiseppi Pietro Archangelo Alfredo Cartoffoli da Milano. Arrogant and obnoxious, he jumps at the chance to help Tintin and Captain Haddock chase down the car they think Calculus is in and drives like a lunatic to catch up to a car that apparently isn't the one used to abduct the professor. This causes the volatile Arturo Benedetto Giovanni Guiseppi Pietro Archangelo Alfredo Cartoffoli da Milano to angrily abandon Tintin and Haddock on the side of the road and sadly, walk out of the series forever. Eventually Tintin and Haddock figure out they had been duped and give chase again, arriving just in time to not be able to stop Calculus from being carried away by an airplane.

All is not lost, as Tintin points out that the airplane had Syldavian markings, meaning that he and Captain Haddock had been chasing more or less friendly agents all over the Swiss and Italian countryside. I suppose it is possible that no Syldavian agent involved in spiriting Calculus away recognized Tintin, but it does seem implausible. After all, Tintin saved the Syldavian monarchy in King Ottokar's Sceptre, becoming a national hero and the first non-Syldavian to be awarded the Order of the Golden Pelican in the process. More recently, Tintin and Captain Haddock accompanied Calculus on the Syldavian funded lunar expedition detailed in Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, for which the Syldavian secret police provided security. Given that Syldavia is described in King Ottokar's Sceptre as a country tiny country with only six hundred thousand inhabitants, the Syldavian secret police has to be a fairly small force and it just seems odd that none of them recognize either of our heroes at any point, or if they did, they decided to evade the pair and hinder their efforts to get to Calculus. in any event, this plot point turns out to be almost completely irrelevant to the story, as Tintin deduces from a newspaper story he didn't write that the airplane was forced down in Borduria and as a result Calculus must now be in the hands of the dastardly Bordurian security forces. This little plot twist renders the misunderstanding that led to Calculus being in the hands of the Syldavian secret police moot almost immediately, and one wonders why Hergé had Calculus in the hands of the Syldavians in the first place.

After some additional gags involving phone mix-ups with Cutts the butcher and Jolyon the cheerfully overbearing insurance agent, and some slapstick with umbrellas and sticking plaster, Haddock and Tintin make their way to Borduria. And here their fame seems to catch up with them. One has to wonder what their plan for rescuing Calculus was, given that they simply blindly flew into a hostile police state in which their friend was being held by the nation's security forces. But they are immediately recognized by Bordurian security agents and effectively taken into house arrest at their hotel and the "interpreters" Krônick and Klûmsi are assigned to watch over their every move. Given that Hergé lived under Nazi occupation from 1939 until 1944, it seems safe to assume that his portrayal of the Bordurian police state was influenced by his experiences from World War II, a fact that seems to be reflected by the apparent Wehrmacht-influenced uniforms the Bordurian soldiers wear. Further reinforcing this conclusion, at one point a Bordurian officer wearing a uniform that looks remarkably like an SS officer's uniform gives a demonstration of the new weapon Calculus developed, and declares that this will be the device that will make Borduria and its leader Kûrvi-Tasch the masters of the world, reflecting Hitler's own megalomaniacal vision for Germany. And it is this depiction of a police state that is the meat of this book, and what makes it so interesting to read. While the Bordurian secret police may seem thuggish and unsubtle, it seems likely that they were developed with the Third Reich's Gestapo as their model, and the Gestapo were not required to operate in an unsubtle manner, and by many accounts, did not. Given that there were Hungarian and Romanian fascist governments in power during World War II, it seems plausible that Hergé intended Borduria to reflect these regimes.

Regardless of Hergé's intentions, the result is a sinister police state that makes this story far darker than most contemporary cartoon strips. However, this darker tone is consistently undermined by the inclusion of silly gag after silly gag, and our heroes' sojourn in Borduria is no exception as Tintin and Captain Haddock run across the Milanese Nightingale Bianca Castafiore who shows up performing at the Szohôd Opera House and just happens to be a favorite of Colonel Sponsz, the chief of the Bordurian secret police. (And in an example of the odd time-warping in the series this encounter is mentioned in The Seven Crystal Balls, which falls five books earlier in the series). Once again Hergé recycles a recurring character, even though that character simply doesn't fit the tone that the rest of the story is trying to establish. After she humorously mangles Captain Haddock's name a couple times, she hides Tintin and the Captain when Sponsz shows up to pay his respects, allowing Tintin to learn the location at which Calculus is being held and acquire the means to free the professor. Interestingly, she agrees to hide Tintin and Haddock from Sponsz based on nothing more than a plea from Tintin, presumably putting herself in serious danger on behalf of a pair of men she has briefly met three or four times in her life. In the story it seems natural that she would want to help the heroes, but when one steps back and considers what she is risking, it seems quite magnanimous of her.

Armed with the information gleaned from Colonel Sponsz, Tintin and Haddock are able to recover Calculus leading to a chase sequence that includes hijacking a Bordurian tank as the three desperately try to reach the Syldavian border and safety. This is a typical Tintin chase sequence with a number of twists and turns and an outcome that is more or less never in doubt. Calculus then reiterates Hergé's growing pacifism first most evident in Destination Moon as he asserts that his invention should never be used for warlike purposes and then proceeds to destroy the plans so no one could make the device. But Calculus' assertion here raises two questions. First, to what non-warlike use did he think that a device that used ultrasonic waves to destroy things might be used? I suppose it could be used for demolition, but building a device for that purpose seems like an awful lot of effort for little gain. (One also wonders how this device would, in the words of the unnamed Bordurian officer who gives a staff demonstration of the weapon, "make H-bombs and ballistic missiles as obsolete as pikes and muskets"). Second, given that Calculus has been able to design such a device, one wonders why his destruction of his plans solves the problem of those of warlike bent being able to get their hands on one. If the scientists working on the Manhattan Project had destroyed the plans for a nuclear bomb, it would have eventually been developed by someone else anyway. Science and engineering are based on the physical principles of the natural world. A single scientist destroying his research is not going to stop a discovery from being made. (Although, to be perfectly accurate, Calculus seems more like an engineer than a scientist). Plots involving mad scientists making discoveries that "man was not meant to know" and either having heroes destroy their work for the good of mankind, or having second thoughts and doing it themselves are a trope of classic science fiction, but they are all kind of silly, and it is no less silly here.

Despite the handful of flaws, this book is one of the best of the Tintin stories and rivals King Ottokar's Sceptre as the best single volume story in the series. Sadly, this is the last book in the series to feature the fictitious countries of Syldavia and Borduria, and I say "sadly" because the four books that take place in those countries - King Ottokar's Sceptre, Destination Moon, Explorers on the Moon, and of course, The Calculus Affair - are among the very best in the series. Borduria does crop up in a tiny way in Tintin and the Picaros, but only to provide a recurring villain, and that's at best a minor reference. This book, however, is a fantastic installment of the series: a spy story full of intrigue and adventure in which the heroes face a fairly frighteningly depicted police state, although with just a bit more slapstick humor than I think this sort of story should have. As usual, Tintin, despite still being billed as a journalist, does no reporting, instead taking a turn as an amateur spy. The story also leaves some loose ends: for example, Haddock and Tintin are able to rescue Calculus, but what about the Syldavian agents who were in the plane that was forced down in Borduria? Apparently they are left to rot in a Bordurian prison, completely forgotten by the heroes. Despite these niggling questions, The Calculus Affair remains one of the best books in the series, and is the last of the truly great Tintin stories.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 14, 2012, 11:29am Top

Book Twenty: The Red Sea Sharks by Hergé.

Short review: It is a reunion of bit characters who appeared in previous volumes as Tintin and Captain Haddock try to restore Emir Ben Kalish Ezab to power, foil an arms smuggling operation, and rescue some slaves.

Long review: After the otherworldly adventures of Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon and the tense espionage of The Calculus Affair, Hergé takes Tintin back to his roots as an amateur sleuth, sending him to the Middle-East to track down smugglers dealing in arms and human lives. Although the story is a fairly standard tale of Tintin unraveling the poorly laid plans of mustache twirling villains to save the day, this story is the first to engage in the wholesale recycling of characters and locations from previous books. The Red Sea Sharks features characters originally seen in Cigars of the Pharoah, The Blue Lotus, The Broken Ear, King Ottokar's Sceptre, The Crab with the Golden Claws, and The Land of Black Gold. in roles of varying importance. Although the story is serviceable, after the exotic turn the series had taken starting in The Secret of the Unicorn, a return to chasing smugglers while running through a cast of characters pulled out of mothballs has a "been there, done that" feel that makes this book seem like something of a disappointment.

The story opens up by recycling General Alcazar from The Broken Ear as Tintin and Captain Haddock run into him on the street. Despite having been quite friendly with the two as recently as The Seven Crystal Balls, the General is evasive and distracted, forgetting his wallet after misleading Tintin about the hotel where he could be found. Trying to track him down, Tintin and Haddock uncover nothing but mysteries. But because a mystery involving a deceptive former South American banana republic dictator requires some broad humor, Hergé recycles Abdullah, the bratty son of Emir Ben Kalish Ezab last seen in Land of Black Gold. The Emir has sent his son to Marlinspike ostensibly to improve the child's English, but really due to unrest in Khemed. This leads to a series of sequences involving Abdullah pulling pranks upon Haddock, and Hadoock trying to retaliate, and Haddock being stymied by the cadre of Ben Kalish's servants camping out in Haddock's house. After Jolyon Wagg taking up residence in Marlinspike uninvited in The Calculus Affair, Abdullah and his entourage taking over Haddock's residence in this volume lets the reader know that Hergé is adding yet another recurring gag to the series: from this point forward, Haddock will be repeatedly afflicted with uninvited guests. The odd thing is that Haddock never seems to think he can just eject unwanted visitors from his home, apparently feeling obligated to either grumpily put up with their presence, trick them into leaving, or vacate the premises himself.

But since the story is sidetracked into playing out some comedy routines, we get an interlude with Calculus flailing about on roller skates, people mistakenly dialing Marlinspike while trying to get in touch with Mr. Cutts the butcher, and Thompson and Thomson clumsily investigating their latest case, which they let slip involves smuggling aircraft and turns out to involve General Alcazar. The the comedy portion now over for now, Tintin gets back to investigating triggered by the serendipitous appearance of an advertisement offering military equipment on a scrap of newspaper used by Abdullah as part of a prank. This does raise the question of how Thompson and Thomson have not been able to track down the arms dealers they are looking for if they are advertising in the newspaper. Tracking down Dawson, the arms dealer mentioned by Thompson and Thomson, Tintin discovers that he is none other than the corrupt former police chief of the Shanghai International Settlement recycled from The Blue Lotus. While it is mildly interesting to have characters from previous books make an appearance in later books, having so many intersect so frequently with so little reason in this book makes the fictional reality of the Tintin universe seem small and claustrophobic. Tintin pursues the trail of the arms smugglers just long enough to alert Dawson to his presence, but then events in Khemed pull him to the Middle-East with Captain Haddock joining him to avoid having to deal with Abdullah any more.

Once in Khemed, Tintin's meddling with the arms trade results in an attempt to kill him off that seems to involved massive amounts of overkill, but serendipity once again saves the day. The odd part about this sequence is that the story positions both Captain Haddock and Snowy to save the day, but instead Hergé has our heroes avoid death due to nothing more than a lucky break. Over and over again, Tintin (and the other central characters of the series) find themselves in trouble and are saved, not by their own actions, but by blind chance alone. This has the effect of frequently making the characters in the series seem passive. Rather than presenting the reader with capable protagonists with a hand in their own destiny, Hergé frequently seems to choose to give the reader more or less helpless bystanders carried along by the winds of fate to the resolution of the story. After avoiding death, Tintin and Haddock do take a bit of initiative and walk back to Khemed, finding Senhor Oliveira de Figuiera, originally from Cigars of the Pharaoh and last seen in Land of Black Gold. Unlike many of the other appearances of recycled characters, this one doesn't seem quite so arbitrary, as it had been previously established that de Figuiera liked in Khemed, so it would seem natural that they would find him there. One little oddity is that while they are roaming about Khemed at night we see a wanted poster in the background of a scene offering a reward for the capture of Tintin and Haddock. But the two of them had been ejected from Khemed at the airport just the day before. Presumably the authorities would have known that they were being refused entry, and would either be dead or far away making the wanted poster seem kind of oddly out of place.

From de Figuiera the pair learn that Emir Ben Kalish was deposed by Bab El Ehr with the support of a powerful air force made up of Mosquitos that were supplied by the same dealer that sold the airline Arabair their DC-3's. After escaping the city, Tintin and Haddock manage to find the deposed Emir, but not before they are the beneficiaries of yet more blind luck in the form of garbled orders passing through Bab El Ehr's chain of command. As one would expect, the pair meet up with Ben Kalish, and learn that the leader of the arms smugglers is the Marquis di Gorgonzola and that in addition to dealing in airplanes and other military hardware, he also deals in slaves, tricking African converts to Islam into booking passage to Mecca and then selling them in Arab slave markets instead. This leads to Tintin and Haddock taking passage aboard a sailing dhow, but not before they are spotted by a mounted patrol. This leads to an attack by a pair of Mosquitos that sinks their transport, although Tintin yet again demonstrates the incredible fragility of aircraft in the Tintin world by shooting one down with a rifle. This leads to the introduction of Skut, the first new character of substance in the book, and the cover picture showing Tintin, Haddock, Snowy, and Skut adrift on a raft in the Red Sea. Oddly, in this scene, no one actually thinks about sharks, which are a factor that is only mentioned much later in the book. Skut is an Estonian, an interesting element given that Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II, making Skut an exile who likely fled to Britain during the war and learned to fly Mosquitos from the R.A.F. This point is never expanded upon, but it seems likely that having Skut be an Estonian was Hergé's oblique commentary on the dangers of communism.

After the three spend a little bit of time drifting about the sea on their raft, eventually resorting to trying to drink seawater to survive, they spot a ship, and coincidence raises its head again: the ship is a yacht owned by none other than di Gorgonzola, who is none other than Rastapopoulos last seen being led away to prison for opium smuggling in The Blue Lotus. Not knowing this, the three try to flag down the yacht, and di Gorgonzola's efforts to avoid picking them up are foiled by his party guests who also spot the raft on the horizon and pressure him into picking them up - a request di Gorgonzola cannot refuse while simultaneously maintaining his cover as a harmless eccentric millionaire. But the Marquis gives instructions not to mention his name in front of the castaways and to keep them out of his sight. This effort is spoiled as Tintin, Haddock, and Skut are greeted as they come on board by none other than Bianca Castafiore who informs them of the name of their host, and proceeds to comically mangle Captain Haddock's name. Her butchery of Haddock's name is a well-established joke by now, but what is unusual is that Haddock retaliates, mangling her name as well. Comedy aside, now that they are tipped off, Tintin and Haddock become a problem for di Gorgonzola, and he arranges for them to be transferred to another ship he owns - the freighter Ramona, which turns out to be captained by yet another recycled character: Haddock's old First Mate Allan from The Crab with the Golden Claws.

Once he has them aboard his ship and completely at his mercy, Allan taunts Haddock a little bit, and then sets about blowing up his own ship to try to kill them. This seems kind of odd, since Allan's ship has a full hold of cargo which will be lost (along with the value of the ship) and it seems like it would have been so much easier to simply carry on with his original plan to put Tintin and Haddock ashore in Wadesdaw where they have a price on their head, or just dump them in the sea and let the sharks take care of them. Given that it is never explained how the fire started, it is possible that it started accidentally and the crew simply abandoned ship rather than fight the fire, but given that they knocked out Skut when he refused to abandon Tintin and Captain Haddock, and our heroes were able to put out the fire all by themselves, this seems unlikely. However, with Allan and his crew gone, Tintin and Haddock are able to uncover what the ship's cargo is: African Muslims who think they are going to Mecca. However, an encounter with the owner of a sailing ship that comes alongside soon reveals that the "passengers" were actually "coke", or, more plainly, fodder for the slave markets. Although some of Hergé's early works featuring black characters presented some fairly offensive racist caricatures, by the time The Red Sea Sharks rolled around, it is clear that Hergé is trying to give a fairer portrayal, even though he doesn't always succeed. Though they are presented as a more or less undifferentiated mass sort of like an all-black Greek chorus, they do seem to be reasonably competent. When Haddock says they need stokers to keep the ship going, several volunteer. When Haddock is attacked by an enraged Arab merchant, the quick action of one of the Africans on board saves his life. And when Tintin and Haddock explain that if they take them where they were originally supposed to be going, they would end up as slaves, they figure out pretty quickly that they'd rather not do that. Though they don't really seem to have individual personalities, at least they are not friendly morons or malevolent savages. And that, given where Hergé started, is substantial progress.

So, the story rambles on to its conclusion, with di Gorgonzola calling out his big guns to try to get rid of Tintin and Haddock, and the U.S. Navy arriving to save the day, but only after Haddock gets to display his seamanship for a bit. After Rastapopuolos escapes in his Bond-villain mini-submarine with the Navy hot on his heels, his arms and slave smuggling operation falls apart, a tale that is told in a montage of newspaper articles, none of which appear to be written by Tintin. In a final bit of character recycling, Jolyon Wagg turns up when Tintin and Haddock return to Marlinspike Hall, and in a final bit of gag recycling, he has invited his Car Club to use the grounds of the estate for their annual rally. And this final sequence just highlights why The Red Sea Sharks is just such an uninteresting book. This is the first volume in which it really felt like Hergé was becoming tired as a storyteller, and the series began to become very inwardly focused and heavily reliant upon recurring plots, characters, and gags. Though the series would show interesting flashes of originality here and there in the remaining four books in the series, this volume and the ones that follow it simply aren't up to the quality of the books that came earlier.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 15, 2012, 9:40pm Top

Book Twenty-One: Tintin in Tibet by Hergé.

Short review: A premonition sends Tintin and Captain Haddock to Tibet in search of Tintin's old friend Chang. Tintin does no reporting.

Long review: Tintin in Tibet is one of the most popular books in the Tintin series, and was reportedly Hergé's personal favorite. From my perspective, however, this is not a particularly good installment of the series because the storytelling is so atrophied. While the Tintin books have always relied upon a healthy dose of coincidence to move their stories along, in Tintin in Tibet Hergé mostly dispenses with even this modicum of realism and simply has visions pop into Tintin's head telling him what to do. Or visions pop into the head of mystically inclined Tibetan monks who then tell Tintin what he should do. This means that the story itself is more or less nothing but a man against nature plot in which the man (or, since Captain Haddock and Snowy come along with Tintin for this adventure, the men) is given supernatural aid, making the development and resolution of the tale less than suspenseful. That said, the story is somewhat thoughtful at times, reflecting on the nature of friendship and the nature of humanity in a way far removed from the naked racism of Tintin in the Congo. Because of this, despite its other flaws, including the limited appearance by Professor Calculus and the complete absence of Thompson and Thomson, Tintin in Tibet is still a decent book, although it is definitely not one of the best installments of the Tintin series.

The story opens, as do many Tintin stories, with a healthy dose of coincidence: while vacationing in the Alps with Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus, Tintin has a vision of Chang Chong-Chen, the young Chinese boy he had befriended in The Blue Lotus, lying in a snowdrift reaching out for him. The next day, Tintin gets a letter from Chang telling him that he is going to be visiting London and will be able to see Tintin while he is there. Tintin is so overjoyed at the prospect that he grabs Professor Calculus and does a little dance with him, which constitutes the entirety of Calculus' appearance in this volume. Haddock throws some water onto the celebration when he discovers in the newspaper that Chang was aboard a plane that crashed in the Himalayas and is presumed dead. Based on his vision, and repeatedly hearing the name "Chang" being said by those around him, Tintin refuses to believe Chang is dead and sets out for Tibet to rescue his friend, and after some bluster, Captain Haddock comes too.

Because every Tintin book has to wander aimlessly for a bit to provide opportunities for slapstick humor, the pair stop over to change planes in India, leading to a sequence with Captain Haddock and a cow and then a return to the running gag involving Captain Haddock and sticking plaster. The silliness doesn't end when our heroes get to Katmandu, with routines featuring an official and a rubber band, accidental ingestion of spicy peppers, and a Tibetan who is a able to match Captain Haddock's mouth. Haddock and Tintin find Cheng Li-Kim, a relative of Chang's and set about recruiting the Sherpa Tharkey to guide them to the aircraft. Unfortunately, Tharkey balks at returning to the crash site, leading Tintin to manfully insist on going alone so as not to risk the lives of anyone else. Of course, doing this is the best way to get Captain Haddock to join you, because as he asks Tintin, "I suppose you think Captain Haddock has got tomato juice in his veins eh?" Although there have been hints of this sort of thing in previous books, this is the first one in which Tintin has actively goaded or tricked Captain Haddock into action, not once, but several times in the course of the story.

Everyone heads out - Haddock apparently convinced Tharkey to join the expedition and hire a bunch of porters off-camera - and we learn that whiskey makes you a better hiker. At least until it causes you to have hallucinations and run into a tree. After the group settles down for the night, we get the now obligatory Bianca Castafiore reference, much to Captain Haddock's annoyance, and then the story continues on with more hiking. It seems like Hergé didn't really know where the story was going, because the book wanders about more or less without a plot for so long, with Haddock crossing and recrossing a mountain stream, an interlude in which the comic and tragic potential of a drunk dog comes into play, Tibetan superstitions about walking past a chorten, and fruit dropping from trees. Eventually the plot more or less shows up in the form of strange noises at night which the Tibetan porters attribute to the yeti. From the Tibetans we also learn that the abominable snowman has a strong thirst for alcohol when they admonish Captain Haddock against opening another of the numerous bottles of whiskey he packed for the trip. This belief is apparently confirmed when a bottle that Captain Haddock left out overnight turns up missing the next morning.

The travelers finally reach the wrecked aircraft, but not before Haddock causes a miniature avalanche and scares off all the porters. Oddly, despite the fact that the book is set in the Himalayas with high mountains and aerie-like Buddhist monasteries, the only really oversize vista in the entire book is a half page depiction of the downed airplane. While exploring the area, Tintin locates a cave in which he finds an inscription of Chang's name. However, he gets lost in a sudden blizzard when he follows a dark shadow moving in the night and falls into a crevasse, leaving Snowy to sit in the snow and howl for help. When Tharkey and Captain Haddock hear the pup and come to the rescue, Snowy is almost dead from cold. This sequence makes one wonder just how irresponsible it was for Tintin to bring Snowy into the frozen mountains. Snowy is a small animal, and thus would be especially vulnerable to the cold climate. In any realistic portrayal of this expedition, Snowy would return from the trip either dead from exposure or with his limbs all needing to be amputated due to frostbite. After being rescued, or rather not needing to be rescued, Tintin decides to give up hope and head home, but notices yet another clue high in the mountains. Oddly, even with the evidence that Chang is alive, Tharkey decides to leave Tintin and Captain Haddock to go on alone. Once again, Haddock is reluctant at first, but Tintin tricks him into getting drunk so he decides to continue on.

The pair of men and Snowy set out to climb a mountainous cliff face to retrieve a yellow scarf, and then continue up the mountain after the path that Tintin presumes Chang to have taken. On this climb, Captain Haddock winds up in trouble, and displays remarkable bravery by attempting to sacrifice himself to save his friend Tintin. And it is in this act of friendship that the theme Hergé's theme for the book comes clear: friends are people you can rely upon to try to help even when everyone else has given up. Friends are people who will scarifice themselves for you. And Tintin's response to Haddock's efforts is just as telling: he refuses to let Haddock sacrifice himself even though Tintin knows that doing so would likely cause his own death. The entire book boils down to the handful of panels of Captain Haddock off a cliff from a single nylon rope. Of course, because this is Tintin, serendipity saves the day in the form of Tharkey returning because of a case of racial solidity as he feels ashamed that Tintin, a European, would put himself in danger to save an Asian, while Tharkey, a fellow Asian, would not. This is a reminder that although Hergé had come a long way in his thinking about race, there was still some fairly obnoxious racism in his writing even at this late stage in the series.

The rigors of wandering through snow-capped mountains (and a quick encounter between one of their tents and the yeti) eventually overcome the heroes, and Snowy is sent off to get help at a monastery the protagonists spotted in the distance, with his usual dilemma of whether to keep to the mission Tintin assigned him or stop to chew on a bone he happens across. The monastery is full of Buddhist monks, including Blessed Lightning, who levitates and has visions. This, along with Tintin's original premonition of Chang reaching out for him, firmly cements this story in the "fantasy" category. At this point the story devolves into extended exposition as the Grand Abbot of the monastery, although impressed that Tintin would brave the mountains of Tibet for a friend, winds his way to convincing Tintin that Chang must be dead, causing Tintin to give up his quest yet again. This surrender is short-lived, as Blessed Lightning levitates into the air again and has a vision of Chang in the hands of the "migou", of yeti. And once again the Grand Abbot tells Tintin to give up his quest because the migou never gives up his prey. Oddly, despite being perfectly willing to give up on Chang when he thought he had succumbed to the natural hazards of the Himalayas, he insists on continuing to look for him now that he has supposedly been taken and eaten by a yeti.

Tintin, Snowy, and Captain Haddock once again set out on their own, Tharkey having been injured too seriously to continue. Having Snowy is a lucky break, because he is able to track Chang's scent to the yeti's cave - apparently the only thing that keeps people from finding the abominable snowman is that they don't take small white dogs with them when they go mountaineering. Once there, Tintin quickly locates his friend and is able to evade the yeti due to a lucky break involving a camera. While they are carrying Chang to safety, Chang relates his story of being rescued and cared for by the yeti, portraying the feared beast in a very human light. And this, along with a message about the power of friendship, is one of the core messages of Tintin in Tibet. Despite his clumsy racism in some scenes, Hergé makes a string statement about the universality of humanity even when the character displaying such an attribute is one that many would not consider human at all. Tintin's last commentary coupled with the final panel of the story changes the yeti from a menacing fear-inducing figure to a pitiable one laced with pathos.

Tintin in Tibet is characteristic of the later books in the Tintin series, with weak storytelling and a thin plot. Consisting mostly of slapstick gags and brief interludes of mountaineering action tied together by a string of coincidences and visions, the book has decent character development, but precious little else. Despite a feeble story filled with coincidence, psychic visions, and aimless wandering, the messages about the nature of friendship and humanity redeem the book, making it slightly better than average. Even so, the flaws result in a book that is mediocre at best.

This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 18, 2012, 9:10pm Top

Book Twenty-Two: The Castafiore Emerald by Hergé.

Short review: Bianca Castafiore invites herself to Marlinspike to begin a series of comic sequences without any story to speak of. Tintin does no reporting.

Long review: Late in the Tintin series, Hergé seems to have run out of story ideas, including more and more filler material to compensate for the increasingly paltry plots. The story in The Red Sea Sharks was recycled. The story in Tintin in Tibet was flimsy. The plot in The Castafiore Emerald is nonexistent, resulting in a book that is full of nothing but slapstick gags and red herrings. The lack of any real story is compounded by the fact that the focal character of the book is my least favorite supporting character in the series: the obnoxiously self-absorbed Bianca Castafiore. Although the series did recover somewhat in the final two books of the series, each of them including something akin to an actual plot, this book is the nadir of storytelling in the series, and as a result is among the weakest of the Adventures of Tintin.

This weakness is the result, in large part, of the fact that there is essentially no "adventure" in The Castafiore Emerald. The activity in the story is almost exclusively confined to the grounds of Marlinspike Hall, making this one of the few Tintin books in which all of the action is confined to a single country, or in this case, a single country estate. While having a story set exclusively in a setting like Marlinspike Hall is not necessarily bad, after adventures in which the characters journeyed to exotic places, tangled with spies, and even flew to the moon, a manor mystery is something of a disappointment. Not only that while the story seems to be something of a heist mystery, with Castafiore bringing her precious jewels with her for an unexpected visit with Tintin and the Captain, lead after lead turns into a dead end, until the entire "plot" evaporates into nothingness.

The book does open up somewhat promisingly, as Tintin and Captain Haddock come across a gypsy caravan while out on a walk. Upon learning that the only place the local police would let the Romany set up their camp was a dump, Haddock is incensed and insists that they move to a meadow on his property at Marlinspike. Given the widespread prejudice against the Romany that continues to this day, having his central character take such a strong position in support of extending basic human decency towards them is a fairly powerful statement for Hergé to make. This statement is made all the stronger when, despite the dire warnings issued by the police and even Nestor concerning the trouble that having the Romany as guests is sure to bring, they end up causing no trouble at all. The one redeeming aspect of this book is the very sympathetic treatment given to this persecuted minority.

Unfortunately, that is more or less the sum total of the good parts of the book. The rest consists of tired slapstick gags, mistaken identity, and misdirection. The book sets up the running gag of a broken step on Marlinspike's main staircase, which Calculus, Nestor, and eventually Captain Haddock all fall prey to while Mr. Bolt the repairman avoids coming to fix the problem. This results in Captain Haddock being laid up and unable to avoid the Milanese Nightingale's visit, or her attentions when she does arrive. And of course when Captain Haddock is trying to call Mr. Bolt, the book revives the long-running gag involving misdialing the number for Mr. Cutts the butcher. The primary occurrence of the book is the unexpected and uninvited visit to Marlinspike by Bianca Castafiore and her small entourage of Irma, her maid, and Igor Wagner, her accompanist. In the swirl of self-absorbed activity surrounding Ms. Castafiore (including the delivery of a gift of a parrot for Captain Haddock and one of her own albums for Tintin), we learn that she has brought her jewels and is somewhat paranoid about them being stolen. And this paranoia drives the rest of the book as nosy reporters, employees going about their business, and coincidental events take on unwarranted importance.

One of the central problems of the book is that it features Bianca Castafiore as a primary character. In previous books the opera singer would appear for a page or two of humor as she mangled Captain Haddock's name, sang The Jewel Song from Faust and generally behaved like a self-absorbed diva. And in small doses her self-centered obnoxiousness is annoying but kind of funny. But Bianca quickly becomes tiresome, and in an entire book devoted to her, she becomes insufferable. In terms of character, Bianca Castafiore is sort of like a nightmare version of Professor Calculus. While Calculus is oblivious to those around him, this is because he is virtually deaf, but even when he misunderstands what is said to him, he is well-meaning and kind in his responses (with the one exception being when he displays a monumental temper in Destination Moon). He is helpful and puts his intellect to great use building magnificent inventions that he intends to be used to benefit all people. One the other hand, Bianca Castafiore is oblivious to those around her because she is a selfish and simply doesn't care about them except to the extent that they serve as an audience to shower adulation upon her. Her one talent - singing opera - is one that Hergé thought useless, and she apparently has a repertoire of exactly one song. In short, where Calculus is an unassuming asset to society, Castafiore is a vain and useless bauble.

Centered as it is on Bianca Castafiore, the book isn't helped by the appearance of the equally annoying Jolyon Wagg who does his usual pushy salesman routine and tries to get Bianca to buy insurance for her jewels. As usual, Haddock seems to completely lack the ability to tell annoying guests that he'd rather they not stay, a situation exacerbated by his being wheelchair bound as a result of a foot injury caused by stumbling on the broken step in Marlinspike Hall. As a result, we are treated to a series of fairly excruciating scenes in which Haddock is forced to endure the company of Castafiore and Wagg without the ability to make himself scarce. The book winds its way through a series of red herrings, driven by Bianca Castafiore's combination of vanity and paranoia; she announces that she does not want publicity, but then clarifies that she doesn't want publicity from particular news outlets, it becoming clear quite quickly that she craves publicity from other newspapers and even arranges a television interview. She even revels in a false story that she and Captain Haddock will be getting married, a development that once again clumsily attempts to provide humor at Haddock's expense. Against a backdrop of a media circus surrounding Bianca's visit to Marlinspike, Tintin's lack of attention to doing anything related to his purported job as a journalist is particularly noticeable. People come and go from the estate, each being suspected of being after the prize emerald in Bianca Castafiore's jewel collection, or later, being suspected of stealing the item.

The true failure of the books is that all this activity simply goes nowhere. In the end, Tintin solves the "mystery" as a result of sudden inspiration that strike him while listening to Bianca sing The Jewel Song from Faust, a development that comes out of left field. None of the strange happenings around the estate amount to anything of substance, none of the clues are actually clues, and none of the suspects are actually up to anything particularly nefarious. The book is, in total, a collection of red herrings that add up to nothing more than a giant red herring. In all the previous books, even ones like Tintin in America which had thin stories, there was at least a story. In The Castafiore Emerald, it seems that Hergé simply ran out of ideas for a story and resorted to rehashed gags, coincidences, and misdirection in the place of any semblance of a plot. With no plot and featuring the most annoying recurring character in the Tintin cast, this is simply the weakest book of the series.

This book has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 23, 2012, 5:08pm Top

Book Twenty-Three: Flight 714 by Hergé.

Short review: While traveling to Australia, Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus run into Skut, hitch a ride on a billionaire's plane, get hijacked, and are saved by aliens.

Long review: After experimenting with a plotless story in The Castafiore Emerald, Hergé seems to have decided that was a bad idea. Well, half a bad idea anyway, as Flight 714 more or less has half a story and then takes a massive left turn when it meets a deus ex machina that appears out of left field. This is easily the most outlandish of Tintin's adventures, and the one that fits most firmly into the science fiction genre. As typical for Tintin stories late in the series, it is also full of inside references and recycled characters, although it does bring the character arc of a handful of long-running characters to a fairly definitive ending.

The book opens with Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus changing planes in Djakarta on their way to Sydney, Australia for the International Astronautical Congress where they are to be honored for being the first men on the moon. Oddly omitted are Thompson and Thomson, who also made the journey to the moon despite the fact that their trip was accidental. Due to the structure of the story, their absence at the opening means that they play no role in this book. Although the bumbling detectives are missing from Flight 714, the Estonian pilot Skut, last seen in The Red Sea Sharks, shows up now employed by the eccentric millionaire Lazlo Carreidas, who also happens to be on his way to the International Astronautical Congress. Carreidas is "the millionaire who never laughs", and is so gloomy and unassuming that Haddock initially mistakes him for a vagrant down on his luck, which sets up a sequence in which Calculus accomplishes the impossible by making Carreidas laugh. Carreidas finds Calculus' hearing impaired cluelessness hilarious, and immediately offers to take our heroes to Sydney in his private plane. In a strange twist, this means that no one actually flies on Flight 714, as this is the plane that Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus were going to catch in Djakarta, but forewent in order to hitch a ride with Carreidas.

This turns out to be a fortuitous turn of evens for the millionaire, because Carreidas' private secretary Spalding, along with most of the plane crew, has become embroiled in a plot to try to steal the millionaire's fortune. The plot doesn't materialize until after Carreidas proves himself to be a petty crook by cheating at a game of Battleships against Captain Haddock. However, he also proves himself to be an aviation pioneer as his aircraft is a shifting wing design that allows the plane to function better at supersonic speeds. This technological tidbit is a reminder of how long-running the Tintin series was: the series started with pre-World War II propeller driven fighter planes and now features supersonic passenger planes. After some in-air action, including an attempted rescue by Tintin that Carreidas manages to mess up, everyone reaches the secret island the hijackers have prepared for them and we learn the identity of the mastermind behind the plot: the recurring villain Rastapopoulos and his sidekick Captain Allan both last seen in The Red Sea Sharks, adding to the list of characters recycled from that book alongside Skut. Clad in a bright pink shirt, cowboy hat and cowboy boots, Rastapopoulos strikes a fairly silly looking figure now, a development that starts to make sense once one realizes that without characters like Thompson and Thomson or Bianca Castafiore, the evil mastermind and his sidekick Allan serve double duty in the book as both the villains and the comic relief, which Rastapopoulos starts off by messing up an attempt to stamp on a spider. This character element gives the adventure portion of the book something of a slapstick feel, and reduces Rastapopoulos and Allen from being serious threats to being nothing more than cheap cartoon villains.

The book then lurches back and forth between action sequences as Tintin, Haddock and Skut try to figure out a way to escape from the clutches of Rastapopoulos and rescue Carreidas and silly comic interludes as Rastapopoulos and Allen prove to be remarkably incompetent at being criminals: Rastapopoulos gets stuck with Doctor Krollspell's truth serum he is attempting to use to get Carreidas to reveal his Swiss bank account number and reveals that he is planning on double crossing almost all of those who are in his own employ. But this is not before Carreidas, under the influence of the truth serum, reveals every moral failing on his part, large and small, to comic effect. In a classic Bond-villain form, Rastapopoulos is planning on killing off Doctor Krollspell and the Sondonesian rebels he had recruited to aid him by destroying their ships with mines so he doesn't have to pay them off. One has to wonder who Rastapopoulos is planning on having mine the Sondonesian ships, since the Sondonesians appear to be the bulk of the manpower he would have available to mine the ships, and it seems implausible that they would mine their own ships for him. The only other alternative would be for Allan or the conspirators from Carreidas' flight crew to do the job, and a shady merchant captain, a pilot, a navigator, and a private secretary don't seem very likely to have the appropriate skill set in their repertoire.

These details aside, the book meanders back and forth with Tintin and Haddock evading Allen and the Sondonesians while rescuing Calculus, Skut, and Carredias. As has become de rigeur for the series, there is a joke involving sticking plaster and Captain Haddock, but the sticking plaster humor expands to also include Carreidas, Rastapopoulos, and Krollspell. Interspersed with the dramatic gun play and fisticuffs is a running gag involving heaping inadvertent abuse upon Rastapopoulos as he is hit on the head by a broken rifle butt, runs headlong into a tree, has most of his facial hair pulled off with sticking plaster, gets blasted by a stray grenade, hit in the face with an elbow, and knocked on the head by a falling chunk of stalactite. Through his travails, Rastapopolous' appearance becomes more and more haggard as the abuse takes its toll. But this highlights one of the problems with making your primary villain into your comic relief: it transforms them from a menacing figure into a subject of mockery and pity. This point becomes very clear late in the book when Allen, having been dispatched to obtain dynamite to blow up an obstacles, returns to Rastapopoulos having had all his teeth knocked out and his skipper cap knocked off (revealing a bald spot on his head), morphs from a cruel villain into a pathetic toothless old man. One might suggest that this sort of treatment is poetic justice for characters that have been a thorn in Tintin's side for several books, but at a certain point poetic justice becomes overkill, and the reader begins to have sympathy for the villains. And although Rastapopoulos and Allen are greedy unrepentant criminals, Hergé manages to cross that line, making the two of them, and especially Allen, seem sympathetic rather than loathsome.

After seeming to have written himself into a corner with his plot, Hergé has the book take a giant and unexpected left turn into science fiction when Tintin begins hearing a voice in his head that guides him and the rest of our heroes to safety. After winding through several underground caverns worked filled with strange looking stone statues, the characters meet up with Mik Kanrokitoff, who we are told is from Space Week magazine, and who informs the travelers that he has been guiding them with telepathy. And, it turns out, that he is on the island for his twice yearly meeting with extra-terrestrials. This rescue comes entirely out of the blue, with no groundwork laid in this book or any earlier Tintin books for the character of Kanrokitoff or alien activity on Earth. The Tintin series is full of plots driven by coincidence and serendipity, but the development that leads to the last portion of Flight 714 is nothing more than a deus ex machina in which the aliens literally come down from the sky, rescue the heroes from impending doom, sweep up the villains, and transport the protagonists to safety, and carry the evildoers away to parts unknown. This set of plot twists turns Tintin, Captain Haddock and the rest of the central characters into passive bystanders. Instead of acting to save themselves and foil the villians, the heroes and their foes are literally reduced to hypnotized zombies carried along by events to the resolution of the story. As a result, while this installment of the series does give closure to the story of Rastapopoulos and Allan, it is an unsatisfying end, because Tintin really didn't have anything to do with bringing it about.

Overall, Flight 714 is a strange and ultimately frustrating book. It starts off with a complex villainous plot involving two recurring villains, escape attempts, and action, and then it devolves into everyone standing around while godlike aliens fix all the resulting problems. With villains reduced to buffoons as a result of doing double duty as comic relief and a plot that resolves without any real effort on the part of the heroes, the book seems like Hergé was more or less out of story ideas and was more or less just mailing in his efforts. Although the book does have some interesting visuals, and half of a good story, this is simply not enough to raise it to the standards one would expect out of the Tintin series. In many ways, the book is so disappointing that even a late appearance by the annoying insurance salesman Jolyon Wagg passes by almost unnoticed. Possibly the most disappointing element of the book is that at the end, Hergé effectively pushes the reset button by having everyone forget most of the events that transpire in the book, leaving only a strange piece of metal in Calculus' possession and Snowy's intact memory as evidence of the kidnapping or the subsequent strange happenings on the island. With no real foundation for the plot twist, and a complete lack of follow up in subsequent adventures, Flight 714 is a moderately fun story with an ending that is likely to leave most readers feeling unsatisfied.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 26, 2012, 4:46pm Top

Book Twenty-Four: Tintin and the Picaros by Hergé.

Short review: Tintin and Captain Haddock return to San Teodoro to rescue Bianca Castafiore, Thompson, and Thomson from the regime of General Tapioca. Along the way they help restore General Alcazar to power. Tintin does no reporting.

Long review: The Tintin series returns to the Banana Republic politics of San Theodoros and meanders to a somewhat pointless end in Tintin and the Picaros. Having made a practice of recycling material from earlier books, Hergé continues this by recycling the location of the adventure, as well as numerous allies, villains, and supporting characters in a story that more or less goes nowhere. As a Tintin story goes, this volume is not particularly bad, but as a finale for a long running hero, it is simply anticlimactic.

From The Red Sea Sharks on, the Tintin series had been living on reused characters. After bringing back the bulk of the characters developed in the early books in the series in The Red Sea Sharks, Hergé then brought back Chang Chong-Chen in Tintin in Tibet, Bianca Castafiore and her entourage in The Castafiore Emerald, and Allan and Rastapopoulos in Flight 714. Hergé even began recycling characters of more recent vintage, with Jolyon Wagg making several appearances over the last handful of books in the series, and Skut, first introduced in The Red Sea Sharks, making another appearance in Flight 714. Although the early part of the series had some missteps, it had been on a steady upward trend in quality through the two-part series of Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon and the tense espionage drama of The Calculus Affair, but after that it seems that the series simply ran out of steam as Hergé ran out of ideas and had to resort to pulling old plots, characters, and gags out of mothballs and reusing them. Sadly, Tintin and the Picaros continues this trend, and is a fairly bland story with a cast of characters pulled from earlier, better books going through the motions in an uninspiring plot.

The book opens up with a pile of exposition as the characters bring the reader up to speed on recent developments: Bianca Castafiore, accompanied by her maid Irma, accompanist Wagner, and the detectives Thompson and Thomson, is touring South America and is due to perform in San Theodoros, currently ruled by the authoritarian General Tapioca who overthrew Tintin's old friend General Alcazar with the help of the Bordourian dictator Kûrvi-Tasch. At the same time, we learn that Captain Haddock seems to have acquired a distaste for whiskey. After setting up the background, the story proceeds quickly as when they get up the next morning Captain Haddock, Tintin, and Professor Calculus learn that Bianca and everyone traveling with her had been arrested by General Tapioca for plotting against his government. Soon, the plot thickens as Tapioca accuses Captain Haddock and Tintin of masterminding the alleged conspiracy from Marlinspike Hall, an accusation that is hotly denied by Haddock when reporters show up on his doorstep. Of course, Professor Calculus amusingly seems to confirm that he is part of a plot to overthrow General Tapioca, but this is the result of his mishearing everything that is said to him. The back and forth between Haddock and Tapioca is fought out in the newspapers in a series of sensational headlines until finally an incensed Captain takes up the General's offer to come to Tapiocopolis for discussions. This whole sequence is kind of silly, as it seems a little ridiculous that a sitting head of state would pick a public fight with a minor celebrity in a distant country for no apparent reason out of the blue. However, without this public fracas, none of the rest of the book would have a story, and this is less artificial a setup for the plot than the wild coincidences of some of the other stories. Another fairly glaring oddity in this portion of the book is the fact that despite the dust-up between Tapioca and the trio of heroes being front page news, Tintin never seems to even consider doing any actual reporting on the matter. This shouldn't really be a surprise because the series hasn't even made a nod in the direction of Tintin's supposed job for several books, but when reporters play such a prominent role in a story the boy hero's lack of attention to his ostensible occupation is all the more apparent.

Haddock and Calculus head off to San Theodoros, with Tintin steadfastly maintaining that Tapioca's invitation is an obvious trap and refusing to do (which seems decidedly out of character for the usually rash Tintin, who in previous books would frequently rush headlong into obvious danger). When their plane is flying into Tapiocopolis, we get some quick scenes of the city, first the prosperous downtown, and then the wretched slums patrolled by soldiers. After Haddock is met at the airport by General Tapioca's aide-de-camp Colonel Alvarez we learn some interesting details: first that Calculus is a man of strong principles, second that Alvarez is unable to recognize Tintin by sight, and finally, San Theodoros is imminently hosting the celebration of Carnaval. Soon, Haddock and Calculus are whisked away to their quarters and soon learn that although it is quite comfortable and everyone they encounter pretends they are guests, it is a prison cell nonetheless. We also encounter Colonel Sponsz, Tintin's old nemesis from The Calculus Affair, who is quite frustrated by Tintin's refusal to take the bait and travel to San Theodoros. It seems that the entirety of the conflict between Tapioca and Haddock was engineered by Sponsz in order to exact petty revenge upon the trio. As usual for Tintin villains, Sponsz is willing to go to great lengths in order to accomplish trivial goals. Fortunately for Sponsz, Tintin inexplicably changes his mind and shows up a day after Haddock and Calculus, putting his head into the lion's mouth.

All seems well when Pablo, the man whose life Tintin saved in The Broken Ear, shows up with news that General Alcazar has a secret plan to break Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus out of their gilded cage. After a brief action sequence in which our heroes wind up in a truck driven by the General-in-exile, and are off to meet up with the "Picaros", the name given to the rebels who support Alcazar's return to power. Of course, since this is a Tintin book, there is no avoiding recycling characters, so in addition to the return of Pablo and General Alcazar from The Broken Ear, we also have to run across the English explorer Ridgewell and the Arumbaya tribe from that same book. Ridgewell soon reveals that the Arumbayas have taken up heavy drinking as a result of airdrops of whiskey that the government has been raining down upon the jungle in an attempt to incapacitate Alcazar's Picaros. And we soon learn that Calculus is up to something, as he drops some pills into the Arumbaya cooking pots. Before too long, Tintin, Haddock, Calculus, and Alcazar are guests at dinner with the Arumbayas, and after eating some exceedingly spicy food, the affliction that has rendered alcohol undrinkable for Captain Haddock seems to have spread to everyone else as well. This surprises everyone except Calculus, giving the reader some inkling of what the Professor is up to. Interestingly, for this sequence, Haddock has been knocked on the head and has temporarily lost his mind.

And Calculus' current project becomes critically important to the plot as it turns out that the members of the tiny band of Picaros have become similarly addicted to alcohol, and as a result, their campaign against General Tapioca's regime has ground to a halt. Despite the fact that his followers number only about thirty men, Alcazar asserts that he could overthrow Tapioca during the upcoming festivities of Carnaval After learning that Calculus has come up with a formula that, once ingested, makes alcohol extremely unpleasant tasting, Tintin goes to Alcazar and offers to help cure his men of their love of liquor, but only if Alcazar agrees to make his coup d'etat entirely bloodless. After some protests, Alcazar agrees, and Tintin goes to put his plan into action. In an interesting twist, he is obstructed by Captain Haddock, who makes a fairly strong case for the primacy personal autonomy, although Tintin sweeps those concerns aside, which is unsurprising given Tintin's previous actions to manipulate his friends in earlier books whenever he thought it was useful to do so. And this makes clear that although Tintin is supposed to be a hero, and is for the most part a hero, he is a fairly duplicitous and underhanded one.

The scenes in the Picaros camp that develop Alcazar's character into more than a caricature of a deposed tinpot dictator, although only barely. it turns out that Alcazar is a henpecked husband, with a domineering wife named Peggy who complains about living in the jungle with Alcazar's guerrilla army, which leads to a scene of Alcazar in a pink apron washing dishes. It is also at this point that Alcazar begins promising to reward people by making them members of "the order of San Fernando", with various varieties of honorary titles being bandied about - a subtle commentary by Hergé on the value of honors received from petty regimes, and in a larger sense on the value of these sorts of petty regimes at all. The sort of free hand with which Alcazar hands out memberships in the order of San Fernando is a marked contrast to the honor bestowed upon Tintin at the end of King Ottokar's Sceptre when he becomes the first non-Syldavian ever to be made a Knight of the Order of the Golden Pelican. In a not particularly subtle manner, Hergé seems to be commenting on the worth of Latin American countries in a way that contrasts them quite unfavorably with more traditional Balkan monarchies.

After a show trial in which Castafiore, Thompson, and Thomson are all convicted of conspiring against Tapioca, the two detectives are condemned to death while the Milanese Nightingale is sentenced to life imprisonment. At this point, because once isn't enough, Jolyon Wagg makes his second appearance in the book, arriving with a group set to perform at the Carnaval celebration, which causes Tintin to hatch a plan for Alcazar to seize power. Before too long, Alcazar is handing out dubiously valuable honors and the Picaros along with Tintin and Haddock are off to Tapiocopolis in a borrowed bus disguised in silly jester costumes as Jolyon's troupe the "Jolly Follies". Once again, Hergé throws in some commentary on the politics of San Theodoros by including a letter from Alcazar to Peggy that reveals that the General is at best semi-literate. Because Tintin is on his side, Alcazar's plan goes off like clockwork, although he and his men do look ridiculous storming the palace in multicolored tights, green hoods, red hats with puffy yellow, blue, and pink feathers, and goofy-looking masks. Once again, it seems that Hergé is making a statement about the politics of the region by making the ostensible "good guys" look ridiculous. It is also somewhat ironic, although predictable for a Tintin adventure, that had Sponsz and Tapioca not attempted to execute a scheme of petty revenge against Tintin and Haddock, Alcazar would have never been able to depose the Tapioca regime and seize power. As usual, the villains' clumsy plotting proves to be their own undoing, and if they had just left Tintin alone, their plans would have gone off with a hitch.

Once Alcazar takes control, he informs Tapioca that he will not be executed, which incenses the now deposed dictator. It seems that the brutality of politics is not only expected, but if it is not implemented those who are to be subjected to it feel slighted, as if they weren't worthy of reprisal. However, Tintin has to halt an execution, and Thompson and Thomson are to face the firing squad. Worked in among the action and comedy involved in getting Tintin and a squad of soldiers across the city in the middle of Carnaval is what seems to be a very interesting revelation about the two detectives. Throughout the series Thompson and Thomson have been inseparable, dressing alike, completing each other's sentences, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to one another. They quite clearly establish that they are not related, partially due to the different spelling of their names, but also because the two detectives say so on more than one occasion. But it is in their final scene in the final book of the series that we get a little light shed on their actual relationship when asked to come up with some last words, Thomson says "Kiss me, Thompson, will that do?". Did Hergé intend to imply with this that Thompson and Thomson were lovers? It is a very thin thread, but given the fairly rampant speculation that has surrounded the relationships between Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus based upon nothing but their close friendship and shared living quarters, it seems possible that he was responding to this by giving a very small hint that maybe, just maybe, the speculation should have centered on the detectives.

In the end, all of the action of the book adds up to nothing at all. In the final scene in the book, we get a shot of the plane that Tintin and his friends are on to leave San Theodoros flying over a slum that looks remarkably like the slum that Haddock and Calculus flew over when arriving in Tapiocopolis near the beginning of the book: the only difference is that the billboard now says "Viva Alcazar" rather than "Viva Tapioca" and the uniforms of the patrolling soldiers are different. In short, despite Tintin's influence in forcing a bloodless coup, nothing of importance has changed. In some ways, this seems to be a metaphor for the entire Tintin series: Tintin is, for the most part, an agent of the status quo. While he does solve some crimes, as in The Black Island or The Crab with the Golden Claws, for the most part he acts merely to restore the world to the state in which it was when the story began, as in The Broken Ear or King Ottokar's Sceptre. I think it is no accident that the best stories in the series are ones in which Tintin does actually accomplish something, such as the two part stories of The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure (in which Captain Haddock acquires Marlinspike Hall), or Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon (in which the characters all go to the moon and back), but all too often the results of the stories are forgotten as soon as the characters move on to the next book - except for the villains who are always remembering that Tintin foiled their schemes and plotting revenge.

But as the series draws to a close, it becomes apparent that for all of Tintin's efforts the world is essentially returned to the status quo ante, a point made crystal clear by this book in which despite all his actions, nothing really changes. Sure, Tintin saves Bianca, Irma, Wagner, Thompson, and Thomson from execution or imprisonment, but they were only threatened as a means of extracting petty revenge upon Tintin to begin with. And San Theodoros is essentially the same as when he arrived, just with a change of names at the top. And as a result, the reader is left feeling entirely unsatisfied with the end result of the story in this book, unsatisfied with this story as an ending to the series, and in some ways, unsatisfied with the series as a whole.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Mar 8, 2012, 8:59am Top

Book Twenty-Five: CassaFire by Alex J. Cavanaugh.

Short review: A pilot haunted by his past. A planet with alien artifacts. An exotic alien beauty with unexpected talents.

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: CassaFire is the sequel to CassaStar, continuing the story of Byron, telepathic pilot and hero of the Vindicarn War. Set twenty years after the end of the war that made him a hero and killed his closest friend Bassa, this book finds Byron working as a pilot on the exploration vessel Rennather, both fulfilling his promise to Bassa and hiding from his war-time legacy. The book focuses on the Rennather's mission to Tgren, a planet inhabited by a non-starfaring culture upon which ancient alien artifacts have been found. Full of telepaths, ancient alien technology, and star travel, the book seems reminiscent of the style of Andre Norton's work, and if the name on the cover were changed from Cavanaugh's to hers it would not seem entirely out of place filed in the "N" section.

The central plot element of the book is the Cassan discovery of alien ruins found on the planet Tgren. The Rennather has been sent to explore these ruins, and, cementing this book firmly in the category of space opera, recover any advanced alien technology that they find. Somewhat complicating matters is the fact that Tgren is inhabited by a comparatively primitive culture that has only barely discovered flight and among whose populace telepathic powers have recently begun to manifest. This last point is as important as the alien artifacts, as Cassan space travel technology is heavily reliant upon the abilities of the telepathically inclined, making the Tgrens a potentially valuable ally for the Cassans. Unfortunately, to provide a plot complication, we are told that the culturally conservative Tgrens are both resentful of outsiders, and are disturbed by the existence of "freakish" telepaths among their own people. Sadly, this conservatism on the part of the Tgrens never really seemed to manifest until the very end of the story other than a collection of dire warnings from local politicians.

Although Byron is "only" a shuttle pilot on the Rennather, he is also one of the two men who pilot a Darten, the light and quick fighter that is used to defend the larger ship from hostile encounters, and this leads to him being assigned to train the best Tgren pilots. In addition, as Byron is a skilled telepath, he is assigned to train the best telepath the Tgren have to offer. Coincidentally, the best telepath and the best pilot on Tgren happen to be the same person. Even more coincidentally, this person turns out to be Athee, a very attractive woman and the niece of the local political power broker. This, of course, puts Byron in the middle of all of the back and forth between the Cassans of the Rennather and puts him front and center to become the object of Athee's affections, setting up the will-they-won't-they romance that forms the core of much of the story. The only oddity relating to Athee is the well-developed nature of her psychic powers - if the Tgrens have only recently seen the emergence of such abilities among their populace, her extraordinary aptitude, which rivals even that of a Cassan who is near the top of capabilities of the telepathically gifted Cassans, seems to be an almost unbelievably rapid manifestation.

And to connect Byron to the archaeological end of the story, Byron befriends an extremely young linguist named Mevine who is participating in the excavation of the alien site. Mevine also brings up Byron's past as a Cosbolt pilot in the Vindicarn War, and the loss of his navigator Bassa (which presumably makes up much of the plot of the book CassaStar) which pulls Byron's own insecurities to the fore in the form of survivor guilt that is revealed when Mevine is unable to recall Bassa's name. And with all the pieces in place, the story proceeds at a fairly swift clip: Byron shuttles people around, gets maudlin about the war, trains Tgren pilots, trains Athee to tap into her psychic gifts, deals with local politics, resists falling in love with Athee, and eventually and inevitably gives in. Though the story is in many ways predictable, it is comfortably so and well-written, making it an enjoyable ride.

In the end, all the disparate threads come together in a dramatic ending, and although the ending does have something of a twist, it is a fairly standard style twist. CassaFire seems like it could have been written in the 1950s, with all the familiar cadences of Golden Age science fiction. And this gives it a familiar feel that makes the book seem like an old friend, even though it is new. If you are looking for a new space opera story with a thread of romance, then CassaFire is the book you are looking for.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Mar 4, 2012, 9:59pm Top

Book Twenty-Six: The Demon of Renaissance Drive by Elizabeth Reuter.

Short review: Annabelle is a succubus. She's also bored so she rescues a damned soul on a whim. Then things get interesting.

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: I have to admit that this book was not exactly what I expected when I picked it up. With a succubus for a protagonist and what seemed like a gritty urban setting, I more or less assumed that this would be a sexy, dark adventure with lots of romance and erotica. The actual book is not quite that, although it is set against a gritty urban backdrop. Instead of romance and erotica, this book delivers some adventure but also a lot of fairly thought provoking questions about morality and punishment.

The title character, Annabelle, is a succubus. In traditional terms, she is a sex demon, but in this book it would be more appropriate to call her a breeding demon. This is because, like all other succubi, Annabelle gets pregnant every time she has sex. And most other female demons are effectively barren. At the start of the book, the demoness is approximately six thousand years old and has birthed approximately one million baby demons in her lifetime. As there are only seven succubi left in Hell, and Annabelle is apparently of a noble lineage, she is in high demand as a brood mare, and is showered with gifts and attention from the powerful inhabitants of the nether world for her services. And she simply doesn't want to do it any more.

One can kind of sympathize with Annabelle's position once the story gets around to a sequence in which she does get pregnant and have a child. But the only key element at the beginning is that she is bored and looking for something interesting to do. And one day, while out traveling through Hell, Annabelle happens upon another demon with a collection of damned souls in his charge and, on a lark, she decides to rescue one of them from the impending horrific punishment imminently to be imposed upon him. This decision, made on a whim, drives the rest of the plot of the book. By stealing a soul Annabelle has committed a grave offense against the established order of Hell, and in order to protect herself and her newly adopted pet, she has to flee to Earth, which is probably a more critical issue for the lords of Hell. After all, they have millions of damned souls, but only seven breeding succubi. It is an interesting decision, because it casts Annabelle in the role of the rescuer, and the rescued man in the role of the damsel in distress. But the role reversal is deeper than a mere gender switch of the traditional roles: she is a demon, supposedly a creature without pity or remorse, and even though he is in distress, as a damned soul, one assumes that the distressed is justified by his crimes. In short, the primary point of the story revolves around mercy being granted by the merciless to a criminal who is being punished for crimes he did, in fact, commit.

The strange thing about Annabelle's decision is that she's not even sure why she rescued this particular damned soul. She isn't particularly romantically interested in him, and she clearly has no real plan for what to do with him or for him. And given that when she acquires this soul he is catatonic from the massive trauma of being systemically tortured nonstop for however long he has been in Hell. Even "Harry", the name initially used for the soul, is one that Annabelle picks at random, because Harry cannot speak, and when he does speak, he cannot remember who he was before he died. And it is at this point that one begins to wonder about the justness of the order that Hell enforces: is infinite punishment for finite crimes truly just? No matter what Harry did, is it bad enough that he should be perpetually tortured in such gruesome ways that he even forgets his own identity? And once he has forgotten his crime, and forgotten everything else about himself, what is the point of continuing to punish the shell that is left? Yes, it is the same soul that (as we find out later) engaged in some undeniably heinous acts, but once all memory of them has been erased by years of unending torment, is what is left still deserving of punishment? This also points to the question of redemption: one Harry's memory has been destroyed, not only does continuing to torment him seem pointless, but also wasteful. And when Harry's memory does return after therapy later in the book, the form of punishment he suffered has clearly altered his thinking to the point that he no longer harbors the beliefs that led him to be condemned to the infernal realm to begin with. Consequently, while Harry is clearly not innocent, it seems gratuitous that had Annabelle not rescued him, he would have been subjected to an eternity of excruciating penance even when it served no purpose whatsoever.

And of course, once one's mind is sent down this path, one wonders about the nature of a system that condemns the demons who inhabit Hell to their bleak existence. In the classic Miltonian formulation, demons are those angels who followed Lucifer into rebellion against divine authority and were cast down for their defiance. One can quibble with whether such a crime would merit being cast into a lake of fire for all eternity, but at least there is some justification for their torment. But in The Demon of Renaissance Drive, there are millions of demons who are subjected to the delights of Hell for no reason other than the misfortune of having been born. Even Annabelle herself was born into a life as a demon, and not only that, a life as a succubus, which entails the repeated harrowing experience of enduring all the pain of pregnancy and childbirth in a single day a million times over. And of course, she is depicted (at times) as an inhuman monster. But after living for thousands of years under the conditions of Hell, how could she be otherwise? And what had she done to deserve this treatment? It is one thing to have injustice in an uncaring universe, but when there is presumably a supernatural ranking of right and wrong and corresponding rewards and punishments, having an entire class of creatures born into an eternity of misery with no apparent fault on their part seems to be an interesting subtext of the story, especially when humans who willingly align themselves with the powers of Hell show up in the form of the Satanist leader Douglas Crane.

But this points to one of the problems with the book, and one of the problems with books that include inhuman characters: despite being described as an evil being from the depths of time, Annabelle is remarkably human in her wants, needs, and desires. She steals Harry on a whim, and throughout the book she is not sure why she cares for him - spiriting him out of Hell, securing the services of a psychiatrist named Jimmy to help heal the broken parts of Harry's mind (and reveal that "Harry" is in fact Steve), and so on. But to the reader it is fairly clear: Annabelle is experiencing compassion for Harry/Steve. In fact, all of the demons presented in the book seem to be very human in character. This is not a criticism of Reuter's abilities as a writer, but is rather the observation that creating characters that are both inhuman in outlook and which the reader can identify with is extremely difficult. When Annabelle is acting "demonic", she is unsympathetic and mostly uninteresting. When she is acting more human-like, she no longer seems alien and diabolical. And this effect does not apply only to Annabelle. All of the demons portrayed in the book seem remarkably human in their desires: Belial desires children, Avaira his wife feels jealous over his tryst with Annabelle, the dukes of Hell all desire heirs (although one has to wonder why the immortal rulers of Hell find it critically important to secure legitimate heirs), and so on and so forth. Hell, it seems, is more or less populated by humans with weird shapes and supernatural powers. Of course, in a book in which the existence of Hell is confirmed, certain theological questions come to mind as a result, and Jimmy, having been apparently raised in an ardently religious family, beings to ask them once he unravels what Annabelle and Steve are. But Annabelle (and Reuter) steadfastly refuse to answer these questions, creating an unusual ambiguity in the story insofar as everyone involved is certain the Hell is a real place, with real demonic denizens, but Heaven and God are hazy and indistinct uncertainties.

Despite the theological ramblings the characters engage in through the book, the main plot is more or less a sequence of chases, as Annabelle tries to prevent the Lords of Hell from discovering that she absconded with Harry/Steve and later, once it has been discovered, her attempts to evade capture. Along the way, Annabelle makes deals with powerful demons, but also engages in the mundane tasks of working at a fast food restaurant, renting a cheap house, and illegally purchasing a handgun. It is this combination of the fantastic and the ordinary that makes the book interesting and brings the philosophical questions to the fore. Juxtaposing the politics of Hell with the lives of ordinary humans serves to take the wind out of the sails of the demons. For all of her posturing about how boring, simple, and petty humans are, all of the demons who appear in the book are at least as boring, simple, and petty as the humans they disdain. In a similar way, though this story ostensibly is large enough to shake the very political foundations of Hell, much of it boils down to a very small story of a trio of individuals trying to avoid a regime that each of them for their own reasons finds intolerable. And even the philosophical conflicts ultimately boil down to the very personal: even though Jimmy knows Annabelle is a demon, and thus an embodied agent of evil, he is more disturbed by Harry/Steve and the very human crimes he committed before he died that led to his condemnation in this life and further punishment after death. The horror of dealing with a demon is not particularly bothersome for Jimmy, but a neo-Nazi murderer is. Until the crime is made human, it is simply not cognizable. And the same is true of the story: until the story is brought down to the level of borrowing cars and hiding out in hotels, it doesn't seem real. But when the ordinary is mixed in with the fantastic, everything ends up working.

As with most good fiction, The Demon of Renaissance Drive raises many question, and like most good fiction, it doesn't directly answer them. Why are there only seven succubi? What is the purpose of the punishments of Hell? Why is it critical that no souls ever get lost? Is Hell just? And does it matter? How is it that a demon can exercise more forgiveness than a supposedly empathetic human trained to treat people with mental illnesses? And so on. And the reader is left wondering about the characters too - as the story ends on something of a cliffhanger, one has to wonder how, now that the tables have been turned, a pair of more or less ordinary men plan to rescue a demon taken to face judgment for her transgressions. As this book's plot had been driven by actions that are reversed from what one would expect, it seems that the continuation of the story will probably feature another kind of reversal as the powerless attempt to rescue the comparatively powerful. This book, loaded with subverted expectations (starting with a sex demon who only has sex once in the book), is both an enjoyable adventure, and more substantial and thought-provoking than one might expect.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Feb 2, 2012, 2:38pm Top

Baffles me how anyone can think that, really. Don't get me wrong. I feel bad when I can't offer a review painting a book as fantastic. But I try to remember that "bad" reviews help authors just as much as "good" ones do.

Edited: Mar 13, 2012, 9:37am Top

Book Twenty-Seven: Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan by Conn Iggulden.

Short review: Under three different Great Khan's the mongols expand their Empire sending Hulegu into the Middle-East and Kublai into China. Then, civil war breaks out and it is Mongol against Mongol for the first time in three generations.

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan is the fifth and final book in Conn Iggulden's Conqueror series, picking up right where Empire of Silver left off. Just two generations after Genghis united the Mongol nation under one banner and set about conquering the world, the empire he forged is already beginning to fragment. After the death of Ogedai Khan, his son Gyuk moved quickly to consolidate power under himself, but as the novel opens, it is clear that he is probably not up to the task of ruling the vast domains of the Mongol nation. In Conqueror, the Mongol nation reaches its greatest heights which paradoxically are the very things that will destroy it. In the book, the stories of four Great Khans unfold, three revealing lessons that the Mongol nation is simply unequipped to learn, and the fourth giving the reader a glimpse of the final undoing of everything that Genghis had wrought.

The Mongols were history's ultimate wild card coming out of seemingly nowhere to establish the largest empire in history. But within just a few generations, their empire was just a bad memory, a time of misery and suffering for their neighbors that had come and gone. And in Conqueror, by showing the Mongols at the height of their power, Iggulden illustrates why this is the case, revealing that for all their power and cruelty, the empire they established was little more than an empty shell. With nothing holding their nation together but oaths and the promise of wealth gained by conquest, the Mongols' unity was fragile at best. And lacking in any cultural gifts beyond that of the horse, the bow, and a ruthless approach to warfare, the Mongols had to borrow from those they conquered to control their empire, ceding the running of their conquests to those they had conquered. And in this regard, they are sort of like the prizefighter who has won lots of money by fighting, but then turns over the responsibility of managing that money to accountants and lawyers without any real understanding of what they are doing on his behalf. Or what he presumes is his behalf.

At the outset of the story, Gyuk, with the assistance of his mother Torogene, has planted himself at the head of the Mongol nation. But it is clear that Gyuk, trained exclusively in the direct brutality of Mongol warfare, is entirely unequipped to engage in the delicate political maneuvering required to maintain the loyalty of the various factions within the nation he aspires to lead. Gyuk does not learn the important lesson that rulers must learn: your power is not absolute unless you can command the loyalty of those who you would command, and attempting to assert your absolute authority over them against their will is hazardous. And Gyuk's reign is challenged almost immediately by the non-appearance of Batu, who simply did not appear at the ritual oath swearing, and has instead ensconced himself in the forests of Russia. It is here that the story shows both that holding an empire is much different from conquering one and the most valuable possessions that an empire has are its own constituent parts. As Gyuk leads an army to bring Batu to heel, Kublai begins almost unknowingly to sow the seeds of his own rise to power.

And the resolution of Gyuk's campaign against Batu reveals yet another weakness of the Mongol system: by creating a political structure dependent upon personal loyalty to one man, it is possible to disrupt the actions of that structure merely by removing that one man. And as a result, the entire nation grinds to a halt and goes into reverse whenever power changes hands. And after Gyuk's undistinguished turn at the helm, power transfers to Tolui's line and Mongke takes control of the nation as Great Khan. And Mongke's instinctive answer to the dissolute nature of Gyuk's reign is to try to return to the ways of their forefathers and rule from the saddle. However, unlike Gyuk, he is clever enough to realize that he cannot simply leave the administration of his domains to the Chinese servants, but he does send his brothers Hulegu and Kublai to expand the dominions of his suzerainty - giving Kublai strict instructions that he must give up his "soft" adoption of Chinese customs and prove himself to be a true Mongol Khan.

The contrast between Hugelu and Kublai makes clear exactly why the Mongol nation's influence on history is so ephemeral. Hulegu is sent west, to Persia and Arabia to seek his Khanate among the Islamic nations, while Kublai heads east, to carve out his own fiefdom from the domains of the Chinese emperor. In one case, the Mongols operate according to the "old" ways - treating their invasion much like a giant raid seeking riches and revenge. Hulegu's goal, it seems, is to try to extract as much gold from Baghdad and the surrounding cities as possible and cart it away. Nothing else about Baghdad or its people interests Hugelu - not their knowledge, their achievements, or even what they might produce in the future. He starves the city, disarms it, ransacks it, and destroys much of its populace in a wasteful orgy of slaughter. Hulegu also exposes the weakness that will doom the Mongol political system: despite the oft repeated boast that a Mongols' "word is iron", he feels no remorse over repeatedly breaking promises made to al-Mustasim. And alongside Hulegu's petty lust for gold, is his petty lust for revenge as he seeks to bring to a close the unfinished business between Genghis' family and the cult of Assassins, expending an enormous volume of manpower and effort on the vendetta, to the point where the success of his military campaign is jeopardized. The lesson Iggulden drives home with Hulegu's campaign is that despite their glorious victories, despite their ruthless conquests, the Mongols are little more than bandits who can lay siege to cities. And because of this, once their victims have weathered the storm, they will be essentially unchanged by the passing horde.

But on the other side of the continent, Kublai reveals the other side of the coin: the "new" ways adopted from the Chinese via his mentor Yao Shu. Perhaps because he faced an enemy that outnumbered him so immensely, perhaps because he absorbed the "soft" lessons of civilization from Yao Shu, or perhaps because he figured out that a populace hard at work is more profitable than a populace decimated and terrorized, Kublai adopted a policy of not turning his men loose upon conquered cities to loot, rape, and pillage. And this leads Kublai to have to pay his men, which means he has to find a source of bullion, which constrains his actions. By seizing towns rather than destroying them, by making the populace his subjects rather than his victims, and by trying to rule a functioning economy rather than acting as a parasite, Kublai transforms the Mongols he leads into something more, but he also makes himself vulnerable in the same ways that the Mongols themselves exploited when conquering their enemies. In effect, to have any chance at conquering China, Kublai has to become Chinese, and therein lies the seeds of the Mongols' destruction. Because they have no cultural achievements of their own, they have to borrow them from those they conquer, and in doing so cede their own nature, trading their identity for that of their subjects. In a way, Kublai is as trapped by his Mongol heritage as Hugelu, and his actions are just as futile. The only change that the Chinese will feel is the identity of the men giving the orders, but their way of life will go on unchanged.

Finally, when Mongke dies unexpectedly, it precipitates the final lessons as to why the Mongol empire faded so quickly. First, the Mongols' have to learn the lesson that all empires eventually learn: before too long, the most valuable prize to be had is the empire itself. And when both Arik-Boke and Kublai claim the position of Great Khan, the Mongols face their most dangerous foe when they turn against one another. Paradoxically, though the novel is named Conqueror, presumably in honor of the final victor in this conflict, the only land that he conquers in this volume is the Mongol nation itself. But this internal conflict reveals the inherent weakness of the Mongols - when Kublai must secure the loyalty of Alghu, the Mongol ruler of Samarkand who had already given his oath to Arik-Boke he says that as the true Great Khan he can relieve Alghu of his oath to the false one. And to save himself, Alghu assents to this and changes his loyalty from one brother to the other. But this reveals that the Mongol oaths are meaningless except when backed by force, and if someone else shows up with more force, then those oaths can be cast aside. And by highlighting this, Iggulden is exposing the Achilles heel of the Mongol political system, because it relies upon the strength of personal oaths, and once it is revealed that those oaths can be cast aside, the nation is on the path to disintegration.

In Conqueror, Iggulden shows the Mongol empire at the height of its power and influence. But he also skillfully shows the reader that the nomadic tribesmen that leapt to world dominance from the cold steppes of Mongolia were uniquely suited to conquer the world, but remarkably ill-equipped to actually rule what they had gained. By the time the events in this novel had rolled around, the rapid ascent to power had sown the seeds of the empire's own destruction. By showing us the Mongols as they were and showing them on their own terms, Iggulden shows us why they were a force that stood over all of Asia, but also shows us why they swept over the world and left a legacy that is remarkable only for its paucity. Conqueror, with a cast of interesting and well-drawn characters, contains a strong story set in one of the most turbulent periods in history and brings to a close the fascinating journey Iggulden crafted that took the reader on a guided tour of the rise of the largest empire in history.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Mar 14, 2012, 10:36am Top

Book Twenty-Eight: Expedition Beyond: The Anderson Theory by Roger Bagg.

Short review: The Earth is hollow and full of Native Americans and Neanderthals.

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Expedition Beyond: The Anderson Theory reads kind of like a Jules Verne or Arthur Conan Doyle "lost world" style story written in a manner that aspires to evoke the books of Michael Crichton or Dan Brown. Sadly, the novel never really seems to come together, and is hampered by unconvincing alternative science explanations that try to place a veneer of respectability upon the implausible idea that the Earth is actually hollow. Following the adventures of Des, the former leader of an expedition the explored deep into a mysterious fissure that had opened in the frozen northern reaches of Canada, as he navigates a small corner of the strange world that he finds deep inside the Earth, the book is a moderately engaging adventure built upon an almost wholly absurd premise.

The book opens with George Barrington, a dilettantish hiker traveling through the outback of Australia, going missing with his guide. His wealthy father sends some hired hands to try to find out what happened to his son. Meanwhile, an expedition on the other side of the world in Canada, financed by the mining corporation Boster Denton and led by Des Cox sets out to find and explore a massive open trench in the Earth in the middle of the frozen tundra. The expedition has some setbacks and personality conflicts, but eventually locates their target and begins to delve deep into it when Des is attacked by creatures deep in the Earth and lost. These preliminaries are told out of order for no real apparent reason, and each chapter has an ominous header that includes the longitude and latitude (and eventually "laptitude") where the events take place, as well as the day and time on which they occur. This style of story telling is what gave me the impression that the author was trying to emulate Michael Crichton, who has used this sort of device to heighten the tension created by the events in his books. But by telling the story out of order at this point, Bagg deflates the tension: while the characters are feeling anxious over whether they will find what they are looking for, the reader already knows they will because he saw them do it in an earlier segment of the book. It seems like the author is telling the story out of order simply because that's what has been done in other books that he had seen in this genre, and so he felt like he needed to, even though in this case, it serves to detract from the book's impact.

The preliminaries dispensed with, the book moves on to the real story: Des' adventure inside the hollow Earth, his friend Mitch's efforts to mount a rescue mission to find Des, and the mission on the opposite side of the world to try to locate and recover George Barrington. All of these are more or less tied together by the "Anderson Theory" (named after an astrophysicist with the same name) which is a mish-mash of science buzzwords seemingly thrown together at random with a healthy dash of counter-factual supposition to boot. The primary problem with the theory is that when he is explaining it Anderson makes a basic physics mistake: he asserts that if the Earth is solid the weight of the mass of the planet will cause the atoms at the core to be subjected to so much pressure that they would explode. But physicists already know how much mass is required to cause the atoms at the core to explode: objects with that much mass are called stars. Even Jupiter, with three hundred and seventeen times as much mass as the Earth is insufficiently large to cause spontaneous fusion at its core. Consequently, when Anderson rattles off the rest of his "theory", his wildly silly assertion about a solid Earth exploding makes the rest inherently implausible.

It doesn't help that Anderson's theory is little more than some science words strung together without much rhyme or reason. Anderson apparently started with the notion that there is more matter than anti-matter in the universe, leapt to the idea that the planets and other celestial bodies are hollow, and then ended up assuming that dark matter is reacting with ordinary matter at the core of planets creating radiant energy. Now I'm not sure if Bagg is having Anderson conflate anti-matter and dark matter here, but the problem with this assertion concerning dark matter is that dark matter is dark matter explicitly because it doesn't interact with ordinary matter, making this part of the "theory" just as silly as the idea that a solid Earth would explode. It is common in science fiction to break the laws of physics in some way, or to posit some heretofore unknown principle of science that would allow for advanced technology to be developed, but when an author contradicts the known properties of the universe without even acknowledging that he is doing so causes the reader to lose confidence that the author has done his research. More critically, it makes the science fiction elements of the story inherently implausible, and breaks the reader's suspension of disbelief. Calling a book "science fiction" doesn't mean that any idea can be thrown into the mix uncritically - an author usually has to delineate when they are departing from the currently understood properties of the universe or they risk losing verisimilitude. In Expedition Beyond, Bagg commits this authorial sin, and as a result, the book falls apart.

The truly unfortunate thing about the bad scientific explanation for the hollow Earth is that it really isn't all that necessary for the story to work. In fact, most of the sections that take place in Australia (which includes all the scenes in which Anderson appears) seem to serve very little purpose other than to pad out the page count a bit, because nothing that happens in Australia really seems to affect either Des' adventures in the world inside the Earth or Mitch's efforts to mount a rescue operation to recover Des. And because Des' story, once he falls in with the Anasazi inhabitants and falls in love with their princess Anastasia, is the meat of the book, the Australian segments are more or less extraneous clutter. This point, which isn't apparent until the close of the book, adds to the disappointing feeling one feels after reading it. On the one hand, It makes a certain amount of logical sense that teams working more or less independently on opposite sides of the Earth would not affect one another, which makes it reasonable that the Australian and Canadian groups would not impact each other. On the other hand, because both elements are in the book, there is a certain expectation that, despite being set thousands of kilometers apart even by the direct route through the center of the planet, the two will dovetail in some meaningful way. And because they really don't (except in the most tangential manner), an entire third of the book feels wasted and unsatisfying.

But Des' story, as he navigates the female dominated Anasazi civilization that he has fallen into, is interesting in a Edgar Rice Burroughs' kind of way. Or, once the villains of the underworld show up, in a Michael Crichton Eaters of the Dead kind of way. To a certain extent, Des falls into what seems to be a paradise full of tall colorfully-skinned women with only small boys and old men for competition. The fact that they are exclusively vegetarians is compensated for by the fact that their produce is apparently quite tasty and Des' new found ability to control fire. I think that Des' ability to control fire (and resist fire) is supposed to be connected with Anderson's theory about what makes the Earth hollow, possibly connected in some way with dark matter or something, but this never seems to be explained in any manner - he just discovers he can do it and then mostly uses it to impress the natives during meetings. This sort of "party trick" attitude seems to permeate Des' story - finding a culture that fights with clubs headed by balls of metal, Des convinces the local weapon smith to craft a sword, but only one sword, so he can have one but no one else is given more effective weaponry. He doesn't suggest making bows, arrows, or even spears and knives to equip his soldiers, but rather scavenges around the local museum to find syringe-like blow darts and eventually centuries old gunpowder stored in a back room. Despite this, Des seems to do a reasonable job of preparing his makeshift army for war, despite being hampered by local politics and the fact that his supposed allies don't seem to think it is important to give him all the information they have about their foes.

At the same time Des is trying to fend off an invasion and rescue the male population of the Anasazi, Mitch is busy trying to mount a rescue of Des himself. And this portion works fairly well, as Mitch works with the Inuit Bearters and the U.S. Army to obtain permission from the Inuit council to return to the fissure where Des went missing and hunt for him. The corporate and political maneuvering that Mitch and his allies go through is somewhat interesting, and the story eventually converges with the underground drama, but most of Mitch's experience seems to be him waiting for the U.S. Army to do something, and then waiting for the Canadian government to do something, and then finally, snookering the Inuit council. But once they get to the trench, getting down to where Des is located is more or less hand waved away with some hastily introduced technology. It seems that an opportunity was missed in having Mitch and his rescue team get to Des so quickly and easily. Instead of having Mitch cool his heels for most of the book waiting on bureaucracies to give him the green light, it would have been much more interesting to have him (possibly along with the expert team we are introduced to in the opening chapters of the book who mostly disappear from the narrative thereafter) work his way down into the underworld in a kind of modern version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. But instead, the story holds Mitch up with red tape for nine-tenths of its length and then has his efforts turn out to be mostly moot.

While Expedition Beyond has some good moments, they are simply not strong enough to carry the story as a whole. Although I suspect that the fact that Des and Mitch had to deal with native American groups both above and below the surface was significant in some way, I couldn't summon enough interest to really care. I also suspect that Mitch bringing a pair of puppies with him into the underworld is supposed to be a momentous development, but as the story ends pretty much immediately after he arrives, this plot element goes nowhere. With laughably bad science, pointless subplots, and several instances of hand-waving to get over plot hurdles, the book ends up feeling contrived and silly. Despite the fact that Des' story in the underworld was somewhat interesting, everything else felt like wasted ink and paper.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 23, 2012, 4:17pm Top

Guess who got Tintin?!

*safety dance*

Edited: Mar 15, 2012, 4:11pm Top

Book Twenty-Nine: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber.

Short review: The Change War between the snakes and spiders rages through all of time and space and weary demons find that danger follows them even when they try to rest.

Long review: After failing to hand out a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1957, the voters stepped up and handed the 1958 award to Fritz Leiber's short novel The Big Time. The novel, detailing the events in "The Place", a rest stop for weary soldiers participating in the Cosmos-wide "Change War" that rages through all of time and space as the alien Spiders and Snakes vie to control the ultimate outcome of history, is a study in paradoxes. A war story about survival told by a dead noncombatant, The Big Time is about a war as large as the entirety of space and time that takes place in a space smaller than your typical bar and grill over a period of a couple of hours. It is a time-travel story in which no one ever travels through time, and a locked door mystery in which the door is only locked when the crime has been committed.

The basic background of the book is fairly straightforward: two factions are vying through time and space for control of the outcome to be determined at the end of time. These factions are never seen and are merely referred to by the monikers "Snakes" and "Spiders", and even those names are just labels and no one knows if they are in any way accurate descriptions of the two sides. The characters in the story all work for the Spiders, who are presumed to be the "good" side, although there is no way for either the characters or the reader to really know. The Spiders, and presumably the Snakes, recruit their soldiers by whisking away people on death's door and offering them a place in their ranks as an alternative to dying. Once a recruit accepts, they become an immortal "demon" and taken away to "The Big Time", where they exist outside of the normal flow of time and immune to the alterations of history that are engendered by the Change War. The difficulty both sides face in waging the Change War is that time is "sticky", observing the Law of Conservation of Time. In other words, even if you make changes in time, it will tend to converge back to its original outcome, so any changes one makes have to be reinforced many times to make them permanent, or else history will eventually simply drift back to the original (presumably undesirable) end. As a result, soldiers are sent out on mission after mission in order to make sure that the their tinkering with the world will hold, and they experience dozens upon dozens of realities - and we, who are not demons from the Big Time do as well, but as memories or shadows that we can't quite place, an effect which is used to explain phenomena such as déjà vu and precognition.

Once recruited, a demon becomes either a soldier to be sent on missions to try to bend the flow of time to the outcome desired by the Spiders, or an entertainer assigned to one of the out of time rest areas where the soldiers recuperate between missions. The story of The Big Time takes place in one of these rest areas and is told from the perspective of entertainer Greta Forzane, whose job appears to be serving food and drinks, dancing, singing, and providing other more personal services to the soldiers who drop in. And this perspective gives the story a somewhat surreal quality: although Forzane is a demon, and has an understanding of the Change War, she has never experienced it directly, having spent most of her time since her "death" in the same confined space waiting for those who are doing the real fighting to come back. One element more or less unremarked upon in the story is the bleak nature of the lives of the entertainers in the story. While the soldiers presumably undergo harrowing experiences on their missions to the outside world, they at least get to do different things while enjoying a change of scenery when they are carrying out their orders. The entertainers, on the other hand, spend all of their time in a confined space and do essentially the same thing over and over again. And because they are effectively immortal, they can look forward to repeating this dreary routine until the heat death of the universe. From a certain perspective, this seems like a fate worse than death, and it is this realization that makes the actions that precipitate the central crisis of the book understandable.

And the Spiders' method of recruitment makes for some strange bedfellows: the three "hussars" who show up consist of Mark - a former Roman soldier, Bruce - a British casualty from Passchendale who fancies himself a poet, and Erich - a brutish Nazi officer from a Third Reich that had conquered the United States. Later, an even more unlikely trio shows up consisting of a female warrior from ancient Minos, an alien from an even more ancient version of Earth's moon, and another alien from our distant future. But when the reader gets the snippets of information they mention when they are swapping soldier tales of poisoning Churchill and Cleopatra or kidnapping infant Einstein, one starts to wonder if the Spiders' goals are beneficial for humanity. And at that point, one comes to the realization that in a war that spans time and space, what might be required for the goals of the Spiders to come to fruition (even if they are ultimately benign) could be a policy that consigns some or all of humanity to live under terrible regimes, or that requires the learning and achievements of figures such as Plato or Kepler should be erased from history's record. Despite the importance to humans of the events that affect humanity, the lesson given by the existence of the Lunan Ilhilihis is that everything we hold dear is both ephemeral and a matter of trivial importance of the Spiders. We are, in effect, a minor sideshow in a minor theater of a great war.

Which is why, when what appears to be one of the most thoughtful characters begins to question his role and the role of the others in "The Place", the paranoia displayed by the others in the story seems vastly overblown. When Bruce begins to question the place the soldiers and entertainers in the story hold in the war, several of the others find his comments treasonous and begin to fear retribution from their Spider masters. But this fear seems quite misplaced, as it seems likely that their Spider masters pay almost no attention to their doings in the war. But because their actions are important to the characters in the story, they assume they must be important to their commanders. It is this sense of self-importance that leads to the crisis that creates the overt conflict in the book. And although the resolution of the conflict is interesting and satisfying, it seems as though that the story is just a framework to hang the real point upon - which seems to be reinforced when, after being out of contact with the outside world for a while, the denizens of 'the Place" are returned to contact with the rest of the Big Time, and no one outside their little circle seems to notice. The deafening silence from the Spiders and the Snakes leads one to begin to wonder if there is any substance to the Change War at all. Though this question is never spoken directly, it seems possible that the War may simply be a hellish afterlife that the unfortunates in the story have been consigned to. Or perhaps it is all true and the Spiders and Snakes are fighting a brutal battle for control of the outcome of history. But the characters have no way of knowing what is true and what is not, so they must simply struggle on as best they can as if what they believe to be true is actually true.

And it is this layering that makes this book a worthy Hugo winner. Although the book has some flaws - much of it is written in fairly stylized language, and it contains the healthy dose of the casual sexism that is typically on display in so many books written in the 1950s and earlier - the direct story, amounting to a well-written locked door mystery, and the underlying story, concerning the nature of reality and loyalty, are both gripping and thought-provoking. With a time travel story full of mystery and ambiguity, The Big Time is a must read for any science fiction fan.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds

Edited: Mar 12, 2012, 12:19pm Top

Book Thirty: Slant of Light: A Novel of Daybreak by Steve Wiegenstein.

Short review: An idealist with no real skills in running a community establishes a Utopian society on a riverbank in Missouri as the U.S. Civil War looms. And then the war comes and everyone has to choose sides.

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Slant of Light is a work of historical fiction that highlights two areas of history that seem to be not as well known as they should be: the bitter conflict between pro- and anti-slavery forces that bubbled beneath the surface in Missouri and other western states in the antebellum period which finally erupted into a dirty guerrilla war once the U.S. Civil War commenced, and the optimistic idealism that resulted in the establishment of Utopian communities that dotted the western landscape amidst the burgeoning strife. In the story, James Turner, having written a novel about a fictional South Pacific community that lives a simple, peaceful lifestyle of shared labor and shared wealth, finds himself heading to Missouri to launch a colony based on the principles outlined in his book, despite having no particularly useful skills for such an endeavor.

This contradiction in Turner's character sets the tone for the book: although Turner has written a book that espouses high ideals and has sparked the imaginations of many people who yearn for the life that he describes in his text, he seems remarkably ill-suited for actually making the dream he spun into a reality. In addition to his lack of practical farming skills, which one would assume would be critically useful when establishing an agricultural colony, Turner seems to have few abilities other than being a competent writer, typesetter, and compelling speaker. And, it turns out, that despite being charged with founding and running a colony built on idealistic principles, Turner is unable to actually live those idealistic principles, paralleling to a certain extent the experiences of Thomas Jefferson. Much like Jefferson, Turner finds that he enjoys democracy in principle much more than he likes it in practice. Much like Jefferson, he finds himself opposed to slavery in principle, but accepting of it in practice. When confronted with the inherent unfairness of male-only suffrage in the colony, he balks at allowing women to vote in colony matters. In large part, the story of Slant of Light is the collision of soaring idealism and crushing reality.

And the experiences of the colony of Daybreak seem to reflect the experiences of Missouri, and indeed the entire nation as a whole. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the personage of abolitionist Adam Cabot, who is tarred and feathered and narrowly escapes being lynched for his political activities in Kansas and is persuaded to travel to Daybreak by Charlotte Turner, James' pretty and down-to-Earth bride. Eastern born and educated, Cabot exposes the same weak adherence to ideals that the pro-slavery forces in the West share with Turner: they want democracy, but only so long as their own viewpoint wins. Any other result is unacceptable. Cabot is the idealist that Turner pretends to be, and every time that Turner stumbles and falls short of the principles he espouses, it seems that Cabot makes the morally correct choice. This contrast between Turner and Cabot, two men so similar in so many ways, and yet so divergent in others, is the most interesting element of the book.

And further contrasting Cabot's idealism is his fellow abolitionist Lysander Smith, who appears to be an abolitionist in name only. Born and educated in the East, just like Cabot, Smith comes to Daybreak as a result of a deal that Turner makes to secure cash for the money-starved colony. But Smith appears to regard his endeavors to be something of a lark or an adventure of no consequence to enjoy before returning to the real world of Philadelphia and home. But in this, Lysander has made what turns out to be a fatal miscalculation, which makes Turner's more practical approach to living in Missouri seem prudent. In the end, Smith's fate, and ultimately the resolution of Cabot's personal story seem to be contrasting, albeit in some ways aligned commentaries on the dangers of holding, or even merely falsely espousing, ideals that others might not agree with.

And even further contrasting Cabot is the man who adheres to no ideals: the sour and shiftless backwoodsman Harp Webb, who holds a grudge against the Daybreak colony due to the fact that it is founded upon land that his father George had gifted to Turner, and which Harp considers to be his rightful inheritance. In some ways, Harp is little more than a plot complication, existing in the story primarily to hang a cloud over the title to Daybreak's land, but in others, he represents the forces of indifference and conservatism that would hinder the development of an alternative way of life. But in the end, Harp's story is the story of the dedicated bystander who is caught in events larger than himself and swept along anyway. Once again, the story of the individual - Harp - is reflected in a way in the story of the community, as Daybreak also tries to shy away from involvement in the fight over slavery, but finds itself reminded that when all of your neighbors are at war, eventually the fight will show up on your doorstep.

But in Missouri, the Civil War wasn't a matter of vast armies fighting each other using modern weapons and outdated Napoleonic tactics, as brutal and horrific as that form of was. Instead, the war in the West was largely a darker, dirtier matter of midnight murder, thievery, and rape in which one is as likely to be brutalized by those who are on that same "side" as you ideologically as one is likely to be victimized by the enemy. This was a conflict in which ambushing an unsuspecting rider in the woods in the dark and beating them to death with an ax handle became not a crime, but rather a duty. And a conflict in which you had as much to fear from the people you pass in the street on your way to buy flour as you had to fear the soldiers in the armed camp outside of town. Through the book Wiegenstein makes good use of this chaotic background to create an unsettled atmosphere and a sense of danger that hangs over the Daybreak community almost from the very outset of the story.

It is this layering of the story in which the personal, the local, and the national events reflect one another as each person is faced with choices that test them on every level and test their commitment to their own ideals. Even Turner's own personal betrayal stemming from his personal ambivalence towards his own ideals, which forms one of the central plot developments of the story, is, in a sense, reflected in the larger conflict as Missouri tears itself apart from within as a result of the ambivalence many Americans feel towards the ideas their nation was founded upon. As Turner seeks forgiveness for his actions, one can see the glimmer of hope for a reconciliation between the various factions struggling for control of Missouri, and for the warring components of the United States as a whole. By creating flawed, but ultimately compelling characters and setting them against one another in a conflict in which there are varying degrees of right and wrong on most sides, Wiegenstein has produced a novel that opens a window on an era of American history and gave it the human face necessary to make it seem real for the reader. Put simply, this is a strong piece of historical fiction that allows the reader to get inside the issues and beliefs that drove the people to make the decisions that resulted, in a small way, in the country that emerged from the Civil War.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Mar 22, 2012, 9:40am Top

Book Thirty-One: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

Short review: In the dystopian future of Panem, Katniss and twenty-three other children are forced to fight one another for the entertainment of the masses. And for revenge against the downtrodden.

Long review: At some point in the future the United States might be taken over by a dystopian totalitarian government. And the brutal rulers of that new nation might be tempted to show their power and appease the masses by creating brutal gladiatorial events where unwilling participants are forced to fight to the death for the enjoyment of television viewers. And they will make the experience miserable for the competitors and treat them in obviously unfair ways, just to show they can. And if they have read books like The Hunger Games or The Running Man they might reconsider all of this, because this sort of bloodthirsty spectacle never seems to work out well for the tyrannical dictators.

In The Hunger Games what was once North America is now Panem, divided into twelve districts and ruled with an iron fist by the Capitol. Each district produces something different, but most of the bounty is siphoned off for the Capitol, leaving the districts full of poor often half-starved inhabitants. Sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen is one of the poorest denizens of District Twelve, which is probably the poorest of all the existing districts. With her father long dead, her mother emotionally incapable of providing for the family, and too young to go work in the coal mines, Katniss sneaks out of the district into the forbidden woods nearby and hunts for game so that she, her mother, and her younger sister Primrose can scrape by. Her poaching is illegal, but she has no real alternative, and so she puts to use the woodland skills her father taught her and makes do.

But the Capitol isn't content with letting the districts struggle to make ends meet. Seventy-four years prior to the events in the book the districts had sought to free themselves of the Capitol's yoke. In that conflict District Thirteen was destroyed and the remaining districts defeated and cowed into submission. As a measure of revenge, the Capitol declared that every year each district would be required to send two teenagers to represent them in "The Hunger Games" in which the twenty-four participants would fight to the death until only one was left standing. With this, Collins evokes both the classical mythological story of Theseus and the tributes that Athens was required to send once every seven years to Minos which were intended for the Minotaur's dinner plate, and modern reality shows like Survivor in which the contestants are winnowed down until only one is left – although in a far less brutal manner. And the story also calls to mind modern professional sports by means of "career" tributes sent by wealthier, more brutal districts, who train and volunteer for the Hunger Games throwing the dice in a gamble in which their lives are the stakes with wealth and fame as the potential reward. One has to wonder, is this so different from players in the National Football League, veterans of which have a substantially reduced average lifespan resulting from the rigors of the game. Or athletes who take steroids which give them a shot at glory notwithstanding the potential costs – such as the brain cancer that killed steroid user Lyle Alzado?

However, Katniss isn't a career tribute. She just wants to feed her family and make it to adulthood. But circumstances are working against her: to make the "reaping" in which the two tributes from each district are selected even more unfair while maintaining a veneer of fairness, the tributes are selected by lot. The system is biased, however, because those eligible may put their names into the lottery more than once in order to gain an additional tiny ration of grain and oil every month called the tessera. Since each of those eligible can put their name in an additional time for every family member they have, and since without doing so her family would starve, Katniss (and her best friend Gale) have added their names many additional times every year since they came of age. And the entries are cumulative every year, meaning Katniss' name is entered in the lottery twenty times. Katniss' twelve-year old sister Prim, on the other hand is entered only once, which is the reason for Katniss' many sacrifices: to protect her sister. Without dwelling on it, or having any forced "I love my sister" conversations in the book, Collins establishes Katniss as a sympathetic character and reveals her intense love for her sibling. So it seems perfectly natural that when, against all odds, Primrose's name is drawn as tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

This decision - one of only two real decisions Katniss makes in the story - sets the main plot of the book in motion as she is swept up in the circus that surrounds the games, and we meet the characters that frame her central place in the story. Gale, her reliable and responsible hunting partner who harbors a barely controlled seething rage against the Capitol. Haymitch, the one surviving Hunger Games "victor" from District Twelve, a broken down drunkard wrecked by his experience and the years of being forced to mentor doomed children sent into the arena to their deaths. Cinna, a man who has no reason to rock the boat, but whose designs for Katniss do so anyway. And finally, Peeta, the other tribute from District Twelve, who Katniss must kill in order to survive, but who turns out to be much more than a kind-hearted baker's son strong enough to lift heavy objects. Each of these characters represents a different reaction to the system imposed by the Capitol: Cinna fights against the system from within, Peeta refuses to let the system break him, Gale wants to destroy the system entirely, and Haymitch "won" using the system's rules, but his character, who starts out buffoonish, is the most chilling, because he shows exactly how heavy a price the system extracts from the "winners".

The odd thing about the book is that the games themselves, while exciting and full of action, are possibly the least interesting part of the book. After seeing Katniss' day to day struggles to feed her family and the political machinations surrounding the games, the actual time in the arena seems almost anticlimactic. Even though there is drama, and in a couple of incredibly wrenching sequences involving other competitors, pathos, the reader, like Katniss, gets caught up in the game, and loses sight of everything else. Both Katniss and Peeta prove to be remarkably resourceful, which allows both of them to maneuver their way through most of the event, but this requires that they set aside almost all concerns other than survival. And although Katniss takes action throughout her experience, most of her actions are not really decisions, because they are driven by the necessities of survival. For much of the book Katniss has no real alternative to the course of action she takes, but in the end, Katniss realizes the lesson that Haymitch provides, and makes the second of her two real decisions: the only way to deal with the game is to refuse to play by the rules.

It is only after the games are over that one realizes who Katniss' true enemies are. Her enemy is not Cato, or Foxface, or any of the other participants in the games: in the end it is clear that even the brutal and violent Cato is as much a victim of the games as the charming and waif-like Rue. The enemy isn't Effie Tinker, or the Gamesmakers, or even President Snow, even though they orchestrate the system that divides the Districts from one another and forces their children to kill one another with swords, spears, knives and arrows. The real enemies are people like Katniss' stylists Venia, Flavius, and Octavia. Despite working directly with her, they still see the Games as nothing more than thrilling entertainment that provides the topic of conversation at parties and fodder for betting games. Their indifference to the pain, the suffering, and the lives of the children that provide them with this spectacle is the true evil in the book - and the true evil of the system that President Snow enforces. In some ways, although cruel and devious, Snow is not quite as vile as the three stylists, because he knows he is killing not just dehumanized tributes through the Games, but people's daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers. His goals are only accomplished is the tributes are seen as real people by their Districts, because then the systemic crushing of their humanity and their ultimate destruction illustrates to those living in the Districts the price they must pay for their ancestor's defiance. But in the case of Venia, Flavius, and Octavia, the idea that children would kill one another for entertainment is so commonplace as to be unremarkable, which makes their evil banal in nature. The Games exist because ordinary citizens in the Capitol see nothing wrong with them, and that is the true face of the enemy for people like Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch.

The book ends, as one might expect, after the titular Games have concluded, with a victor crowned and set to return to their home. But the story makes clear that victory is not without cost, and returning home is not likely to be as sweet as one might have thought. And that even a small spark of defiance can be dangerous, both to the defiant and to the defied. The Hunger Games is a brutal book that doesn't shy away from showing the horror of a vicious totalitarian government even though it is aimed at younger readers. Not only that, the book accomplishes the task of giving the reader a female hero who is interesting and compelling without defining her by the boyfriend she chooses. By telling the story of a dystopian nightmare through the lens of a handful of people caught up in it, The Hunger Games gives the reader a front row seat to view how cruel and evil people can be to one another in the name of control, and more horrifically in the name of entertainment, and is definitely a must read for any young science fiction fan.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Mar 31, 2012, 11:31am Top

Book Thirty-Two: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins.

Short review: After Katniss' act of rebellion in The Hunger Games, the Districts are rising up, so it is back to the arena for her, Peeta, and twenty-two other former winners of the games.

Long review: Catching Fire is the sequel to The Hunger Games, coming between the first book and Mockingjay, making it the middle book in the trilogy. Normally, the middle book in a three book series is the weakest because it is difficult to craft a satisfying story that doesn't really have a beginning or an ending, allowing for it to be connected to the series at the front and back ends. Catching Fire, however, is the best book in the series, expanding away from the close focus on Katniss to show the reader more of the world of Panem and at the same time pulling in close to show what the world is like from the perspective of a Hunger Games victor. And the story also shows in quite brutal and stark terms how the regime of President Snow reacts to even the smallest hint of defiance.

The viewpoint character of the book is once again Katniss, and as the story begins, she and Peeta are preparing to go on their victory tour. This tour, which all victors make, will take them through all of the Districts, ending with their own, ostensibly to allow each District to see the heroic winners of the Games. The reality, however, is that this is yet another method by which the Capitol maintains control. If all the Capitol wanted to do was to punish the Districts for their long ago rebellion, then it could demand tributes and then simply execute them. But that would not accomplish the Capitol's full purpose: by having the tributes kill each other, they create animosity between the Districts. By parading the victor through the Districts of the losing competitors, the Capitol intensifies this division, forcing each district to make obeisances to the child who killed their children. Not only does the Capitol exact a terrible toll from the Districts, it uses the bodies of the teenagers it demands to maintain its own power by keeping the Districts divided against one another.

This explains why, when Katniss is about to leave for her tour after she had figuratively faced down the Gamesmakers and forced them to allow her and Peeta to live even though the rules required otherwise, President Snow considers her important enough to warrant a personal visit and a threat against her life and the lives of those she loves. It turns out that Katniss' act of personal rebellion is seen by the entrenched powers as having the potential to unite the Districts against the Capitol by giving them a focal point to rally around. And the solution, as outlined by President Snow, is for Katniss to convince everyone that her actions were driven by a love for Peeta, and not by an animosity towards the Capitol. But almost from the start Katniss' efforts go awry, because she has discovered what many of the other victors have discovered: although winning is supposed to be a blessing to the victor, it isn't.

So when Katniss and Peeta go to District Eleven - the home District of Rue and Thresh - everything begins to fall apart. Not because the people of the District harbor a grudge, but because Katniss and Peeta treat them and their fallen children as human. It becomes clear that Katniss' sin was not merely her attempted double-suicide with Peeta, but also in treating Rue like she was more than merely a tool to try to survive the Games. By burying Rue in flowers and singing for her after she had died, and was thus useless as an ally, Katniss honored Rue's basic humanity. And when Thresh let Katniss go rather than killing her, merely to thank her for her treatment of his District-mate, it was a decision not based on seeking an opportunistic advantage, but based upon respect. So when they arrive on their tour, and Katniss and Peeta try to give back to the families of these fallen children, they are doing something that is as dangerous in the Capitol's eyes as defying the Capitol's authority. And when the people of District Eleven seek to show solidarity with the two victors, the Capitol responds with a violent crackdown because not only must they stifle any form of dissent, but they must keep the Districts divided and at each other's throats. Put bluntly: kindness is an anathema to the Capitol.

After the tour, Katniss learns that even announcing her and Peeta's impending nuptials has not been enough to mollify President Snow, and there is nothing to do but wait for the other shoe to drop. And things begin to change for the worse in District Twelve, culminating in a change in the command of the "Peacekeepers" that results in Gale being flogged until he is almost dead. But it isn't until the next Hunger Games are announces that Katniss realizes just how far Snow will go to make an example of her. Because it is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Games, it is the third "Quarter Quell", and to commemorate each Quell the normal rules are changed. In one of the previous Quells (coincidentally the Games that Haymitch participated in), the number of tributes was doubled. In the other, the participants were selected by vote and not by a lottery. But in this Quell, the participants will be selected from previous victors in the Games. And this is an arrow pointed directly at Katniss, as she is the only female victor from her District, and thus will certainly be chosen to go back into the arena. And this also virtually guarantees Peeta's return to the fight, because the only other alternative would be for Haymitch to be chosen, and it is doubtful that if Haymitch was chosen and Peeta didn't choose to volunteer to replace him that Peeta would ever be able to face anyone in District Twelve ever again.

And this is the only way for Snow to penalize Katniss and not have it make things worse for him. If he were to simply have her killed, or have Peeta killed, it would make them martyrs. Because they had already made Katniss' relationship with her mother and sister something of a human interest story. it would be politically unwise to kill them too. But by throwing Katniss back into the arena with the victors of other games, they will be pitting her against the heroes of the other Districts, and she'll either have to kill them to survive, and thus presumably incur the ire of their adoring fans, or she'll be killed by them and become just another casualty of the games. More chillingly, only Katniss or Peeta can survive the Games, because one can be certain by this point in the book that the loophole that was opened in the last Games that allowed them both to live had been firmly closed. But this strategy is not without risk for the Capitol. Part of the implied contract surrounding the Hunger Games is that the victors are thereafter safe, and by breaking this deal, Snow is taking a huge gamble.

And almost immediately, the gamble seems to have mixed results as the selections are made across Panem yielding a grab bag of competitors, some seeming strong and healthy, some emotionally wrecked by their experience, an older wisp of a woman, a man with one hand, and most wrenchingly, a mother who is chosen and then embraces her children before making her way to the stage. But the poignancy of this scene is tempered by the realization that in a typical Hunger Games, the mother would be embracing her child as her offspring set off to fight and die in the arena. The danger for the Capitol in forcing the victors back into the arena is twofold. First, it breaks the implicit promise made to the participants that if they won the Games, they were thereafter safe. By putting them back into the arena, the message sent to all the Districts is that no one is safe. But if no one is safe, then there is little point in continuing to obey the authority of the Capitol. Second, by selecting from the ranks of the victors, Snow is sending people into the arena who know one another already. In previous Hunger Games, the participants would enter the arena entirely on their own, in some cases barely even knowing the tribute from their own District. But for all of those years the previous victors would be brought back to the Capitol as part of the circus that surrounded every Hunger Games and put on display, but this meant that they all got to know one another and form friendships based on their common experience. This changes the formula, because people who know each other will have a harder time dehumanizing each other to the point they can kill without hesitation, and an easier time working together.

So when all of the competitors are brought together for the usual pre-Games circus, it doesn't surprise the reader that they begin to show signs of solidarity. And given her track record, it also isn't surprising that Katniss gravitates towards the broken, the disadvantaged, and the apparently helpless, much to Haymitch's dismay. But of course, everyone assumes that this solidarity will break down once they enter the arena, and it does as the participants who held hands and stood as one the day before set to killing one another with gusto. But the atmosphere in the arena is different this time, with Haymitch having arranged alliances behind Katniss' back and competitors acting strangely. Not only that, Katniss enters the Games with the Capitol's eye fixed firmly upon her, and the gamesmakers, presumably at the behest of President Snow, have arranged several events that seem directed at unnerving her and penalizing those who she has interacted with directly, even in the most cursory manner. Katniss' strategy is different this time, and that is reflected in her choices, and there are plenty of wrenching scenes of sacrifice and death as the participants have to decide what is truly important to them. In the end, Katniss is faced with yet another choice as she has to decide who her enemies are and who her allies are.

Filling out the world in which Katniss lives, Collins deepens and expands the story. At the same time, she manages to keep the focus intensely personal by continuing to tell the story from a first person perspective. Combining this sharp personal focus with a wider perspective that fills in the bigger picture for the reader, Catching Fire builds on The Hunger Games, giving one a fuller understanding of what makes Panem the terrifying place that it is, while at the same time giving the reader the ability to experience the terror it engenders first hand via Katniss' eyes. Catching Fire is able to retain all of the elements that made The Hunger Games such an interesting and gripping book while making the world seem larger and more complete at the same time and as a result is a more than worthy successor to the first volume.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Apr 1, 2012, 10:41am Top

Book Thirty-Three: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.

Short review: Katniss' time in the Hunger Games is over, but now she must take her place in a brutal war where it is almost impossible to tell friend from foe.

Long review: Mockingjay is the third and last book in the Hunger Games series. As the closer to the series, it is adequate, but it simply isn't as good as the previous two books. Having established Katniss as an girl of action in the first two installments, she is sidelined with almost nothing to do for much of this one. Instead of a dynamic figure central to the drama surrounding the Hunger Games, Katniss is now a publicity stunt stuck on the fringes of a wider war. In part because the story has expanded to encompass what has developed into a full-scale revolt against the Capitol, the first person perspective that gave the tight focus on Katniss and made both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire such compelling story telling now works against the story.

The story opens shortly after Katniss had broken the arena in Catching Fire and the conspiracy of all the competitors headed by Haymitch and Plutarch had been revealed. Along with the rest of what is left of District twelve, Katniss and her family take refuge in the previously thought to be destroyed District Thirteen. Under President Coin, the leader of District Thirteen, the other Districts have begun to rise in revolt against the Capitol. Having set the stage and provided the spark that ignited the rebellion, Katniss is now asked to be the public face of the rebel movement, a position that she is hesitant to take, especially given that when she was extracted from the arena in Catching Fire, the rescue forces were unable to also bring Peeta to safety, and he is being held by President Snow.

Katniss' ambivalence at her projected role as the symbolic figurehead of the rebellion means that she is sidelined out of the action for much of the book. While Gale, Haymitch, Plutarch, Beetee, and even her sister Prim are busy actively contributing to the war effort, Katniss is both too important to risk as a soldier and too inexperienced to be entrusted with command. Consequently she spends a fair amount of the book doing nothing but moping around the vast underground complex that makes up District Thirteen. And while this makes the story somewhat slow-moving and less action packed than its predecessor, it gives Collins the ability to demonstrate that even though the regime imposed by the Capitol is a dystopian nightmare, just because District Thirteen offers an alternative doesn't mean that alternative is not potentially also a dystopian nightmare. While the Capitol kept everyone impoverished and brutalized, in District Thirteen, every waking moment of a resident's day is regulated. Every citizen is handed a schedule each morning, and is expected to follow it. How much every person eats is strictly controlled, even to the extent that when Katniss finds her former prep team being held by the District, they are locked to a wall and apparently tortured, with the justification for the treatment being that they had stolen extra bread to eat - evoking shades of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Although Katniss, as a result of her somewhat special status, is not necessarily constrained by the full array of rules that more ordinary citizens must adhere to, this special treatment only further serves to illustrate that District Thirteen is not as fair a place as one might hope.

And so, lurking in the background of rallying the Districts against the Capitol is the question: are the citizens of Panem fighting to simply replace one form of tyranny for another? While the reader joins the characters in getting caught up in the justified hatred for the Capitol, Collins introduces the subtle counterpoint that maybe by being so focused on the obvious enemy, a more sinister enemy might be insinuating itself into power. But everyone in the story is so busy trying to persuade the Districts to the rebel cause and root the hated government troops out of their fortresses that lost in all the hatred is the question of what will replace rule by President Snow. Not only that, although Finnick exposes a host of Snow's evils, in doing so he reveals why Snow always smells of blood, and the revelation diminishes rather than enhances Snow's stature as an agent of terror. By making him more human, Finnick reduces Snow from an ominous figure to a somewhat desperate one - crafty and cunning, but still desperate. In a way, much of this book is a caution against the kind of blind hatred that Gale has expressed throughout the series. Gale's fury, and the fury of many who side with the rebellion, results in a monomaniacal focus on Snow and the Capitol that hides the dangers that lurk within their own ranks, and the dangers of transforming anger into an unreasoning animus.

The story also contains tragic counterpoints to the larger one that unfolds of the continent-wide war. To gain revenge against Katniss as well as discredit her as the symbolic Mockingjay of the rebellion, Snow has Peeta tortured and uses him in counter-propaganda. And even when they rescue Peeta, Snow's hand reaches out to touch Katniss through the terrible mind-altering agonies Peeta had been to at the President's command. Eventually, the story builds to a journey through a pseudo-arena at which point Katniss comes back to life after sleepwalking through much of the book. Back in her element with several of the other surviving participants of the games, Katniss struggles to her goal of revenge. But at the last minute, the ruthless attitude towards war evidenced earlier in the book by her friend Gale and put into action to crack a powerful Capitol stronghold comes back to savage Katniss in the most devastating way. Katniss learns, on a personal level, that once you commit to total war as the means of achiveing your objectives, then no one is safe.

After the war the book both becomes more interesting and loses focus at the same time. By trying to cram too many elements into the final chapters of the book, Collins skims over much of the denouement, and as a result, the ending feels rushed and forced. When Coin approaches all of the surviving Hunger Game victors with a plan to slake the Districts' thirst for revenge, the discussion over the implications of what they are voting upon is almost perfunctory. The most important confrontation between Katniss and her nemesis is hurried through. In the end, Katniss is faced with yet another critical decision to make, and although she makes what seems to be the best choice she could, it is also hurried through and seems almost like a decision borne out of a childish impulse. In the end, everything is wrapped up in a big bow and Collins hands the reader something of a happy ending, although once again the description of the ending feels like it is given a cursory and rushed treatment.

Following up on The Hunger Games and Catching Fire was always going to be difficult given how strong both of those books are. Following up on them was made even more difficult by the changed nature of the story - by moving Katniss from the confined nature of the arena and the political machinations surrounding it, Collins had to move her to the wider world and a tight first-person story about a continent spanning war is hard to keep interesting when the viewpoint character is a bit player kept in the dark for most of the plot. Even though Katniss was clearly the most compelling and interesting character with the most salient story to tell in the previous books, in this book one starts to wonder if it would be more interesting to follow along with Gale or Prim or Beetee or Haymitch or Plutarch. And when the reader is thinking about the other stories the author could have told rather than the one the author is telling, then that's a sign that a book has lost its center. Eventually Katniss comes back into her own late in the book - especially when she finally explains to her fellow citizens what the reader probably figured out two books earlier that as long as the Districts fight one another for the Capitol's table scraps the only one that wins is the Capitol - but this portion of the book is far too brief and she is sidelined again fairly quickly.

Although Collins does bring the story of Panem to a more or less satisfying conclusion and ties up all the loose ends, Mockingjay seems stalled in neutral for much of its length. When it does get going, it shifts into a too-rushed overdrive and glosses over several plot elements and critical pieces of story resolution in a casually perfunctory manner. Readers who enjoyed the previous two installments of the Hunger Games series will want to read Mockingjay for closure, but the book simply isn't up to the standards of the previous books, and although it is still quite good, it is something of a disappointment as a result.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Apr 3, 2012, 4:43pm Top

Book Thirty-Four: The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein by Robert A. Heinlein.

Stories included:
Magic, Inc.
'-And He Built a Crooked House-'
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag
Our Fair City
The Man Who Traveled in Elephants
'-All You Zombies-'

Long review: Heinlein didn't write many fantasies, tending to stay closer to the hard end of science fiction, or at least the polemically political end. As a result, when collecting Heinlein's fantasies, it is actually possible to assemble pretty much every story published under his name that could credibly called "fantasy" into a single volume. Although the title of the book is The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein, anyone looking for swords, sandals, and mysterious wizards handing out quests is likely to be disappointed. Quite simply, Heinlein didn't tell those kinds of stories. Instead, when he did dabble in magical realities, he dealt in a kind of fantasy that was both closer to our own and stranger than most "standard" fantasy fiction at the same time. Containing three novellas and a number of shorter stories, this book is a fun collection of some of Heinlein's most fantastical and in some ways weirdest works arranged in order of original publication.

The first story in the book, and the first of the three long stories contained in the collection, is Magic, Inc., and unfortunately it is one of the weakest stories in the volume. Set in a world very much like our own with the addition of magic as part of the everyday reality of life. The protagonist, a construction supplier and contractor who hires magical help to make sure his products are up to high quality standards, finds himself confronted by a protection racket that is attempting to direct all of the magical business to their preferred suppliers. Eventually, the would-be monopolists shift tactics and try legal avenues to secure their cartel by creating a government sanctioned professional organization to restrict entry into the market and control those who do. Effectively, the "fantasy" element of the story is little more than a vehicle to tell a fairly standard Heinlein tale of free market ideology. In a world in which regulation of entry requirements has come to encompass professions as innocuous as interior decorators and hairdressers, the story seems as relevant now as it was when it was written in 1940. However, the story repeatedly beats the reader over the head with its point, and as a result, it gets somewhat tiresome and loses effectiveness that a slightly more subtle argument would have had.

Another of the three longer stories in the book, Waldo is an strangely schizophrenic tale about an eccentric engineering genius, a thorny technological problem, and the magical solution that comes out of nowhere. In a future in which the power for almost everything is collected as "radiant energy" by deKalb generators, it is potentially disastrous when some of the generators simply cease working for unknown reasons. Desperate, the power company hires the notoriously cranky and reclusive Waldo, a genius who lives entirely in orbit as a result of the extraordinary weakness of his own body. Waldo uses a variety of remote apparatus to conduct business on Earth, and has become fabulously wealthy, allowing him to maintain a fairly lavish lifestyle even though everything has to be shipped to him from the surface of the planet. Confronted with the problem of the deKalb generators and a related problem related to his own health, Waldo is intrigued but frustrated as no engineering solution seems to offer any hope of finding the cure for the mysteriously malfunctioning power receptors. To a certain extent it feels like Heinlein got bored while writing the story, because the answer appears magically out of thin air and essentially moots everything that came before in the story. At the end, things take a massive left turn into an anticlimactic oddity - albeit an oddity that was sort of presaged in the very opening of the story. The trouble with Waldo is that after the first three-quarters of it sets up an interesting set of mysteries, the remaining quarter hand waves its way to the resolution, giving the whole an entirely unsatisfactory feel.

The final long story in the book is The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, a very strange and creepy tale about a man who doesn't know what he does for a living. Told from the perspective of a private investigator Hoag hires to find out what his job is, the story wanders through some bizarre territory as the protagonist tangles with a shadowy conspiracy before finding out what Hoag's very unlikely profession actually is. This is probably the strangest story in the book, and even though the "good guys" ostensibly come through on top, the journey to the resolution calls into question the basic nature of reality in such a way that makes the resolution deeply unsettling. One interesting side note about this story is that even though Heinlein posits a constructed world with a designer behind it, the lives of the characters are given no purpose or meaning as a result of this. Heinlein seems to have not been a particularly big fan of most religious organizations, and this, and a few other elements of the story, seems to be an almost deliberate attempt to stick his thumb in the eye of theologians.

Two of the stories '-And He Built a Crooked House-' and Our Fair City provide mostly comic relief in the collection, although in a manner that is distinctly Heinlein. In '-And He Built a Crooked House-' an architect gets the idea of building a four-dimensional house in the shape of a tesseract. Because it is impossible to build a four dimensional object in our three dimensional world, he settles for building a version of his hypercube house in an "unfolded" state. However, it turns out that tampering with four-dimensional objects is not as simple as one might think, with somewhat confusing and humorous results. Our Fair City is a silly little story about a sentient whirlwind and the man who befriends it. The story is a parody of local politics and government corruption with a dash of goofiness thrown in.

Another story with a touch of humor, but which is mostly bittersweet is The Man Who Traveled in Elephants, featuring John Watts, an elderly everyman and widower who had worked his entire life as a traveling salesman. When he retired, rather than asking him to settle down, his wife suggested that they continue to wander the country as door-to-door elephant salesmen with the "purpose" of canvassing the market for potential buyers. After a lifetime spent enjoying the simple pleasures of county fairs and roadside diners, Watts finds himself on a special bus on his way to the state fair. His journey is interrupted by a minor traffic accident that turns out to be more significant than he thought at first. The story wends its way into a very homespun kind of Midwestern heaven. Though the story is somewhat predictable, and Watts seems a bit slow on the uptake, it is touching without being overly cloying or maudlin.

The best two stories in the volume are among the shortest, and both deal with the question of solipsism from different angles. 'They-' is a study in paranoia in which the central character is convinced that he is the target of a massive conspiracy designed to make him think that the reality around him is real, and not the false facade that he believes it to be. Approaching the question of solipsism from a different angle, the protagonist of '-All You Zombies-' turns out to be much more that one thinks at the outset, and their disbelief in the reality of any other person seems almost justified. It is one of the strangest and best time travel tales and if your head doesn't hurt from trying to map out the interlocking pieces of the looping puzzle at the core of the story, then you probably missed something.

Because they are Heinlein stories, the sum total is pretty good, although most of them are fairly different than what one normally thinks of when one says "fantasy" tending more towards science fiction with an overlay of fantasy. With three outstanding stories, one pretty good story, two funny stories, and two average stories, the contents of this collection span nearly twenty years and encompass Heinlein's most prolific period of writing short stories. For anyone who likes their fantasy with a little bit of a science edge or who just wants to read some good Heinlein stories, The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein is an excellent compilation of unusual fantasies from the mind of a Grand Master of science fiction.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Apr 17, 2012, 11:16am Top

Book Thirty-Five: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis.

Short review: A character named Ransom travels to Mars where he discovers that humans are awful, aliens are filled with the light of goodness, and sex is something you should only have once in a lifetime.

Long review: C.S. Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931, under the influence of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien (and if Tolkien's biographer Humphrey Carter to to be believed, Lewis was converted by just about the most facile argument possible). Lewis then set about trying to advocate for his new-found faith by writing a pile of apologetics dressed up as novels. Among his earliest attempts at this were his "Space Trilogy", starting with Out of the Silent Planet, which was supposedly written to counteract the 'dehumanizing" trend in the science fiction of the day. Given that the science fiction of the day consisted primarily of books about action hero characters like John Carter, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon and some self-conscious attempts to promote a love of science among younger readers, without reading the "Space Trilogy" it is hard to figure out exactly what bothered Lewis (and Tolkien) about the science fiction of his day.

But when one starts reading Out of the Silent Planet one begins to realize that what apparently bothered Lewis was that science fiction had too much science in it, and not enough theology. The story, such as it is, centers around Dr. Elwin Ransom, a philologist and thinly disguised version of Tolkien, who begins the story on a walking tour of Britain. Lest one think that Ransom is as interesting as Tolkien, other than his love of walking and his profession as a philologist, Ransom has almost no other personality traits in the book, serving essentially as a stand in for the reader so that the other characters can make long philosophical speeches. His ramblings are interrupted when he is shanghaied by an old school acquaintance named Devine and a supposedly noteworthy scientist named Weston and bundled off on a voyage to Mars. Ransom makes his voyage with his two abductors in a ship that seems to essentially work by magic, and it is on this trip that the first indications that mysticism is the path that Lewis thinks humankind should follow. On the journey, Ransom goes from seeing the space between worlds as, well, space, and begins to think of it as glorious heaven, whereas the planets are transformed in his mind to mere motes of insignificant corruption in the living heavens. And with that, Ransom abandons reality for the fantasy world that Lewis has imagined for our solar system.

Eventually the travelers reach Mars, or as its inhabitants call it Malacandra. Along the way, proving that they are some of the dumber villains in written fiction, Devine and Weston let Ransom know that they abducted him in order to turn him over to the natives as a sacrifice to what they presume to be their primitive deity. Upon landing, this coupled with the inhumanly talsl and slender appearance of the Martians, Ransom flees, managing to evade capture and wind up lost and alone on the surface of an alien planet. After wandering about a bit, discovering that the water is somehow warm (which seems odd for something on the surface of Mars), Ransom comes across a native alien hross - a race of seven foot long otter-like creatures. Ransom has a fit of human hubris and at first assumes that the hross is an animal, but is quickly convinced of their rationality. He is taken in by Hyoi, as the friendly hross is called, and puts his philology skills to good use unraveling their language. From Ransom's perspective, it seems that all that has really happened is that his walking tour has moved from England to the surface of Malacandra.

It is the interaction between Ransom and the hross, and later the sorns (a third race, pfifltirggi, also lives on Malacandra but Ransom barely interacts with them) that is where the meat of the book lies. The hrossa live an apparently primitive lifestyle of fishing and farming valuing poetry and song above all things. Ransom learns that the three races of Malacandra live in a sort of symbiotic socialist society overseen by the heavenly eldil who oversee everything. The hrossa are tasked with producing all the food on Malacandra and hand it out to all who need it. It is at this point that Lewis begins to establish what he seems to have considered to be the ideal society, and which he also reveals his somewhat less than comfortable relationship with women and sex. In interacting with the hrossa Ransom learns that they live in a kind of idyllic symbiosis with the other races on Malacandra, serving to provide food to the others on an as needed basis in exchange for the products of their labor, also on an as needed basis. Everyone only takes as much as they need, and contributes as much as they can - a very Marxist sounding system, with the only wrinkle being that it is a divinely guided one. Given the love many conservative Christians display for Lewis, one wonders if they realize that endorsing the Randian style free-for-all that so many of that mindset seem to favor, Lewis seemed to think that the only reason socialism doesn't work on Earth is that it simply doesn't have enough divine influence in it.

But when Ransom attempts to figure out what would happen if one group or another wanted more than was available, the conversation founders somewhat. Greed and lust and other similar sins don't seem to exist on Malacandra, and to even discuss these issues requires that Ransom explain evil, a concept that the Malacandran language is ill-equipped to address, resulting in the use of the word "bent" to describe someone who is violating the divine order. Given the later revelation that the language spoken on Malacandra is the universal language of the heavens, this inability to address sin seems strange, especially when one notes that the disobedience of the eldil's of Earth is a commonly known story among the inhabitants of Mars. But this exchange reveals that Lewis apparently had a rather less than comfortable relationship with women and sex. (And it seems somewhat revealing that there are no female characters in Out of the Silent Planet, because apparently females, human or otherwise, are simply not relevant). When Ransom asks Hyoi what would happen if the sorns or the pfifltirggi had so many children that they overwhelmed the ability of the hross to produce food and they had to fight over resources. After overcoming the difficulties of communicating the concept of war to Hyoi, Ransom learns that overpopulation is entirely absent from Malacandra, because no couple ever has more than enough children to replace them, and they accomplish this by the simple expedient of only having sex a handful of times in their lifetime. According to Hyoi, one should be satisfied with the memory of having had sex with a loved mate, and that should be sufficient for anyone.

Although not Catholic, Lewis seems to be toeing the Catholic line and advocating not merely abstinence for unmarried couples, but abstinence for life for all purposes other than procreation, but with the added wrinkle that couples should not "be fruitful and multiply", but should rather limit their sexual activity to the two or three times necessary to have a pair of children to carry on after their own passing. While many religious organizations today, including the Catholic church, loudly deny that overpopulation could ever be a problem for humanity, Lewis appears to have been painfully cognizant of it in the 1930s. Unfortunately, his putative solution for this problem is almost ridiculously comical, and after this apparent moment of clarity in Out of the Silent Planet, he appears to have abandoned this view by the time he got around to writing That Hideous Strength, and has gone back to telling women that their purpose in life is to have babies. But in Out of the Silent Planet he was concerned about overpopulation, and his chosen solution reflects the thinking of a man who seems to have been distinctly uncomfortable with women, and even more uncomfortable with the messiness of sex.

Eventually, Ransom's idylls among the hrossa comes to an end during a hunt for a large fish called a hnakra in which he accomplishes the apparently praiseworthy act of killing the fish when Devine and Weston kill Hyoi with a rifle shot. After having been stalled to provide theological musings the story lurches out of the mire that it had gotten stuck in and ambles forward as Ransom resumes his walking tour of Mars, heading off to meet the sorns and the chief eldil, or Oyarsa, of Malacandra. On his way, Ransom passes into the Martian highlands and is nearly asphyxiated by the thin air before being rescued by a sorn named Augray. Ransom has a brief sojourn with Augray during which the reader is subjected to more theology in which Ransom is ashamed of humans for behaving like humans and not like the idealized creatures Lewis created to inhabit Mars. But in the fictional reality that Lewis has created, humanity is "bent" because our Oyarsa rebelled against the divine order and cast our planet into silence in the celestial symphony (leading to the appellation "Thulacandra", the "silent planet" being applied to Earth). The virtuousness of the Martian inhabitants seems to be directly tied to the benevolent shepherding influence of their Oyarsa, a form of influence denied to the inhabitants of Earth. Not only that, according to the story the Oyarsa of Earth actively worked to subvert the minds and lives of Earth's inhabitants. Ransom is ashamed, it seems, because humanity didn't live up to the example set by aliens that had supernatural assistance denied to us and actively undermined. Lewis' it seems, wants to berate humanity for being flawed, but also wants to include the Miltonian myth of the fall of Lucifer in his story, which requires there to be a supernatural source for humanity's flaws. Throughout the Space Trilogy this contradiction is never resolved, and it makes Lewis' attempts to make theological arguments as part of his story almost incoherent as he asserts that the problems of human civilization are the result of human venality, but cannot seem to decide if human venality is the result of our unworthiness, or if human venality is the result of supernatural forces.

Eventually Ransom finally meets up with the Oyarsa of Malcandra, who it turns out is who Weston and Devine had unwittingly brought him to Mars to meet. Shortly thereafter, Weston and Devine also arrive, having been brought by an irate band of Malcandrans after they had killed a number of natives. After an extended exchange with the Oyarsa it turns out that Weston and Devine had come to Mars in search of gold (or as the natives call it "sun's blood"), and the Oyarsa had wanted to meet these interlopers into his domain and summoned them to its presence. Because Devine and Weston are "bent" they misinterpreted the request that had been passed through the sorns as being a demand for a human sacrifice, leading them to abduct Ransom for that purpose. After Ransom endures the obligatory berating by the Oyarsa for the failings of the human race, Weston and Devine are brought to face the immaterial being and mistakenly assume that it is a trick played by a local witch doctor. The pair are haughty and arrogant, more or less lampooning the attitudes displayed by many European explorers who had forayed out among "primitive" tribes in Africa, South America, and so on, boasting that they are not only interested in looting the planet for gold, but also want to conquer it and repopulate it with humanity. As usual, the fallen nature of humans is contrasted to the gloriously perfect nature of the alien inhabitants of the red planet. In the end, the Oyarsa banishes Devine and Weston and magically bars them (and all other humans) from ever returning to Mars.

At the end of the book, Ransom elects to return to Earth with Weston and Devine, having been guaranteed divine protection for the hazardous journey. Once they arrive back in England, their now magically powered space ship disintegrates into nothingness, leaving no evidence of their travels save for their own memories. Ransom, no longer protected by the eldils of heaven, avoids Weston and Devine and resumes his walking tour of England. Although Out of the Silent Planet is only 160 pages long, it is turgidly slow as events proceed at a glacial pace and nothing much happens for most of the book. In some ways it is not so much a novel as a vehicle for Lewis to expound upon his personal theology - and at this point in his career, his theological thinking was both very basic and internally contradictory. With cardboard characters, a slow and almost pointless story, and limply unconvincing theological polemics, Out of the Silent Planet is mildly interesting as a piece of science fiction history and as an early look at Lewis' apologetics, but isn't much more than that.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Apr 22, 2012, 3:01pm Top

Book Thirty-Six: Perelandra by C.S. Lewis.

Short review: Ransom travels via Angel express to Venus in order to save a new Eden from the poor judgment of a silly woman.

Full review: Although Perelandra is usually classified as science-fiction, it is more or less the exact opposite, extolling the virtues of anti-science and anti-reason, with the only "science fictional" element being that almost all of the action takes place on Venus. The second book in C.S. Lewis' "Space Trilogy", and the weakest of the three books, Perelandra is a slow as molasses story packed with tediously unconvincing theological debates and a healthy dose of patriarchal misogyny. The book is somewhat noteworthy in that it is the first in which Lewis takes the stance that if you cannot overcome your ideological opponents with the superiority of your arguments, then it is okay to resort to violence in the name of your faith.

One of the first things to note about this book is that there is almost no story within it. Dr. Elwin Ransom, having returned from Mars in Out of the Silent Planet is called upon to journey to Venus, also known as "Perelandra" on a mission ordained by the agents of heaven. To get to Venus, Ransom gets into a divinely provided coffin and is flown by eldils to the surface and more or less unceremoniously dropped off in the Venusian ocean. The fact that for Ransom's interplanetary journey Lewis discards with even the pretense of having a spaceship powered by something other than outright magic should tip off an astute reader that he has abandoned the pretense that he's writing science fiction rather than religiously inspired fantasy.

Once on Venus, Ransom finds some floating islands and discovers that everything on the planet is "more", as in the colors are brighter, the water is more refreshing, the food is tastier, and generally everything is simply better than on Earth. Venus, it seems, has only recently been endowed with life and as yet it is still in a condition identical to that attributed to the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Before too long Ransom comes across a green-skinned woman who expresses disappointment in finding him. This is because she is the "Mother" and she is searching for the "King", who she apparently had become separated from some time before. And as soon as the Mother shows up the hubris and misogyny begins to flow thick and fast.

The hubris stems from Lewis' extreme humanocentrism: in answer to the question of why the "Mother" looks just like a human with green skin, we are told that because God had incarnated himself as a human all future intelligent beings will look like humans. I suppose it was just the misfortune of the hrossa, pfifltriggi, and sori to be created before humans and thus before God allegedly incarnated himself as a man that caused them to miss out on being shaped just like us. One might note that in Genesis it is asserted that humans were supposedly made in the image of God to begin with, so apparently when he incarnated himself as a human God was just assuming a physical manifestation of his normal form, which makes one wonder why the inhabitants of Malacandra were unlucky enough to be made using such different body architecture. Despite having made a somewhat exotic landscape in the previous book, and populating it with some moderately exotic denizens, Lewis seems to retreat from the exotic in Perelandra (and even further in That Hideous Strength). Oddly, it seems that Lewis became less certain of himself as an author as the series progressed.

And this brings up a side point about Lewis in general as an author and an apologist: he seems to have had only a very limited ability to come up with original ideas. In Out of the Silent Planet he posited a dying planet populated by three alien races. In Perelandra his vision is reduced to a world ocean populated by green humans. In That Hideous Strength he is reduced to university politics, parliamentary maneuvering, and manipulating newspaper articles topped off by recycling Arthurian, Greek, and Egyptian mythology. Even his celebrated Narnia series is populated by creatures drawn directly from Greek mythology to tell stories that are little more than thinly disguised tales from the Bible. Contrasting Lewis' fantasy with that of his friend Tolkien, who gave us a world populated by elves and dwarves that were markedly different than the elves and dwarves of previous stories, hobbit, orcs, and balrogs, reveals that even if one might not consider Tolkien's fantasy particularly imaginative by today's standards, he was leaps and bounds ahead of Lewis in this department.

But the limited story of Perelandra story is marred by more than humanocentrism and a lack of imagination, it is also chock full of misogynistic themes. The "Mother" that Ransom meets is searching for the "King", who was apparently lost on a different floating island than the one Ransom encounters her on. It soon becomes apparent that the entire story of Perelandra is a new version of the fall of humanity, with the lush and inviting floating islands rolling over the ocean of Venus replacing Eden and the prohibition against sleeping on the "fixed land" replacing the forbidden fruit. Once Weston arrives (or at least the animated body of Weston) to fill in for the deceptive serpent, the stage is set for Lewis to replay the temptation of Eve. Ransom quickly decides that he has been sent to Venus to serve as an intercessor in the tempting so as to foil Weston's efforts to convince the Mother to disobey the divine edict against sleeping on the fixed land. But in this drama one can see Lewis' low opinion of women: Weston immediately sets up the Mother as his target, but there is no suggestion that the King, who is also presumably alone and (without Ransom there) unguided, might choose poorly and decide to disobey the divine mandate. Only the Mother is viewed as a juicy target, and only the Mother is seen as requiring guidance from Ransom to make the correct choice.

At this point the book becomes almost comically tedious as Weston makes some fairly weak arguments in favor of disobedience and Ransom makes some even weaker arguments against it. In the course of the interminable debating it becomes apparent that Weston is not Weston any more, having been possessed by some malevolent spirit at some point prior to his arrival on Venus. And this raises a host of nagging questions about the story. Given the edict against the "bent" eldils of Earth traveling the heavens, how did this particular one manage to bridge the gap between worlds? If the "evil" forces use a spiritual tempter to try to deceive the Mother, why was Ransom sent to be her protector given that he cannot even seem to counter the ridiculously limp arguments that Lewis puts into Weston's mouth? Why is Weston not countered by the Oyarsa of Perelandra, who is supposedly acting as the guardian of life on the planet? If the Mother chooses to disobey, would this corrupt the Oyarsa of Perelandra? As a corollary question, which came first on Earth, the bent nature of the planet's Oyarsa or Eve's fall from grace? Given that Weston is apparently a spirit that has taken up residence in a human body and would thus be aware of the reality of the spiritual realm that Lewis assumes is real, why does Weston continue to converse as if the spiritual realm were not real, even when talking only to Ransom? And so on and so forth. Lewis simply didn't bother to think his fictional reality through, probably because he wasn't interested in writing a story but rather interested in getting to the polemics. But the very nature of the unanswered questions that stick out of the story would have undermined Lewis' polemics even if they were well-written, and as Lewis is unable to make a convincing case for either side in his fictional theological debate, the unanswered questions overwhelm them.

Having set Ransom up to be outmatched in debating skill by having him opposed by a tireless denizen of the nether realm, Lewis ends up endorsing violent murder as a means of winning an argument. Once he realizes that he cannot win a debate against demon-Weston, Ransom decides that the only way to save the Mother from making the wrong choice and turning to disobedience is to kill his adversary. But this just raises the question of what the purpose of the whole charade was. If an acceptable resolution to the temptation of the Mother is to take the decision out of her hands and kill off the tempter, why did the divine forces have Ransom involved at all? Why did they let demon-Weston get to Perelandra in the first place? One could have made an argument that the divine wants to allow for free will, which means allowing for the ability of the residents of Perelandra to choose incorrectly, but when Ransom takes it upon himself to kill demon-Weston doesn't that deny the Mother the ability to make a choice on her own? Not only that, the story seems to suggest that should a believer find himself (and in Lewis' mind, one can be certain that it would always be himself) unable to match an ideological opponent with a superior argument, it is perfectly acceptable to resort to violent means to shut them up. Burning heretics and apostates at the stake was always Christianity's best maneuver for silencing the opposition, and Lewis seems to tacitly endorse such actions in this story.

So, having endorsed the idea that women just aren't competent to make choices for themselves and it is okay to beat your enemies to death, Lewis has Ransom aimlessly wander about for a while, along the way seemingly endorsing the position that paying homage to alternate deities could be acceptable. This seems an odd position for someone making Christian apologia to make, but it seems that in Lewis' theology that subordinate divine entities are acceptable and may even be worshiped. Eventually Ransom's meanderings bring him back to where the Mother is, and now that Weston is dead, she has found the King. They are also attended by the Oyarsa of Perelandra who helpfully decides to show up after the crisis has passed. The Oyarsa also turns over dominion of the planet to the King. Having sat around doing not much of anything offstage for the whole book, the King is given rule over everything, including the Mother. And of course, having theoretically done the heavy lifting of making a "choice" to obey or disobey the divinely ordained rules, the Mother is perfectly content to turn over dominion over her future to the King. Because, as should be apparent from the story in Perelandra, women can't be trusted with the weighty responsibility of making decisions for themselves.

As with Out of the Silent Planet, there is not much story in Perelandra. In fact, there is considerably less story and a lot more badly reasoned polemics. The most damning element is not that the polemics are phrased in a way that belittles women, although they are, the most damning element is that Lewis seems to think that reason and argument is simply insufficient to make an effective case for his espoused beliefs. Perelandra is, quite simply, a treatise built upon eschewing reason in favor of brute force. The book could even be fairly construed as advocating anti-reason and continuing Lewis' campaign against all human learning and thought of more recent vintage than the 13th century. With next to no story, and anti-woman message, and a pile of theological debates that amount to nothing more than nonsense, Perelandra is a book that should definitely be avoided.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: May 2, 2012, 9:41am Top

Book Thirty-Seven: That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis.

Short review: All learning since the middle-ages is evil and the scientists are trying to destroy humanity. The good guys sit around and wait for magic to save them. Surprisingly, this works.

Full review: That Hideous Strength is the third and final book in C.S. Lewis’ “Space Trilogy” and is also the best book in the series. This assessment is, however, damning with faint praise. As with the rest of the series, the book is mostly weak religious polemics coupled with a generous amount of misogyny. What places this book above the previous two installments in the series is that there is actually something of a story contained in its pages, and although the story is somewhat weak, it is still better than either the rambling travelogue of Out of the Silent Planet or the unadulterated tedium of Perelandra. As has become the pattern for Lewis thus far, his apologia in favor of his Christian faith are weakened by his apparent lack of understanding of the arguments of his ideological adversaries and his own inability to formulate a coherent reasoned argument on behalf of his chosen creed.

The central characters of the book are Mark and Jane Studdock, a young married couple living in the fictitious university town of Edgestow where Mark is a sociologist and a fellow at the fictitious college of Bracton. One oddity about the book is that despite the fact that Lewis attempts to make the Studdock's marriage a central element of the story, the reader never gets to see the Studdock's interact with one another. They open the book going their separate ways, and soon Mark is whisked away by Lord Feverstone, who happens to also be Devine from Out of the Silent Planet, to the headquarters of the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E., at Belbury which is the villainous organization that the heroes of the book have to save the world from. The N.I.C.E. is a confusing place for Mark, as the deputy director says he is to be hired, but the head of the sociology section has no knowledge of Mark's appointment and has no need for another sociologist. Mark bounces about the confusing place trying to figure out if he has in fact been hired and if so for what position and at what salary but is given a run-around every time he tries to figure out his status, and is eventually sternly warned that he is annoying important people at N.I.C.E. It seems that this sort of confusion about organizational structure is intended as a commentary on the disordered nature of modern thinking, but all it really does is make the N.I.C.E. seem like a fairly ineffectual villain. If the N.I.C.E. is this disorganized one has to wonder how they would be able to execute their purportedly nefarious plans.

Jane, on the other hand, putters around Edgestow for a while before going to St. Anne's and joining up with the somewhat ineffective assembly that the "Director", in the form of a wounded Elwin Ransom, has gathered around himself to oppose this supposedly existential threat to humanity. Much of the machinations of the villains rely upon attempting to manipulate Mark in order to secure Jane's services as a prophetic dreamer, the various bits of advice that Ransom, a confirmed bachelor, gives to Jane on how to repair her marriage, and Mark coming to realize that he really does love his wife, but by giving so very little attention to developing the relationship between the two characters, the reader ends up not caring very much whether they do actually reconcile or not. This problem does not seem to be confined to the Studdock's. Although there are only a handful of married couples in the book, they are either separated throughout the entire story or interact with one another only very briefly.

Although one might be able to make the argument that Lewis keeps Mark and Jane apart through the narrative in order to build up tension that is to be resolved by their dramatic reunion, the fact that none of the married couples seem to have a shared relationship that is presented with any kind of depth in the story makes one think that perhaps Lewis's experiences with women were so lacking that he simply didn't know how to write scenes involving a healthy relationship. Not only that, when the time comes for the emotional payoff at the end, Lewis has it take place entirely off stage, meaning that two people with a poorly developed relationship have a dramatic reunion out of sight, leaving the reader to simply not care about what is clearly, in Lewis' mind, one of the critical developments of his book. As I have noted elsewhere, it seems that the misogynistic sentiments that seem to ripple throughout Lewis' books were driven not by an active dislike for women, but instead by Lewis' limited contact with them, and a resulting lack of familiarity with actual women and lack of understanding of how men and women actually interact. All of the women who appear in the book are portrayed as petulant children, dutiful wives, matronly mothers, or awful harridans. Apparently, there are no other choices for women.

Women, it seems, were strange beasts in Lewis’ mind, and while he might have conceded that they were human, it seems that he was inclined to regard them as never being fully adult. Nowhere is this more apparent in That Hideous Strength than in the character of Jane Studdock, who Lewis treats as some odd combination of a wayward child and a recalcitrant brood mare. When the story opens we are told that Jane is pursuing graduate studies of her own, presumably intent on following her husband into academia. But almost immediately the narrative (and Jane herself) dismisses her aspirations as being both dissatisfying and childish. Jane wanders through the opening chapters more or less bewildered and confused until she encounters Ransom, whereupon she is informed that her mental anguish would be ameliorated if she simply submitted herself to the authority of her husband. In other words, a fully grown woman capable enough to graduate from college and pursue an advanced degree is advised by an unmarried male character in a book written by an unmarried man that her best course of action is to be obedient to her husband. To reinforce this point, when Jane states that she would like to take the Director’s side and join his motley crew at St. Anne’s Ransom instructs her that he is not inclined to accept her unless she first gets permission from her husband even though Mark has already gone to Belbury and more or less joined the enemy. In effect, all of the other characters treat Jane as more or less an extension of Mark – even the forces of evil that represent the modernity that Jane has supposedly been misled by only recruit her husband Mark because they presume that if he is on their side then Jane will surely follow.

And Jane is critically important to both sides of the conflict in the book because she has prophetic dreams, the disturbing nature of which are the source of her disquietude at the start of the book. Apparently it would be a disastrous turn of events for N.I.C.E. to get hold of Jane and use her dream visions to their advantage. Since Jane’s dreams seem mostly to convey information that N.I.C.E. already knows, this seems to be a dubious proposition, but even so, it makes Ransom’s refusal to allow Jane to join with St. Anne’s until after she is captured and tortured by the N.I.C.E. security chief “Fairy” Hardcastle (revealing Hardcastle's sadistic and apparently Sapphic tendencies) seem shortsighted and foolish. Eventually Jane does join with Ransom’s merry little band despite not obtaining Mark’s permission first and proceeds have incredibly cryptic dreams that tell Ransom that the N.I.C.E. is doing exactly what he thought they were doing: buying property from Bracton College so they can dig up an ancient grove of trees and try to locate the buried but not dead body of Merlin.

But this reveals the weakest element of the book, which is the idiotic resolution to the plot. All of the misogynistic and anti-reason messages contained in the story would possibly be excusable if Lewis had provided a moderately interesting story. But the ostensible heroes are more or less superfluous to the plot: Ransom has gathered about him a collection of faithful followers, but they don't actually do anything at all except wait around until Merlin shows up. Ransom does send a cadre of his followers out to try to find Merlin, but they prove to be wholly incapable of completing this task and Merlin arrives on Ransom's doorstep on his own and identifies the philologist as the "Pendragon", heir to the authority of King Arthur and rightful ruler of Logres, which is more or less "magical" Britain. Once Merlin has submitted himself to Ransom's authority, the two of them sit around waiting until the eldils of the heavens arrive to endow Merlin with their powers and send him out to do battle with the supposedly terrible forces of the N.I.C.E. Once Merlin has gone off to fulfill his destiny, the women of Ransom's merry band play dress up (because women always want to play dress up) and then everyone has a nice dinner. In short, despite everyone being told that they have a critical role to play in saving the world, what really happens is that Lewis pulls out a literal deus ex machina ending by having a magic man from the past show up and destroy the evildoers with the powers of angels. In the end, N.I.C.E. isn't defeated by reason, or courage, or any kind of human response, but instead because God decided to arrange things so he could smite them into oblivion. Instead of a call to action or an argument for faith, Lewis basically says that one should sit around doing not much of anything until divine intervention saves the day.

But what makes the story even weaker is that the N.I.C.E. doesn't seem to be all that effective or evil of a villain. Despite repeated admonishments about the horrible nature of the N.I.C.E., the only large scale "evils" that the organization seems to actually do are manipulating the news, buying and then tearing down a copse of trees, and arranging for a riot to break out in Edgestow. On a smaller scale, the N.I.C.E. more nefariously murders a scientist who wants to leave the organization and imprisons Mark. Even though there are clearly nasty acts, they aren't any more villainous than those performed by a run of the mill organized crime gang. As a result, it is difficult to see the N.I.C.E. as some sort of looming threat to humanity itself. There are a myriad of hints and dire warnings that the N.I.C.E. is up to far worse activities, but even the one thing that is supposedly truly evil – reanimating the head of their dead leader Alsacan – seems fairly trivial, especially when it is revealed that Alsacan as not actually been reanimated. This act seems to be little more than misusing a cadaver, and certainly not as horrific as Mark makes it out to be when he is confronted by the sight. Later, Lewis reveals that the real evil in the action results from the fact that the animating force is actually "macrobes" or evil eldil. But this removes the evil from being the work of men to being the result of supernatural influence. Despite Lewis' repeated railings against any field of academic study of more recent vintage than the 13th century, by making all of it the influence of otherworldly macrobes, Lewis effectively removes human agency from the equation. The plot of That Hideous Strength ends up being benign supernatural forces lining up to destroy malicious supernatural forces with the various human characters taking the part of pawns or bystanders. It is clear that Lewis desperately wants to convince the reader that the N.I.C.E. is a looming threat that will transform England into a dystopian nightmare, but the Keystone Kops nature of the organization coupled with the relatively bland nature of the evil deeds attributed to them makes this attempted characterization simply fall flat.

As the book winds its way through its poorly thought out plot to its unsatisfying conclusion, Lewis has to throw in a number of jabs at his ideological opponents and an additional helping of misogyny to go with them. Lewis tries to include criticism of various non-Christian philosophical positions, but ends up revealing that he simply doesn't understand the arguments advanced by their proponents. For example, the character of Frost adheres to the nondualistic view of the mind, an argument that holds that the human mind is entirely a product of the brain. But Lewis mutates this into a denial of the existence of the mind and writes frost as merely wandering about as his body does things. In the book, Frost is well-aware that he has a mind, but he has his mind merely observe as his body "instinctively" wanders about doing things on its own. But this sort of characterization of the philosophical position doesn't even rise to the level of being a straw-man and just makes Lewis look ill-informed and makes his counterarguments look ridiculous. Alongside this sort of ham-fisted attempts to make ideological points, Lewis adds some ham-fisted misogyny, most notably in the form of N.I.C.E. security chief "Fairy" Hardcastle who is portrayed as a heavyset, crude, and overtly sexual (and possibly bisexual) woman, and therefore she is sadistic and evil. The clear message sent by Lewis' characterization of women in the book is that unless a woman fits into the category of subservient baby-maker, she has gone astray and must be herded back into the fold or condemned to damnation.

Even the emotional payoff at the end of the story is poorly executed. When Mark does get free of the clutches of the N.I.C.E. having learned his lesson about foolish ambition and rekindled his love for his spouse, one would expect him to head straight for Jane. Instead he stops off at an inn near Jane and has himself a nice breakfast, spends the day reading the entirety of Curdie, and then tucks in for a nap. For a man who has been separated from his wife for some weeks and who is desperate to reconnect with her, this seems like an odd course of action. At the other end of the equation, Jane is instructed by Ransom to go to her husband and in the future "have babies instead of dreams". The overt message here is for Jane to cease having prophetic dreams, but the underlying message appears to be that Jane should give up her ambitions of academic accomplishment and take up the proper role of a woman as a dutiful wife and brood mare. At the very end, it is Jane who has to do the work and walk into the inn room where her husband has gone to sleep, at which point the book ends just before the emotional scene in which the couple are reunited. And at this point, both this book and the entire Space Trilogy mercifully come to an end. Unless one is interested in a deus ex machina plot laden with terribly weak theological arguments, spiced up with a screed against learning and reason, and topped off with a generous coating of misogyny, then That Hideous Strength is a book to be avoided.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: May 28, 2012, 3:32am Top

Book Thirty-Eight: Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins by Ian Tattersall.

Short review: The hominid family is enormously complicated and difficult to figure out. It is also endlessly fascinating.

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: When I was young, one of the book sets my parents owned was the Nature Library series put out by the publishers of Life magazine. One of my favorite volumes in that series was Early Man, for the time a reasonably accurate presentation of the story of human evolution. That understanding is probably best exemplified by the "march of the hominids" contained on pages 41-54 of Early Man showing a fairly linear progression extending from Pliopithecus through the Australopthicenes through Homo Erectus until it reaches modern Homo Sapiens. Although the depiction shows a couple of side branches, such as Oreopithecus and Panthropus, the overall thrust is of an orderly progression as one hominid evolves, holds sway for a period of time, and is then replaced by a successor species.

But even at that time, the story we had uncovered was not exactly linear, and the plate found on pages 74-75 of Early Man reveals this as a pair of advanced Australopithicines face off against a small band of Panthropus males - an imagined scene in which two hominid species are sharing the Earth and occasionally confronting one another. This image was fascinating to my young mind, and stuck with me ever since I saw it so many years ago. And in Masters of the Planet Ian Tattersall explains that over the last fifty years or so new discoveries have deepened our understanding of human evolution to the point where this scenario seems to have been more common than the present state in which a single hominid species stands alone. Rather than a trunk leading inexorably to us, hominid evolution seems to have been a bush, with many competing branches, in which all the others either died out (or possibly were pruned by our ancestors), leaving Homo Sapiens as the sole survivor.

In Masters of the Planet Tattersall lays out the fossil discoveries that have fueled our current understanding of the history that led to the current dominance of our species, along with the conclusions that have been drawn from those discoveries. The author walks the reader step by step through the history of anthropology, although because the oldest fossils were unearthed most recently, this tour is given in reverse order, with the most recent archaeological finds presented first and working backwards to the discoveries of the first neanderthal fossils in the nineteenth century. Through the journey through the fossil record, Tattersall explains the conclusions scientists have drawn from these artifacts and explores the various speculations engaged in when the available data is inconclusive. Most importantly, Tattersall explains the conclusions that previous evaluations of the data (which, at the time was even more incomplete than the incomplete picture we have now) led to, and how and why the general consensus has changed since that time.

The underlying theme of the book, as one might guess from the subtitle "The Search for Our Human Origins" is to explore exactly what makes us "human", and an attempt to determine at exactly what point in our evolutionary history we stopped being pre-humans or proto-humans, and actually became fully recognizable as human. Building his case on studies of our closest living relatives, the physical structures revealed by the fossils of our ancestors, and some faint traces of evidence about how those ancestors lived, Tattersall sorts through the various signature features that have been advanced in efforts to define what makes a human a human, and attempts to evaluate the points at which those traits may have arisen, and whether those traits are, in fact, the critical defining characteristics of our humanity. By the end of the book, the current picture of human origins is filled out, even though that picture, based as it is upon the fragmentary data that has made it through the eons to us, is blurry. It turns out we are not so much inevitable, as we are simply the strain of hominid that got lucky and outlasted its relatives.

What Masters of the Planet shows brilliantly is that while dimwitted creationists and "intelligent design" advocates are obsessing over irrelevancies like Piltdown man and trying to get their fairy tales into high school curricula, real scientists are ignoring their inanities and keeping busy doing actual work to uncover our true origins. And the picture they have uncovered, although more chaotic and confusing than the previous orderly progression from an ape-like ancestor to us, is also more interesting and most critically, more accurate. While there is nothing in this book that one could not have found out elsewhere, this book compiles all the material into one place so it can be seen as a whole, and the interconnections can be made readily apparent. Anyone interested in human origins will find this book both engaging and illuminating.

This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Apr 18, 2012, 9:40pm Top

Love the review of Out of the Silent Planet and eagerly anticipating those for the next two books--it's probably been 35 years since I read them, although they are still in my library, and I'm glad to take the short tour through your reviews in lieu of rereading them.

Edited: May 23, 2012, 5:13pm Top

Book Thirty-Nine: White Raven: Sword of the Northern Ancestors by Irina Lopatina.

Short review: Horrible monsters are released upon Vraigo's world by a deathless sorcerer and the only weapon that can stop them is the magical sword Urart. But Urart is now in the twenty-first century and Vraigo has to find it.

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: White Raven is a young adult fantasy that is somewhat notable because Irina Lopatina is Russian. This has the beneficial effect of making the fantasy slightly unusual, as all of the fantasy elements are derived from Russian folklore as opposed to the more common Tolkien derivatives that dominate standard fantasy novels. On the other hand, this has the somewhat less beneficial effect of making some of the language used in the book somewhat less than artfully composed. Whether the awkward language was the result of a non-native English speaker writing in what for Irina not her mother tongue, or the result of her first writing the book in Russian and then having it translated is not clear. These bits of clumsy phrasing aside, the book is an enjoyable folklore laden tale about a magically gifted hero who must overcome his uncle's disdain as well as magically endowed monsters to recover the one weapon that has the ability to stop the sorcerous assault upon his homeland.

The hero of the novel is Vraigo, the nephew of Vlady, the Grand Duke of Areya. His father, the Grand Duke's brother, died when Vraigo was young, and the young prince was raised alongside his two cousins Tagas and Seles. But Vraigo is something of an odd duck, not content with the sword practice of the training field, he runs off every day to study under the tutelage of Agar, a friendly magus who helps awaken the ability to see the "blue veil" in the young prince, which is how humans see and interact with the magical realm. Agar is visited by a mysterious magus and vanishes in short order, leaving Vraigo to mature into a wielder of magical abilities on his own.

The story then jumps forward several years where we find Vraigo and his cousins have grown into men. Tagas and Seles have both joined their father's fighting forces, but the magically endowed Vraigo prefers to walk the paths of the nearby forest with his druid friend Belsha tracking down and dealing with the more inimical denizens of the wood: pikshas, rusalkas, werewolves, yagas, and worse. Vraigo's choice of vocation is a great disappointment to his uncle the Grand Duke, because in the Grand Duke's estimation if Vraigo were brave, he would join the army and lead men on the battlefield. This is based upon the Grand Duke's suspicion that the powers asserted by magi are just made up, which seems to be an odd objection given that the Grand Duke lives in a world in which exotic monsters like werewolves and witches are demonstrably real. This objection seems even odder when it is revealed that the Grand Duke relies upon magical griffons to guard his treasure room, including his magical sword Urart. In our own history, being interested in learning was often seen as "unmanly" by those of a more brawny inclination. But in a world in which the magically inclined can summon fiery salamanders to burn their enemies, it seems like the military applications of knowledge would alter this perception.

In any event, Vraigo must deal with his uncle's disapproval and his cousins' mild derision while going about protecting Areya from the various magical threats that lurk in the nearby forest, swamp, and mountains. After an expedition to an abandoned gnomish city with Belsha where they pick up some finely crafted gnomish castoffs. Vraigo meanders through the first half of the story trying to figure out why the gnomes and other "peaceful" magical inhabitants of the forest and mountains seem to be disappearing. During this section, one of the weaknesses of the book crops up as characters seem to amble into and out of the story more or less at random. Vraigo starts with Belsha as his sidekick, but later Belsha is incapacitated and Vraigo takes up with a dravalyanka named Shi-Shi. Along the way a werewolf named Kenush shows up to befriend Vraigo, help him out of a tight scrape or two, and then wanders out of the narrative. The Grand Duke's magically inclined youngest son Rohan pops up along with the scholar Estevah to help Vraigo track down the source of the mysterious influx of evil creatures, and then both characters are sidelined. While some of this character shuffling is probably attributable to the fact that White Raven is intended to be the first book of a planned trilogy, and as a result, some characters and story lines need to be introduced at this stage that will only pay off in later books, this game of musical characters is still distracting.

Vraigo determines that a koschei - a magus who has figured out a way to use his magical gifts to make himself immortal - is responsible for all the troubles. But his search for the evil magus is interrupted when the magical sword Urart, the only weapon that seems to be effective against the strange new magical beasts that have shown up to terrorize the populace, is stolen from the Grand Duke's treasury. While the Grand Duke and his soldiers set off to engage in a futile fight against the invading monsters, Vraigo heads off to try to track down the location of the sword. Of course, since Vraigo is trying to locate the only weapon that can actually damage the monsters rather than charging off to get killed in a pointless act of machismo like the rest of them, the Grand Duke and all of his soldiers sneer at Vraigo and call him a coward. While this does build a little bit of dramatic tension, it mostly makes the "martial" characters seem somewhat dim-witted.

While chasing after the sword, Vraigo is directed to a lair of tanars by the gnomes who originally stole it and plunges headlong after them. After locating the sword, Vraigo and Shi-Shi charge into a mob of tanars and are quickly overwhelmed and knocked out. Inexplicably, the two wake up in the twenty-first century. Perhaps the details of how getting knocked on the head in a cave causes Vraigo to be thrown forward several hundred years in time will be explored in a later part of the series, but in this volume, he simply gets knocked out and wakes up to find himself in our world. Note that although I said that he is thrown forward in time from his fantasy medieval home into the twenty-first century, this is only an assumption on my part, and an assumption that the characters in the book make as well. There are some hints that Vraigo may have actually gone backwards in time, with our familiar modern world serving as the mysterious ancestors of Vraigo's time.

Whether his trip to the twenty-first century is a trip to the future or the past, it is also the weakest part of the book. Although Vraigo's turn as a fish out of water seems somewhat promising, Nik and Lera, the two characters he befriends in his search for Urart, are fairly bland and uninteresting. This is not surprising, since almost everything in the generic unnamed city that Vraigo knocks about in is bland and uninteresting. This may have been an intentional choice on the part of the author, to try to contrast the magical nature of Vraigo's home epoch with the more mundane modern era, but if so, it was done in such a subtle way as to be almost invisible. The modern era portion of the book does provide an interesting twist when it is revealed that even though there is almost no magic in our world, that the various magical beings that Vraigo is familiar with still lurk in our society, even if they themselves don't realize their true nature: a collection of street thugs turns out to actually be a pack of werewolves, an aging nightclub owner is revealed to be a yaga, and so on. This, plus Vraigo's observation that the movie posters in Nik's room depict the magical creatures of ancient Areya, serves to connect the two portions of the story. But this connection doesn't really go anywhere other than to reinforce that Areya and the unnamed city Nik hails from coexist in the same geographic location, albeit separated temporally.

The plot in the modern era proceeds fairly rapidly. Nik and Vraigo first stumble about trying to raise some cash, then they join up with Lera and head off to an antiquities museum. After a little bit of internet research and a lot of serendipity the trio engage in an improbable heist to recover the sword and then Vraigo walks off into the woods, at which point the book ends abruptly. Given that this is the first book in a planned trilogy, leaving plot points unresolved is to be expected. Even with that caveat, however, White Raven seems to cut off prematurely as soon Vraigo has gotten his hands on Urart. This abrupt ending, combined with some fairly awkward phrasing that likely resulted from being translated from Russian to English, makes for a jarring finish to an otherwise enjoyable adventure.

Overall, White Raven: The Sword of Northern Ancestors is a pleasant although oddly flawed book. While one generally expects that the opener to a trilogy will contain a fair amount of exposition and unresolved story lines, White Raven seems to have entirely too much left up in the air when the reader arrives at the final page and Vraigo has not even formulated a plan for returning to his own time period and yet leaves Nik and Lera behind as he walks off into the woods. It is quite possible that once the remaining two installments of the series are published that the complete story will turn out to be excellent, however, based solely on what is in this volume, it can only be described as a pleasant but merely average book.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jun 30, 2012, 11:00pm Top

Book Forty: Tales From Super-Science Fiction by Robert Silverberg (editor).

Stories included:
Catch 'Em All Alive by Robert Silverberg
Who Am I? by Henry Slesar
Every Day Is Christmas by James E. Gunn
I'll Take Over by A. Bertram Chandler (as George Whitely)
Song of the Axe by Don Berry
Broomstick Ride by Robert Bloch
Worlds of Origin by Jack Vance
I Want to Go Home by Robert Moore Williams
The Tool of Creation by J.F. Bone
Hostile Life-Form by Daniel F. Galouye
The Gift of Numbers by Alan E. Nourse
First Man in a Satellite by Charles W. Runyon
A Place Beyond the Stars by Tom Godwin
The Loathsome Beasts by Robert Silverberg (as Dan Malcolm)

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: It seems somewhat odd to think of it now, with only as handful of dedicated fiction magazines still publishing, but in the 1950s there was such demand for pulpy tales that publishers with no experience in genres like science fiction were moved to start their own science fiction magazines to capitalize on the market. In 1956, Harlan, a company whose experience in publishing included titles like Trapped and Guilty - magazines that specialized in juvenile delinquent tales - decided to throw its hat into the science fiction ring with the magazine Super-Science Fiction. Luckily, W.W. Scott, the editor of all three magazines, knew both Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg who had previously submitted stories of juvenile mischief and punishment to his other magazines. With the two of them helping him out (and earning themselves steady money by submitting stories to him), the result was a fun, if short-lived, magazine. In Tales of Super-Science Fiction Robert Silverberg takes the reader on a chronological journey through the three year history of the magazine, starting with the stories published in its earliest issues, and concluding with some monster oriented stories representative of those that made up the bulk of its later "SPECIAL MONSTER ISSUE" installments.

The fourteen stories included in this retrospective anthology are pretty much exactly what one would expect would be in a collection drawn from the pages of a pulpy magazine published in the late 1950s. Lantern jawed heroes, dorky scientists, and damsels in distress make up a substantial portion of the population of the stories, and they are opposed by bug-eyed monsters, computers run wild, or monomaniacal tyrants. As an aside, the cover picture is hilarious in its depiction of 1950s science fiction sensibility. A buxom woman threatened by a horde of aliens is clad in a leotard and space helmet, with the outfit, of course, prominently highlighting her breasts. But the outfit doesn't cover her legs. What sort of environment is she supposed to be in where she needs a space helmet, but can walk around with bare legs?

The first story, Catch 'Em All Alive by Robert Silverberg, is a classic tale of the hubris of human explorers who come across an alien planet that they think offers them everything they could ever want and consequently don't bother to investigate before they get themselves into trouble. The twist at the end of the story is somewhat predictable, but the story is well-executed. A second story about the dangers of human hubris is found in I'll Take Over by A. Bertram Chandler, in which the mechanical "brain" controlling a star ship tells the ship's crew that the craft is experiencing a malfunction, whereupon they land on an prohibited alien planet and have to deal with the comparatively primitive natives. The story has some twists and turns, including a hint of supernatural influence, but ends up as a fairly standard tale of technological paranoia. Broomstick Ride by Robert Bloch is almost exactly the opposite, taking place on a planet where witches are real. The explorers try to convince the local authorities that magic cannot be real while at the same time trying to find some logical explanation for the apparently supernatural phenomena. While I'll Take Over expresses man's fear of technology, Broomstick Ride expresses man's fear of the night and the supernatural horrors our imaginations have filled it with. A "space exploration" story with a twist, The Tool of Creation by J.F. Bone, is a variant on the "engineering puzzle" story. In the story a ship traveling at superluminal speeds suffers a malfunction that threatens to drop the ship into "normal" space, which would be fatal to the crew. They have to solve the problem of shedding enough speed to avoid this fate, with the added wrinkle of using the super science in the story to solve the mystery of where solar systems come from.

Several of the stories amount to mysteries with an exotic added element. Who Am I? by Henry Slesar is the first of these, as a pair of space traders rescue an unknown individual drifting in a space-sled. The simple act of getting the man they rescued to identify himself proves to be the central mystery of the story, as it seems that he doesn't really know himself. as it is a science fiction story, the answer turns out to be somewhat exotic. Song of the Axe by Don Berry is probably the most archetypal example of 1950s era science fiction. A disgraced (but still lantern jawed and manly) star ship captain is given another chance by his superiors when they ask him to try to locate the lost records of a dead civilization. The story includes a beautiful alien princess, exotic alien rituals, an invading alien army, and a hero who uses an axe in a battle where others are using high tech weaponry. The story is basically mindless action adventure, but it is fairly good action adventure. Worlds of Origin by Jack Vance is a mode sedate mystery centered on a murder at a space resort housing vacationers from various planets. Vance's recurring character Magnus Ridolph just happens to be on hand when the murder occurs and the resort owner asks him to investigate. Ridolph decides that unraveling the mystery will depend upon examining the worlds the various guests hail from (hence the title), and sets about solving the crime. The story is decent, and the mystery is intriguing, but the stereotyping of the aliens - effectively assuming that everyone from a given planet, or who has a given profession holds the same mind set - robs an otherwise good yarn of some verisimilitude.

A couple of the stories use the science fiction as a vehicle to comment very explicitly with the concerns that were hot topics in the 1950s, and Every Day Is Christmas by James E. Gunn is the most didactic of these. In his story Gunn posits that advertising had been perfected "scientifically" to the point where the populace has become mindless purchasing drones acquiring and hoarding massive piles of products that they have no real use for. A deep space explorer returns to this culture of insane consumption and struggles to fit in. The passage of time has made the story somewhat unintentionally humorous, but it is still disturbing and effective. Another story exemplifying this style of story First Man in a Satellite by Charles W. Runyon that takes place almost entirely aboard a tiny one man satellite housing man's first space explorer as it orbits the Earth: a dwarf from Vaudeville recruited to the the job because of his small size. A malfunction in the craft leads to those on the ground talking the protagonist through the landing procedures, a task made more difficult by the lousy communications between the ground and orbit. The story is one of the more thoughtful ones in the collections, and has a sad yet also triumphant conclusion.

One of the best stories in the book, I Want to Go Home by Robert Moore Williams is a strange story about a seemingly insane youth who believes he is actually an alien from another world. The story is told from the perspective of a scientist brought in by the police to examine the boy, but by the end the reader is left wondering who has a handle on reality and who does not. As with most really good science fiction stories, the ending is ambiguous and slightly disturbing. The Gift of Numbers by Alan E. Nourse, on the other hand, is a blackly humorous story in which a hapless accountant is duped into accepting a gift from a somewhat colorful character who calls himself the Colonel. The "gift" is a seemingly inexplicable affinity for numbers that is accompanied by an ulcer and an uncontrollable (and unconscious) desire to use the newly acquired mathematical talents to commit petty larceny. The "gift" is a decidedly mixed blessing, and the protagonist is keen to get rid of it, but in the end it turns out that the tables are turned. The story is both creepy and darkly funny. Possibly the best story in the book is Tom Godwin's A Place Beyond the Stars, a tale possibly more relevant today than it was when written. A space scout tasked with preparing way stations for the following emigration fleet to resupply at lands on a planet controlled by a fascist government that strictly regulates everything, including scientific inquiry. The inimical government has banned all research of no seeming practical value, but seizes upon the scout as a potential source of technologically advanced weaponry. Using their own scientific myopia against them, the scout manages to turn the tables and secure a safe port of call for his fleet. The story is engaging, and in a world in which governments increasingly seem to disdain "blue sky" science, it is also a cautionary tale.

Late in its run, Super-Science Fiction began focusing heavily on "monster" stories in an effort to retain readers, hyping every issue as a "special monster issue". Hostile Life-Form by Daniel F. Galouye is a story that fell into that category. Human explorers on an alien planet find themselves besieged by monstrous alien beasts until they are apparently saved by the arrival of another species that preys upon their tormentors. As usual, the story takes a dark turn as the situation is not exactly what the explorers assumed it was. The story is somewhat predictable, but it is still fun to read, and does a good job at conveying a rising sense of horror and tension. The final story in the book is The Loathsome Beasts by Robert Silverberg, who wrote the story under the pen name Dan Malcolm to help disguise the fact that he had contributed so many stories to the magazine. The story itself is one of the weaker stories in the volume, with mindless alien monsters serving more or lass as ravening beasts that exist to fight and eat the colonists on a distant planet. The story starts with some (for the 1950s) salacious scenes of teenagers swimming naked and then getting eaten by giant sea monsters. The rest of the story details the colony's increasingly desperate battle against the encroaching horde until the final denouement that would have conservationists and xenobiologists howling. The story is a classic case of "kill the monsters" science fiction, and being a Silverberg story, it is competently written, but it isn't anything more than that.

With the switch in focus to repeated "special monster issues", the writing was on the wall. Three years and eighteen issues after Super-Science Fiction was first published, it folded. But as this collection shows, what it left behind was a legacy of enjoyable science fiction stories, albeit stories that are firmly rooted in a 1950s mindset. Filled with an eclectic cross-section of the best stories the magazine had to offer, Tales from Super-Science Fiction offers a fun romp through science fiction history and should find a place on the bookshelf of any fan of classic science fiction.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jul 3, 2012, 11:25am Top

Book Forty-One: Gaelen's Gold by M. K. Flowers.

Short review: Gaelen accidentally becomes a wizard in a land in which magic use by humans is banned and high elves are the villains who ruthlessly enforce this rule.

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Gaelen is a sixteen year old girl with problems. The only human in a dwarven village, she is hounded by bullies who torment her for merely existing. She is supported by her adoptive dwarven parents and brother Torar, but chafes under the restrictions she must live under as the result of prejudice against humans and the onerous restrictions imposed uopn everyone by the high elves. It seems that several centuries earlier human wizards and the high elves went to war against one another, a war which the humans lost. Consequently, the high elven council imposed restrictions upon the use of magic, including a complete ban upon the use of any kind of magic by humans. Gaelen is jealous that her father and brother are allowed to craft magical items in their work at the family smithy, and longs to make herself a magical sword. Eventually Gaelen attempts to secretly fulfill her ambition, but things get out of hand, she accidentally becomes the most powerful wizard in history, and events take on a life of their own that permanently changes her life and the lives of those around her.

Gaelen's Gold is, in many ways, a very stereotypical young adult fantasy, complete with tree loving elves, industrious dwarven craftsmen, vile goblins, and a plucky teenage protagonist. But although the start of the story seems to be headed into a fairly tired direction, the authors show that they are intent on subverting expectations before too long, making the book much more interesting. However, the interesting nature of the story is somewhat hampered by some fairly weak storytelling devices, frequent pauses in the action so that characters can deliver background exposition, and the fact that too many of the characters are entirely too reasonable despite living in cultures that should mire them in prejudice and mutual hostility.

The most obvious subversion, and the novel's strongest point, is the characterization of the various fantasy races that populate the setting. High elves, commonly depicted since Tolkien as aloof and haughty, but ultimately good and decent, are here arrogant and hidebound, enforcing a draconian order upon everyone around them with a ruthless zeal. Around nthem are the "common" elves and dwarves, reduced to second class status, with their town sizes casually regulated by the high elves, who dictate how big their settlements can be, where they can gather resources, where and what they can hunt, and so on. On the lowest rung of normal society are humans, prohibited from using magic due to the alleged misdeeds of wizards from hundreds of years before. But outside this society are the stone giants, also called trolls, who are presented as oppressed outcasts, persecuted and hunted by the high elves, and given an entirely sympathetic portrayal in the story. Oddly, although the story includes goblins, they are presented as essentially faceless cannon fodder to be mowed down in large numbers by the heroes. This is disappointing after the rather interesting variants on the standard portrayals that the authors provided for the other races depicted in the book. Given that this appears to be the first book in a series, one might hope that at some point in future volumes the goblin culture will be explored more fully and given greater depth. However, given that Gaelen refuses to kill many of her other opponents out of a sense of humanity, but happily slices goblins in half without a second thought, this may be a forlorn hope.

One somewhat less than believable element of the book is the sheer amount of serendipity that is required to keep the story moving. It is not implausible that the elf Elaeh would find the container holding the infant Gaelen. And it is not entirely implausible that Gaelen would later stumble across one of the last living dragons in the world. or that they would find the secret hall of knowledge of the long-dead wizards. Or that Galen, Torar, and Elaeh would come across the last living wizard. Or even that Torar and Elaeh would meet and chat with the oldest living elf Llanowill. Any of these events would be more or less unexpected, but would not stretch credulity. But when they are all added together along with the numerous other random happenstances upon which the plot hangs, the whole edifice of the story simply seems too built upon random coincidence to stand up. Building on this implausibility is the information Llanowill provides to Torar and Elaeh about the "oldest and most important prophecy of the dwarves". One has to wonder why, if this prophecy is so critical to the dwarves, why it comes as a complete surprise to Torar, and why he needs an elf to tell him about it.

Another quirky element of the story is that despite the fact that Gaelen's Gold features a human protagonist, and the war between the human wizards and high elves serves as the central historical event that shapes the book's entire plot, the reader never really gets a view of human society. Gaelen is brought up by dwarvish parents. The only other humans we meet are consist of a reclusive wizard hiding from the world, a couple of men caught illegally logging who are almost immediately summarily executed, and an innkeeper and his wife who serve as nothing more than set dressing for a chance encounter that Torar and the Elaeh have with Llanowill. We never get to spend time in a functioning human village or a get any kind of real sense of what life as a normal non-magically inclined human is like in this world. Despite the centrality of humans to the conflict that drives the plot, humans are almost entirely absent from the book.

But what the book does have in abundance are chance encounters that result in fast friendships and lots of exposition. At several points in the story a new character shows up, is initially hostile to or wary of the protagonists, but is won over by some reasoned arguments, and then becomes a steadfast ally. And usually also brings the story to a screeching halt for a bit while they deliver the expository information they were introduced into the story to hand out, typically by means of a rambling tale or two that fills in a little bit more of the history of the fantasy world surrounding the Emmerlee Forest. Even characters that are supposed to be antagonists to Gaelen, such as the elven team sent to apprehend her for unauthorized magic use and return her to the high elven council for trial and execution, many of whom are quickly swayed to sympathize with her. And of course, when the elven team sent to arrest her and escort her to her death show up, Gaelen doesn't use her magical sword, or her overwhelming magical prowess, or even her pet dragon to escape. Instead, she decides that her best option is to go along with the elves to plead her case before the high council - a high council that she has been repeatedly informed ruthlessly killed every single other human wizard they could get their hands on including a young boy who wielded magic entirely by accident. Of course, since almost everyone else she has met has been entirely open to reasonable arguments, the intractability of the high elven council may simply not register with Gaelen, but it seems foolishly optimistic of her to expect they will be amenable to reason, which I suppose is just another in a long list of things that Gaelen is foolishly optimistic about.

And this leads to another weakness of the book: the characters never seem to change or grow through the novel. This might be expected of characters like Llanowill or Rommenstein, who are supposed to be mature adults when we first meet them, but for characters like Gaelen and Torar this seems both unbelievable and a missed story-telling opportunity. When we meet Gaelen (leaving aside the brief interlude in which she appears as a newborn infant), she is a happy, friendly, optimistic young woman who believes the best about everyone she meets. As the story closes, Gaelen can wield magic with a power so great that none can rival her. But does this new-found power change her in any way? No. She is still a happy, friendly, optimistic young woman who believes the best in everyone she meets. Similarly, Torar starts the tale as Gaelen's steadfast, honest, and dependable younger brother. And like Gaelen, at the end of the book he is exactly the same as he was when we first met him. Even the characters who "change" don't really do so. The high elves who have misgivings about the draconian rule enforced by the council at the start of the book but are unwilling to openly turn against it end the story with those same misgivings and the same unwillingness to turn against a regime they think may be unjust. And so on.

Her perpetual cockeyed optimism aside, Gaelen is a fundamentally likable character, and that fact saves the book from the long winded exposition, the determined reasonableness of characters who are supposed to be horribly prejudiced, and the more or less unbelievable collection of coincidences that pepper the story. The reader wants Gaelen to succeed, even though her Pollyanna routine does get a little cloying at times, and consequently, you keep turning the pages to find out what she does next. In addition, the slight subversion of the usual fantasy tropes adds a bit of spice to what would have otherwise been a fairly bland story, which makes Gaelen's Gold generally an enjoyable if unspectacular read, and gives hope that the authors will build on the framework they have started and improve it in future books in the series.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

May 25, 2012, 9:34pm Top

hmmm, I wish I could become a wizard by accident . . . .

Edited: Jul 17, 2012, 2:36pm Top

Book Forty-Two: Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik.

Short review: The British crown decides to stop wasting a valuable asset and reinstates Lawrence before sending him to South America where the price of European arrogance has come due.

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Crucible of Gold is the seventh book in Naomi Novik's Tremeraire series, following upon the somewhat disappointing Tongues of Serpents. Captain Lawrence, Tremeraire, Granby, Iskierka, Demane, and Kulingale all return to action and leave Australia behind for more adventures, called upon by the British government to aid its Portuguese allies in South America in a trek that results in a variety of twists and turns. Unfortunately, this installment of the series continues the foundering that afflicted the previous book, and although the story is diverting, and at times interesting, one gets the impression that Novik is just filling pages at this point without any real idea of where the story is going. Despite all of the motion that takes place in the course of the book, one feels as though the plot has been running the Red Queen's race, ending up in more or less the same place that it had started the book in.

The book opens with Lawrence and Tremeraire cooling their heels in Australia, living in exile following the commutation of Lawrence's death sentence in Victory of Eagles. At the outset of the book Hammond arrives, interrupting Tremeraire's ongoing construction of his pavilion, bearing a letter reinstating Lawrence as a captain in the British air corps and directing him to take Iskierka and Kulingale to Brazil and aid the Portuguese there. It seems that Napoleon had allied himself with the Tswana, last seen in Empire of Ivory, who are quite understandably a little upset that the Portuguese have made a habit of taking the inhabitants of Africa and transporting them to South America as slaves. Whether Napoleon cares about the concerns of his allies or not is unclear, but he has opportunistically used his transport ships to move several of the Tswana ancestor dragons to Brazil in order to knock these allies of the British on their heels.

This development brings to the fore two of the themes that Novik has inserted into the series: the issue of slavery, and the alteration to the balance of power engendered by the presence of dragons in the world. In actual history, the idea that Napoleon would ally himself with the African nations and transport and army to Brazil in an effort to discomfit the Portuguese would have been laughable. Not only would Napoleon have never given the inhabitants of the Dark Continent a second thought, but moving an army of natives to attack Rio de Janeiro would have been a futile and counterproductive gesture, probably only serving to provide the Portuguese with additional forced laborers for their plantations. But with the changed balance of power this threat is very real. And by having the Tswana target the Portuguese, Novik homes in on the lead slaving nation in actual history - at one point slaves in Portugal outnumbered free people - and highlights the growing sense that Britain, a nation that condones slavery and allies itself with slaveholding nations, may not be the right side to root for even though it is the side that the protagonist of the novels serves.

As if to punctuate this point, Lawrence, Tremeraire, and the rest of the expeditionary force set out for Brazil aboard the Allegiance, commanded by the pro-slavery Captain Riley. The voyage is cut short due to the drunken misadventures of some of the ship's crew, and in a sequence of symbolic significance, the dragon transport and the slave-holding Captain Riley sink into the sea. This symbolic shedding of the pro-slavery character in the story is somewhat tarnished by the stereotypical class prejudiced means by which that plot development is presented. The sinking of the Allegiance exposes just how vulnerable dragons are when transported this way (and exactly how much disregard for their welfare the European powers must have to load them into ships) and puts into motion the remainder of the plot, as Lawrence leads the dragon wing on a desperate flight across the open ocean to try to find a place to land.

On their last legs (or, more accurately, wings), the dragons run afoul of the French and find themselves stranded on a desert island where the dragon crews and the remnant of the sailors saved from the Allegiance must eke out an existence heavily dependent upon the fishing skills of the dragons. It is at this point that the stupidity seen in Tongues of Dragons returns as the shiftless navy men try to rough up Lawrence and the other dragon captains in an effort to somehow make the dragons do what they want them to. Given that the dragons are exceedingly protective of their captains (at times to the point of suffocating them with affection), threatening the object of these men seems like an exceedingly hazardous thing to do. One might imagine that for a brief period of time one could get a captain's dragon to go along with your desires via blackmail, but you would still have a very touchy multi-ton winged creature with huge fangs, claws, and possibly acidic or fire breath who was angry with you. This seems like a suboptimal situation to choose to place oneself in. This is yet another example of the British characters in the book behaving as if they exist in a world in which they are unfamiliar with dragons. Everything in the world has changed by the introduction of intelligent engines of destruction, and yet time and again, the British inhabitants of the world behave as if they are living in a world that is exactly like our own late eighteenth/early nineteenth century.

Eventually, serendipity raises its head and Lawrence is able to lead the dragons and a portion of the remaining crewmen to the South American mainland where they stumble into the Incan Empire. Or rather they stumble into a deserted fishing village sitting in the middle of deserted countryside. It seems that even though the presence of dragons has changed the balance of power in the world, what has not changed is the effect that bringing Old World diseases to the New World has on the native inhabitants. So what Lawrence and Tremeraire find is a land depopulated of humans by disease and a nation of dragons bereft of their cherished pets. It seems that while the Europeans treat dragons as intelligent livestock, the Chinese treat dragons as fellow members of society, the Tswana treat dragons as their tribal ancestor gods, the relationship between the Incans and their dragons is not how humans treat the dragons living among them, but rather how dragons treat the humans living among them.

As usual, the British blunder about without any real understanding of the native culture of the land they are invading and manage to offend the local dragons. They are saved by Iskierka's fighting skills, and end up in Cusco before the Sapa Inca where they discover that the nation is in crisis due to the plague induced depopulation of the land. The inhabitants are organized into allyu, each presided over by a dragon who is responsible for their care and protection, but to whom they are bound to service much like serfs. This leads to some discussion concerning the nature of freedom, slavery, and the duties of citizenship, once again exploring the question of the slave culture that exists in Europe, and the status of dragons in Britain. The Sapa Inca is a woman, the male heir having died before British arrived in Cusco, which when coupled with the revelation of Iskierka's rather unique talents results in Hammond attempting to arrange a political marriage between the Sapa Inca and Granby, a prospect that Granby dreads but which Iskierka is wholly in favor of as it will make her captain a prince, and elevate him to equal status with Lawrence.

After much maneuvering that involves the defections of mutinous naval crewmen to the Incan allyus and revelations concerning Granby's sexuality that seem to be taken remarkably in stride by Lawrence (especially given the Victorian social standards he anachronistically seems to apply to the female aircrew he travels with), Napoleon arrives on the scene with Lien to propose an alliance by marriage to the Sapa Inca, offering himself as the bridegroom. This foils Hammond's plan but not before Tremeraire and Iskierka come to realize that what they want for their captain's may not always coincide with the desires of their partner, providing yet more commentary on the nature of interpersonal interactions and the concept of ownership of humans. The tables turn quickly, and Lawrence, Tremeraire, and the rest find themselves on the run again, which luckily seems to drive them back to their original mission of helping the Portuguese in Brazil. Eventually they wind up in Brazil where they find the Tswanan dragons swarming about with thousands of escaped or rescued slaves under their protection, and the Portuguese holed up on plantations holding their remaining slaves hostage in an effort to ward off Tswanan assaults. Before too long they are joined by Lily, Maximus, Messoria, Immortalis, Dulcia, and Nitidus, the British air corps apparently having been heavily depleted to send aid to the Portuguese.

But the evolution of the story doesn't permit Lawrence to actually fulfill the desires of his Portuguese allies, as he cannot in good conscience expend the lives of his dragons and crew in a futile effort to defeat the Tswana so as to allow slavers to hold humans in bondage. Instead, he forces a compromise with the Tswana upon the Portuguese, seizes the French transports, and sets out for China. In the end, after all of the gyrations of the story in Crucible of Gold, the situation is more or less the same as it was at the outset. The Portuguese are deprived of their slaves, although now it is because they are being monitored by the Tswana rather than ransacked by them, although that situation could have been resolved without Lawrence's involvement at all, making his perilous journey across the Pacific and South America somewhat pointless. The the political situation for the British ends the story as it began, with the only real political development being that Napoleon has neutralized the Inca as a possible British ally. But given that the idea of an Incan alliance was not even seen as a possibility by the British at the beginning of the book, having it neutralized isn't really much of a plot development. In short, nothing of any substance relating to the wider war against Napoleon happens.

In the end, for all of the motion that takes place in the book, nothing of any importance seems to have taken place. Despite all of the sturm und drang, all that really happens in the book are baby steps of character development and tiny tidbits of dragon-related information, relayed in an almost off-hand manner by Lien. Despite the fact that Lawrence, Tremeraire, Iskierka, Granby, and the remaining characters remain likable and, to varying degrees, interesting, the series seems to have stalled out, moving forward inch by painful inch. And while the end of the story had our heroes heading back to China in response to an imperial invitation, given the way the last two books in the series have gone, one expects that the next book will have them taking a long circuitous route to get there, followed by not much of anything happening. Though Crucible of Gold is a pleasantly diverting way to spend an afternoon, the Tremeraire series as a whole feels like a rudderless ship that is drifting aimlessly.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jul 9, 2012, 9:08am Top

Book Forty-Three: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers.

Short review: The population of the entire world is stricken with a disease that causes pregnant women to die horribly, but the most important thing to focus on is the adolescent angst of sixteen year old Jessie Lamb.

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: The Testament of Jessie Lamb was the winner of the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke award and was also long-listed for the Booker prize. It features a near future story in which the entire world is stricken by the boringly named "MDS" (for "Maternal Death Syndrome") a bioengineered disease targeted at pregnant women that proves to be 100% fatal to expectant mothers. Needless to say, this is a crisis of epic proportions and heroic research efforts are made to try to keep the human race alive. Despite the momentous events that form the background of the book, the entire story is told from the perspective of an attention-seeking self-absorbed sixteen year old as she agonizes over which meetings to go to in order to best reduce her carbon footprint. After reading this decidedly uninsipring book, I can only conclude that 2012 was a weak year for British fiction.

The story is set in a very near future Britain which is essentially the same as current Britain except for the introduction of the MDS virus. MDS has spread throughout the world and infected everyone on the planet. When a person is infected, the disease lies dormant in their system until they become pregnant (hence, the disease is harmless for men). Once pregnant, a woman's brain begins to disintegrate, at one point an affected expectant mother's brain is compared to Swiss cheese. Once triggered, the affliction is irrevocable, not even termination of the pregnancy can save the victim, and the end result is always death. Understandably, this makes women reluctant to become pregnant, and because the mother dies well before delivery of the baby, if MDS is not cured or otherwise dealt with, the run of humanity will come to a close with the current generation.

Having set the stage for the destruction of humankind, Rogers decides to focus on a petulant, self-absorbed teen who feels smugly superior to her parents because she attends political meetings at which she and a collection of other adolescents can voice their concerns about global warming and animal welfare. With millions of women worldwide dead from their brains turning to mush as they gestate, Jessie and her friends spend their time worrying about whether or not their parents recycle enough. When faced with human extinction, I suppose that some people would choose to focus on tertiary concerns such as these, but why anyone would think that this would be the compelling story to tell is somewhat mystifying.

The first half of the story meanders through Jessie's adolescent angst, her struggles with her parents, the mind-numbingly numerous political meetings she attends, and the supercilious arrogance she displays. Interwoven with this tedium are some snippets here and there that give frustrating hints of the much better book that The Testament of Jessie Lamb could have been - Jessie's struggles with her budding sexuality in a world where an unintended pregnancy is not merely a social faux pad, but a death sentence. The reaction of the world to MDS, and how it affects perceptions of sexual interaction. The research attempting to find a cure, or find some non-deadly way to bring babies into the world. The religious hysteria sparked by a species-ending plague. But all of these elements are cast in the background of the trivial doings of a teenager.

The second half of the book takes a left turn into bad science and lunacy as the interstitial pieces that have been woven through the book are explained and the central choice in the book is revealed. It turns out that while Jessie has wallowed variously in perpetual youth activist meetings and self-pity engendered by her parents marital difficulties, her father and other researchers have been working on finding a solution to the difficulties posed by MDS. We find out that they have created a vaccine for MDS, but because everyone is already infected the only potential recipients of the vaccine are frozen embryos. This seems to be one of the developments that makes it appear that Rogers grasp on the science that she has used as a vehicle for her story is kind of weak, because one has to wonder why anyone would actually be working on producing a vaccine under the conditions Rogers has established. It seems almost like Rogers thinks that scientists throw a bunch of effort into a big bin called "research" and out pops random discoveries.

Another development explained in the book is the development of "sleeping beauties", the nickname given to women who become pregnant and who are placed into a medically induced coma and kept alive on life support for the duration of their pregnancies. This process allows the child to be brought to term, but normally the child is already infected upon conception, having gotten the disease from its parents. Marrying these two possibilities might allow for children free of the disease to be born, but at the cost of the lives of those women who become surrogate mothers to bear them. And the younger the "sleeping beauty" is, the more successful the process is. Which leads Jessie to conclude that she wants to kill herself and have a baby. (In another example of a weak grasp of science, Jessie is concerned over who the sperm donors are for the frozen embryos, and figures out that one is her father, who works at the clinic. But if the embryos were frozen as embryos, then they don't need sperm donors, and if they had sperm donors then they would become infected with MDS. This entire plot thread makes no sense when one stops and thinks about the science involved, which is yet another example of a "mainstream" author dipping their toe into science fiction and discovering that it is not quite as easy to write as they might have thought).

In some ways, The Testament of Jessie Lamb is the misogynistic antithesis of Margaret Atwood's story The Handmaid's Tale. While Atwood's protagonist Offred was struggling against a system that saw her as nothing more than a baby-making machine, with hopes, dreams, and aspirations that were crushed and swept aside by a patriarchy that devalued women, Jessie seeks to throw away everything except her potential as a donor uterus. Those around Jessie push her to realize more than pregnancy and death - her father suggests that she continue her apparently promising study of biology and join in the effort to find a real solution to the MDS problem that doesn't involve sacrificing the lives of women. But unlike Offred, Jessie doesn't want to be more. She aspires only to have her womb filled and put to sleep. She has adolescent fantasies that her child, who she names "Rae" or "Ray" will be adopted by her parents, who will love her child and think she made the right choice. Her fights with her parents make her choice seem like a way to gain petty retribution against her parents, and also a childish fantasy equivalent to writing "Mrs. Jessie Bieber" on her notebook with hearts over the "i"'s. One might expect that an adolescent's motivations would lurch back and forth like this, but in Jessie's case, her justifications for her suicide are so shallow that one wonders why we should really care about her.

And the main failing of the story is just how shallow so much of it is. The culmination of Jessie's exploration of her own nascent sexuality is a meaningless encounter with a boy she has had a crush on, whereupon that thread is abruptly dropped. The resolution of the evolving societal attitudes towards sex is the gang rape of one of Jessie's friends, or rather alleged friends, since Jessie more or less decides that her friend had it coming. Her friend then joins FLAME, a radical feminist group that is protesting the use of women in the "sleeping beauty" process and demanding that alternatives be found. But because FLAME takes a number of somewhat extreme other positions, the entire agenda of the organization is dismissed as the ridiculous ravings of lunatics. Once again the contrast with The Handmaid's Tale is stark: in Atwood's fiction FLAME would have been used as a vehicle to highlight the injustices towards women. In Rogers fiction, they are treated as the moral equivalent of ELF, and women are treated as the moral equivalent of sheep.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a deeply flawed book that could have been a much better book with more attention to detail, a more sympathetic and less self-absorbed and childish protagonist, and a protagonist that didn't extol the virtues of treating women like mindless wombs. Rogers does manage capture the struggle of growing from childhood to an adult perspective, but then throws away all of the worthwhile elements of the book by having her allegedly grown up main character throw her life away based upon childish reasoning. Not only that, the entire book has a strange myopia in which the only research that is apparently happening, and the only political upheaval that is apparently taking place is in Britain. We never get a glimpse of what is happening elsewhere, or what effects this worldwide crisis is having outside of Jessie's immediate neighborhood. Her father never comments on research being done elsewhere, and when FLAME and ELF protests the various efforts being made, no one ever notices that even if such research is stopped in the United Kingdom, that it will probably still take place elsewhere. In short, while Rogers probably did succeed in telling the story she wanted to tell, the story is so incomplete, and so frustratingly tied to a childish vision of the world that it simply doesn't rise above mediocrity.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Aug 14, 2012, 3:38pm Top

Book Forty-Four: Second Skin by Peter Darrach.

Short review: Max Cody gets gifted with super powers by mysterious aliens just in time to stop the ice pirates' nefarious plot against Mars.

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Second Skin aspires to be a hard science fiction story with a twist. To a certain extent the book evokes memories of Heinlein or Asimov, with a hyper-competent manly hero, a beautiful but dazzlingly brilliant love interest, emerging technology that poses new problems, an unsettled interplanetary political scene, and a villainous conspiracy that threatens everything. Although the book holds promise, it is hampered by some fairly clumsy information dumps, overly serendipitous plot developments, and characters that alternate between being incompetent dimwits and infallible super-geniuses.

The story is set in a moderately near future reality in which mankind has colonized Mars and begun to mine the asteroid belt. We learn early in the book that Mars has recently won independence from the Earth, although there is still political tension between the two planets. But the method by which Darrach fills the reader in on the current political situation is by having a character respond to the question "fill us in on current political events" by giving an extended history lesson. If this feels artificial, that is because it is. The equivalent in piece of a contemporary fiction would be to have a character give a detailed history of the U.S. Revolutionary War in response to the question "How is the U.S. getting along with Europe these days". Sadly, this is just the first time Darrach interrupts the flow of the story to dump a bucket of information over the reader's head like cold water. One key skill that a science fiction writer has to have is the ability to artfully convey the differences between the fictional world they are describing and the world in which we live. The best science fiction writers are able to do this as a seamless part of their story. But many writers, including Darrach, see their story grind to a screeching halt every time they try to impart such information to the reader.

In an action oriented story like Second Skin, this sort of interruption is problematic, as it pulls the reader out of the adventure, forcing them to sit through a miniature lecture instead. And this is a shame, because the adventure featuring deep space miner Max Cody and his navigator girlfriend Elaine Zhou that forms the core of the story is fairly interesting. As the story opens, Max runs across some trouble while mining in the asteroid belt, and soon discovers that he has acquired mysterious capabilities that allow him to overcome near certain death. His story intertwines with the story of space pirate Suicide Sam, who is pursuing some unknown goal inimical to the nascent Martian Republic. The story hops between Max, Elaine, Sam, and Daniel Sinclair, the director of the industrial space platform "MOSA" in orbit around Mars, skipping back and forth between the disparate threads of the story.

Although the story starts with Max and Elaine in the asteroid belt, they quickly move to MOSA, an installation that is the key to Martian wealth, and the focus of much of the action that occurs in the book. It turns out that the fledgling Martian space navy is interested in Max and Elaine as possible recruits, having taken notice when the two managed to recover a stolen cruiser from Suicide Sam. Once there, our heroes are drawn into the complex web of intrigue that surrounds both MOSA and its soon to be activated sister installation MOSA II. Max and Elaine are improbably taken into the confidence of those in power, both in the navy and in the government arm that administers MOSA and provides its security. But at the same time, despite the fact that the security apparatus knows who has been working with the asteroid belt pirates as their inside man, they are incompetent enough that they are caught flat-footed when their villainous plan is put into effect, and are only saved by the unexpected heroics of Max, and he is only able to provide those heroics because he obtained inexplicable super powers at the beginning of the book. And this is where Darrach most clearly leaves his literary antecedents behind – whereas a Heinlein, Asimov, or Niven-penned science fiction hero would have figured out a way to foil the villains' plans with some quick thinking and a well thought-out counterattack, Max simply relies upon his superhuman abilities to do the work. One ends up wondering what would have happened if the apparently almost randomly bestowed abilities Max is gifted with were to have been handed to Suicide Sam, or to someone who didn't bother to go to MOSA instead of continuing his job of rock-jockeying.

The political machinations that make up the bulk of the book are clearly a sideshow to the story that Darrach actually wanted to tell involving a new form of transportation technology. And this is the string that ties all of the various plot elements together into a whole. But the problem is that even though these various plot threads all dovetail together fairly nicely at the end, for most of the book the reader is left wondering what the disparate events being described have to do with one another. And as a result, the reader has to fight through much of the book unable to put the pieces together until after they have read most of it, a situation that makes the book at times confusing, at others tedious, and sometimes both. If the story that the book added up to was uninteresting or badly written, this would be of no concern. But Second Skin is neither uninteresting nor badly written, and once all the pieces are fit together and the story gets going, it turns into an exciting and enjoyable romp. But as good as the last third of the book is, the reader is left wondering why the first two-thirds simply don't measure up.

Overall, Second Skin is a book worth reading despite the fact that it takes time to come together. The central characters are well drawn, and the central conflict, once it gets going, is engaging. Couple these elements with an intriguing story about technological advancement, and the whole adds up to a pretty good book. Given that the background is more or less fleshed out in this book, one can have reasonable cause to hope that the sequel, Second Skin, Too, will avoid the missteps in this volume and stand out as a superior piece of work.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Sep 12, 2012, 4:24pm Top

Book Forty-Five: Tintin: Herge & His Creation by Harry Thompson.

Short review: A loving and mostly uncritical biography of Herge told by chronologically analyzing the adventures of Tintin.

Long review: There are few artists who are as closely associated with a single character as Hergé is associated with Tintin. There are certainly no other cartoonists whose career is so clearly defined by a single character. So it is fitting that when Harry Thompson sat down to write a biography of the moody and notoriously difficult Hergé, he wrote it through the lens of his plucky and boyish alter ego. With the exception of the first few chapters which cover Hergé's childhood and early work as a newspaper editor and cartoonist, the entire book treats Hergé's life as reflected in the installments of the Tintin series, describing the influences then current events had upon the course of the Tintin story, and loosely connecting the themes in each book to the events taking place in the cartoonist's own life.

Telling the story of Hergé's life using the Tintin books as a lens shows the close connection between Hergé and his work. Starting with Totor as proto-Tintin, and progressing through the entire course of the Tintin sequence up to the unfinished volume Tintin and Alph-Art, Thompson charts Hergé's life, connecting each character to the author, from Tintin himself, to Haddock, to Thompson and Thomson, to the various eccentric scientists leading to Professor Calculus, and even to the significance of such minor characters as Jolyon Wagg and Bianca Castafiore. And by doing so, Thompson not only explains the Tintin books, he also explains Hergé.

Few Americans truly understand the phenomenon of Tintin. Even those Americans who are fans of the series find it hard to understand the almost rock star status that Hergé held during his lifetime, and the pedestal that Tintin himself was put upon. After all, at first glance, the series doesn't seem like that big of a deal: twenty-two graphic novels, two of which are so embarrassingly bad that they have never been released in the United States, plus another partially finished volume. But, as Thompson demonstrates at the very outset of the book in which he recounts the massive awestruck crowds that gathered to witness "Tintin" (in the form of hired actor Henri de Donckers) return from his adventures in the Soviet Union. And Thompson uses this event to show the inherent irony of the Tintin phenomenon as Hergé himself stood by Henri almost unnoticed by the adoring crowd. Hergé was a celebrity cartoonist, but while his name was instantly recognizable by the masses, he was almost completely anonymous.

And this dichotomy serves to describe much of the relationship between Hergé and his creation. Tintin was in many ways the child of Hergé's own childhood, reflecting his boyish adventures as a Boy Scout living in a conservative Catholic middle-class neighborhood. But as Hergé grew older, Tintin remained idealized as a youthful adventurer who was always willing to stick up for the little guy and poke his nose in to right an injustice. But as revealed in the book, while Hergé might have aspired to be Tintin, he was not Tintin. The most revealing chapters in the book are those that cover the six books made from strips produced during the Nazi occupation of Belgium during World War II. While Hergé suffered from somewhat unfair accusations of working for the Nazi occupiers, the reality was probably worse for Hergé. The cartoonist regarded himself as a patriot - he had served in Belgium's armed forces that were crushed under the invading Wehrmacht - but it turned out that he was not cut out for resistance work. Whereas Tintin would have almost certainly jumped at the chance to carry the fight to the occupiers, Hergé simply didn't have the stomach for intrigue and covert action.

It must have been a devastating realization for Hergé to realize that he was not the hero he imagined himself to be. And given that the curmudgeonly Captain Haddock, a character that Hergé increasingly identified with, was created during the war years, it seems that the cartoonist felt out of step with his hero, and yet unable to escape him. And this seems to be the narrative of the post-war years - Hergé seeking to distance himself from Tintin, but at the same time compelled by public demand and his own demons to continue writing him. And this contradiction manifested itself in Hergé's increasingly quixotic behavior and recurring ailments. Tintin was, it seems, both Hergé's greatest love and the thing he hated most in the world.

The evolution of Hergé and the parallel evolution of Tintin seems like a small subject. But it is also a testament to the potential for human growth, and at the same time a testament to human venality. From one perspective the evolution of Hergé's personal views concerning race and culture, developing from the crude caricatures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo to the more nuanced and realistic depictions of later books such as Tintin in Tibet is almost impossibly remarkable given the cartoonist's background. But on the other hand, the descent of Tintin from the crusading hero who makes a real difference found in Cigars of the Pharoah and King Ottokar's Sceptre to the ineffectual busybody of Tintin and the Picaros is a sad commentary on Hergé's own personal failings and ambivalence about his own work.

Tintin: Hergé and His Creation is a must read for any Tintin fan. By tracing the intertwined existence of Hergé and his boyish hero, Harry Thompson has found the true face of the artist and at the same time done much to explain his work. While Tintin himself was a fairly straightforward and uncomplicated fellow, Hergé was anything but, and this book illustrates this quite clearly. At times Thompson is a little too close to the subject, excusing some of Hergé's peccadilloes and failings a little too glibly, but overall, this is an interesting look into a man who became famous almost by accident, and then held on for dear life and rode the wave the rest of his life.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Aug 15, 2012, 2:27pm Top

Book Forty-Six: 21st Century Dead: A Zombie Anthology by Christopher Golden (editor).

Stories included:
Biters by Mark Morris
Why Mothers Let Their Babies Watch Television: A Just-So Horror Story by Chelsea Cain
Carousel by Orson Scott Card
Reality Bites by S.G. Browne
The Drop by Stephen Susco
Antiparallelogram by Amber Benson
How We Escaped Our Certain Fate by Dan Chaon
A Mother's Love by John McIlveen
Down and Out in Dead Town by Simon R. Green
Devil Dust by Caitlin Kittredge
The Dead of Dromore by Ken Bruen
All the Comforts of Home: A Beacon Story by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow
Ghost Dog & Pup: Stay by Thomas E. Sniegoiski
Tic Boom, a Love Story by Kurt Sutter
Jack and Jill by Jonathan Maberry
Tender as Teeth by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski
Couch Potato by Brian Keene
The Happy Bird and Other Tales by Rio Youers
Parasite by Daniel H. Wilson

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: 21st Century Dead is, as it says right on the cover, an anthology of zombie stories. The definition of "zombie" used in the collection is very loose, in some cases stretching the definition to the point where it is unrecognizable. This doesn't really degrade the quality of the book, because most of the stories are pretty good, even the stories that feature "zombies" only in name.

The first story in the volume is Biters by Mark Morris, which has a fairly standard take on zombies, depicting them as mostly mindless remnants of humans infected by some sort of virus that can be passed via biting and scratching. But although the depiction of the zombies is standard, the story itself takes place in a society that is adjusting to the reality of living with the zombie plague. Rather than people holed up in malls and bunkers shooting waves of ravenous undead, the story posits a society that had managed to get its zombie population under control and is now trying to figure out a way to manage the crisis, or reverse it. Told from the perspective of a elementary school aged girl undergoing basic education about zombies, the story is intriguing, albeit a little bit maudlin at the end. Another story that imagines a world in which zombies have become an accepted party of the landscape is How We Escaped Our Certain Fate by Dan Chaon, which deals with the complex relationship between those that are alive and those that are not quite alive. The story is decidedly darker than Biters, but does have a kind of oddly sweet ending. Well, oddly sweet for a zombie story.

The most "standard" zombie story in the volume is The Dead of Dromore by Ken Bruen. The story is a stylized depiction of the efforts of an elite team of mercenaries hired to rescue the daughter of a billionaire from a town overrun by the walking dead. The story starts off like a typical action movie with bluster and heroics, but because it is a classically plotted zombie story, it ends up bleak and desolate. On the other end of the scale is Ghost Dog & Pup: Stay by Thomas E. Sniegoiski, told from the perspective of a dead dog viewing his grieving former owner deal with the loss, but also confronting an ancient evil that he must help hold at bay. The story is one of letting go: for the living to let go of the dead, and for the dead to let go of the living. It is one of the longest stories in the book, and it is also one of the most moving. Another interesting take on zombies is found in Parasite by Daniel H. Wilson, a story like The Dead of Dromore with all of the trappings of a tale of military action, but which flips everything upside down so that the story is told from the perspective of one of the living dead. But in Parasite the living dead are made so by machines programmed to fight a long forgotten war, and which armies seem to repeatedly and unknowingly stumble into, only to be slaughtered and absorbed. In some ways, Parasite is the story of the Borg told as a zombie tale and set in a bleak and frozen Earth.

Some of the zombies stories are mostly excuses to engage in macabre humor. One of the best examples in the book is Why Mothers Let Their Babies Watch Television: A Just-So Horror Story by Chelsea Cain, a brief little darkly funny story about a mother dealing with a difficult child. Also darkly humorous is Reality Bites by S.G. Browne, a story involving a television producer considering the possibilities of reality shows with zombie cast members. The story is a brutal take upon the television industry and a pretty accurate representation of where interns fit into the workplace pecking order.

There are several stories in 21st Century Dead that play with the idea of what "zombie" means. The Drop by Stephen Susco deals with people hopelessly addicted to the online game Cynapse waiting for the "drop" of the expansion Revenant Pack that turns out to be much more than anyone bargained for. The story first takes two metaphorical takes on "zombie" to lull the reader into a sense of security, and then shows that things can get much, much worse. The story is exceptionally unsettling, and one of the best in the collection. Another story that plays with the idea of what "zombie" means is Antiparallelogram by Amber Benson, which deals with a future society in which people are defined by the clothes they wear, and if one is condemned to wear Pink, Purple, or Orange, then one might as well be dead. Against the background of this dystopian vision, Benson weaves a tale involving designer drugs for the rich that let them emulate various creatures of myth leading to a brilliant story of conspiracy, thievery, and rebirth. Down and Out in Dead Town by Simon R. Green also deals with those who are treated as the disposable refuse of society, comparing the homeless with the walking dead. But the story also throws in real walking dead, but in this case, the walking dead are indifferent to humanity. It turns out that even being the detritus of society is preferable to being among the uncaring dead.

One of the most potentially tragic things about a zombie story is that the monsters are not merely ravenous flesh-eating monsters, they are also the remains of people, and in some cases, people the protagonists know and may have loved when they were alive. A Mother's Love by John McIlveen deals with just this kind of tragedy, as a mother struggles with caring for her undead child. It is a story of bitter choices and, by the end, insanity. It is also deliciously disturbing. Like many of these type of stories, All the Comforts of Home: A Beacon Story by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow is a tale of loss and regret as a man who has settled into a safe haven with his daughter grapples with the pain of losing his son in the throng of desperate humanity outside. In the end, the story is bittersweet, full of hope for his living child, but anguish over his lost one. The most brutal of the stories that deal with a survivor caring for his loved ones in a world overrun by zombies is Tic Boom, a Love Story by Kurt Sutter in which a man with Tourrete's Syndrome must find food to feed his starving family. Once again, the strain of a post-zombie world has driven the central character insane, but in a touching, loving way.

Of course, knowing who the zombie in front of you was does not always mean that you thought highly of them when they were alive. This is the truth at the heart of Devil Dust by Caitlin Kittredge, a brutal tale of violence and coldly calculated revenge. Although Jack Porter in Jack and Jill by Jonathan Maberry is not out for revenge, he is one of the walking dead. Sick for much of his life with incurable cancer, he is doted upon by his mother and smothered with care. But like most stories in the volume that play with the idea of what it means to be one of the "walking dead" there is a twist in the story and Jack gets his secret wish in the end. Straddling the line between serious and humorous, the story is the best of the collection. One of the most painfully sad stories in the collection is Couch Potato by Brian Keene, told from the perspective of a young girl with a mother addicted to drugs and daytime television. The waves of zombies that overcome the outside world don't change Adele's life - her mother is just as neglectful as she was before the plague struck, and even after her mother has been afflicted herself, Adele's life doesn't appreciably change. Of course, her mother, despite being dead, hasn't changed her habits at all. Zombie stories are, at their heart, social commentary, and Keene cuts to the core of the modern obsession with junk television by making the living television addict essentially indistinguishable from the same television addict after they have been changed into a member of the living dead. And, pointedly, it is the child who suffers.

The zombie story is given a different face in Tender as Teeth by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski in which a former zombie who has been cured must deal with her own past as a baby-eating monster. This story is probably the second-best in the book, and deals with the very core of the idea of personal responsibility: could you live with knowing that for a time you were an uncontrollable creature that fed on the flesh of the living, and if you could, how would society react to you. A similar question is raised in The Happy Bird and Other Tales by Rio Youers, a horribly devastating tale of a man who has lost his family to the brutal soldiers of a vicious dictator. In this story, the "zombies" are soldiers who had been given a drug that deadened their humanity so that they could be more pliable tools of oppression. The protagonist, seeking to exact revenge, has captured one and spends much of the story trying to make the almost insensate zombie-soldier feel something, so that he could extract his revenge from something more than a mere automaton. But his own rage has distanced him from his own core of humanity, making him as much a zombie as the dead-eyed soldier he seeks to torment. In the end, he rediscovers his own humanity after reaching past the hatred and anger that has consumed him, and is able to rejoin the human race.

As usual, Orson Scott Card's fiction seems to be infused with his Mormon sensibility, and as a result, Carousel is probably the first Mormon-influenced zombie story. Except it isn't so much a zombie story as a story about what would happen if there was a God who simply gave everyone what they wanted and arranged so our loved ones never died. This is sort of a zombie story, but is mostly just a vehicle for Card to push some fairly odd theology. This is the weakest story in the book, which is unfortunate given that it comes early in the book and is by one of the most prominent big "name" authors who contributed to the collection.

With the exception of the Card story, 21st Century Dead is packed full of strong zombie stories. Some are interesting and inventive. Some are comfortably cliched. Some are bleak and disturbing. Some are twisted and darkly funny. But almost all of them are good, while a few are excellent. There is a little bit of science fiction for the science fiction fan, a little bit of fantasy for the fantasy fan, a little bit of humor for the humor fan, and a whole lot of horror for the horror fan. In the final analysis, 21st Century Dead is a collection that any zombie horror fan will love, and which almost anyone else with an appreciation for genre fiction will enjoy.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Aug 2, 2012, 4:59pm Top

Book Forty-Seven: Spear of Seth by Rene Daniel.

Short review: Alex is pulled into an intrigue over the discovery of a mysterious underworld beneath Egypt where godlike tyrants, giant insects, and a vicious rival repeatedly try to kill him.

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: If one wants to read a yarn about brave adventurers exploring lost civilizations, one could open Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, or H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, or pretty much anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Or one could pick up Spear of Seth and get much the same experience with some Dan Brown-style fictitious history and conspiracies thrown in for good measure. The end result is a fun adventure with a pair of likable protagonists, some reasonably interesting adversaries, and a cast of memorable supporting characters.

Spear of Seth is billed as book one of the "Tales of Van Senmut College", so presumably the denizens of the fictional Pennsylvania college established in this book will be a continuing feature of the series. The two protagonists found in this volume, the somewhat indifferent pre-med student Alex Kyan, and the overachieving daughter of the Dean of the school Heather Van Senmut, are both entertaining and likable characters in their own unique ways. As the first book in the series, it seems that this may be something of a paranormal version of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew stories, with youthful protagonists solving mysteries and foiling villains. And although they don't actually form a romantic connection in this volume, the potential is clearly established, providing for an ongoing Moonlighting type of relationship that will provide Mr. Daniel with plenty of material for story lines. With these characters plus the supporting cast of professors from the College, the potential for this series seems to be reasonably strong.

Of course, talking about potential of a series is not particularly interesting unless the first book is good. Fortunately, this book is pretty good. After a slow start, the book settles into a comfortable rhythm switching viewpoint characters in each chapter alternating between Alex and Heather. By alternating the viewpoint character, the story is able to show both sides of the relationship between the two as they move from mutual animosity to grudging respect to a congenial friendship. But this relationship unfolds against the backdrop of a main story that involves poisoning, a secret magical history of the world, and a journey to Egypt to uncover a lost temple. In other words, a tale worthy of an adventure featuring Indiana Jones. Except in this story the main characters are a pair of college students, a chemistry professor, an Egyptian archaeologist, and an eccentric ex-professor obsessed with the study of magic. Aligned against them are a wealthy industrialist, his college age son, and various corrupt members of the local government in Egypt. The basic thrust of the story is that Heather's father is poisoned and the secret to curing him may be found among the ruins of an ancient temple on Elephantine Island on the Nile.

Once the story gets going, we follow our heroes as they adventure together, are separated, and eventually reunited. Along the way, they discover a hidden Egyptian underworld beneath the feet of the denizens of the modern nation. While journeying along the river that binds together the regions of this strange twilight realm the protagonist has a entertaining series of adventures involving hostile natives and baleful monsters while sparring with a villainous adversary who also descended to the underworld hunt for the mysterious Spear of Seth. This underworld adventure is where the "fantasy" element of the story shows up, but this element is mostly muted. Anyone hoping for Egyptian sorcerers turning staves into snakes will be disappointed, but over sized insects, spiders, and frogs are definitely on the literary menu. As is a bizarre civilization ruled over by apparently absurdly long-lived beings, and a final obstacle that may or may not be Earthly in origin. Although the path the book takes is more or less dictated by the ancient Egyptian river of the afterlife, the story does have something of a video game feel, with the protagonist having to navigate through one area before proceeding through the river gate to the next. Despite this quirk, the story still holds together, even though the denouement seems very much like a video game "boss fight".

Daniel breaks up the action underground by alternating with a parallel story taking place in the above ground modern world, which allows him to have several cliffhanger chapter endings throughout the story as he switches back and forth between the two story lines. In some ways the above-ground story line is more enjoyable because it is not as predictable and seems less like a railroad pushing the characters forward. The parallel story also helps fill in all of the background information that makes the underground story interesting, and also helps lay the groundwork for the ongoing series. The parallel story also features a wider variety of interesting characters than the underground story, so much so that when the two story lines finally meet up late in the book, it is somewhat disappointing when all of the action moves underground.

On the whole Spear of Seth is a fun book and a worthy descendant of the "lost world" and mystery books that clearly inspired it. Despite a somewhat predictable ending, the story holds up well enough and the characters are engaging and enjoyable to read about. The simple question to ask when reading the first novel in a planned series is this: would I want to read more books in this series? The answer to that question when it comes to Spear of Seth is yes.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jul 24, 2012, 2:20pm Top

Book Forty-Eight: Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman.

Short review: People are irrational but consistently so, and for somewhat explainable reasons.

Long review: Why do people make seemingly silly choices, choosing to spend hundreds of dollars to acquire something that is declared to be worth twenty or less? Why do people maintain a commitment to wrong-headed decisions even after it becomes clear that are heading to ruin? Why do we allow worry about possible losses cause us to forego easy gains, and even suffer losses? Sway is an exploration of these types of irrational behavior, and an attempt to explain why we do what we do. As an introduction to the ideas underlying behavioral economics, and the concept of predictable human irrationality, the book is decent. However, because it the treatment of the material is so superficial, for anyone already familiar with the basics of behavioral economics, this book will probably not be particularly valuable.

In the opening chapter, the authors give specific examples of "irrational behavior": doctors pouring asbestos into the chest cavities of patients during open heart surgery despite the evidence that this was killing them, the decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger despite the recommendations against it from the O-ring manufacturers, physicians sending a repeatedly a child home from the emergency room without checking her because they had decided that her mother was just being hysterical. And so on. It is this impulse - the irrational attachments that humans have to decisions they have made - that sits at the core of human irrational behavior, and serves as the starting point for the book.

The authors use the Tenerife air disaster as their primary example of irrational behavior, trying to explain how an experienced pilot, the head of KLM's safety program, could make a series of almost inexplicably poor decisions that would lead to an on-runway collision costing the lives of hundreds of people, including everyone aboard his aircraft. This example is returned to several times in the book, as the litany of bad decisions illustrates each of the major causes of irrational decision making: loss aversion, diagnosis bias, group bias, and so on. By such disparate means as the egg and orange juice purchasing habits of American consumers, the relative playing time given to NBA players, the voting patterns of audience members in various versions of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and a number of other examples, the authors illustrate all of the various psychological forces that result in humans making seemingly stupid decisions.

Given the subject matter of the book, comparisons to Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, and it is when viewed in this light that Sway comes up somewhat short. There is nothing particularly wrong with the book, but I suspect that the fact that the examples used by the authors to illustrate their points were almost all second hand accounts for it. In Ariely's books he discusses much the same psychological territory, but uses examples drawn from experiments that either he or graduate students under his supervision have conducted, which gives his books an immediacy that Sway simply lacks. This element also allows Ariely's books to be much more precise when illustrating particular quirks of human behavior, because the experiments in question were specifically designed to identify and test particular points. This does not mean that when the Brafmans cite the "love bridge" experiment to illustrate the effect that anxiety and adrenaline have on sexual interest that they are not making a salient point, but rather that because they are relating an experiment second hand, that it seems less compelling than if they were relating experiments that they had set up and observed directly.

The corollary of this lack of direct involvement is that the Brafmans seem less able to use their observations concerning human nature to make suggestions for possible uses for the particularly human idiosyncrasies that they identify and examine. Whereas Ariely's studies concerning the human propensity to cheat were driven by a desire to understand why the executives at Enron engaged in the behavior that led to the collapse of the company, and further to figure out what sort of system could be put in place to discourage such behavior in the future, the Brafmans seem to have no prescriptive suggestions as to how one might prevent a recurrence of the Tenerife disaster, and don't even seem to think that such suggestions might be important or interesting to the reader.

Even so, the strange patterns that the authors identify are interesting and carry the book, especially in the latter chapters where they focus on the psychology of group behavior and the distinction between social and economic decisions (and the impossibility of the two to function in conjunction with as opposed to in alternative with one another). While Sway doesn't break any new ground, or offer any new insights to anyone who has had contact with the field of behavioral economics and the study of decision-making, it is a well-written and very readable introduction to those fields.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Aug 16, 2012, 10:54am Top

Book Forty-Nine: Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher.

Short review: You are what you pay attention to, so pay attention to things that matter.

Long review Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life is, more or less, half of a good book. The central claim of the book is that people tend to not just be more successful and productive, when they are more focused, but also happier. To buttress this claim Gallagher provides a collection of anecdotal examples and a handful of studies on the subject, making her case that there is a connection between focus and happiness reasonably well. However, the book seems to fall short of establishing that a focused way of life will cause happiness – it seems entirely plausible that the causal arrow might point the other direction so that happy people are naturally more focused. The book also gives no real advice for how to achieve a focused life other than to say "focus more and you'll be happier".

The concept of "paying attention" is something that most of us take for granted. But for the most part, we only notice "paying attention" when we, or someone we are trying to talk to is not. In Rapt, Gallagher begins by discussing the relatively recent development of the serious study of "attention", and exploring how this psychological phenomenon affects us. Although many people have the idea that even though they don't consciously remember all of the elements of a scene that they have looked at, that all of the information is filed away in our brain somewhere. But the reality seems to be that elements of that scene that we were not paying attention to effectively did not exist for us. Our world is shaped by the limitations of our attention. In effect, the world that we individually live in is created by the limits of our ability to focus.

With this knowledge in hand, Gallagher proceeds to illustrate the ways that focus can make our lives happier. She points out that people who are always trying their hand at new things are required to give their full attention to the task in order to master it, and such people tend to be happier than people who pursue the same mastered tasks ad nauseum. Those things that are new and difficult, but which was can master with sufficient work, our brain is engaged, and as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes it, we "flow", a kind of state in which our perception of time alters as our focus carries us away. Humans, it seems, are happier when dealing with novelty, and when the novelty wears off, what once made us interested and buoyant becomes commonplace and boring. The example is given of winning the lottery – people think that winning a lot of money will make them happy. And studies show that for short periods of time it does. But having lots of money soon becomes the ordinary experience for such people, and the excitement of having lots of money loses its allure. Because one no longer focuses on their good fortune, the money no longer provides happiness. This effect also goes a long way to explain why the wealthy are no generally happier than those of more modest means, and why the impoverished are not generally unhappier. For them, such conditions are normal, and thus cease to factor in their perception of well-being.

People who are told to focus on the "nice" things as they take a daily walk self-report a happier outlook than those who are told to focus on "bad" things, or simply given no instructions at all. In a sense, the reality we experience is bounded by our focus. This can be a useful observation, potentially allowing us to choose to focus on those things that provide us with a happier life. But this reality also poses some potential hazards – those whose focus is consumed by "bad" things will come to see the world as being irreparably damaged. This kind of myopia can also lead to a person choosing to focus only on those things that confirm their chosen world view. This kind of focused attention may account for the tendency of some people to cling tenaciously to wrong-headed pseudoscience, or untenable prejudices. When one considers the narrowness of focus that we are all subject to, one can quickly see the necessity of the more objective analysis that comes from a communal and testable evaluation, such as that we see in the pursuit of science. Though we harbor the notion that we all share the same world, the reality seems to be that we each live in an individual world of our own choosing, even if our choice is often made unconsciously.

Competing with our focus is distraction. One might wonder if focus is so valuable to us, allowing us to accomplish tasks, and provide the key to happiness, why are we so easily distracted? The answer seems to be rooted in evolution: those of our ancestors who were too focused, missed the signals that warned of danger, and were, presumably, eaten by a lion or some other beast. This also explains why, when our focus is interrupted, our focus can shift so tightly onto whatever it is that distracted us – if the event that was significant enough to pull our attention away from our current task were one that signals danger, it would have behooved our ancestors to pay close attention to it. The difficulty is that until one focuses on the distraction, there is no way to tell whether it is important or not. So we are subject to distractions that are trivial or irrelevant, and our brain often treats them as being just as important as whatever we are doing at the time. And in the modern world, this tendency to distraction means that we are constantly fighting to keep ourselves focused on what is in front of us. Because we have a tendency to treat each distraction as equally important, when we try to multitask, we are unable to focus, and not only are we less effective, we are also less happy.

But the failing of the book is that while it offers the suggestion that a more focused life will lead to a happier self, it gives no particular advice as to how to accomplish this more substantial than "try new things", and "reduce the distractions in your life". These suggestions, while evidently true, are of little practical value. If people could avoid distractions, then they would do so. Simply saying "avoid distractions" is a banal, and mostly useless bit of advice. Perhaps this sort of criticism is unfair to Rapt. After all, if a book was published showing the connection between being unfit and a shorter lifespan, one would not automatically expect that it would also take on the task of advising the reader how to become fitter. But conversely, the author of such a book would also be writing in an environment in which books about diet, fitness, and personal health are commonplace, and thus when writing about the virtues of a healthy lifestyle might possibly feel no need to offer any kind of advice concerning how to achieve such a lifestyle. But with the exception of pop self-help books, there doesn't appear to be much assistance for someone seeking to try to obtain the benefits of a focused life. Consequently, when the sum total of the advice in this book amounts to little more than "operate on the edge of your competence", and "focus your attention on happy things", it feels decidedly unsatisfying.

Understanding how our brains work is one of the most interesting areas of study. Understanding ourselves allows us to better understand the world around us. Looking inward and figuring out how our own perceptions are formed gives us a way to evaluate how well those perceptions match up with the world around us, and if necessary, correct for them. Rapt not only explains how our focus makes us happier, but also reveals that we live in a world defined by what we focus upon. Although the book does not offer any suggestions as to how one could shift one's focus in a manner that would make one happier or more productive, it does offer some real insight into how our focus shapes the world we live in, and by extension, shapes us.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Sep 26, 2012, 1:20pm Top

Book Fifty: Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer.

Short review: Some people believe in odd, weird, and downright crazy things like UFO abductions, creationism, psychic powers, and holocaust denial. Almost all of their ideas are wrong, and this book explains why.

Long review: Why People Believe Weird Things probably should have been titled Weird Stuff People Believe, and Why They Are Wrong. On the other hand, the subtitle of the book, Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, pretty much sums up what the book describes. Through the book Michael Shermer systematically debunks pseudoscience and superstition while making what seems to be a mostly unsuccessful attempt to explain why people are so persistently attached to beliefs such as holocaust denial and creationism that are simply demonstrably wrong as a matter of fact.

In his forward to the book, Stephen Jay Gould explains the need for skepticism, and the dangers of accepting pseudoscience as fact, drawing a connection between Michael Shermer's efforts and Carl Sagan's similar body of work. With that preliminary out of the way, Shermer begins the hard work of trying to unravel what it is about superstitious nonsense that draws fervent believers. Shermer opens by discussing his own credulous acceptance of various "weird things" that he indulged in to bolster his efforts at competitive cycling, detailing his various efforts to gain a competitive advantage. At one point, he and a group of cyclists sent several samples of a single person's blood for "cryptoxic blood testing", and in response received as many different diagnoses as they had sent samples. Finally, Shermer was working with a nutritionist who told him massive doses of megavitamins would help him win, and placed him on a regimen. The pills nauseated Shermer, so he began simply spitting them out when his nutritionist wasn't looking. At that point, Shermer realized that perhaps taking all claims at face value wasn't a particularly good idea.

Shermer uses the next section to sketch out what skepticism is, and how it relates to science. He then turns to defining pseudoscience and pseudohistory, explaining how each one respectively differs from real science and real history. A particularly notable example concerns attempts by an actual historian to point out the fallacies engaged in by a proponent of an Afrocentric pseudohistory that culminates in her dean telling her that "everyone has a different equally valid view of history", and that it didn't matter that what the Afrocentrist was claiming was physically impossible. Pseudoscience and pseudohistory start with their conclusions and seek out supporting evidence, real science and history start with the evidence and draw conclusions from that, no matter how uncomfortable or painful those conclusions may be.

Following on his description of what science is, and how it differs from pseudoscience, Shermer provides twenty-five fallacies describing how people fool themselves. Three are problems with scientific thinking, and which a careful scientist (and an honest skeptic) has to be on guard against. Eleven are common fallacies that are used by pseudoscientists and pseudohistorians to bolster their unreliable claims. Seven are common logical fallacies, and the remaining three are psychological problems with human cognition. In each case, Shermer explains what the fallacy is, how to identify it when it is used, how it affects human perception, and describes how to avoid falling victim to it, both in one's own thinking and when evaluating claims made by others. This chapter, more than any other, does the job of explaining "why people believe weird things". Or more accurately, how people fool themselves and others into believing weird things.

At this point the book shifts to specific examples of the weird things that people believe, and the reasons their beliefs are simply unfounded. One by one Shermer takes on E.S.P., near death experiences, cryonics, alien abduction stories (including a near surgical dismantling of the "alien autopsy" video), witch crazes both in the medieval period and the modern day, including an analysis of how accusation webs perpetuate and an examination of the "recovered memory" phenomenon, and the bizarre personality cult that has sprung up around Ayn Rand. Shermer then devotes a substantial portion of the book to debunking creationism and holocaust denial, in the process pointing out the parallels between the two systems of pseudo-belief. Along the way he dissects twenty-five common creationist arguments, most of which are still used by shills for creationism despite these arguments having been discredited years ago. As debunking holocaust deniers is Shermer's specialty, he spends an entire chapter of the book comprehensively demolishing their claims and demonstrating exactly how their claims of being unfairly persecuted as anti-Semites simply don't hold up to scrutiny. As detailed in the book, they are anti-Semites, and their claims that the holocaust was fabricated are simply unsupportable.

Although Why People Believe Weird Things is only somewhat successful at its stated objective of explaining why people continue to adhere to superstition and pseudoscience despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is a brilliant deconstruction of the various confused and illogical positions espoused by those people. Each of the pseudo-beliefs addressed in the book are thoroughly and completely debunked with ruthless efficiency. If one is not so much concerned with why people believe silly things, but is instead interested in why they are wrong to do so, this is a brilliant book. Even if one's primary interest is "why" this is still a worthwhile book, and well worth reading.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jul 31, 2012, 4:20pm Top

Book Fifty-One: Shadows of the Past by E. A. Jensen.

Short review: Vampires and "ware"-animals are the good guys, the Church of Light are the villains. Kirsa is a child prodigy with issues and must solve a series of murders of paranormal creatures in her hometown.

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Shadows of the Past is a book that should have been much better than it actually is. The basic story - a paranormal mystery-romance with a modest amount of originality - is not too bad. But the simple truth is that this book needed serious rewriting and editing. Because of this, reading Shadows of the Past is a depressingly frustrating experience, not because of all the weak elements, but because those weak elements hinder and obscure what could have been an enjoyable book.

The fact that a book is self-published, as Shadows of the Past is, is not in itself a mark of quality or lack thereof. There is no particular reason for a self-published book to be good, or bad, or have any other particular characteristic. But the one thread that seems to tie most self-published books together is a lack of editing. And Shadows of the Past suffers terribly from this affliction. One thing that self-published authors need to realize is that a computer spell checker is no substitute for a good copy editor, or any copy editor at all. Shadows of the Past is riddled with the kinds of errors that show up when an author tries to use a spell checking program to catch the sorts of problems that a copy editor would find: homonyms used instead of the correct word, verbs conjugated incorrectly, words missing from sentences, and so on. These types of mistakes in the text won't be caught by a spell-checker, because the individual words in the book are spelled correctly. But when they are strung together, they add up to a mess.

But the problems with Shadows of the Past run deeper than simple grammatical mistakes and spelling miscues. The book itself needed an editor to go through it and suggest serious revisions to many parts of the story. The most consistent problem with the book is overly abrupt transitions as the story switches from scene to scene. For example, the action might switch from a couple of characters having a conversation in New Jersey to a a completely different character doing something completely unrelated in Germany with nothing more than a paragraph break separating the two scenes. These sorts of jolting transitions pull the reader out of the story as he has to stop and figure out what is going on, and whether what they are now reading has anything to do with what they read just a few sentences before. In many ways, the published version of Shadows of the Past reads like the first draft of a book that needed a couple of redrafts and at least one or two readings by a good editor. As it is, the book feels like a criminal waste of good potential.

I remember going to see A.S. King speak when she was in Alexandria. She said that she had written seven complete novels before Dust of 100 Dogs was published. She also said that despite the disappointment she felt at the time when those novels were not selected for publication, the time and effort spent writing those novels was a necessary learning experience for her on her journey to becoming someone who could turn out polished publishable material. In a way, the danger of self-publishing is that authors whose material is not yet ready for the public eye will bypass this sort of learning process and have works in print that will mark their career permanently, or even derail their career. To a certain extent, I think that Shadows of the Past may be a that E.A. Jensen will come to regret publishing in its current form. Not because the book is bad - even though it is - but because with more work, the book clearly could have been so much better.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Sep 5, 2012, 12:33pm Top

Book Fifty-Two: Shadow Show by Sam Weller and Mort Castle (editors).

Stories included:
Second Homecoming by Ray Bradbury
The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury by Neil Gaiman
Headlife by Margaret Atwood
Heavy by Jay Bonansinga
The Girl in the Funeral Parlor by Sam Weller
The Companions by David Morrell
The Exchange by Thomas F. Monteleone
Cat on a Bad Couch by Lee Martin
By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain by Joe Hill
Little America by Dan Chaon
The Phone Call by John McNally
Young Pilgrims by Joe Meno
Children of the Bedtime Machine by Robert McCammon
The Page by Ramsey Campbell
Light by Mort Castle
Conjure by Alice Hoffman
Max by John Maclay
Two of a Kind by Jacquelyn Mitchard
Fat Man and Little Boy by Gary Braunbeck
The Tattoo by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Backwards in Seville by Audrey Niffenegger
Earth (a Gift Shop) by Charles Yu
Hayleigh's Dad by Julia Keller
Who Knocks? by Dave Eggers
Reservation by Bayo Ojikutu
Two Houses by Kelly Link
Weariness by Harlan Ellison

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Shadow Show was not originally conceived as a posthumous tribute to Ray Bradbury, although it was obviously conceived as a tribute to the writer. However, Bradbury's death just a month before this volume was published transformed this into a loving look back on the life and work of a magnificent writer. The theme of the book is both very simple and very complex: a group of accomplished writers were asked to write stories that celebrated Ray Bradbury, either writing stories that were "in the style" of Ray Bradbury, or stories that showed Ray's influence on their own writing, or in some other way that they thought would be a fitting way to honor him. And the result is a brilliant anthology full of beautiful stories. Each author was also given the opportunity to provide a note after their story, explaining Bradbury's place in their memory, and the inspiration for the story. Some of these notes are brilliant and insightful, others are less so, a few are banal. And as one might expect, the general rule is that the better the story, the better the note tends to be.

The book opens with a brief essay by Ray Bradbury titled Second Homecoming in which he describes his journey from a "child" of Edgar Allen Poe and other authors who influenced him to being the "father" of so many other authors, including the ones who penned the stories in this volume. This piece is brief, but like most everything that Bradbury wrote, it is touching and sweet without being maudlin or sappy. Bradbury's essay is followed immediately by The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury by the writer who may be the most "Bradbury-like" author writing today - Neil Gaiman. In his story Gaiman manages to capture the combination of melancholy and horror that infuses so many of Bradbury's own stories with a tale about a man who forgets Bradbury, but realizes that he has lost something valuable, even though he cannot recall what it is. It is moving and, like most Gaiman stories, brilliant. Another story that incorporates Bradbury by implication is The Exchange by Thomas F. Monteleone, a story about a young man who has a chance encounter with an elderly author. The story is moderately entertaining, and is clearly a love note to Bradbury, but it isn't anything more than that.

My favorite story in the volume is Cat on a Bad Couch by Lee Martin, possibly because I can somewhat relate to the protagonist who is helplessly seeing the life he has grown comfortable living fall apart. Along the way, he collects an ugly couch, an indifferent cat, and a guilty conscience. The story captures the everyday sadness and anguish that laces through so many Bradbury stories. Another story that reflects Ray's love of finding the extraordinary in the commonplace is The Page by Ramsey Campbell, wherein an elderly vacationer stumbles into a quest after the meaning of a single page from what turns out to be an obscure book by a deceased author. The story deals with meaning and mortality, as well as the immortality of an author.

Margaret Atwood may have a strained relationship with the science fiction genre, but she does know how to craft a creepy science fiction horror story and Headlife is an example of this talent. Atwood's entry in the volume is a tale of arrogance, karma, and terror. Another entry in the horror story field is By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain by Joe Hill, a more straightforward take on the genre that couples Bradbury's love of mystery and stories featuring children. An inscrutable object washes up on shore where a cantankerous group of kids are playing, leading to a day of arguments, disputes, and eventually, tragedy. Little America by Dan Chaon is also a horror story featuring children, but where Headlife is comic, and By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain is moody and atmospheric, Little America is terrifying and sad. It is also unpredictable, and making assumptions at the outset of the story is likely to lead the reader to some conclusions that are shown to be horrifyingly erroneous by the end. Perhaps the most frightening story involving children is Hayleigh's Dad by Julia Keller, a story in which the terror is made all the more shocking because of the ordinary setting and the casual nature of the violence.

Not all of Bradbury's stories involving children were horror tales but were instead coming of age stories, and Young Pilgrims by Joe Meno reflects this. Two children born into a repressive religious sect on a distant planet chafe at the restrictions imposed upon them and try to stretch their wings. Just as with so many Bradbury tales about growing up the story has its share of anger and death – parents never seem to want to let go, and if they don't, youth will not be denied but there is a price to be paid. A somewhat happier story, Children of the Bedtime Machine by Robert McCammon takes place in a bleak future in which the worlds resources have been exhausted and everyone lives hardscrabble lives eking out lives by raising vegetables in their backyard. An old woman living and grey and empty hand-to-mouth existence acquires an archaic piece of technology and rediscovers the color and magic that storytelling can bring into one's life, especially when shared with other. Of all the stories in the volume, it is the only one that has an unreservedly happy outcome.

Although Bradbury was known as a science fiction writer, his work was oftentimes more concerned with human mortality and how we deal with it. In that vein, Heavy by Jay Bonansinga is about the relationship between a washed up Hollywood character actor known for playing villains and an agent with a reputation as an unlikable fellow. The two come together in an unlikely way, and they face death in an unlikely way, with a quirky little story in between. Max by John Maclay is also concerned with mortality, but like many it approaches the story with a light supernatural touch that suggests rather than says that there might be a way to transcend that condition. And sometimes Bradbury would show the way to face even death with joy, and Gary Braunbeck captures this with Fat Man and Little Boy, in which a man out of place reflects upon his life and imparts what wisdom he can to a young coconspirator who aids him in ending his own life on his own terms.

Another story dealing with how people deal with death but also love is The Girl in the Funeral Parlor by Sam Weller, in which a man meets the woman he believes to be his one true love. In a typical story, star-crossed lovers would meet briefly and be torn apart by fate. But because this is a Bradbury-esque story, the two lovers meet only after one of them is dead, resulting in a narrative that is full of melancholy leavened with a little creepiness. The Phone Call by John McNally also deals with love out of time, this time the love a son has for his murdered mother. The story is told through a series of phone calls between the future and the past that pose a mystery and present a tantalizing opportunity to save the dead, but by the time the mystery is solved everything has gone awfully wrong and it is too late even for justice and all the protagonist can do is grieve. Love and death also feature prominently in Backwards in Seville by Audrey Niffenegger, a tale in which a daughter is allowed to make a heroic sacrifice for her father, a sacrifice she makes out of the belief that he will make a better use out of the gift than she would. The story is somehow both nihilistic and life-affirming at the same time.

Bradbury was also known for walking the line between reality and the supernatural, and The Companions by David Morrell captures some of that magic with a story involving some rather affable guardian angels. However, in Bradbury fashion the story is also about the measure of love and sacrifice, as a man finds out that his fate is not what he wanted it to be, but accepts his role out of love. Who Knocks? by Dave Eggers feels like a campfire ghost story that hints at the supernatural, with an ambiguous and unsettling ending. Two Houses by Kelly Link is also a ghost story, but it is a ghost story in space, with a story within a story and a satisfyingly creepy mood. Also blending the supernatural with the mundane is Conjure by Alice Hoffman, a tale of misdirected puppy love, and the dangers it poses, as well as the sacrifices a true friend will make if they really care. But sometimes when the supernatural filters into the world the results are neither fair nor pretty, as in Two of a Kind by Jacquelyn Mitchard in which an old man reflects upon a chance decision made by his uncle that apparently condemned his cousin to death for an ill-considered crime. The story is calmly frightening with the casually harsh retribution meted out and the guilt felt by the survivor.

Because most of the authors in the book wrote their stories while reflecting upon which of Bradbury's works most touched them, the stories tend towards the haunting, the wistful, and the melancholy. But Bradbury's writing could also be whimsical and humorous, a fact that is reflected in Charles Yu's story Earth (a Gift Shop). An empty and abandoned Earth is transformed into a museum, and then an amusement park, and finally, just a gift shop so that tourists can get a souvenir to take home with them. The story is funny, but also bitterly satirical.

The most self-conscious effort to create a story that not only celebrates Bradbury, but more or less imitates his writing is The Tattoo by Bonnie Jo Campbell, a story that is clearly influenced by The Illustrated Man. It is a tale of a man who has always done the right thing finding his place in the world by means of a magical tattoo. Even though he does the "crazy" thing by abandoning his comfortable job and reliable fiancée in favor of a nomadic carnival lifestyle and a woman he barely knows, the story makes it clear that he is compelled to do so by the imperative of following one's true dreams. The other story that seems to be directly inspired by a specific Bradbury story is Reservation 2020 by Bayo Ojikutu, a story clearly influenced by Fahrenheit 451. In a future world, the inhabitants of the U.S. have been largely herded into reservations for their own safety. When a young man creates art that threatens to upset the political order, the dark reality that lurks underneath the Potemkin exterior is exposed. In contrast, the one story that seems out of place in this collection is Light by Mort Castle. An odd fictionalized account that tells of the life of Marilyn Monroe, weaving the real events of her life into a narrative that takes her metaphorical luminosity and asserts it to be a real physical characteristic. The story seems out of place in this collection because it is the one story that seems like it was simply pulled off the shelf by the author and mailed in, whereas all the other stories seem as though they were written specifically for this collection. A slightly supernatural retelling of Monroe's life is kind of interesting, but it doesn't seem to evoke Bradbury in any way.

The very last story in the volume is, appropriately, Weariness by Harlan Ellison. While most of the other authors who contributed to this collection were one or two generations later than Bradbury, Ellison was his contemporary – in Bradbury's words, they were brothers. The story itself is a brief exploration of the kind of melancholy and loneliness that permeated Bradbury's own stories, which is a markedly different tone from Ellison's own stories infused with a rage and anger that rails against the inevitable. The two authors were, in some ways, the sides of a single coin. While Bradbury wrote about accepting the world and working with it, Ellison's signature works give us protagonists who fight even when the fight is completely lost. Perhaps it is age and weariness that has mellowed Ellison and allowed him to produce this story. I doubt it. I think it is a testament to the love that he had for his fellow writer that made him channel the other's style so completely. And that love is clearly on display, along with Ellison's signature irascibility, in his beautiful and touching author's note.

Shadow Show is an almost perfect goodbye love note to a powerful writer. Full of stories that illustrate the impact that Bradbury had on his compatriots and the themes that wove through his entire body of work, the collection is almost tone perfect. With a single exception, the stories seem to give a little window into what Bradbury meant to the writer, and at times, seem to give a little window into Bradbury himself. From the opening by Gaiman to the closing by Ellison, Shadow Show is a beautiful and melancholy walk through the minds of writers when they think of Bradbury, and this walk is a walk that should be taken.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Aug 10, 2012, 8:28pm Top

Book Fifty-Three: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan.

Short review: For most of human history, our world has been shrouded in myth and superstition. Science is the light that leads us out of the darkness.

Long review: Throughout his life Carl Sagan was a passionate advocate for science in general and science education specifically. Sagan clearly believed that an educated public was essential to a modern, pluralistic, egalitarian, democratic society, and attempted to do as much as he could from his position as a professor at Cornell University to promote the cause. And the kind of education that concerned him most was science education - partially because he had devoted his professional life to the pursuit of science, but also because he believed that understanding the reality of how the world around us works is a critical skill enabling a voting populace to be better able to make informed and effective choices. The primary means by which he worked to advance his goals was to publish books about science that would be accessible to the general public, culminating in the publication of The Demon-Haunted World.

The subtitle of The Demon-Haunted World is Science as a Candle in the Dark, a statement that reflects Sagan's justifiable belief that the truths about the universe provided by science are our only defense against the darkness of ignorance that dominates much of human history. To counteract the ever advancing shadow of pseudoscience, superstition, hokum, and other foolishness, Sagan prescribes a firm grounding in science and a familiarity with philosophy. Sagan starts by describing his own science education, asserting that while his own parents were neither scientists or readers, they encouraged their son's own interest in such thing. But Sagan also criticize the pre-university education inflicted upon him: learning facts and equations by rote, memorizing the periodic table of the elements, and other similarly tedious ways of imparting the dry knowledge of science while sucking the joy and wonder out of the discipline. Despite this tedium, Sagan preserved his love of science via independent study, reading voraciously from the public library. It was only once he had managed to slog his way through High School and reach the collegiate level that his burning desire to understand the universe was embraced and encouraged by the educational establishment.

Given this, it should come as no surprise that Sagan's solution is not to put children in classrooms memorizing facts, although he does acknowledge that there is value to learning facts and figures. His prescription is an effort to impart the joy of discovery in students, but to do so by encouraging and promoting creative thinking. As an example, he recounts an encounter he had with a cab driver in which the driver asserted a belief in a variety of somewhat silly ideas: frozen extraterrestrials, channeling, Nostradamus's prophecies, astrology, the Shroud of Turin, and so on. In each case Sagan had to point out that the driver's belief was almost certainly misplaced, primarily because the evidence supporting those beliefs was lacking. But Sagan didn't simply tell the driver that he was wrong, he attempted to explain why he was wrong. And at the same time, Sagan expressed sadness at an educational system that had failed to equip this man with the tools necessary to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

As an astronomer, Sagan often dealt frequently with UFO enthusiasts, who were convinced that not only were aliens real (a conviction that Sagan shared, but which he asserted was merely speculation), but that they routinely visited the Earth, abducted humans, performed bizarre medical and sexual experiments on them, and in some cases, lived among us hidden by clever disguises (all convictions that Sagan rejected as unsupported by evidence). In The Demon-Haunter World, Sagan explores the UFO phenomenon, found almost exclusively in the twentieth century of Europe and the United States, discussing the roots of the craze, its most prominent advocates, the anecdotes that purportedly support it, and the proffered evidence used to support its claims. In turn, Sagan examines each bit of UFO lore and explains exactly why the evidence supporting it is simply insufficient to reach the conclusions that UFO enthusiasts fervently believe to be true. Many of his arguments in this area are not new - UFOs have been reported since 1947, and Sagan has been grappling with claims put forward by believers for much of his career - but in The Demon-Haunted World Sagan assembles much of his collected thoughts on the issue into one place. Even though I had seen some of these arguments back in 1980 when I first watched the Cosmos television series, they are still fascinating reading.

But although Sagan hinted in Cosmos that the UFO phenomenon seemed to him to be more connected with superstition and religion than with any kind of actual events, in The Demon-Haunted World he argues explicit in favor of a connection, drawing a parallel between UFO abduction stories and the witch-burning hysteria of pre-modern Europe fueled by lurid stories of demonic visitations. Sagan convincingly traces the link between these tales, and the modern stories of UFO abduction with the only real difference being that imagined demon visitation often resulted in the condemnation and execution of thousands of people based upon nothing more than an unexplained dream someone had of being abducted and raped by demons. In a world in which claims need not be supported by evidence, the mere accusation equated to a presumption of guilt, and those presumed guilty were tortured until they confessed and required to name their accomplices, resulting in more arrests, more torture, and more accusations. Although this does not happen with UFO abduction stories, when the connection is show, it is chilling, because it demonstrates how close we are to a world in which people can be killed based upon nothing more than mass hysteria. A critical mind and a demand for evidence is often all that stands between us and barbarity.

Sagan, of course, does not confine his commentary to UFO sightings and witchcraft trials, but examines a variety of pseudoscientific beliefs including creationism, astrology, telepathy, "channeling", and so on. He recounts the tale of the psychic Jose Luis Alvarez who was scheduled to appear in Australia, heavily promoted as being able to channel the spirit of "Carlos", an ancient soul able to deliver prophecies and impart wisdom. Only after "Carlos" had appeared on Australian television, been written up numerous newspaper articles, and sold out the Sydney Opera House was the whole thing revealed to be a hoax. And with this, and the reactions to the revelation of the hoax, Sagan shows how charlatans of all stripes take advantage of the gullible, or merely unwary. And while the dangers of falling for the charms of a psychic are usually only of concern to the individual being gulled, the dangers of falling for pseudoscientific ideas can have far larger consequences in a society in which our health and welfare depend powerfully upon the application of science. People who refuse to vaccinate their children, people who deny the science of climate change, people who attempt to undermine the foundations of biology, geology, astronomy, and cosmology by advocating the teaching of creationism, they have all been misled about the nature of reality, and they consequently take actions that are foolish, and in some cases dangerously harmful.

The point of the book, however, is not just to point out that some ideas are simply wrong. No, Sagan wants to equip the reader with a tools to sort viable claims from fanciful ones. As he points out, if you are too resistant to new ideas, then you will miss out when new discoveries are made, whereas if you go the other way and become open to anything, you will be unable to discriminate between useful material and baloney. As an illustration, he introduces the idea that he has an invisible, floating, incorporeal, heatless fire-breathing dragon in his garage, and wonders exactly why anyone would believe his claim, and further wonders even if his claim were true, why the difference between an invisible, floating, incorporeal, heatless fire-breathing dragon and no dragon would matter. Sadly, too many people seem to be all too willing to accept claims that are no better than the assertion that an invisible, floating, incorporeal, heatless fire-breathing dragon is residing in Sagan's garage. To help rectify this situation, Sagan provides a "baloney detection kit" to arm the skeptical thinker. Sagan lists several ways to construct and understand reasoned arguments, and just as critically, to recognize fallacious and fraudulent arguments. To this end, Sagan gives a collection of testing tools to assess arguments, and follows with a list of commonly used logical and rhetorical fallacies. Sagan does not merely want to opine on whether a particular argument is sound or not. He realizes that this would only serve to inform the reader about that particular issue. His goal is clearly to create a cadre of individuals who can assess the claims that come their way and separate the wheat from the chaff.

It is not enough to explain how to determine true science from false pseudoscience and superstition, one has to explain why science itself is important. And to do this, Sagan creates a hypothetical in which Queen Victoria gathers the leading scientists of her day together in 1850 and asks them to create a better communications system. It almost goes without saying how silly an endeavor this would have been, and how the resulting product would be something of marginal utility and ludicrous design. But then he shows how, in 1850, James Clark Maxwell, without being directed to any particular purpose, and without any real idea of what his discovery might be used for, came up with the equations that defined electrodynamics. And by doing so, came up with the science that allows us to have radios and televisions, creating an integral part of our modern world, but a part that no one in 1850 could have possibly foreseen. The point is simply this: while we can be certain that science will define the future, we are almost certainly wrong about what that future will look like. To find that future, we need to have a populace with a comprehensive science education.

Throughout The Demon-Haunted World Sagan relentlessly hammers his point home: giving anecdotes about Frederick Douglas concerning the value of literacy, a discussion of Dr. Edward Teller's obsession with fusion bombs, and the creation of a public museum of science in Ithaca, New York. With these examples, and numerous others, Sagan eloquently demonstrates the need for a scientifically literate populace as a means to hold back the night. Although he is at times too forgiving of silliness, for example when he recounts his inability to sign a statement declaring astrology to be hokum, he explains his reasons well, and even if one does not agree, one can understand. And that is clearly the end goal Sagan had in mind: not that the reader would agree with him, but that the reader would learn enough to be able to understand, and by understanding, help to hold back the darkness.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Aug 28, 2012, 11:35am Top

Book Fifty-Four: Mariner Valley by James Crawford.

Short review: A villainous gang of ruffians goes on the run, so the police round up a posse and chase after them. It turns out that Mars is a lot like the Old West.

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: With the vast amount of love that is heaped upon the short-lived television series Firefly, it seems inevitable that western themed science fiction would surge in popularity. featuring a big city cop moved to the frontier, an Indian tracker, a hot-headed young gun, and an armed gang of villainous criminals on the run, Mariner Valley is an almost self-consciously self-aware entry into this field.

Ben O'Ryan is a cop working at the U.S. settlement on Chryse. But as the novel opens, it is his last day on the job. He's packing up his office, saying his last goodbyes to his coworkers and friends, and generally adamantly insisting that he will be on the ship back to Earth when it leaves. And, of course, this means that he will get sucked into the pursuit of murderer and generally all-around bad guy Troy Lansing. Ben heading up the resulting posse is predictable because Mariner Valley is a by-the-numbers Western that just happens to be set on Mars. Ben is on Mars to escape from his past as a police officer in Los Angeles, Jamie is his dependable Indian tracker, Beth is Ben's close platonic friend who might develop into more, and so on. Every character, from the well-meaning drug addict to the hot-headed violence junkie, is drawn straight from the cast of a John Wayne movie.

But even though the novel is loaded with cliche's, they give the book a kind of comforting feel, like an old friend who has stopped by for a visit or a pair of well-worn blue jeans that fit perfectly. After being cajoled into not leaving Mars right away, Ben gathers his posse of stock characters and heads off into the inhospitable Martian landscape under the harsh winds of a sandstorm. By placing the story under the obscuring maelstrom of a Martian sandstorm, Crawford is able to keep the Western motif intact, as many of the technological developments that have transpired between the last half of the nineteenth century and the fictional future envisioned for the book are rendered ineffective, leaving Ben and his crew stuck driving after Troy and his gang without the benefit of aerial support and other similar assistance that would have made the Western posse chase story less tenable.

So the story trundles along. The bad guys head for the border - the Russian border filling in for the Mexican border in this version - although one has to wonder if the Russian territory would have been a safe haven for Troy and his gang given the assistance lent to Ben's crew by the Russians near the close of the book. In any event, the villains wander across Mars trying to lose their pursuers, but still manage to leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake. In the meantime, Ben's posse managed to overcome a broken down horse, or rather, a broken down rover, a horse that goes lame in the form of a rover that has developed a leak, a stay at a frontier town complete with the requisite bar fight, and eventually track their quarry down for a final showdown. Each step along the way to the resolution of the story is familiar, but well-executed and enjoyable nonetheless.

The Western as science fiction is a subgenre that works well. And although it is a very standard take on the "posse" story, Mariner Valley is a good example of the subgenre. Full of easily recognizable, but nicely written characters, and with a fun and action filled story, this book is a fun read, and is sure to be well-liked by anyone who, like me, wishes there were more Firefly episodes.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Aug 23, 2012, 5:18pm Top

Book Fifty-Five: The Sundered by Ruthanne Reid.

Short review: The world is covered with water that is deadly to humans, but not to humanity's enslaved helpers the Sundered. But the Sundered are dying out. Harry wants to find the Hope of Humanity and change the world.

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Sometimes I wonder why I bother to wade through self-published and micro and vanity press published books. So many times when reading indie books you find yourself slogging through stilted prose riddled with awful grammar and spelling describing a meandering plot populated by wooden characters. Then I read a book like The Sundered and remember why. because every now and then you find a book that is really good that you would have missed if you didn't dip into the indie waters from time to time. And The Sundered, a strange dystopian tale of science fiction, intrigue, and destiny, is a book that should not be missed.

The world is in trouble. The blue waters have turned to black. The oceans have risen and swallowed most of the land, leaving nothing but islands and scattered "tufts" sticking up from the murky depths. To make matters worse, the dark water is inimical to humans, swallowing them up and drowning them should they fall into its grasp. Not only is the water deadly to humans, food won't grow and people seem to have forgotten how to do almost anything. Fortunately, humanity is assisted by the bizarre slave-race called the "Sundered", subjugated by mental control, and who can produce food, goods, collect drinkable water, and generally do everything necessary to keep humans alive. oddly, the Sundered appeared at the same time the world was transformed into its present state, although no one seems to know where they came from.

With all the problems humanity has living on the ruined planet, Harry has still more. Harry knows that the Sundered that humanity depends upon for survival are slowly dying out. Despite efforts to figure out why the Sundered's numbers are dwindling, and despite efforts to try to figure out how to breed more, the foundation upon which human existence depends is eroding. Harry also carries the burden of searching for the mythic "Hope of Humanity", an unknown cure-all that will supposedly save the world in some unknown way. The trouble is, Harry doesn't know where the Hope is, and no one else does either. Harry has to rely upon incomplete maps handed down to him from his father and engage in the tedious process of elimination to find the Hope by visiting and mapping the blank regions. Further, harry has only undertaken this task unwillingly, out of a sense of familial obligation, and doesn't feel up to the task of leadership.

Harry's dismal existence is made more complicated when he stumbles across and takes control of a "first tier" Sundered, the rarest and most powerful kind. First tier Sundered are so rare that they aren't even part of a nursery rhyme used to teach children the attributes of the various "tiers" of Sundered. A "first tier" Sundered is exceptionally powerful, and commensurately valuable, but is also incredibly dangerous and difficult to control. And Aakesh is unlike anything that Harry or any of the other Travelers who make up his crew have ever seen.To make matters worse, he stumbles across a plot by one of the many islands cities dotting the world to seize control of all the others by means of a new weapon, and, it turns out, they are after the Hope because they think it can be used as an even more powerful weapon.

Reid tells her story from a tight first person perspective, focusing in on Harry, which allows her to keep the reader guessing through the entire book. The reader only knows what Harry knows, and because it becomes clear that many things Harry has believed to be true about the world he lives in are actually false, one begins to question everything. Because we see the world filtered through Harry's eyes, when he is confused, we can feel the confusion. When he struggles to understand what he has learned, we struggle along with him. Limiting our window on the world to Harry's viewpoint lets the world feel real while also making it feel claustrophobic and confining. By choosing this style of storytelling and sticking with it, although it means that some threads are left unresolved, Reid is able to tell a mystery and keep it mysterious until the very end.

This is not to say that the book is without flaws. At times, the language of the book slips into a little too much informality even for a book told from the first person - a character should not say "umm, no" as part of their internal monologue. There are only three fully developed characters in the book: Harry, Aakesh, and Harry's former teacher and surrogate father Parnum, but in the end the book only really needs three characters to tell its story. When all is said and done, these concerns are minor, and only slightly detract from an otherwise excellent book.

Set in an alien landscape, with a story that reminded me somewhat of what the world might have been like if the dark water had won in Pirates of Dark Water, Reid has crafted an engrossing story that will draw the reader in step by step along Harry's journey. And even when Harry thinks he knows where he is going, he doesn't understand why, or what he will find there. The answers to these mysteries confront Harry and the reader with the question of just what they might be willing to sacrifice to save humanity or even if humanity is worth saving at all. And having set up the question, Reid pulls no punches and offers no easy solution for the protagonist to take, and once the ultimate decision is made, she shows the full and terrible consequences of the chosen path. In the final summation, The Sundered is an unsettling novel, but it is unsettling in the best way possible.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Sep 6, 2012, 5:19pm Top

Book Fifty-Six: The 5 Moons of Tiiana: The Chronicles of Rez Cantor by Paul T. Harry.

Short review: The Melelan Empire has fallen and Rez Cantor must rescue the beautiful imperial princess Leanna from the Relcor but finds himself sidetracked into adventures among the five moons of the gas giant Tiiana.

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: What is a pulp science fiction fan to do when they have traveled alongside John Carter on Barsoom, accompanied Carson Napier to Amtor, fought the invaders from the Moon, and explored Pellucidar? If that fan is Paul T. Harry, they write the adventures of Rez Cantor, Captain in the Imperial Forces of Melela as he swashbuckles his way across the moons of the distant gas giant of Tiiana. Anyone looking for deep meaning or insightful political commentary is likely to be disappointed by this book, but if you are looking for a fun romp across exotic locales inhabited by aliens both friendly and malign, then The 5 Moons of Tiiana will satisfy your craving for pulpy adventure.

As the story opens, the Melelan Empire is on the brink of surrender, having been defeated by the invading Relcor. The beginning of the story is the weakest element, because the Relcor are poorly developed as villains. I have not read any other books by Harry, so it is possible that the losing battle the Melelans fight against these adversaries was detailed in one of them, but insofar as this book is concerned, they are merely a wooden villain thrown into the beginning to be mostly faceless and colorless agents of evil. It is clear that Rex loathes them, and the reader is supposed to as well, but the groundwork for creating that emotion in the reader simply isn't laid in the book. Not only that, given the obvious inequities within the Melelan Empire that are exposed in the short sojourn Rez spends there before heading out to the stars, there doesn't seem to be any reason to like that government either.

Fortunately, this section of the book is fairly brief, and once Rez is able to rescue the Imperial Princess Leanna, acquire a starship, and a crew to man her, events move to Tiiana's moons and the story begins to pick up. Due to an unexplained spatial anomaly, Rez finds himself alone and unarmed on a strange world that seems to be nothing but a sand bar and the sea, with a strange purple cloud that eats metal filling the sky. After wandering about for a bit on the sandy island, Rez hops on board a passing sea creature and is eventually taken captive by the Aquella, a race that lives under the sea on the moon Urlena. The Aquella modify Cantor so that he can breathe water and then put him to work as a slave in their undersea mines. Despite the complete lack of explanation as to how Rez went from a starship flying at full speed to sitting safely on a beach on an unknown moon, the story starts to make more sense here. The metal-eating sky cloud is clearly presented as an ominous threat, and Cantor's enslavement in the Aquellan mines gives the reader a clear understanding of why he despises them, and can join in his dislike.

Cantor engineers a daring escape from captivity, but in the proud tradition of pulpy heroes everywhere he doesn't have any kind of plan for what to do after he escapes, or any idea where to go. He manages to wash up on shore and find an abandoned city populated by feral dog-like animals. Before too long the Aquella show up, and just when he is about to be captured, Rez finds that he has been transported to another moon. This sort of serendipity is a staple of pulp fiction, but it marks the second time in the book that Cantor has escaped trouble by mysteriously teleporting to a different planet. Pulp adventure by its very nature involves improbable escapes and lucky breaks that save the hero, but a pulp writer must walk a fine line. One the one hand, the protagonist must have a lucky streak sufficient to allow him to escape the terrible predicaments that the genre demands he be placed in, but on the other hand if the hero escapes by fortuitous chance too often then he stops seeming like a hero and more like a spectator who happens to be sitting on center stage. And this is why writing pulp adventure is more difficult than many would-be authors realize.

Fortunately, Harry is able to avoid this pitfall, and while Cantor has his share of close calls, they are varied enough and he is active enough in them that the reader never feels like he is the beneficiary of too much luck to be believable. After his escape from the Aquella and his mysterious transport, Rez awakens to find himself on the moon of Boutal under the care of Ashka, a mystical wise woman, who is assisted by her adopted son the immense alien Ootal. In short order it becomes clear that Ootal will become the Tars Tarkus to Rez Cantor's John Carter, and the pair become friends and fighting buddies. And because this is a pulp adventure, there has to be a fiendish enemy to fight, so the Brata, a race of flying villains is introduced. In the way of all mystic guides, Ashka gives Rez some cryptic instructions and a new name, dyes his skin black, and then dies. Rez, now named Rookla, takes Oolat and they go to find the third race inhabiting Boutal, the black-skinned Moutal, winding up at the city of Casita.

Once there, Rez discovers two things: first, the people of Casita are threatened by the Brata, and second, during the couple of years that Rez has spent wandering the moons of Tiiana, Princess Leanna has had her skin dyed black, married King Hazadek of Casita, and had a son. Upon learning this, Rez immediately jumps feet first into Casitan service and figured out how to save the city: by introducing gunpowder. In a very pulpy manner Rez manages to introduce gunpowder technology to the Casitans ridiculously quickly, providing them with hundreds of rockets and some working cannons within a couple of days, and ocean-going cannon armed warships within a couple months. This is, well, implausible is probably too weak a word, perhaps extraordinarily implausible would be apropos. But this is a pulp adventure, so the implausible is somewhat expected. This technology allows the Casitans to fend off the invading Brata, but in a twist that is somewhat unusual for pulp fiction, has the unintended consequence of upsetting the political balance of power among the Moutalan city-states, giving Casita an overwhelming edge. And it turns out that Rez, in his headlong rush to defend his beloved princess, has backed the wrong horse: King Hazadek, we are told, is a cruel and tyrannical ruler. I say "we are told" because this is basically how this information is presented. As with the Relcor, we are told that Hazadek is villainous without actually seeing him engage in much, if any villainy. This practice of establishing a villain or an enemy simply by saying they are evil and must be defeated without giving the assertion any substance by means of characterization in the story is a pattern in the book, and one of its few real weaknesses.

Rez evades Hazadek's plot to bump him off using his Aquellan provided ability to breathe underwater, he heads for a mysterious site of numerous disappearances. Along the way he reunites with Oolat and Leanna (now separated from the evil tyrant Hazadek) and strikes up a romantic relationship with the teenage divorcee. Leanna gets pregnant, then gets captured by the insect-like Zecla, and Cantor heads off to rescue her, and before too long is on yet another moon, this time to the high-tech world of Aura, populated entirely by robots and Cantor's fellow Melelan Philip Golan. This proves to be a short term stay as Rez quickly leaves in pursuit of Leanna's captors, moving on to the moon Zin, the home world the Zecla housed in a robot body provided by Golan. After destroying Zeclan civilization while rescuing his pregnant girlfriend, Rez heads off to Vashia where he is informed that Ashka is not actually dead, and is in fact one of the incorporeal Visi, who are displeased that he destroyed the Zeclans.

From here the story swirls around Rez's attempts to gather a coalition of the various other races to oppose a refugee band of Zecla backed up by a horde of Brata. This involves a series of hops back and forth between moons to get assistance from the Auran robots, the water-dwelling Aquellans, the massive Solula, and the dark Motula as Cantor gets them together into a grand coalition to fight off the insect-like menace. oddly, despite bringing the fighting strength of three races and a planet of robots to face off against the population of two other races, the numbers involved in battle are quite small. Cantor also manages to secure some high-tech weaponry, which oddly seems to be identical in nature to the weaponry he used in Melula despite being manufactured centuries before by races of aliens on the opposite end of the galaxy. By the end of the story, the Motula and Solula, who were wielding swords and spears when we first met them, field armies equipped with blasters and microwave rifles fighting under aircraft dropping vacuum bombs on their enemies.

After much diplomatic maneuvering, a couple of battles, and a lot of adventure, the Zecla are defeated and Rez and Leanna are able to head off to a more or less happy ending. The story has some oddities: Leanna's half-Motulan child and abortive pregnancy both simply drop out of the story without any real indication of why they were there to begin with. The Zecla, like the Relcor, are kind of a faceless villain, leaving the reader without an enemy to focus upon: there is a reason that Flash Gordon was opposed by Ming the Merciless, and not by an army of undifferentiated foes. The Visi, who are clearly intended to be wise and mysterious, instead seem to be a little callous as it seems like they could have stopped the Zecla and Brata without the need for a huge war involving thousands of deaths. But most of these concerns are simply minor quibbles that don't substantially detract from the heroic derring-do in the story. Niggling criticisms aside, The 5 Moons of Tiiana is a fun romp through a pulpy adventure with a swashbuckling hero to root for, a beautiful princess who needs to be rescued, exotic locales to visit, and terrible enemies to be defeated. So if you enjoyed exploring Barsoom with John Carter and Mongo with Flash Gordon, you should pick up this book and join Cantor as he travels to Tiiana.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Sep 4, 2012, 11:09am Top

Book Fifty-Seven: Escape from Eternity by Nate Scholze.

Short review: An unassuming British man changes personalities, flies to a version of Wisconsin that is a mish-mash of England, Wisconsin, and New England, and tries to find a person he knows from a previous life so they can both go back to being immortal.

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Escape from Eternity is a modestly interesting but ultimately unsuccessful science fiction novel. Even though the core idea underlying the story is kind of intriguing, and could have been built into a decent novel, the inconsistent (and in many cases completely extraneous) characters and the bland and ultimately pointless plot undermine the good points of the novel and leave behind a dull and lifeless book. The frustrating thing about this book is that at the core there is a good science fiction idea, but the execution is so limp that the final product is simply uninspiring.

The book opens with William Nolan, respectable British professor and generally boring guy, investigating an apparent meteorite that landed near his property. Once he touches the object, his personality radically changes and he hops an airplane for Wisconsin. Once there, he wanders around talking cryptically, getting into bar fights, and insisting that he has to find his friend Menonan. This proves to be a spectacularly unsuccessful means of actually achieving his objective, but because the book seems to operate without any real sense of logic or reason, he makes headway anyway, mostly by simply yelling at the right people.

Eventually Nolan, now calling himself Adrian, begins to more or less stalk a twenty-something year old woman named Laura Whitmore. Laura is a waitress working in a small restaurant, with a boss who sexually harasses her in such crudely blunt ways that one wonders how he manages to avoid being sued. Apparently hoping to confuse matters, the author sticks the evil boss with the name Adam. Naming two characters with similar names is something of a pattern for Scholze, attaches the name Michelle to Laura's sister, and the similar looking name Millie to the crotchety old woman who wants to kill Adrian. Not content with naming several of his characters similar names, Scholze gives each of them scenes with one another to keep the reader off-balance.

The story kind of meanders from there. Laura whines about her awful life, at some points being apparently dependent upon a guy named Colin, who is apparently in love with her, for rides. At other times Laura has her own car and can drive herself to work and other engagements. Adrian shows up at Laura's home uninvited, and everyone around her assumes that this meant she was having sex with him. But that is more or less explainable because in the story pretty much every male character is enthralled by her sex appeal and wants to have sex with her. Except her own father, and even that relationship has some weirdly sexual dominant and submissive overtones. Adrian's method of convincing Laura to lead him to Menonan is to tell her to do so, over and over, and then when asked why she should to talk cryptically about how she wouldn't understand if he explained. Then he does explain and the explanation isn't so much not understandable as simply implausible.

The book is also drenched in almost random amounts of gratuitous violence. Now, I'm not opposed to violence and murder in my fiction, but the violence in the book was essentially extraneous and almost pointless. Adrian shows up in a bar and in response to someone being moderately rude to him, simply starts beating the guy up. Adam gets into a dispute over a robbery and murders his accomplice in an almost off-hand manner. Adrian finds Adam trying to rape Laura, so he kills him, doing so after he neutralized Adam as a threat to Laura. Barrington gets into an argument over the quality of a bar band (having been lured to the bar by the promise of Laura's supposedly preternatural beauty), so he beats up his adversary. Most characters seem to have almost no response to someone disagreeing with them other than to start punching, stabbing, or shooting. And no one else seems to find this level of violence to be particularly exceptional. If this is supposed to be a "normal" level of violence, one begins to think that the author believes that Wisconsin must resemble a war zone.

It seems that Adrian asserts that all humans are actually eternally living beings that created Earth to take a "vacation" by forgetting their eternal nature and living as finite beings. Adrian claims to be a self-aware spirit who has inhabited William Nolan who has gone in search of the head of the project, an entity called Menonan. Apparently a new phase of the project is imminent and Menonan must be found or some sort of unspecified disaster will ensue. Or rather, nothing much will happen and Menonan will get lost in the cycle and never remember that he is an immortal being. Against this backdrop, several story lines that go nowhere are presented - Adam harasses Laura, but is killed out of hand. People formulate elaborate plans to steal things and kill people that go nowhere. Nolan's wife brings a Agent Barrington, British police officer, to Wisconsin to find her husband, but after apprehending and losing Adrian a couple times, that subplot goes nowhere as well. In the anticlimactic ending, the entire story turns out to have been entirely pointless.

Escape from Eternity seems like an oddly unfinished and slapdash effort. Plot lines are introduced and go nowhere. Characters mill about with no apparent purpose. The main plot fizzles out with a whimper. Even the language of the story seems off: the people in Wisconsin refer to their "village", a term that most Americans would not use in that way. A character trying to convince a pair of Wisconsin policemen that he is not British refers to getting his identification from his "other trousers" without anyone batting an eye. A pair of Wisconsin natives talk about being blown away by a "Nor'easter". And so on. And this oddness with language only serves to reinforce the incomplete feel of the rest of the book. And this is a shame, because the ideas in the book are interesting enough that they could have made a good story. sadly, the execution in this book just doesn't do the ideas justice.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Sep 25, 2012, 11:59am Top

Book Fifty-Eight: Second Skin, Too by Peter Darrach.

Short review: A cartoon-like villain foments war between Earth and Mars. Meanwhile, Elaine gains Max's super-powers, which should surprise no one given the title of the book.

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Second Skin, Too is the sequel to Second Skin and the second book in the trilogy of the same name. Taking place shortly after the events of the first volume, the book follows Max Cody, recently enhanced with super powers, as he attempts to prevent an interplanetary conflict between Earth and Mars. Shorn of its need to provide quite as much explanatory exposition as the first book, this installment picks up the pace a bit, and that proves to be both good and bad. It is good in the sense that there is more plot and character development, but it is bad in the sense that when one sits back to think about these elements, they frequently don't make a whole lot of sense. The end result is a book that is moderately interesting, but ultimately isn't much more than a diverting way to spend a couple hours.

As with Second Skin, Second Skin, Too starts with an action sequence in which the reader follows an intruder as he infiltrates what is supposed to be a secure area. The main difference between Suicide Sam's assault on a Martian military vessel and Nigel Deftly's infiltration into a Martian prison to free Gilberto Mendoso and Artemesia Glittereski, imprisoned at the end of Second Skin, is the the level of lethal violence employed. Whereas Sam casually slaughtered the crew of the doomed navy cruiser, Nigel manages to accomplish his mission without killing anyone. This reluctance to kill seems unique to Nigel, as everyone else in the book seems to consider randomly beating and killing people on the way to one's objectives to be more of less par for the course. And it is this level of random violence that makes the book both so action-packed and monotonous.

The overarching plot of the book relates to the increasing political tension between Earth and the newly independent Mars. In a fit of grandiosity, the freshly minted Martian government laid claim to the entire solar system from the orbit of Mars outwards, an assertion of authority that Earth is understandably less than pleased about. On the other hand, Earth has no facility like MOSA or MOSA II that could process the bounty provided by the asteroid belt, and shows no interest in building one, which makes their assertion of competing authority seem somewhat hollow and meaningless. Even if Earth had a practical means of reaping the benefits of the asteroid belt, it is glaringly obvious that Mars could not possibly maintain any kind of control over the vast area of the asteroid belt - Mars doesn't actually occupy its entire orbit, and even if Mars and Earth were aligned, Mars would be further away than the Earth from the portion of the asteroid belt on the opposite side of the Sun, meaning that Earth would have an advantage in trying to get there at those times. Consequently, the entire idea of Mars "claiming" the asteroid belt, let alone the entirety of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, all of their moons, as well as the Kuiper Belt, is almost ludicrous on its face.

Nonetheless, in Second Skin, Too tensions over asteroid belt mining rights have brought both worlds to the brink of war, and to try to avert it, Mars decides to send a delegation to attempt a negotiated settlement. Because he is the hero of the book, Max Cody joins the expedition for more or less contrived reasons, as does his fiance Elaine. So everyone heads for Earth as part of the ambassadorial entourage, armed with the knowledge that someone from Earth had liberated Gilberto and Artemesia, and that the same unknown individual probably also kidnapped Denis Dermott, a scientist working on the top secret Martian teleportation based p-drive. After a brief trip, they arrive and are sent to Mauritius, a rather obscure island in the Indian Ocean, which seems like an odd choice for a diplomatic summit.

But before too long we learn why Mauritius was chosen: it is conveniently near a corporate installation owned by the industrialist and arms merchant Xanthus Rex, who serves as the not-so-subtle villain of the story. This lack of subtlety is somewhat disappointing, as Xanthus is such a scenery chewing over-the-top villain who is so boorishly clumsy that one has to wonder how he came to wield the influence that he displays in the book. Xanthus is presented and treated like a clever schemer, but he is more of a bull in a china shop than a sleek barracuda. He is desperate to instigate a war between Earth and Mars so as to get his hands on Martian resources, and to get the advanced Martian technology represented by the p-drive. But to get his way he engages in the most ham-fisted array of techniques one could imagine. At one point he decides that he has to figure out the secret of Max's unusual abilities, but rather than try to bribe Max, or do anything more sneaky first, he sends a band of thugs to try to beat Max up. When that doesn't work, he tries to kill Max by throwing him off a boat into shark-infested water. And when that doesn't work he kidnaps Elaine and shoots her, threatening to let her die unless Max divulges his secrets.

And that's the way Xanthus handles pretty much every situation. When trying to steal the secrets of the Martian p-drive, Xanthus doesn't try to bribe someone, or hack into the project's computers and steal the data, or any other sensible method. Instead, he kidnaps one of the scientists on the project and gives him hallucinogenic drugs to try to manipulate him into working for Xanthus. Xanthus kills the scientists working for him in an almost offhand manner, for no real apparent reason, and pointlessly alienates many of his underlings. Not only that, several of his gambits seem to be almost entirely pointless as well - had he managed to kill Max by tossing him into shark-infested waters, how would that have helped him to unravel the secret of whatever gave Max his powers? Leaving aside the fact that the "secret" is bonded to Max, a fact that Xanthus has no way of knowing, killing Max by casting his body into the ocean would mean that his body would be lost, and likely the technology he was using would have been as well. Like so many of Xanthus' other plots, this seems short-sighted and poorly thought out.

This sort of blunt force method of persuasion leaks out to the other characters in the book as well. Xu, a genetically modified space pilot who starts the book in the employ of Xanthus, is sent with Gilberto to try to make contact with Suicide Sam's gang, with the stated objective of inducing them to foment discord on MOSA. Xu's method of persuading Sam to support Xanthus' ambitions is to show up uninvited in his hideout and start a fight with his men, killing half of them before blasting her way out. Supposedly, this works, but Sam's men seem to have almost no impact on the impending hostilities. This sort of negotiation style is endemic throughout the book: when Martian Navy Lieutenant Sandra James goes undercover to work on the MOSA docks to look for trouble, she secures her job by punching the shift supervisor in the mouth when she meets him. Maybe I've just led a sheltered life, but in my experience socking your potential supervisor in the jaw is generally the way to screw up a job interview, not a way to get yourself hired.

Amidst all the punching people in the head to get them to join sides, tensions between Earth and Mars ratchet up, with the Earth holding a substantial edge in military equipment despite being starved for raw materials. Gilberto's net contribution to the effort to undermine Mars seems to be lying about as an invalid after a particularly difficult space flight back from Earth (having been kidnapped and taken there at Xanthus' behalf, only to be almost immediately drugged and returned to Mars, also at Xanthus' behest). Artemesia helps put together a fake propaganda video, an endeavor she has second-thoughts about, but that video is almost immediately shown to be a fraud, and the Earth government, which had thrown its support behind an invasion of Mars, immediately reverses course. Suicide Sam makes a couple of desultory appearances in the book, having almost no impact on the plot at all before he is summarily dispatched by Max. All in all, almost no plot elements from the first book other than Max's newly developed superpowers have any real effect on the plot of this book.

Max more or less accidentally bestows his superhuman powers upon Elaine while trying to save her life, and she becomes the "too" in the title. Max and Elaine discover a new collection of super powers, and both wind up in the "Tavern at the Edge of Time" and meet with its seemingly immortal proprietor T'chell. This element, foreshadowed since the beginning of the first book, is something of a disappointment as it turns out that Max's encounter with the alien was purely accidental, and the source of Max's powers was an almost trivial fix-up. Given that the first two books have been about human politics, introducing mysterious and inscrutable aliens into the mix seems like something of a left turn for the series, but then again most of the elements from the first book didn't have much impact on the second book, so one would probably expect the same to hold true for the transition from the second to the third.

In the end, Xanthus goes into full-on comic book villain mode, commandeering the Earth invasion fleet by impersonating its commanding admiral. Following a lifetime of abuse, Xu decides to switch sides and joins up with Mars for the climatic showdown. Nigel attempts to steal the p-drive technology amidst the fighting, but is foiled by a debilitated scientist wearing magic pants, and Max and Elaine use their super powers to save the day.

Overall, while Second Skin, Too manages to avoid many of the pitfalls that ensnared Second Skin, it has its own set of problems. The plot of this book is poorly connected to the plot of the first book, and many of the plot threads in this volume simply peter out. The plot points that do ripen to fruition are presented at an almost frenzied pace, and instead of the intrigue and skullduggery the book aspires to describe, the reader is given a collection of loosely connected lethal brawls. Many of the troubles in the book are directly traceable to the unbelievability of Xanthus as the villainous mastermind - his machinations are simply too clumsy to make him a credible criminal kingpin. And without a viable villain, the rest of the book more or less just falls apart, and is made almost surreal by the introduction of the T'chell. Second Skin, Too is a book that is perhaps too ambitious, and tries to incorporate too many elements, and as a result is too unfocused with too many moving parts to hold together.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Sep 27, 2012, 2:48pm Top

Book Fifty-Nine: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon.

Short review: At the edges of society something new is growing, spread through many bodies, blindly searching to find one another and become whole.

Long review; The 1954 winner for of the International Fantasy Award for Best Fiction Book and a 2004 nominee for a "Retro Hugo", More Than Human is made up of three linked stories detailing the rise of Homo Gestalt, a new form of life that is made up of several individual people who gather together to form a single entity. Because the book does not rely upon the technology of the 1950s to make its story effective, the fact that it is very decidedly set in that era does not detract from the book, even though it is now sixty years old. Like some other Sturgeon stories I have read, More Than Human could be taking place right now, or it might have already happened, and we, living our mundane lives would never even know it. The story is, at its core, a coming of age story, but it is a coming of age story for a life form that is similar to a human, and yet not a human. And that is also very alone in the world.

Of the three stories that make up the novel, only the middle one Baby Is Three, was not specifically written for this book. The first, The Fabulous Idiot, and the third Morality, were written specifically for publication as part of More Than Human. Although it was fairly common in the early era of science fiction to construct a novel by stringing together preexisting shorter pieces, but in this case, this style of book design was intentional. And perhaps that is part of the point, because that makes the book's form parallel the new entity that the book is about, both constructed of smaller subparts that work together to create a complete whole.

And this is part of the poetry of the book: its structure seems to reflect the development of the entity at the core of the story. In The Fabulous Idiot, the story is told in something of a confused jumble, but that is because it is told from the perspective of Lone, for whom the world is a confusing and jumbled place. Lone's stumbles lead him to Evelyn, a young woman who shared Lone's apparent gift of telepathy, but who lives under the thumb of a domineering ultra-religious father. Their meeting ends in disaster, and Lone finds himself on the Prodds' farm, where he finally is able to stop wandering long enough to make a human connection. Meanwhile, a young girl named Janie and a pair of black twin girls named Bonnie and Beanie form a friendship, although given the mores of 1950s society, their friendship is considered scandalous by those around them. In these sequences, Sturgeon explores the casual racism surrounding him, and also details the difficulties that would be faced by children with the unnerving gifts of telekinesis and teleportation. Although all three of the girls have extraordinary gifts, they are viewed with suspicion and fear by the adults in their lives.

Eventually the three girls find Lone, who left the Prodds when the couple was expecting a baby and is now living alone in the woods near the now abandoned house that Evelyn lived in. The girls and Lone begin to work together, forming the first parts of the gestalt creature. Eventually Lone returns to the Prodd farm and finds his only friend despondent. It seems that the child was not what he ad expected, and the disappointment is made even more bitter due to the child's apparent disability. Prodd recognizes the child, described as a "mongoloid", as properly being part of the gestalt, and takes him back to Evelyn's house, but first using his mental abilities to convince Prodd that his wife didn't die but instead took the child and went to visit Pennsylvania. With the telepathic Lone, the telekinetic Janie, the teleporting Bonnie and Beanie, and finally, the computing Baby, the gestalt is now complete. Lone continues to visit Prodd, and decides to help him with his truck that continually gets stuck in the mud by asking Baby to devise a way to prevent that from happening. Displaying the awesome powers of the new entity, Baby devises an anti-gravity device, which Lone installs on Prodd's truck. The fact that Prodd has left to go find his wife in Pennsylvania makes this something of a futile gesture, but the power and the idiocy, of the new life form is demonstrated. The true revelation is that while at first glance one might think that Lone is the one referred to by the title The Fabulous Idiot, the reference is to the gestalt as a whole: capable of almost accidentally creating and building wondrous items of technology, but not capable of thinking of a use for them better than to install them on a rusting abandoned truck.

While The Fabulous Idiot starts as a confused jumble that works towards coherence, much like the gestalt entity, Baby Is Three is told with a clinical, and almost cynical detachment. This entire section is told as a flashback, with Gerry Thompson, the new head of the gestalt, consulting with a psychiatrist in an effort to recover his lost memory. Thompson replaced Lone when the older man died, becoming the new telepathic "head" of the gestalt. But even though Thompson is much more intelligent than Lone ever could be, he is also a child when he inherits the role, whereas Lone, although an idiot, was an adult. Consequently, they gestalt is forced to seek out Evelyn's sister Alicia and take refuge with her, leading to conflict as their close-knit group offends Alicia's conventional ideas about society. By giving the story a viewpoint character that would be the voice of society at large in the form of Alicia, Sturgeon is able to revisit the questions of racism and the treatment of the handicapped that he touched upon in the first part of the story. Each time Alicia tries to impose her ideas about how society should function upon the gestalt, Gerry and Janie fight back, keeping their little group together. The story features several 1950s era ideas about psychiatry, and in the end the mystery of Gerry's missing memory is solved by finding "recovered memories", a concept that is now regarded as dubious at best. On the other hand, Gerry lost his memory as a result of the use of his telepathic powers, so it is difficult to draw any conclusions about psychiatry in general from his treatment.

The final section of the story is told from yet another amnesiac viewpoint character, this time Air Force Lieutenant Hip Barrows, fresh out of the insane asylum and jail. He is nursed back to health by Janie and slowly recovers his memories that include Gerry's attempts to drive him insane and kill him. This portion of the story illustrates the dangers of the gestalt, as Gerry is unstable, and as a result of his tumultuous upbringing, probably a sociopath. Once he killed Alicia, and realized that he could do such things with impunity to those around him, erasing and altering memories to cover up his actions, his innate paranoia caused him to become a monster. And because he was a monster, the entire gestalt became a monster. But it is the kind of monster that is created when an unreasoning child is gifted with unlimited powers. Because the gestalt is formed of those on the fringes of society and is dreadfully and painfully alone, it never had an opportunity to develop a sense of empathy towards those around it. Lone is almost certainly mentally retarded, and is treated with the disdain that society of the time handed out to those with mental handicaps. Janie was the unwanted child of an alcoholic mother and abandoned by her father. Bonnie and Beannie are impoverished black children living in a society that institutionalized discrimination against them. Gerry is an orphan handed over to the state and raised by adults who were alternatively uncaring and abusive. Alicia's efforts to inculcate the parts of the gestalt with what she believed were proper mores failes, both because she tried to instill in them mores that would have destroyed the gestalt, and because she attempted to pass on human values, and although the gestalt is similar to a human, it is not a human. Janie's efforts in trying to aid Hip are a desperate attempt to avert the growing monster and force the gestalt to grow to maturity. In the end, Hip is healed, and even though it did not know it was sick, so is the gestalt. In the final pages of the book, the gestalt begins to hear from other similar entities, revealing that even though it thought it was alone, it was not.

More Than Human is a sterling example of what science fiction can be when it is at its best. Using the vehicle of the genre, Sturgeon was able to examine delicate issues such as racism and demonstrate just how foolish the notions held by society were. But the book also explores the issue of identity and loneliness. For much of the book, the gestalt believes itself to be the only one of its kind, and as a result it has to grope towards understanding itself. An unanswered question raised by the book is the question of the individual components of the gestalt. As Hip discovers, any part of the gestalt could be replaced, making it an effectively immortal entity. But what of the individual parts? They are both themselves, and part of a greater whole. What if, as is implied might happen, Hip and Janie form a sexual relationship and have a child? Would that child be part of the gestalt too? What if the child had no capabilities that would allow it to join the gestalt? Would it be raised by a collective, but be condemned to be forever outside looking in? More Than Human raises as many questions as it answers, which is a hallmark of truly great science fiction. But it also explores what it means to be human, and what it might mean to be something else, living among humans and blindly groping towards establishing one's own identity. This book is Sturgeon at his most poetic, most insightful, and most brilliant.

This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 2, 2012, 7:30pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

National Geographic (November 2011)
National Geographic (December 2011)
National Geographic (January 2012)
National Geographic (February 2012)
National Geographic (March 2012)
National Geographic (April 2012)
National Geographic (May 2012)
National Geographic (June 2012)
National Geographic (July 2012)
National Geographic (August 2012)
National Geographic (September 2012)

Book Sixty: The Hugo Winners, Volume 1 by Isaac Asimov (editor).

Stories included:
The Darfsteller by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Allamagoosa by Eric Frank Russell
Exploration Team by Murray Leinster
The Star by Arthur C. Clarke
Or All the Seas with Oysters by Avram Davidson
The Big Front Yard by Clifford D. Simak
The Hell-bound Train by Robert Bloch
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
The Longest Voyage by Poul Anderson

Long review: A few years after it became apparent that the Hugo Awards were destined to be an ongoing affair, someone at Doubleday decided that it would be a good idea to print all the winning works of short fiction as a collection and have Isaac Asimov provide pithy commentary about each winning author. It turned out that it was a good idea, and the resulting collection is an example of some of the very best science fiction of the era.

The first story in the volume is the 1955 Hugo winning novelette The Darfsteller by Walter M. Miller, Jr., a tale of a man whose profession has been overtaken by technology. In this case, the profession is acting, and the profession has been replaced by mechanical performances tuned by an automated system to meet the mood of the audience. This is a brilliant story that has so many intersecting ideas layered through it. Ryan Thornier is a bitter-ender, an actor still hanging around the theater working as a janitor just to stay near the venue where his ilk used to ply their craft. He engineers a situation in which he is called upon to go on stage one last time, but everything goes awry, as it turns out that try as he might, he simply cannot fit into the new mechanized world that has grown up around him. Just like the character he plays in the play within the story, Thornier cannot adapt to fit within the confines of a world built not to a human measure, but with an eye towards other concerns. Running in conjunction with this theme is the idea that once someone becomes specialized, they will be soon replaced by someone who is even more specialized. And while the story says that the replacement will be human, the dislocation experienced by Thornier suggests that specialists will be replaced by machines. And if actors, members of a profession that involves being able to display the full range of human emotion and experience, can be replaced by a machine, the question that arises is who cannot be replaced by the fruits of the industrial revolution? And this dovetails with the third theme that runs through the story concerning the meaning and purpose of art. In the story the theater has been reduced to providing exactly what the audience wants, with the autodrama machines fine tuning the performance to tailor them to the audience's reactions. But if all art does is produce entertainment, is it still art? If art does not have the ability to challenge, disturb, or unsettle the viewer, is it still valuable? As is typical of a piece of short fiction, The Darfsteller doesn't answer these questions, but it raises them, and unlike the autodramas that it posits, it forces the reader to contemplate some rather troubling possibilities.

While The Darfsteller is a piece of deeply insightful fiction, the other 1955 Hugo winner, Allamagoosa by Eric Frank Russell, is decidedly not. This is not to say that Allamagoosa is a bad story, but it is a much lighter work, poking humorous fun at the rigidity of bureaucracies. The space navy ship Bustler is due to be visited by the inspector general, and in the frenzy of preparation that follows the crew simply cannot find, or even identify, one item on their manifest, the mysterious "offog". Hastily rigging up a pretend item manages to fool the inspector, but humorously leads to further troubles for the Bustler's crew. The story is fun and funny, but it seems a little too much like a bit of fluff to take seriously as a winning story.

In 1956, the Hugo for Best Novelette went to Exploration Team by Murray Leinster, at the time the "old man" of science fiction, having been publishing in the genre since World War I. The story takes place on the alien planet Loren Two where Huyghens is working as an advance scout for an illegal colonization operation. Planetary survey official Roane finds himself marooned on the alien planet and rescued by Huyghens and his team of genetically engineered bears. The meat of the story is the interaction between these two men, and their competing ideas about the place mechanization should hold in human exploration and development, with Huyghens holding that the standard method which relies upon ample robotic assistance is simply too inflexible to adapt to the challenges posed by an unknown world. And to prove him right, the "sphexes" of Loren Two has overwhelmed the nascent legal colony, while his team of bears has proven resilient enough to survive. Although the story does have the distressing 1950s attitude towards alien life of "kill it as quickly as possible so humans can build undisturbed", the story itself is raised above the typical fare of the day by the interplay between Huyghens and Roane. The other 1956 winner was The Star by Arthur C. Clarke, a brief tale about the crisis of faith experienced by a Jesuit astrophysicist on an exploratory expedition into a distant nebula. There isn't much story here, with the entire piece being told more or less in the form of a journal entry by the disillusioned priest who has been confronted by the devastating price paid to put a star in Earth's sky to foretell the birth of Jesus.

In 1958, the winner for short fiction was Or All the Seas with Oysters by Avram Davidson, a mixture of science fiction and horror that sits just on the edge of possibility. This sort of cross-genre mixing was typical for Davidson, and he mixes them well here with a story in which safety pins, coat hangars, and bicycles take on a sinister air. The story manages to fit within the science fiction genre while being plausible enough that it could be happening right around the corner. It probably isn't, but after reading it you might want to check your drawers and closets anyway.

There are very few science fiction stories that make interstellar commerce plausible. Quite simply the energy requirements for travelling between the stars are so extreme that any civilization capable of doing so would be able to produce enough energy to make any goods they wanted to. But in The Big Front Yard Clifford D. Simak was able to come up with an idea that makes commerce plausible, mostly by discarding the idea of moving physical objects from place to place, and instead having the traders deal in ideas. Simak adds some spice to the mixture by having the aliens show up in the front yard of a Yankee trader who takes over the task of sharp nosed dealing for Earth. The story moves through a couple stages, from a mundane start, to a confusing middle as strange events swirl about the characters, to an ending in which everything comes together and the reader realizes that the aliens have probably more than met their match in negotiating a swap. This is also the only serious science fiction story I know of in which a pickup truck is used as a means of interstellar travel. This is an excellent story, and while it may not be the best story in this volume, it is my favorite.

Of the stories in the volume, The Hell-Bound Train by Robert Bloch is probably the second most famous. The story is a fairly simple morality tale in which a young man named Martin makes a deal with the conductor of the Hell bound train, agreeing to get on the train when his time comes in exchange for one gift. The young man chooses the ability to stop time for himself one time, thinking that he will choose the one moment in which he is fully happy to do so, and thus avert the necessity of ever having to pay off his end of the deal. The rest of the story details the life that the young man leads, ever searching for that elusive perfect moment of bliss until at the very end he finds himself out of time never having used his boon. In trying to trick the devil, he has outsmarted himself, as the devil knew he would. But the story has one more twist, as Martin realizes that while he was searching for happiness all his life, it had been right in front of him from the beginning.

The most famous story in the volume is Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, a story that was later expanded to novel length and has been adapted for the screen more than once. Keyes' story is told by means of the journal entries of Charlie Gordon, a mentally handicapped man who is participating in an experiment designed to increase human intelligence. Gordon's entries are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors at the outset, becoming more and more polished as the treatment he received takes hold. Gordon is a completely likable character, good-natured and eager despite his limitations, and that makes the unfolding tragedy in the story poignant as it turns out that the increased intelligence is not permanent. The latter half of the story shows Charlie's slide back to his starting point, and the drama is further increased when Algernon, the experimental mouse that underwent the same procedure Charlie did, dies. In the end, Charlie's last journal entry is not a plaintive whine about his own fate, but rather a request that flowers be placed on Algernon's grave, which is also an unspoken request that he be remembered as well. When Keyes originally submitted the story for publication, the editors who looked at it requested that he change the ending to a happier one in which Charlie did not go back to his original condition, and in which Charlie did not die. Keyes wisely refused these changes, which would have left a decent story, but not the memorable and though-provoking masterpiece that we have instead.

The final story in the volume is The Longest Voyage by Poul Anderson, which starts out following the crew of the Golden Leaper under Captain Rovic as they travel across the oceans looking for new lands. While the reader may think that the story of the crew of a sailing ship might be set in our own 16th century, it quickly becomes apparent that the sailors are traveling seas lit by a different sun. The Leaper comes across new lands and a culture that seems remarkably similar to the Polynesian cultures of Earth's South Pacific. But the story takes a different turn when it is discovered that the natives are guarding a secret: a man from another world had landed decades before and taken up residence among them. It turns out that the inhabitants of this particular are the descendants of explorers from space who had become stranded on this world, and not having sufficient ability to keep an industrial culture going, had slipped back to a pre-industrial way of life. The outsider promises that if Rovic's crew will supply him with a few things he needs, he will reunify the planet with interstellar culture and usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity. Rovic is faced with an interesting choice, and ends up choosing one that will be unsurprising to those familiar with Anderson's. The story, like so many of Anderson's stories, is about freedom, self-determination, and human ingenuity.

As one would expect of a collection of award winning stories, the selections in this volume are all quite good. Although some are lighter than others, and less memorable, every one of these stories is enjoyable to read. Some provide the additional bonus of being thought-provoking, insightful, or disturbing. Not only that, Asimov's brief comments concerning each author, and in some cases the circumstances of their win, are fun to read as well. Overall, this is a great anthology, with nine good of great science fiction stories.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Sep 17, 2012, 4:38am Top

I'm not sure where you get the time to do your long reviews, but I did get a couple of ideas to add to my try author list. At the rate you're going, looks like you'll hit 100.

Edited: Oct 10, 2012, 10:55am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field (November 2011)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field (December 2011)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field (January 2012)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field (February 2012)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field (March 2012)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field (April 2012)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field (May 2012)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field (June 2012)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field (July 2012)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field (August 2012)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field (September 2012)

Book Sixty-One: More Stories from the Hugo Winners, Volume II by Isaac Asimov (editor).

Stories included:
Weyr Search by Anne McCaffrey
Riders of the Purple Wage by Philip José Farmer
Gonna Roll the Bones by Fritz Lieber
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison
Nightwings by Robert Silverberg
The Sharing of Flesh by Poul Anderson
The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World by Harlan Ellison
Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones by Samuel R. Delany

Long review: Following up on The Hugo Winners, Asimov agreed to edit and write interstitial pieces for More Stories from the Hugo Winners, an anthology featuring those pieces of short fiction that had won the Hugo Award since the first volume's publication. As with the first volume, this collection of stories is quite strong, which one would expect from a group of stories that had all been handed one of the two highest honors in science fiction literature.

The first story in the volume is the history-making Weyr Search by Anne McCaffrey, a story that marked the first time a woman had won a Hugo Award. The story introduces Pern, the fictional world that would dominate much of McCaffrey's career, and tells a tale of revenge and discovery with a little twist of the unexpected thrown in. The story features a vile usurper, a displaced princess, and dragon-riding hero, and a destiny that one of the characters didn't know they had. The story is a good story, but I'm not sure if it is a truly great story. As an installment in the Pern series, it is quite satisfying, but given that this was the first Pern story published, there is something of an unfinished feel to it. The later Pern stories put this one into context, but standing on its own the story seems unfinished with too many elements unresolved. McCaffrey's story shared its Hugo win with Riders of the Purple Wage by Philip José Farmer, an at times surreal tale of a future in which everyone lives off of government hand-outs, but in exchange gives up most control over their own lives, including where they live. The main character is Rex Luscus, an artist who is sheltering his grandfather, the last known tax evader, who is also the voice of rebellion and dissent in the world. The story meanders, with federal agents pursuing their quarry while hampered by a populace that mostly wants to be left alone to watch the future equivalent of television, but is also very touchy about those who trample on their myriad of rights. The story winds its way to an art show in which a disagreement between art critics leads to a riot, and then back to the apprehension and death of Luscus' grandfather, and then to a final joke played upon authority. The story is odd, with the characters displaying an equal mixture of feeding off the government and rebellion against the government.

Probably the most straightforward story in the volume is Gonna Roll the Bones by Fritz Lieber, a tale in which Joe Slattermill, a man with an amazing ability to roll dice, decides to head to a new casino to shoot craps. In a turn that will surprise no one, he ends up shooting against Death, which leads to a critical showdown. Slattermill realizes that no mere man can hope to succeed against the darkness of death, which results in an interesting denouement. The story is interesting, but as it is yet one more of the long line of stories in which a human matches up against Death and has to find their way out of their predicament using their wits, and as a result isn't particularly unique. Were it not for the final few lines of the story in which Slattermill makes a choice about what to do with his second chance at life, it is quite possible that the story would have faded into obscurity.

In contrast with Lieber's somewhat conventional story about an encounter with evil, we have Harlan Ellison's two Hugo winning stories I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream and The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, both nightmarish visions of terror that avoid being cliched. Ellison has a somewhat well-deserved reputation as the enfant terrible of genre fiction, and I am convinced that this is at least partially because the inside of his mind if a terrifying and scary place. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream follows the last four humans on Earth as they deal with the nightmarish reality that the "AM" computer forces them to endure. Having systemically killed off everyone else on the planet, the world-spanning AM tortures these four out of hate and spite, keeping them alive just to torment them. The story details the many horrors the AM inflicts upon the characters: starving them for months and then providing them food that is disgusting, or inaccessible, causing creatures to shred them to pieces, or freezing them, or boiling them, or any number of other atrocities, but each time the AM saves and heals them so that it may inflict further punishment upon them. Eventually, the lead character figures out how to kill the others, but before he can kill himself the AM stops him and transforms him into a gelatinous creature with no mouth, capable of feeling pain, but incapable of harming himself. This story is possibly the most terrifying vision that has been realized in print.

Also mediating on the subject of evil is Ellison's follow-up story The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, although in this story Ellison treats evil as insanity, and posits that insanity is a palpable force that can be isolated and excised. But after the insanity of cruelty and hatred has been removed from a being, it has to go somewhere, and the frightening thing about this story is the decision that is made concerning that question. And even though there are characters in this story that poison hundreds of people and blow up airplanes and engage in cannibalism, the real evil doers are shown to be those who, having purged themselves and their society of insanity, consign others to endure its ravages in order to be able to ship the poison elsewhere. In Ellison's vision, the true evil is appears to be in actions that are banal and dispassionate, and not those taken out of insanity and rage.

The strange, almost fairy-tale quality of Nightwings by Robert Silverberg seems to have influenced his own Majipoor Chronicles, as well as Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, imagining a future Earth in which humanity living on a wrecked planet has slipped back into a feudal way of life and the working lives of all adults are dominated by the guilds they belong to. The viewpoint character is a "watcher", a guild dedicated to watching the stars for evidence of the expected invasion of Earth by alien forces. He travels with a "flyer" and a mutant who is a member of no guild as they all head for the ancient city of Roum. Once there, they find the corruption that has crept its way into every facet of society, and even when the human cause is betrayed, it doesn't seem like anything of importance has been lost in the destruction of the world that humans had built. The story deals with the nature of history, the nature of expectation, and the nature of power, and all of these themes weave together to yield a slightly unsettling tale.

Another unsettling tale is Poul Anderson's story about how cultural assumptions can blind one to the reality that they are studying. In The Sharing of Flesh a team of anthropologists studying the primitive inhabitants of Lokon are stunned when one of their number is murdered out of the blue by a native the researcher trusted. While investigating the murder, the deceased's widow uncovers the truth behind her spouse's murder, and the biological imperatives that drive the seemingly barbaric practices of the world. The story is a classic tale of miscommunication between disparate cultures and how even the most careful observers can be blinded by their own prejudices and assumptions. Even though the story itself is fairly simple, the excellent characterization and the stark unflinching manner in which the tale is told raise it up to superior status.

The final story in the volume is Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones by Samuel R. Delany, and as usual, Delany's story is strange and beautiful. The story itself, covering the rise of an upwardly mobile criminal with an ever changing name, is fairly straightforward. The protagonist recounts how he escaped from a life of dairy farming, tries to unload some stolen property, runs afoul of the law, flees to Neptune, and opens an ice cream shop. But the brilliance of the story is in the elements that surround the plot - the "singers" who tell the stories of the world around them, the use of gemstones as code words by a diffuse criminal network, the "holographic analysis" that allows the police to determine when a criminal is about to move up in the world, and the idea that the only thing the police are concerned about is the upwardly mobile criminal. The protagonist is shaking up the underworld by climbing the criminal social ladder, and comes into conflict with other, but realizes that after he has made the climb, the dust will settle and those he is fighting will be his allies again. The story is a brilliant essay on social stability and the conflict caused by those who would seek to change their own place in the world.

It is very difficult to go wrong with an anthology when you start with Hugo winners as your material, and More Stories from the Hugo Winners ably demonstrates why this is so. Every story in the collection is at least good, and many of them are great, especially Ellison's two contributions as well as Delany and Anderson's stories. As usual, Asimov's short essays about each author are fun and enjoyable, adding a nice personal touch that helps draw you into each story. Overall, this is an excellent collection of stories, and a must read for any science fiction fan.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 16, 2012, 5:38pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Poets & Writers (November/December 2011)

Book Sixty-Two: The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 1 by Isaac Asimov (editor).

Stories included:
Ship of Shadows by Fritz Lieber
Ill Met in Lankhmar by Fritz Lieber
Slow Sculpture by Theodore Sturgeon
The Queen of Air and Darkness by Poul Anderson
Inconstant Moon by Larry Niven

Long review: After the success of the first two volumes collecting the Hugo winning stories, it was somewhat inevitable that a third would be in the offing. Isaac Asimov returned to take on the editing duties and write funny little anecdotes about the prize winning authors. This installment, the first half of the third volume in the series, only contains five stories, but they are five excellent stories by four outstanding authors.

Asimov notes that the book opens with two consecutive novellas by Fritz Lieber, meaning that what is supposed to be a multi-author collection of short fiction opens with approximately forty-thousand words worth of fiction from a single author. Fortunately, they are forty thousand pretty good words, so it isn't really much of a problem. The first Lieber story is Ship of Shadows, a story that begins with an almost dream-like feel that sharpens into a high focus by the end of the tale. The ostensible reason for this increase in clarity are the optical enhancements the main character acquires through the course of the story, but Lieber uses this as a metaphor for learning. What at the outset were poorly seen shadows that coalesced in the mind of the viewpoint character as vampires, witches, and werewolves, are transformed into their real shapes as the narrator gets better vision, and a better understanding of the world he lives in. The story starts off as a fantasy, but by the end it is clear that it is pure science fiction, and that Lieber is playing with the reader's perception by means of the narrator's faulty reporting, although at all times the narrator's reporting is painfully and almost childishly honest. In the end, the mystery is solved, the threats faced by the protagonist are mostly averted, and all is more or less well, but that is almost all beside the point of this simultaneously surreal and real tale.

The other Lieber story in the collection is Ill Met in Lankhmar, in which the author details the first meeting of his two famous sword wielding swashbucklers Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Though this is ostensibly the tale describing the first encounter between the pair, it is one of the last-written stories about them, and it seems to assume that the reader has more than a passing familiarity with these two characters and the world they live in. And for a long awaited story about how a team of well-liked pulp heroes got together, this story is something of a disappointment. The pair accidentally bump into each other while ambushing the same set of members from the Lankhmar Thieves' Guild. After the fight, they take on look at one another and become immediate friends. They then go get some wine, get their girlfriends, and stage an impromptu party. And seeing one another in an alleyway after killing a couple thieves is the sum total of the introduction that made Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser the best of friends. The story goes on from there in fairly standard fashion. The pair are goaded into infiltrating the Thieves' Guild, do so drunkenly and clumsily, get both their girlfriends killed by sorcery, and then go back to bash their way into the Guild house and kill the sorcerer responsible. The story is pretty standard swords and sorcery adventure, so I have to wonder if the voters were honoring this story, or were rather honoring the body of Lankhmar stories that preceded it.

After the surreal first story and pulp adventure of the second, Theodore Sturgeon's sober dissection of human nature in Slow Sculpture is something of a jolt, but it is a refreshing and compelling jolt. An unnamed woman suffering from cancer finds her way to a cynical engineer brilliant enough to have invented numerous inventions that would revolutionize everything about our world. The central message of the story is that humanity will resist such revolutionary changes, and that if the engineer released his inventions upon the world that they would be suppressed, destroyed, or ignored. This is in direct contrast to many science fiction stories in which a brilliant scientist comes up with a clever invention that sweeps across the world and causes massive change. In the story humanity is likened to a bonsai tree, capable of being changed, but slowly, and with great persistent effort. It may not be the best story in the collection, but it is the most thoughtful.

In The Queen of Air and Darkness by Poul Anderson crafts another story involving humans dealing with an alien world and its seemingly inscrutable inhabitants. The son of a scientist studying the native life in the wilderness of a frontier planet is mysteriously abducted. After being stonewalled by the local police, she enlists a private investigator and sets out to find her son. The story alternates between the pair of searchers and the humans living amidst the alien intelligence that seems to love and care for them. But as in his previous Hugo winning story The Sharing of Flesh, the humans don't really understand the aliens they are dealing with, and their assumptions have led them to some missteps. In the end, the private investigator unravels the aliens' secret and the story ends with everything turning out more or less well. But the plot is not the fascinating part of the story, rather, the alien "Queen" is coupled with the exploration of how an alien intelligence could hide more or less in plain sight.

The final story in the volume is Inconstant Moon by Larry Niven, which was later made into an Outer Limits episode of the same name starring Michael Gross and Joanna Gleason. In the story, an improbably bright moon leads Los Angeles resident Stan to conclude that the sun has exploded on the other side of the Earth. He calls up an old girlfriend and proceeds to have what he expects will be one last night in which they can live it up before dying when the cataclysmic wave of superheated atmosphere rolls around to where they are. Through the story several clues lead Stan and the reader to conclude that the future is not quite as bleak as he first thought, although the picture is definitely not rosy. The story is a classic astronomical disaster story, a chilling reminder of just how precarious our continued existence on the Earth is, and how randomly death and extinction might come to our doorstep.

The Hugo Winners, Volume 3, Book 1 is an excellent collection of award-winning stories. Of the five stories in the book, four are excellent, and the remaining one - Ill-Met in Lankhmar - is pretty good. The stories are thought-provoking, and enjoyable, and as usual, Asimov's commentary about the authors and the circumstances of their Hugo victories is amusing and gives a fascinating look into the history of science fiction. These are stories that are "must reads" for any serious science fiction fan who has not already come across them, and an anthology that should definitely be on every science fiction fan's shelf.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 23, 2012, 12:31pm Top

Book Sixty-Three: Time Untamed by Ivan Howard (editor).

Stories included:
Sally by Isaac Asimov
You'll Never Go Home Again by Clifford D. Simak
The Eye of Tandyla by L. Sprague de Camp
Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Ray Bradbury
The Hungry Eye by Robert Bloch
The Dark Room by Theodore Sturgeon
The Eternal Eve by John Wyndham
I'm Looking for "Jeff" by Fritz Leiber

Long review: Time Untamed is a moderately obscure science fiction anthology featuring a grab bag of stories from a collection of fairly prominent science fiction authors of its day. The genesis of the collection appears to have been to reprint some popular stories that had appeared previously in Fantastic that had previously been culled from previous publications and reprinted in the magazine. Ivan Howard was apparently on the staff of the magazine at the time and was assigned the job of editing this anthology of third run stories, although he is uncredited in the book. Given that every story in this book was considered worth publishing at least three times, it is no surprise that they are all pretty good, although none of them stand out as more than that.

Sally by Isaac Asimov is another in a long line of Asimov stories featuring "positronic brains" and the position of robots in human society. The twist in Sally is that the robot brains are installed in cars, and only robotic cars are allowed on the roads, reducing automobile accidents and the resulting injuries and fatalities to almost zero. The protagonist Jake runs a retirement farm for old cars, including the title character, an old convertible named "Sally". Retired cares are rare because cars in the future are rare and have longer service lives. Jake regards his charges fondly, almost like cherished pets. He is visited by an unscrupulous entrepreneur who wants to take the retired cars, rip out their brains, and put them into new cars. This appalls Jake, and when the ensuing back and forth moves into criminal action, the cars take sides against the interloper. While this provides a victory for the "good guys" it makes Jake wonder what would happen if the cars ever stopped behaving like spoiled pets and took sides against humanity. Sally is a fairly simple robot story with a slightly unsettling implication, although Asimov's three laws of robotics are noticeably absent.

Several of the stories in the volume are frightening, but from my perspective none can match Clifford D. Simak's tale of deep space exploration You'll Never Go Home Again. A human survey ship sets down on an alien planet and begins to set about studying it in preparation of future colonization. Using robots to set everything up, and the latest technological devices to ensure their security, the survey team is not intimidated by the Stone Age technology of the natives. In the one encounter between the explorers and the natives, the intrepid humans are told they will never leave, a threat they scoff at. But it turns out not to be a threat, but a prediction, as things don't turn out exactly as either the characters or the reader would expect. The humans end up marooned and unequipped with anything more advanced than stone tools on an alien planet, which is what makes this story quite frightening.

L. Sprague de Camp gives a humorous take on pulp sword and sorcery with The Eye of Tandyla, in which a king compels Derezong Taash, his reluctant court magician, to steal a valuable and magical gem from a neighboring kingdom to mollify the king's new wife. Derezong and his trusty assistant manage to pull of the heist, but when everything seems to go a little too well they get suspicious and change their plans. This turns out to be a good idea, and they manage to unwittingly prevent an assassination of their king. The story is humorous, somewhat silly, and fairly entertaining.

The one time travel story in the volume is Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Ray Bradbury, a tale involving a down on his luck writer in Los Angeles and a mysterious typing machine that shows up in his apartment. He is contacted by a woman who claims to be from a dystopian future ruled by a brutal dictator. She encourages him to prevent her reality by killing the ancestor of the ruthless leader who has imprisoned her father. The hero resists, but finally gives in and kills a minor politician, which of course sparks a police hunt for him. The story ends ambiguously, with one wondering if the main character did the right thing – after all, he only has this stranger's say-so that killing this otherwise unremarkable man, and in the process ruining his own life, is necessary. Of all the stories in the volume, this one is probably the best of the bunch.

Two of the stories are more or less horror stories, and seem somewhat similar, although they take fairly different ways to get to their conclusion. The Hungry Eye by Robert Bloch centers on a mysterious stone which seems to drive those near it to murderous acts. The protagonist's brother is accused of killing another security guard at his place of work and stealing the stone. He then takes up with a woman he picks up in a bar, and is killed by her. The stone is then taken by the protagonist and as the tale ends, he is casually contemplating murdering his beloved wife. The story is framed as an alien invasion story, but the invader is a life form that no one suspects is a life form, and is unsettling as only a Robert Bloch story can be. The other horror story in the collection is The Dark Room by Theodore Sturgeon, which is almost a dark fairy tale. People who attend parties at a particular house do things that are unusual for them. In fact, people do things that are impossibly out of character for them. But then they are never invited to return. The protagonist's wife cheats on him at one of these parties, and is then driven by his brother-in-law to investigate. The trail leads inevitably back to the house where the parties happen, and the enchanted source of the mysterious behavior. The story is dark, twisted, and magical

The last two stories both focus on women, and only very slightly from different angles. In The Eternal Eve by John Wyndham a colony on Venus learns that the rest of humanity has destroyed itself in an orgy of violence, leaving only the handful of colonists as the last vestige of our race. Even more ominously, the colony was mostly male, leaving fewer women alive than one could count on one hand, including the protagonist who is apparently the last fertile female still breathing. She takes a stand, refusing to pick a man and start breeding a new generation of humans, which leads to her holing up in a cave with the primitive native Venusians she had been studying as a graduate student when the catastrophe took place. The story is somewhat conventional in that she eventually gives in to biology and takes a partner, become the "Eve" of the title. The story is predictable and has a moderately anti-feminist message, essentially asserting that a woman must be willing to breed for the good of the race, even if it does allow that she shouldn't be forced into it and should be permitted to breed with the man of her choice. I'm Looking for "Jeff" by Fritz Leiber, on the other hand, is a classic ghost story featuring a damsel in distress, a stalwart hero, and a crude villain. Only the damsel in distress is picking up men in a bar, the hero is a drunkard, and the crude villain, well the crude villain is in fact a crude villain. The story is well-written, and the characters are fun to follow, but the plot is very predictable, and the reader is likely to figure out the "twist" ending well before they reach the end.

Taken as a group, the stories in Time Untamed are an enjoyable but not particularly substantial lot. The best that can be said for most of them is that they are well-written stories that contain stock characters acting out stock plots in stock settings. The best story is Bradbury's time travel tale Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and even that is a fairly standard example of the genre, drawing upon some fairly well-worn time travel story tropes. All of the authors represented here are good writers, and as a result even their clichéd material makes for an enjoyable read.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jul 31, 2013, 9:06am Top

Book Sixty-Four: A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn.

Short review: Martians live among us, observing, and waiting for humanity to ethically grow enough to accept them. But can one observe without being changed in return?

Long review: The classic fairy story involves the protagonist leaving his home, journeying to the fairy realm where he encounters strange denizens, overcomes an obstacle, learns something about himself, grows a little, and then returns home. In many ways Edgar Pangborn's A Mirror for Observers, the 1955 winner of the International Fantasy Award for Best Fiction Book, follows this fairy story formula, but the exotic and dangerous fairy realm that the protagonist goes to is our world, the obstacle he must overcome is one of his own kind, and the strange denizens that help him learn about himself are us. Elmis, the central character of the book, does not intend to change himself, instead intending merely to observe, but he discovers the fundamental truth that the mere act of observation irrevocably changes both those that are observed, and more radically, those who do the observing.

In A Mirror for Observers Earth has been invaded by Martians who were fleeing their dying planet. It was something of a gentle invasion: No humans noticed it happen when it took place thirty thousand years ago. Now the Martians live sequestered in their hidden cities around the world bound by their strong sense of ethics to avoid interfering in humanity's affairs until humanity evolves its own sufficiently advanced ethical framework that would permit the Martians to reveal themselves and live openly among the Earthlings. Or at least most of Martians adhere to this view, and form a faction called the "Observers". A small handful of Martians called the "Abdicators" reject this, believing that humanity has proven itself to be irredeemably savage, and seek to tip the balance of human ethics in such a way that humanity destroys itself, clearing the way for the Martians to assume ownership of the planet.

The story of the book involved Elmis, an Observer, and Namir, an Abdicator, and their shared but competing interest in the development of a single twelve year boy named Angelo Pontevecchio who lives in the small and somewhat sleepy town of Latimer, Massachusetts. The two Martians focus their attentions on this boy because they believe that he has the correct intellectual capability and inclination to develop the kind of ethical system that the hidden invaders have been hoping for through the centuries. The problem is that while Elmis yearns for such a development to come to fruition, Namir wants to derail Angelo's education and set the stage for humanity to commit racial suicide. In the story, Angelo quickly demonstrates his precocious nature, already immersing himself in the writings of Socrates and Plato, but also displays the carelessness of youth, as he flirts with becoming involved with a gang of local ruffians in order to prove his manliness. And it is in this struggle, between the path of learning and accomplishment, and the path of macho posturing, that Elmis and Namir enter Angelo's life and begin trying to pull him one way or the other. Or rather, that Namir enters Angelo's life and attempts to set him on the road to juvenile delinquency while Elmis, for the most part, is constrained by his ethical beliefs to merely observe.

And this is the first point at which the real point of the book comes into play. The book is not actually about the conflict between Elmis and Namir, or about the development of a superior ethical system, or about Angelo. It is about how Elmir is changed by his contact with humanity, and how, perhaps, the allegedly advanced ethical system of the Martians may in fact be somewhat wanting. Because by doing nothing other than observing, Elmis leaves Angelo to be preyed upon by Namir. By refusing to take a side in this conflict, Elmis actually is taking a side and conceding Angelo's future to his ideological opponent. Noninterference in the cultural development of others is usually seen as a virtue, but in his slow, almost dream-like way, Pangborn quietly calls that belief into question, and poses a severe dilemma for Elmis, even though Elmis himself is mostly oblivious to the danger Namir truly poses. Ultimately, the denouement of this portion of the story is sad, tragic, and devastating, as Namir proves to be even more wily and ruthless in pursuit of his goals than Elmis could imagine.

Intertwined with the story of Angelo coming to grips with being a precocious yet somewhat undersized and fatherless boy while being led astray by an inimical agent, is the story of Angelo's relationship with Sharon, a young girl his age, and both of their relationship with music. Pangborn himself had been something of a musical prodigy in his youth, and for unexplained reasons gave up his musical career to the extent that people who knew him later in life didn't even know he could play an instrument. But in A Mirror for Observers, the artistry of music takes center stage. One human achievement that Elmis and most other Martians admire is music - Elmis himself plays the piano, although he is hampered somewhat by the fact that his alien hands had to be surgically altered to sport five fingers. For Angelo's part, he is also described as being a quite capable musician, but the true musical talent is Sharon, who Elmis immediately identifies as being prodigiously gifted.

And by focusing on music, Pangborn suggests that what makes a society "advanced" may not have anything to do with technology, but rather the art they produce, whether they appreciate the art, how they treat the artists, and ultimately how they treat each other. While Elmis is overwhelmed by the beauty of Sharon's musical gift, Namir pays them no mind at all. And even though Elmis is mostly content to sit on the sidelines and watch Angelo founder on his own with nothing more than a handful of conversations, the Martian is so moved by Sharon's music that he makes arrangements for her to receive proper instruction in her art. Art, it seems, is what makes a society worth having, but at the same time, it lifts us up to make us worth saving. Namir, whose life is entirely lacking in art, has become bitter and cruel as a result; a pattern that is repeated more than once in the book, as those who lack an appreciation for art end up full of hatred and self-loathing.

After documenting Namir's manipulation derail Angelo's life, the story leaps forward by about a decade and moves to New York. Elmis comes to the city because he believes that he will find Angelo there after searching for the boy for years. First, however, he runs across Sharon, who has matured into an accomplished concert pianist who performs in front of large and appreciative audiences. But her music is the one bright note in a dreary and desolate world. The Russians and the Chinese are at war. The Organic Unity Party, which is headquartered in New York, preaches a vicious form of exclusionary nationalism and is only opposed by the tepid Federalist Party. Elmis believes, based upon the scanty evidence of seeing a former youth gang member from Latimer in a photograph with the leader of the organic Unity Party, that Angelo has gotten himself involved in some way with this repugnant organization. This supposition turns out to be correct to a certain extent, and Elmis sets about subtly trying to convince Angelo to disentangle himself from his circumstances. Angelo, now calling himself Abe Brown, feels obligated to the disguised Namir and his prot&eactue;gés for the "help" they have given him - help that seems to have mostly been aimed as ensnaring Angelo into their sphere of influence and diverting his interests away from ethics.

Even though Angelo is the focus of Elmis' efforts, Angelo himself, and even his hoped for development of a superior ethical system, is merely a vehicle to tell the story of Elmis' own journey. As Elmis sheds his Martian ethic of noninterference and becomes more involved in persuading Angelo to take particular actions and pushing Angelo and Sharon together, he becomes less of an observer and more of a participant. Eventually the world enters into a crisis when , despite not actually intending to, the Organic Unity Party unleashes a worldwide epidemic of proportions akin to the 1918 influenza pandemic (which Pangborn himself would have lived through when he was a similar age to Angelo in the first portion of the book). Faced with this human catastrophe, Elmis discards any pretense of merely being an observer and becomes an active participant in events, working in a hospital to provide aid and comfort to the sick and dying. Symbolically, Sharon is struck down by the epidemic and loses her hearing, and in the chaos, Angelo finally does break from Namir's influence.

But all of this is a sideshow. The real story is in Elmis' own transformation. By observing, he is changed. Even though he starts the book with what he believes to be his own superior Martian ethic, the events of the book play out in such a manner that his assumptions are called into question. Through observing, Elmis is changed as much as he changes the characters by his own actions, even if he didn't necessarily realize that he was changing those he came into contact with. In many ways, A Mirror for Observers is about unintended consequences, both those unintended consequences that inure to those the instigator and those unintended consequences that redound back upon the original actor. Elmis intends only to observe Angelo, but by his very presence he alters the course of events, affecting not only the lives of Angelo and Sharon, but also his own.

In the end Angelo ends up living in a small town living a small town life with Sharon. Whether or not Angelo ever actually develops the humane ethic that the Martians desperately yearn for him to create is not a question that is ever answered in the book, and is a question that is more or less beside the point. The discovery in the book is that the Martian vigil may have been an exercise in vanity rather than a display of ethical forbearance. And while much of the novel seems to have a dream-like quality, at the end, it feels like Elmis, and possibly the entire Martian race, may be emerging from a self-imposed sleep to become ready to join or ultimately completely eschew the world they have secluded themselves from for so long. Overall, Pangborn's novel about how even our most innocuous actions change the world and ourselves is a fascinating read, and one that should be on every science fiction fan's reading list.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Mar 19, 2013, 2:23pm Top

Book Sixty-Five: TV: 2000 by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg, (editors).

Stories included:
Now Inhale by Eric Frank Russell
Dreaming Is a Private Thing by Isaac Asimov
The Man Who Murdered Television by Joseph Patrouch
The Jester by William Tenn
The Man Who Came Back by Robert Silverberg
I See You by Damon Knight
The Prize of Peril by Robert Sheckley
Home Team Advantage by Jack C. Haldeman II
Mercenary by Mack Reynolds
Without Portfolio by James E. Gunn
The Idea by Barry N. Malzberg
And Madly Teach by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
What Time Is It? by Jack C. Haldeman II
Interview by Frank A. Javor
Cloak of Anarchy by Larry Niven
And Now the News by Theodore Sturgeon
Very Proper Charlies by Dean Ing
Committee of the Whole by Frank Herbert

Long review: TV: 2000 is an anthology of science fiction stories ostensibly tied together by the common theme of being stories about television. And while some of the stories are indeed science fiction stories about television, the theme seems to be more honored in the beach than in the observance. Even so, this is a fairly good collection of short fiction.

The first story in the volume, Now Inhale by Eric Frank Russell, kicks off the extremely tangentially television related stories. In this tale a human scout has crash landed on an uncharted alien planet and been captured by the local authorities. He is condemned to death, but due to a quirk of alien law, he is allowed to play a game before he dies. It doesn't matter if he wins or loses, when the game ends, he will be executed. So, of course, our hero picks a game that will take an interminably long time to complete, the better to give a relief ship the opportunity to rescue him. The only television connection in the story is that the contest is apparently televised for the populace to watch as entertainment, but that doesn't actually have any real bearing on the plot of the story. The story, like many other Russell stories, is darkly humorous and fun to read, but it isn't really about television, or the effect of television on society.

This being a collection edited in part by Asimov, one would expect an Asimov story to be included, and one is in the form of Asimov's Dreaming Is a Private Thing, which is another story that is not about television. Instead, the story is about "dreamies", a posited future technology in which people can experience the dreams of others as entertainment. The story more or less walks through the typical day of an executive running a "dreamie" production company as he negotiates with new talent, deals with old talent, and frets about the competition. There's not really much to the story other than the observation that the artists who create the product are more or less compelled by their nature to do so, unable to function in society due to their constantly overactive and vivid imaginations. The story is an interesting idea, but it isn't really developed into much more than a series of vignettes that discuss the idea and don't really go anywhere with it.

Unlike the first two stories, The Man Who Murdered Television by Joseph Patrouch is definitively about television, but it doesn't have much in the way of science fiction. The story takes the form of a dialogue between a father and daughter, with the father revealing that the reason humans have never heard from alien civilizations is that broadcast radio and television cause cancer, and smart civilizations figure this out and stop using it, while stupid civilizations don't and die off as a result. The narrator explains that he and some like-minded people that know about the connection between broadcast television and cancer have been trying to reduce the use of the medium. Unable to shut it down at the source, they have decided to reduce demand by intentionally making television programs worse and worse so no one will want to watch. This is an optimistic idea, but it seems more like fantasy than science fiction, given that the television viewing public seems to have demonstrated with shows like Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty, and Dance Moms that there is no bottom below which the quality of television programming could sink that would keep droves of people from watching.

The Jester by William Tenn is set on television, but it isn't really about television. Lester the Jester is a comedian on the down side of his career, so he acquires a robot named Rupert that is programmed to come up with original jokes. Lester's idea is to use Rupert's capabilities to acquire witty one-liners and revive his flagging career as a television personality, but Rupert's humor circuits work too well, and it turns out he is an uncontrollable practical joker. Things go poorly as Rupert first alienates Lester's fiance and then hijacks the television broadcast Lester is appearing on, but it turns out that Rupert's jokes are wildly popular, and before he knows it, Lester finds himself relegated to managing his metallic contraption's career. The story plays upon human fears of being replaced by a machine, but unlike a story like The Darfsteller, which portrays the dislocation of humanity as a tragedy, The Jester relates this story in the form of a bitterly satirical farce.

Another story that is only tangentially related to television is The Man Who Came Back by Robert Silverberg, which, to the extent that it touches on media issues, centers on the phenomenon of the media sensation. John Burkhardt, a colonist who has spent the last twenty years farming on a distant plant, has returned to Earth, becoming the first of those participating in this government program to come back. When it is revealed that he returned to win the hand of the woman he left behind all those years ago, he becomes a romantic hero. And when it is revealed that this woman is now a famous actress, he becomes a media darling. But the story takes a left turn into the real plot when it turns out that Burkhardt has picked up a little bit more than people suspect during his sojourn on an alien world, raising questions about the nature of love, free will, and, in my mind, rape. In short, if you mind-control the love of your life into loving you in return, how can it possibly be love, and isn't that a form of rape? The story is deeply unsettling, and clearly intended to be so, and the creepy nature of its plot has only become more so with the passage of time since the story's publication.

One of the best stories in the volume is I See You by Damon Knight, however the story is yet again, not really about television. Instead, the story centers on the development of a new technology that could best be described as a "time telescope" that allows the user to look backwards at any previous point in time, and pretty much at any point in space the viewer might select. The new technology spreads like wildfire, as people realize they can look back to learn the truth about mysterious historical events like unexplained shipwrecks. But before too long, people realize they can turn their time telescopes on their kids, their neighbors, their parents, and their enemies, and all privacy becomes a thing of the past. Children look back to watch their parents conceive themselves, the police look back to solve crimes, obsessed fans look back to watch their favorite stars or starlets have sex, and so on. But then comes the realization: people from the future are certainly looking back on the people of the present, and no one is safe. The story is both humorous and frightening.

Among all the stories in the book that aren't about television, one that was turned out to be remarkably prescient about the direction television programming would go in the future. Though it was first published in 1959, The Prize of Peril by Robert Sheckley seems to have predicted the rise of reality television. In Sheckley's imagined future, Jim Raeder is participating an the most popular show on the air: A reality show in which a single "ordinary" person agrees to be hunted by condemned criminals for the enjoyment of the viewing audience. The only catch is that if they track Jim down before the end of his week on the run, his pursuers will kill him. The story digresses to show Jim climbing the ladder of potentially crippling or deadly reality programs until he got his shot at the "big time". In a twist that also seems to be disturbingly prophetic, the viewing audience is invited to become part of the action, with the opportunity to help or hinder Jim, which seems to presage the behavior of audience members on shows like Do You Want to Be a Millionaire where some people will deliberately try to steer a contestant away from the correct answer if they can. Science fiction is not an attempt to predict what will happen in the future, but rather an attempt to tell enjoyable stories that may examine the effects of particular types of technology or social changes to the world, but in this case, Sheckley hits pretty close to home with an imagined reality that seems all too familiar, and all too depressing.

Another story involving the potential of death on television is the humorous Home Team Advantage by Jack C. Haldeman II, although the story isn't so much about television as it is about sports, and specifically baseball. In the story, a team of humans has lost a critical baseball series to a team from Arcturus, with the stakes being that the winner gets to eat the loser, all reported by a newscaster who seems remarkably similar to Howard Cosell. The fans vote on which human gets eaten first, and the entree selected is something of a surprise, but the story contains one even further final twist at the end. The story is somewhat surreal, and fairly funny. Haldeman has another story in the volume, the very brief What Time Is It?, which imagines a use for faster than light travel to indulge the nostalgic feelings of wealthy men who yearn for the television programs of their youth.

Continuing with the "at best tenuously related to television" theme, Mercenary by Mack Reynolds posits a future in which treaties have limited warfare to only those technological advances invented prior to the twentieth century. In a further oddity, this rather quaint albeit bloody form of warfare doesn't merely take place between nations, but also between corporations. In a final quirk, society in general seems to have reverted to nineteenth century sensibilities, and social class has become almost a caste system. The protagonist in the story is Joe Mauser, an ambitious veteran mercenary who has participated in numerous corporate engagements. He signs up with the Vacuum Tube Transport corporation, a company that is tangling with a larger and better financed rival, a decision that is seen as a bad move as Continental Hovercraft had retained the services of the legendary commander Stonewall Cogswell. But Mauser has a trick up his sleeve that he thinks will turn the tide of the battle in favor of the hopelessly outclassed Vacuum Tube Transport. The story is about television to the extent that such conflicts are apparently televised, but it is mostly about class conflict, and human ingenuity even in the face of severe societal restrictions. The story is one of the best in the book, but the television angle is so tangential, that one wonders why it is included in this particular collection. Moving from the field of warfare to the field of warfare by other means, Without Portfolio by James E. Gunn imagines what would happen if the functions of the Department of State were handed over to an advertising firm. The story imagines how international diplomacy might be conducted if one of the parties pursued it like a business, complete with propaganda, coupons, and discount offers. On the surface the story is merely a piece of satirical humor, but it also imagines a better future in which the relations between nations might be ruled by law and contracts rather than chaos and disorder.

The Idea by Barry N. Malzberg is definitely about television, but only to serve as a vehicle for the real story. A television producer named Howard has an idea that is described as "educational", but which is resisted by everyone he pitches it to. Eventually the idea is made into a television pilot, and it bombs horribly. Howard's wife watches it, curses him and leaves with his children. He is sued as the "man who almost destroyed America", and at the end his lawyer tells him that sometimes an idea comes before the world is ready for it, and the messenger is then vilified. And this is what the real story is about: what happens when an idea comes along that the world is not ready for, and what happens now that we have the means to distribute that idea widely. The story stops just short of really examining these questions, content to merely raise the idea that men with ideas ahead of their time are despised by those around them. The implications of the ability to rapidly disseminate information via television is explored more fully in Committee of the Whole by Frank Herbert, in which a rancher named Custer stumbles upon a new piece of technology that seems like it will revolutionize the world, and he uses a Congressional hearing on grazing rights to make it public. The actual technology at issue - easy to make and powerful portable lasers - alters the balance of power in the world from the group to the individual, but what makes the new technology capable of such a paradigm shift is that Custer is able to spread the knowledge of the advance in an egalitarian manner, and that is accomplished via live television.

Although And Madly Teach by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. isn't really about television per se, it is about the dangers posed by a society that relies too much on technology to replace human interaction. Mildred Boltz is a teacher from off-world who has returned to Earth to take a lucrative position. She discovers that she is expected to teach students via television, and she will be judged on her ratings. She is determined to actually try to teach her students, whereas many of her fellow teachers have resorted to providing nothing more than salacious entertainment for their students. But Boltz is determined to teach her students, and to do so she reintroduces classroom instruction, much to the dismay of her superiors. The story illustrates both the power of television, and its severe limitations. The story is not so much about television itself, but about how a tool is used, and why it is the user of the tool that is important and not the nature of the tool.

Interview by Frank A. Javor is a brilliant piece that is actually about television and how those who present information to us via that medium lie to us, and how advances in technology may make it possible for them to lie even more. Given the myriad ways that newscasters often dishonestly manipulate what they are reporting via selective editing, reverse cuts, and reordering clips, one has to be somewhat disturbed by the addition of the emotional manipulation technology imagined by Javor, and makes one wonder whether the disclaimer the broadcaster is required to give at the end of his piece would actually be imposed should such technology ever come to actually exist.

There are some classic science fiction authors who seem to be the darlings of the libertarian crowd. Heinlein is one of them. Larry Niven is another. And when I read their fiction I can't help but thinking that the libertarians aren't paying attention. In this volume, Niven offers Cloak of Anarchy, a story about what seems to be a libertarian's fantasy, but because Niven isn't an idiot, he presents the fantasy for what it really is: a nightmare. In the future, when cars are no longer useful, the San Diego freeway has been turned into a huge "free" park. The only rule is a prohibition on hurting other people, enforced by floating cameras that stun any participants in violent acts. People accept that they can do anything they want in the park, and it is a place for people to act out whatever desires they have, from merely having picnics, to strolling around naked, to throwing rocks at the cameras. But when someone disables all of the cameras as a social experiment, things are suddenly not quite as idyllic. Gangs assert their authority over the only sources of water, extorting favors in return for a drink. Women who had previously felt comfortable ambling through the park naked find themselves hunted by would-be rapists, and so on. The libertarian anarchist fantasy devolves into a dystopian terror in just a few short hours, and the fact that it does seems to be a clear message of Niven's thoughts: libertarian anarchist societies are no place that anyone would actually want to live.

And Now the News by Theodore Sturgeon is another story only tangentially related to television, but is even more insightful now in the age of the internet than it was when it was first written. MacLyle is an ordinary man who lives an ordinary life until he becomes obsessed with reading the news in newspapers, listening to the news on the radio, and watching the news on television. The overload of information drives him mad, although it is a very peculiar form of madness that is particularly polite. He makes provisions for his suffering wife and then retreats to the countryside to become a hermit. A well-meaning psychiatrist journeys out to find MacLyle and attempt to cure him. It turns out that MacLyle has lost the ability to speak or read, but via intensive work, he is cured, with somewhat disastrous results. With the volume of information pouring in to the typical person's head via twenty-four hour news channels, the constant stream of data from the internet, and updates via smartphones, it seems like most people are now in MacLyle's position, which is a somewhat disquieting thought.

In contrast to Sturgeon's story is Very Proper Charlies by Dean Ing, which focuses on attempts to cut off the flow of information purportedly in the name of security. Everett is a officer working for the FCC charged with attempting to prevent terrorists from getting their actions on television, with the government more or less operating on the theory that terrorism thrives on publicity, and therefore to starve them of publicity will cause terrorism to dry up. After being almost blown up in the course of his regular duties, Everett gets involved in a project to discredit the terrorists by putting on a program that makes fun of them while at the same time suppressing any real reporting on terrorist activity. The program more or less works, but it isn't without cost as the villains respond rather disagreeably, resulting in a back and forth of intrigue and violence. The story seems in some ways to presage the modern paranoid attitude towards terrorism, including the idea that the media needs to be reigned in in the interest of security. The only real difference is that rather than having the government's paranoia imposed upon them, the entire media apparatus essentially voluntarily agrees to be muzzled by the authorities, more or less drawing an equivalency between the threat of terrorism and the U.S. national mobilization for the war effort in World War II.

Overall, this collection is an interesting read, although several of the stories have been overtaken to some extent by developments in technology. Stories that have televisions and radios that require their vacuum tubes to warm up before they operate seem rather quaint now, but in most of these tales the form of the technology is not as important as the effect that technology might have on humans, both individually and as a society. And the insights that are presented here are, for the most part, still fresh and just as insightful and chilling now as they were when these stories were first written. Granted, a fair number of the stories in this book are only about "television" in the most tangential way, but the truth is that most good science fiction isn't really about technology anyway. Science fiction at its best is about us, and these stories, full of questions and speculations about how humans interact with one another through mass media, are definitely about us.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Apr 23, 2013, 12:56pm Top

Book Sixty-Six: The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 2 by Isaac Asimov (editor).

Stories included:
The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
Goat Song by Poul Anderson
The Meeting by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth
Eurema's Dam by R.A. Lafferty
The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree, Jr.
The Deathbird by Harlan Ellison
The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin
A Song for Lya by George R.R. Martin
Adrift Just off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitiude 38 54' N, Longitude 77 00' W by Harlan Ellison
The Hole Man by Larry Niven

Long review: The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 2 is part of the continuing series of books compiling all of the Hugo Award winning works of short fiction. As with the previous volumes, the stories in this one are all quite good, which probably explains why they all won Hugo Awards. While no author can be said to dominate the book, with two stories each, it is clear that this was a highly productive era for Harlan Ellison and Ursula K. Le Guin. This volume also contains the lone Hugo winning story attributed to Cyril M. Kornbluth, which was awarded thirteen years after his death.

The Word for World Is Forest is the first of two Ursula K. Le Guin stories in the volume, set on an alien world called New Tahiti by Earthmen, and Athshe by its inhabitants, that is covered by ocean and forest. Humans have arrived to colonize the place, harvesting the timber because on an Earth that has been covered with cement, wood is more valuable than gold. But the world is occupied by short, green furred inhabitants that the invading humans call "creechies" and keep in pens as little more than slave labor. Because the story is set in Le Guin's Hainish universe, the creechies (and several other non-terran populations) are humans, seeded on far flung planets in the distant past. The creechies make poor slaves, often dazed and sleepy, berated by their human foremen as lazy. The technologically advanced Earthmen despise the creechies, and based upon the studies done by their specialist Lyubov, they assume the natives are passive and entirely non-violent. Until the creechies begin to burn human bases to the ground and slaughter all the inhabitants. The rebellion is led creechie Selver, who had lived as a slave under the human invaders until his wife was raped to death and he was maimed. After Selver was saved by Luybov, he becomes a "dreamer", and then is acknowledged as a god. The twin influences of Selver and a particularly brutal Earthman named Davidson bring the gift of war and murder to the previously peaceful creechies who had until then resolved conflict with ritualized displays and singing contests. The main message of the story is the rise of indigenous peoples against encroaching cultural imperialism, with the creechies filling the role of, among others, the Native Americans in the United States, the Zulus and other tribes in Africa, and the Vietnamese in Vietnam, but this time their actions are not in vain. Their overwhelming numbers, combined with oversight of the Earthmen's actions by the other Hainish worlds, leads to the liberation of their world. But the story runs deeper than a mere resistance story, exploring the nature of cultural misunderstandings, and what it means to be human. Every time I read a Le Guin story, it reminds me what a brilliant writer she is, and this one is no exception.

In the early years of the Hugo Awards, Poul Anderson was a dominant writer, with at least one story appearing in every volume of The Hugo Winners, and the Anderson story featured in this one is Goat Song, a high tech retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The main character, named only Harper, sings disquieting songs that lament the loss of the woman he loves. He petitions the Dark Queen, who is the human interface of SUM, for the return of his dead lover. In Anderson's future, all of humanity is cared for, managed by, and controlled by the vast computer network of SUM, even to the point where an entire person's life is stored on discs worn about one's wrist that will allow SUM to heal almost any malady, and resurrect the dead at some future point in time when the world has been perfected. Intrigued by Harper's pre-SUM appeals to mythology, the Dark Queen takes him deep within SUM to question and study him, and grants his request when Harper promises to turn his considerable persuasive talents to promoting the divinity of SUM. But to test Harper, SUM says that his newly raised beloved will walk behind him out of the bowels of SUM, and insists as a test of his loyalty that he not turn and look to see if she is actually there. This being a retelling of the legend of Orpheus, Harper fails and turns against SUM, dedicating his life to destroying it. Through the story of Harpers' rebellion against SUM, Anderson returns to his favorite theme of human freedom, contrasting Harper's vision of an exciting but dangerous world in which humanity forges its own destiny with the safe and comfortable future that SUM promises. The story taps into both the yearnings of mythology, and the promises and dangers of technology. Harper wants those around him to rediscover their almost feral independence, but not simply for the purpose of returning to barbarism, but rather to give them the fire to explore and find their own way to the stars. Technology, Anderson is saying, is a tool, but should never be a master.

The saddest story in the collection, and one of the saddest science fiction stories I have read is The Meeting by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. Completed by Pohl after Kornbluth's death, the story starts with a parent night at a school for disabled children. Harry Vladek, having moved his family to be near the school, attends the event almost desperately hoping to hear that the school will help his mentally disabled son live something approximating a normal life. And when he leaves and returns home where his wife has been caring for their child, the source of his desperation is revealed. In the second half of the story, Vladek takes a phone call from a doctor who proposes to perform an experimental procedure upon his son. And as the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that the proposal is a brain replacement in which the brain of a mentally healthy but physically dying child will be placed in his own physically healthy but mentally disabled child's body. In effect, he will gain a healthy child, but it won't be his child, even though he and his wife will continue to raise the resulting hybrid. One can feel the parents' frustration at having a grown child with the mind of an infant, but one can also feel the terrible anguish they feel at the prospect of going through with the operation. The story concludes with the choice unresolved, leaving the reader with the awful choice faced by the Vladeks.

Pohl and Kornbluth shared their award with R.A. Lafferty, whose story Eurema's Dam tied with The Meeting for the Best Short Story award. Lafferty tells the life story of Albert, the last of the dolts. He can't manage to do much of anything for himself, so he invents devices and machines to do things for him. He builds machines to eliminate pollution, to keep his accounts, to make teenagers behave, to write for him, and do pretty much everything else. Because of his personal incompetence, Albert is an outcast from society, berated even by his own machines. But because he is responsible for pretty much every invention in the world originated during his lifetime, he is honored with an award named after Eurema, the Greek goddess of invention. And this is the point of the story: that invention and creativity comes from misfits. Not from the people who fit in society. Not from the people who can handle all the tasks expected of them. From the failures, who must find a new way to make their way. I'm not sure I buy all of Lafferty's argument, but it does make for an interesting and in some places humorous story.

There are some works of short fiction that have so much going on in them that they get cluttered and seem rushed. But there are some works of short fiction that manage to pack that same amount into their pages and yet still manage to be sublime. The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree, Jr. (a pseudonym for Alice B. Sheldon) is packed to the gills, and is also sublime. In the story a very young, very sad, not particularly bright, and grotesquely ugly girl named Burke tires to kill herself but before she can finish the job a corporation swoops in and makes her an offer she can't refuse: they "give" her a new body that is beautiful and graceful, and all she has to do is use the products they tell her to use on television. Her real body is essentially locked away in a closet and she is plugged in to a neural network to control her new body, dubbed "Delphi" via remote signals. The story has so many elements going on that almost any one of them could have carried the story on their own. Advertising is banned, but companies skirt the rules and advertise anyway. Burke is human, but hates herself, and can only be happy when she is wearing a robot body. Delphi is incredibly sexualized, made to be erotically enticing to anyone who sees her, and yet her own senses are deadened to save on the amount of bandwidth needed to control her, even to the point where it is implied that she has no sexual sensation at all. The wild imbalance of wealth, the inherent unreality of what passes for reality in popular entertainment, the passion of young love are all featured. The story barrels through to its seemingly inevitable tragic conclusion as the arrogance of youth and wealth intersect with the innocence of dimwitted love, with doubly fatal results. Sheldon somehow manages to jam all of this into an absolutely brilliant story.

Harlan Ellison normally writes excellent science fiction, but sometimes he transcends the genre and writes actual mythology. The Deathbird is one of those times. In the story, Ellison essentially takes on all of Judeo-Christian myth and turns it upside down, telling the entire tale from the perspective of the snake in the Garden of Eden. But as this is an Ellison story, it isn't just a linear narrative, the story unfolds in the form of quiz questions, pseudo-Bible passages, and short vignettes interlaced with a story in which Stark, the last man alive, and the titular Deathbird travel across a ruined Earth to confront the insane creature humans worshiped as God. The story builds to what the reader assumes will be a climatic confrontation, but in classic Ellison style, it turns out that the confrontation between Stark and God is merely an encounter between an adult and a petulant child throwing a temper tantrum. And stark isn't the petulant child. The story manages to deconstruct religion and do it in a witty and satirical manner. Science fiction is a genre that allows an author the freedom to poke fun at the sacred, or obliquely tackle a subject in a way that would be offensive to some if done directly, and The Deathbird is one of those instances. Because this is an Ellison story, the satire is blunt at times, but the humor masks the very real and very brutal savaging of foolish religious myths.

Ursula K. Le Guin's second contribution in this volume is The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. While Ellison's story deconstructs religion, and Le Guin's other story in the volume is a brutal critique of imperialism, this story is a cheerful but biting take down of utilitarianism. Omelas is a beautiful city with happy and virtuous citizens who live peaceful and joyous lives. Most of the story is taken up with loving descriptions of the city, its contented inhabitants, and the delightful pastoral surroundings. But then the story turns, describing a single child kept locked in a tiny, dark room, fed nothing but slop and grease, sitting in its own excrement, and terrified of the dirty mops left in the dank closet with him. Le Guin makes sure to tell the reader that the child has seen the light, and knows what the world is like outside, commenting on the pathetic pleas the child cries on those rare occasions when someone comes in the room, begging to be let out end promising to be good. And the terrifying truth of the story is that the child must be kept imprisoned in order to preserve the prosperity and happiness of Omelas. After showing the reader the beauty of the city, and the misery of the child, Le Guin takes the part of the citizens of the city and explains how they rationalize the situation: surely assuaging the misery of the child would result in much more total misery when the idyllic lives of Omelas' citizenry are irretrievably disrupted. But the reader recoils from this kind of transactional thinking when applied to a child's misery, and the entirely flawed premise of utilitarianism collapses on itself. The "out" that citizens of Omelas have that allows them to avoid being monsters who profit from the abuse and mistreatment of a child is to "walk away", but even that seems like a weak response in this case. By not overturning the system, and merely leaving the system behind, the walkers allow it to perpetuate, acquiescing in its continued torment of the doomed child, even if they refuse to actually profit from it. As with most of Le Guin's writing, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a thought-provoking and at times profoundly disturbing work.

A Song for Lya by George R.R. Martin is another story about humans attempting to interact with and understand an alien culture. To a certain extent the story subverts the typical "understand an alien civilization" story, in that understanding the Shkeen seems to be more dangerous than not understanding them. Two "talents" named Robb and Lyanna are asked to travel to Shkeen by the human administrator of the human presence on the planet. They are both telepathic, but Lya is substantially more powerful than Robb. The Shkeen are a primitive but ancient culture that is far older than human culture, and which is unified by a single common religion. Once a Shkeen reaches the age of forty or so, they are "joined", a process in which they allow a parasite named a Greeshka to attach itself to them and slowly consume them. Eventually, a joined Shkeen makes their way to caverns outside the largest of the Shkeen cities and allows themselves to be entirely consumed by the massive Greeshka that dwell there. The humans have generally adopted a hands off policy, after all, they reason, various other alien cultures have strange practices and it is up to them to decide what they want to do. But humans have started converting to the Shkeen suicide cult, and administrator Valcarenghi is concerned by this, resulting in Robb and Lya's investigation. The plot proceeds fairly straightforwardly: exploring the bronze age Shkeen culture and its rituals, the intimate relationship between Robb and Lya, and the history of human presence of Shkeen. Eventually Lya's talent leads her to an understanding of the Shkeen religion, and understanding that Robb eventually shares, to his sorrow. For Lya, her choice is joyful, but for Robb her choice is acutely painful, and, when one thinks about it, seems to pose a danger to humanity's existence. The story is beautiful, tragic, joyful, sad, and foreboding all wrapped in to one package, and like the other stories in this volume, it is excellent.

Sometimes I think that Harlan Ellison is simply toying with his readers. Each of his stories is so different than his others in form, and yet each is so undeniably "Ellison" that it seems almost as if he is doing nothing more than experimenting in how many ways he can take you on a journey through his mind. In Adrift Just off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitiude 38 54' N, Longitude 77 00' W Ellison combines time travel, mysticism, particle physics, and werewolves into a story about the cost of wasted life and redemption. But Ellison doesn't just throw these things into the story. Instead, he gives hints and glimpses, tantalizing the reader with the story behind the story while keeping you engrossed in the story he is telling at the same time. The story itself is difficult to describe in a way that does it justice: a man who owns a fish that will not die and who may be a werewolf answers an advertisement from a company that may be run by time travelers, and asks them to locate the physical location of a metaphysical item so he can die. Once he has his answer, he gets a physicist friend of his to covertly manufacture a way to make a miniature copy of himself to search within himself for the thing he lost, and once he finds it, he realizes he doesn't need to die any more, and instead makes himself a repository for the unrealized dreams of a pair of women whose lives have been wasted. As with most Ellison stories, the story lies just on the edge of insanity and brilliance, and as usual, it lands just a hair on the side of brilliance.

The last, and weakest story in the collection is The Hole Man by Larry Niven, which is surprising since it is a hard science fiction story, and I am usually quite fond of hard science fiction stories. In the story, an expedition to Mars discovers an abandoned alien base, and sets up shop there to investigate its mysteries. This cramped living quarters and an odd alien device spark a conflict between the spit and polish mission commander Childrey and the disheveled and absent-minded physicist Lear. It seems that the aliens used gravity waves to communicate, and Lear suspects that to create them they used a captured quantum black hole, a notion that Childrey ridicules. Although we are told that Childrey is smart and understands what Lear is talking about, the way he behaves in the story seems to run counter to this assertion. And given that Childrey is supposed to be an experience and presumably well-educated space pilot, his incredulity that sets up the conflict and the final confrontation of the story seems entirely unbelievable. The science that underpins the story is interesting, but the story itself is so implausible that it just sort of falls apart. Even so, the story is carried by the interesting science, and as a result is still pretty good.

As with all of the Hugo Winners collections, this one is packed with good to great short fiction. Some of the stories, such as The Meeting, The Word for World Is Forest, The Girl Who Was Plugged In, and The Deathbird are superlative, while most of the others are just a hair behind them. The only mildly disappointing story in the volume is The Hole Man, and even that is a substantially better than average science fiction story. In short, this book is definitely worth reading and deserves a place on any science fiction fan's bookshelf.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 16, 2013, 9:31pm Top

Book Sixty-Seven: Servant of the Jackal God: The Tales of Kamose, Archpriest of Anubis by Keith Taylor.

Stories included:
Daggers and a Serpent
Emissaries of Doom
Haunted Shadows
The Emerald Scarab
What Are You When the Moon Shall Rise?
The Company of Gods
The Archpriest's Potion
Corpse's Wrath
Return of Ganesh
The Shabti Assassin

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Servant of the Jackal God is, as the title indicates, a set of stories originally published in Weird Tales about Kamose, a powerful priest in the service of the god Anubis sometime during the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties of Egypt. Kamose is a powerful sorcerer who gained his arcane knowledge by stealing the got Thoth's scrolls of magical knowledge, earning Thoth's enmity in the process. Ironically, the knowledge Kamose gained by doing so is what allows him to fend off threats from Thoth's supporters, although even Kamose's considerable abilities were unable to prevent the deity from exacting revenge upon Kamose's wife and children. The individual stories are all complete self-contained tales, but they are at the same time interconnected in a manner that builds a narrative that threads through the entire volume.

Although the stories build a more or less coherent narrative, they don't do so in a linear fashion, hopping back and forth between different viewpoint characters and different time periods. The opening story Daggers and a Serpent, shows Kamose at the height of his powers as a master sorcerer in the servant of the lord of death. Raiders attack and ransack one of Anubis' temples, killing its priests and their attendants and then carting off its wealth. Confronted with this insult to his patron, Kamose goes into action, using his powers to track down the offenders and extract terrible revenge. This opening story serves to set the table for the rest of the pieces in the book, establishing Kamose as a powerful and ruthless master of arcane magic. In effect, Taylor throws down the gauntlet with this tale, casting Kamose as, essentially, the anti-Conan. While Cimmerian was generally seen as heroic in his thieving exploits aimed at foiling and defeating the evil wizard who guards it, Kamose is essentially the flip side of that equation - any evil wizard to be sure, but a somewhat sympathetic one charged with guarding the treasures of a deity to ensure the passage to the afterlife for his countrymen. And he handles the intruders in this story almost effortlessly, showing his power and his lack of mercy at the same time. From there, the remaining stories paint a patchwork quilt of Kamose's life, and showing how even a sorcerer as powerful as he could be hampered by politics and misfortune. In Emissaries of Doom a Kushite challenge to the authority of the Egyptian Pharaoh requires the archpriest to defend his nation's ruler. After the Kushite magician threatens the life of Pharaoh Setekh-Nekht, Kamose tries to defend him, but the jealous priests of Thoth, implacably opposed to the Anubian priest's actions due to his insult to their own deity, manipulate the court with petty politics to exclude Kamose's demons from their vigil. This meddling allows the Kushite to kill the ruling Pharaoh of Egypt, and results in a grievous injury to Kamose himself. In the end, Kamose is able to put the Kushites in their place, at least temporarily, but the cost paid is high.

In Haunted Shadows, the persona Ganesh is introduced, a jewel merchant and also the confidante of Amenufer, a young priest of the temple of Thoth. Amenufer is obsessed with gaining magical prowess, and seeks to locate the fabled Forty-Two Scrolls of Thoth, which are supposed to hold all magical knowledge. Unfortunately, they are also forbidden to men, and anyone who reads them will forever earn the ire of Thoth. To dissuade Amenufer, Ganesh tells him the story of Kamose's search for the scrolls, and the terrible price that was exacted from him for finding them and learning the knowledge they contain. The story is a fairly straightforward quest story until after Kamose acquires the scrolls, at which point it becomes a cat and mouse game between a human and a deity, which the human cannot hope to win. The story serves to add interesting background about Kamose's character while avoiding getting bogged down with exposition in the middle of another story. In the end, Ganesh' s cautionary tale falls on deaf ears, but everything changes when Ganesh reveals yet another secret that chastens Amenufer and ensures that he will crop up in further stories in the book. Taylor returns to Kamose's background later in the collection in the story The Company of Gods, which details the magician's return to Egypt from exile following his unpleasant encounter with Thoth. Knowing that he has earned the displeasure of such a powerful divine being, Kamose is in the market for a godly patron to protect him. This story doesn't have much in the way of plot, being almost entirely character development for Kamose. It is a testament to Taylor's skill as a writer that he can make a "story" that is almost nothing but exposition work. The narrative is mostly a set of vignettes as one by one the various Egyptian deities present themselves to Kamose and make their case for his service. In quick succession Set, Ma'at, Osiris, Hapi, and Hathor all show up, give their spiel, and are spurned as being too weak to serve Kamose's protector. Finally, Anubis arrives to claim the priest as his own, filling in the reader as to how the Jackal God's archpriest actually became the archpriest, and at the same time explaining the scrupulous attention to his patron's desires displayed by the otherwise generally impious magician.

Although the stories thus far have seemed more or less unrelated, when Taylor gets to The Emerald Scarab, it becomes clear that he is weaving a longer tale through the shorter individual installments. This story centers around the preparation of the body of now-deceased former Pharaoh Setekh-Nekht for its final journey through the afterlife. While conducting the lengthy embalming procedure designed to turn the body into a preserved mummy, Kamose discovers that the priceless emerald used to represent the departed's heart has been stolen and replaced with a fake. He quickly determines that this switch was made in order to discredit him politically, and despite still being weakened by his encounter with the Kushite priest's demons in Emissaries of Doom, sets about finding the thief. Kamose occupies his unwilling and dangerous servant lamia Mertseger in a trivial diversion with a minor priest who might have had opportunity to commit the crime, and uses his considerable talents to unravel the felonious conspiracy. The story ends with the gem recovered, and the direct culprits unmasked, but the architect of the duplicitous scheme as yet unrevealed, with the denouement of Kamose's quest put off until a later tale.

Following The Emerald Scarab, the story Lamia is the first in the book primarily told from a viewpoint other than Kamose's own, as the lamia Mertseger takes center stage. During the events of the previous story the lamia had become aware of Kamose's injury induced infirmity and, chafing at her unwilling servitude to him, tries testing the limits imposed upon her. She takes up with Remi, the minor priest she seduced in the prior story, and tries to indulge her rather murderous appetites. But as this series of stories is ultimately about Kamose, the tales has a twist in the end that turns out to be not at all to Mertseger's liking, but also shows just how many challenges the archpriest had taken on, and which threaten to overwhelm him while he is still recovering from the injuries sustained in Emissaries of Doom. The truly fragile nature of Kamose's position is further explored in What Are You When the Moon Shall Rise?, a story in which his life is threatened directly by those loyal to Thoth. Because of Thoth's association with the moon, once a month Kamose makes it a practice to curse the moon when it is full, so as to confound the attempts of Thoth's priesthood to use magical means to destroy him. In this story, he and Amenufer (who had been moved from the priesthood of Thoth to the priesthood of Anubis back in Haunted Shadows) must deal with a rather clever attempt to insert a magical threat into Kamose's house. But Kamose once again proves to be too crafty, too powerful, and too paranoid for the plan against him to succeed, and in the end, the reader learns yet one more means by which Kamose's secrets are so closely guarded, and at the same time learns even more about Kamose's own character. It is in these sorts of revelations that Taylor shows his talents, exposing the nature of his characters bit by bit as an organic part of the story, drawing the reader inside the paranoid nature of his protagonist's mind without having to resort to tedious exposition to do so.

Taylor introduces another protagonist in The Archpriest's Potion in the form of Si-hotep, a professional thief who does occasional work for Kamose, although Si-hotep's contact with Kamose is the jewel merchant persona Ganesh. This doesn't just appear to be a convoluted relationship, it is, although it seems natural enough in the book. In this installment, Kamose has returned to the task of discovering who had stolen the emerald in The Emerald Scarab, and to continue the pursuit, the archpriest needs the assistance of a skilled thief. But it turns out that Si-hotep's natural skills will not be sufficient for the task, so Kamose has prepared a magical potion that will allow him to see through walls and also walk through them. Not one to let an opportunity pass him by, Si-hotep quickly realizes that the fact that Kamose provided three doses of the potion means that he could engage in a personal foray to acquire some of his own plunder. After enlisting the aid of Ganesh's scribe Wesu, Si-hotep sets out to steal the treasure from the impregnable vault of Khentau, a wealthy and paranoid noble. After this adventure which introduces and describes the thief, Si-hotep still has to track down the rogue responsible for purloining the emerald, a task taken up in the story Corpse's Wrath. The trail leads Si-hotep down to the Nile docks, where he finds his mark in a cheap tavern, a jeweler named Perkhet. His task of returning the man to Kamose is hampered by the presence of an angry walking corpse. It is in this story that we are also introduced to Kiya, Si-hotep's lover, who serves to humanize the thief and give his character a little more depth. The story itself is fairly straightforward, with Si-hotep locating his quarry, and then bundling him back to Kamose while overcoming the impediments that crop up. The story wends its way back to Kentau in Return of Ganesh when Perkhet is induced to divulge the name of the man who commissioned him to create a fake emerald. It turns out that the wealthy noble was behind the creation of the paste replacement, so Ganesh instructs Si-hotep to act as a specialist in exorcisms and present himself to Kentau with an offer to get rid of the ghost that had been causing him trouble. A ghost that had been originally summoned and put to the task of harassing Kentau by none other than Kamose, which should come as no surprise to anyone who had read this far in the book. The plan works reasonably well for most of the story, but as usual, the pursuit of the conspirators who tried to set up Kamose runs into a dead end, keeping the plot thread open for further stories.

The final story of the book, The Shabti Assassin, takes a sharp left turn away from the fake emerald plot and has Kamose on the trail of a set of seemingly inexplicable murders. The archpriest turns his considerable talents to uncovering the culprits, and after some twists and turns the killers are revealed. At the end of the story, the culprits are brought to justice, but instead of a sentence of death they are exiled, leaving open the possibility that they could return and seek vengeance against those that foiled them. And this development highlights one of the traps that this kind of story telling can fall into if an author is unwary: plots that never resolve, giving the series a feeling almost like that of traditional episodic television. In The Fugitive television series Dr. Kimball could never find the One-Armed Man and get a confession out of him, because if he did, the series would end (and it is exactly what happened when Kimball did catch up with the One-armed Man). In a similar way, once a mystery is solved in a series of short fiction like this, that plot line is dead. But unlike a series such as The Fugitive which was dependent upon the single conflict, in a story like Servant of the Jackal God the author could come up with new plots and new characters to replace those that have ended or left. Instead, Taylor never seems to end a plot. The Kushite magician seen in Emissaries of Doom escapes and still lurks out there. Si-hotep doesn't die, but rather decides to take a trip out of Egypt for a while. The killers in this story are not condemned but are instead exiled. And the fake emerald plot remains unresolved. Eventually, the reader starts to feel the weight of all of the unresolved plot threads that are left hanging, and starts to wonder if they will ever be resolved, or just left open for an endless series of stories.

Leaving aside the fact that major plot elements never seem to get resolved, this is a pretty good set of sandals and sorcery fiction stories told from the perspective of a character that would normally be the villain in such tales. Kamose himself is an interesting character, and the fantasy version of Egypt that serves as the setting for the stories is both intriguing and well-detailed. While some of the supporting characters are a bit one-dimensional, most of them are more substantial than that and fill their narrative roles well. On a slightly unfortunate note, there is a decided lack of female characters in the stories, and one of the two notable ones is actually a murderous sex-demon that is banished to an underworld prison halfway through the book. This lack of female characters would seem to limit the possible story lines, possibly explaining in part why Taylor seems so reluctant to bring any plot threads to a conclusion in the series. Even with these flaws, however, this series of darkly magical interwoven stories is fairly good, and is definitely a fun read.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 21, 2013, 3:43pm Top

Book Sixty-Eight: Terovolas by Edward M. Erdelac.

Short review: Fresh after killing Dracula, Van Helsing travels to the Old West to deliver Quincey Morris' ashes to his brother. Once there, he tangles with a cult of Norwegians and wolves.

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Terovolas is a book that mines a character out of one of the famous works of the past in order to create new fiction. This does not necessarily result in a bad book - after all, Philip Jose Farmer had a long career in which he made a practice out of doing just that, and Fred Saberhagen also got a decent amount of mileage out of the same trick. And when well-executed, the result can be a good book. The character of Abraham van Helsing, drawn from Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a potentially interesting character, and Terovolas details his continuing adventures after the death of the blood sucking Count. The resulting book is a fairly decent adventure story, somewhat hampered by the artificial story telling style that the author chose to present it.

The book opens with a brief forward in which a character called John Seward presents the premise: that the story he is about to tell is drawn from the collection of personal papers left to him by van Helsing. This conceit runs throughout the entire book, with the story told via the letters, journals, and newspaper articles of the various participants in the tale's events. And while this is handled reasonably well through most of the book, this method of storytelling becomes awkward and forced at times, with nearly illiterate characters sitting down and writing an account of their daily activities on a scrap of paper, or literate characters making sure to update their journal huddled around a campfire while on the run from insane murderous berserkers.

Once it gets going, the story proper has Van Helsing heading off to Texas to find Coleman Morris and deliver to him the personal effects of his late brother Quincey along with the news (and account of) the latter's death. Along the way he spends some time traveling with Callisto Terovolas, an almost supernaturally attractive Greek woman whose importance to the plot is given away by the fact that the novel is named for her. In an instance of amazing serendipity, Terovolas also happens to be heading to the same small Texas town as Van Helsing in order to meet her intended fiance, a transplanted Norwegian named Sigmund who coincidentally happens to have purchased the ranch immediately next door to the one owned by Coleman Morris. Van Helsing is immediately entranced by the Mediterranean beauty, as is pretty much every other male character that crosses her path in the book, which was probably a storytelling mistake. For reasons that become apparent later, it would have been much more thematically satisfying for Van Helsing and her intended husband to be the only men who found her particularly attractive while other men were either indifferent to or even repulsed by her.

After all of this improbable happenstance, one might suspect that the story will revolve around the dispute between Coleman and Sigmund with Terovolas and Van Helsing neck deep in the middle. And one wouldn't be far wrong, except that it turns out that Terovolas is mostly off-stage for most of the book and a drunken newspaper writer named Alvin Crooker takes the role of Van Helsing's sidekick for most of the book. Once Van Helsing shows up in Sorefoot, a Texas town drawn straight from a Hollywood movie set, he runs afoul of some local miscreants and some impromptu action breaks out before the brigands are imprisoned. Van Helsing's assailants are then broken out of jail in an amazingly bloody manner resulting in a posse tracking them down and killing them off. Having recovered from this sideline, the story chugs along and it turns out that Coleman has been having some trouble with the encroaching Norwegians that Sigmund has gathered to himself on his newly purchased ranch. Because the tension has been somewhat mitigated by their joint participation in the recent posse, Van Helsing is able to arrange something of a detente between the two when Terovolas invites him to a celebration of her nuptials. The tension ramps up again when Van Helsing unravels some of the Norsemen's secrets, identifying some carvings in Sigmund's household as being related to the legend of Fenris.

From there, things get somewhat predictable. The Norwegians are part of a cult devoted to Fenris who like to dress themselves up as wolves and work themselves into an unreasoning murderous frenzy. Why they felt the need to uproot themselves and move to Texas is fairly poorly explained, and the end result is that the book revolves around a Dutch doctor contending with Norwegian berserkers in Texas with a Greek woman hovering about the fracas. There are also a couple of ex-Confederates thrown in, and a Native American shaman named Plenty Skins tossed into the mix for good measure. The odd thing about the book is that despite moving all of these characters from around the world to Texas, the author doesn't really do much with the Texas setting other than what seems to be a mostly recycled plot from a B Western movie. And that is something of a shame. Because while I was reading the book I kept wondering why the story wasn't set in Norway, where there could have been a spooky northern atmosphere with ancient Viking ruins, or set in the Balkans among old Greek monasteries and Turkish fortresses. Instead we have ranch houses and tumble weed with transplanted characters fighting it out over what really seems like nothing in particular.

This doesn't mean that the action isn't fast paced and somewhat interesting. It is. It just seems like everything was more or less pulling from the standard Western collection of plot hooks with some fairly weakly defined weirdness thrown in. And the weirdness is mostly weird because of the improbability of it - Sigmund and his Norse followers turn out to be just religious fanatics who dress up in skins and wear metal claws on their hands, but they seem to be almost invulnerable to bullets when they work themselves into a frenzy, which seems odd considering they aren't supposed to be the least bit supernatural. Even the character of Plenty Skins, who seems to be the most interesting and mysterious element of the book and who might be able to either summon or shapechange into a giant wolf, mostly stands around looking mercurial between sessions of chanting. To a certain extent this book feels like the author couldn't decide what kind of werewolf legend he wanted to focus on, so he took the kitchen sink approach and threw in all of the ones he could think of.

Overall, the book is interesting, although somewhat disappointing when one considers what the book could have been. Each of the various elements of the book - the Norse Fenris cult, the Native American wolf shaman, and Terovolas herself - could have been the basis for an entire book by themselves if they had been fleshed out and fully developed. As it is, however, each of these elements seems rushed and incomplete, resulting in a book that feels like it should have been very good, but turned out to be merely average.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Mar 5, 2013, 10:42pm Top

Book Sixty-Nine: Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand.

Stories included:
The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon
Near Zennor
Hungerford Bridge
The Far Shore
Winter's Wife
Cruel Up North
The Return of the Fire Witch
Uncle Lou

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Errantry: Strange Stories is a collection of short fiction by Elizabeth Hand. The dominant theme of the collection seems to be melancholy and regret, and the stories mostly seem to occupy that netherworld that exists right on the edge between fantasy and reality. In many ways the stories in this collection reminded me of the stories from John Collier's Fancies and Goodnights, or perhaps Ray Bradbury's Medicine for Melancholy. The end result is a beautiful collection of strange and sad stories.

The opening story is The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon, a story about the kind of regret that comes with middle age, when someone realizes that the dreams of their youth have faded to grey while there is still a lot of life left in front of them. The protagonist is a widower raising his son following the untimely death of his spouse. He works a menial job to make ends meet and keeps loosely in touch with a couple of people from his halcyon days working as a security guard at the National Air and Space museum. This meager decades old connection results him setting out on an expedition to North Carolina's outer banks to fly a model of the titular aircraft in honor of a dying woman who worked as a researcher at the museum. The ties between the characters in the story are whisper thin, but they are all any of them has, so they engage in this crazy and quixotic quest. The only trouble with the story is that the fantastical element seems almost pointlessly thrown in and more or less irrelevant to the plot in any substantial way.

Near Zennor also deals with loss and a quest following a wife Anthea's death (a grief further compounded by the fact that their only daughter had previously died as an infant), but this time the protagonist, Jeffrey, goes in search of answers to a mystery that hovered about his spouse. It seems that his deceased wife was a fan of the obscure children's book The Sun Battles by the now disgraced author Robert Bennington. It seems that Bennington's reputation was tarnished by accusations of pedophilia, and his writing career was ruined as a result. But in looking through Anthea's effects, Jeffrey finds that she and three of her friends seem to have contacted the author when they were young girls. Searching deeper, he finds that they went to see him, and a something terrible seems to have happened that Anthea and her friends never spoke about. Jeffrey goes to England to search the area where Bennington lived, and where the mysterious event seems to have happened, and has a series of odd things happen. None of them are odd enough to definitively declare them to be otherworldly, but they do give the story and eerie and haunting quality. The story meanders at times, but the final pages are so creepy and effective that they make up for it.

Hungerford Bridge is a story that seems like it could have been written by John Collier, and it depicts a reality that could be our reality and we would never know it. The story is short, detailing the passing of a beautiful secret from one person to another. It is one of the few stories in the collection that doesn't deal with death and loss, but rather a shared knowledge, but it still manages to be melancholy. More fantastical than Hungerford Bridge, is The Far Shore, a story about an aging ballet instructor who moves into an off-season summer camp after losing his job with the ballet company he has been part of for his entire career. The story contains many themes, most of them about coping with injury, the loss of the dreams of our youth, and the inevitability of age, but it also contains the joy of finding a new love. The only thing that was somewhat disappointing about the story was that having a male ballet dancer turn out to be gay seems so predictable and stereotypical that the protagonist seem almost to be a caricature rather than a well-developed character.

Winter's Wife is a story featuring folk tale elements set in a rural Maine county. Told by a fatherless teenage boy who has struck up something of a foster relationship with a quirky nature-loving man named Winter, the narrative tells of Winter's conflict with a wealthy local named Tierny over a group of ancient trees in a nearby wood. As the title would suggest, Winter's wife, a tiny Icelandic woman who spends much of the story pregnant, features prominently in the plot. The story deals with the arrogance of wealth and how nature might respond if it had the power to do so. with the fate bestowed upon the villainous Tierny being poetic, albeit somewhat gruesome, justice. But the story is also about families, and how the family we choose is just as important as the family we are born into. Following immediately after Winter's Wife is Cruel Up North, the shortest and one of the most mysterious stories in the book. Taking up a mere three pages, the story tells of a woman's exploration through a city block and the odd discovery she makes.

The most perplexing story in the collection is Summerteeth, which seems to be an odd mixture of a mood piece and the first half of a summer horror film. Set on an island retreat frequented by artists and writers and told in punctuated and at times seemingly unrelated vignettes, the whole atmosphere of the story is one of confusion, loneliness, and despair. The story feels almost as if Hand was trying to convey the angst that an artist feels while immersed in the creative process, but layered over this are the hints of a mysterious danger stalking the individuals who sojourn on the island. Like several other stories in the volume there's nothing explicitly supernatural about any of the happenings that take place during the tale, but the odd happenstances give it an unsettling, albeit confusing air.

In contrast to the off-kilter reality of Hungerford Bridge, Near Zennor, and Summerteeth, The Return of the Fire Witch is the most unabashedly fantastical story of the bunch. In the tale a fungus witch named Saloona is roped into helping her neighbor, the fire witch Paytim, in her quest for revenge against the freshly crowned Paeolina of the Crimson Messuage. Paytim has acquired an extraordinarily powerful and lethal charm to accomplish this goal, but she needs Saloona's aid to pull off her objective. Unlike so many of the other stories in the collection which include only a sparing dash of fantasy or science fiction, The Return of the Fire Witch is filled with huge ladles full of magical elements. Both Saloona and Paytim live surrounded by magical charms, magical devices, and magical beasts to such an extent that these surroundings begin to seem almost mundane as the story goes on. Both of the women make their way to the Crimson Messuage, and begin to carry out their plan, although there are a couple complications and a betrayal along the way. In the end, this story seems to be a commentary upon the absurdity of many fantasy tales as well as the pointlessness of revenge.

As with many of the stories in this book, Uncle Lou is focused on the tiredness that comes with age. The titular character is an irascible old bachelor now retired from a long career of writing travel guides aptly named the "By Night" series because they tell people where to find the best night spots around the world. The story is told from the viewpoint of his favorite niece who seems to be a frequently caller upon the old man. Uncle Lou invites his niece to accompany him on a trip to night time benefit for a zoo. This being something of a modern fairy tale, the trip takes an unexpected course, although it seems that the unusual retirement that Uncle Lou enters into is one that he not only anticipated, but prepared for.

Errantry is at the same time the strangest and the most mundane story of the collection. A group of three friends, including a musician named Tommy who is obsessed with a fictional woman named "Estelle", set out on the trail of an unknown person they only know as "the folding man", so named for his proclivity for leaving little folded paper sculptures behind wherever he goes. None of the trio has ever actually seen the folding man, and they only know of him as a result of occasionally finding his creations in local bars and restaurants. The story details their pursuit of the mysterious origami aficionado through several venues until they wind up in an abandoned house in the countryside. Exploring the house only results in more mystery, as it seems that the long gone occupants hoarded everything, and most notably piles and piles of newspapers. Eventually they uncover something even more disturbing than piles of trash, which seems to connect to Tommy's obsession with "Estelle", although not in such a way that would confirm that anything supernatural was taking place. The story is somewhat unnerving, but not because of anything that might be definitely called magic, rather because it seems so close to what reality would be if seen through a distorting lens.

Filled with stories that seem to exist just to the side of reality and laced through with themes of loss, loneliness, sadness, and death, Errantry: Strange Stories is an engaging and sometimes disturbing collection. Every story in the volume is interesting, even if some of them seem simply inexplicably odd, and a few, notably Winter's Wife, Near Zennor, and Errantry, are excellent. Overall, this is a lovely collection of stories that will leave the reader feeling full of melancholy, full of sorrow, and full of wonder.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Aug 6, 2013, 10:15pm Top

Book Seventy: The SnarfQuest Graphic Novel by Larry Elmore.

Short review: Snarf sets out to try to gain riches and fame. He has a collection of adventures and finds both.

Long review: From 1983 to 1989, Larry Elmore wrote a comic strip of Dragon magazine called SnarfQuest, the tale of Snarf, a hapless zeetvah who sets out to finds riches and glory in the name of laziness. Eventually, the demands of producing a completed strip every month, when coupled with his other professional obligations to paint book covers and other artwork, became too much for Elmore to keep up with, and so he stopped drawing and writing the strip in the middle of an ongoing story line. In 2002, Elmore compiled all the existing strips together, and produced The SnarfQuest Graphic Novel, giving fans of the original comic strip the opportunity to read all of Snarf's adventures yet again.

Aside from a very brief one-page introduction by Elmore giving a little bit of background about the original run of the strip, the contents of the book more or less just reprint the original strips, complete with teaser boxes at the end of each "issue". The strips are presented in the same black and white format as they were in the original run, and contain no new panels or other content. If you have a sufficiently large pile of old Dragon magazines that you have the original print run of the strip and you are happy reading them in that format, then this volume is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, you missed an issue or two, or you never read the original run, or you just like having all of your SnarfQuest in one handy book, then this is a great compilation to have on your bookshelf.

The story itself is just as funny as ever. Snarf is a zeetvah, a snout-nosed creature with huge bat wing-like ears. At the opening of the book, Snarf's tribe's leader has died, and per their traditions, the zeetvahs will select as their new leader the zeetvah who manages to collect the most treasure and performs the most heroic deeds in the following year. Snarf reasons that if he just works hard for one year and becomes king he will be able to kick back and cruise for the rest of his life. With this in mind, our hero sets out to make himself a fortune in the outside world, resulting in a collection of absurd but always hilarious adventures as the fundamentally inept, cowardly, and somewhat dim-witted Snarf heads straight for any situation that promises riches and easily or safely obtained glory, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Though his efforts begin with an inauspicious start - Snarf steals a gemstone from a seemingly friendly passer by by convincing him that Snarf is a crazed killer - he quickly gets into more trouble than he bargained for when he attempts to infiltrate the evil wizard Suthaze's tower. Snarf seems to routinely bite off more than he can chew as his greed and tendency to exaggerate his own prowess lead him to get in over his head, at which point Snarf usually tries to run, fast-talk himself out of the situation, or, if worst comes to worst, actually act heroic. His adventures lead him to tangle not only with Suthaze, but also a dragon that thinks he's a duck (and later doesn't think he's a duck), a giant, and another evil wizard named Gathgor. Along the way Snarf also has to deal with a journey to the perpetual pit, a smitten princess and her prejudiced father, and a condition that makes him believe he is a bee.

As fun as the conflicts are, what makes the story interesting is the bizarre cast of characters that Snarf befriends in his journey, from a human prince transformed into a rat, to a beautiful woodland sorceress, to a dopey mercenary named Dorf, to the displaced robot that Snarf thinks is a weird wizardly knight with odd rituals and who he calls Aveeare because he can't pronounce the robot's real name VR-X9 4 M2 Galactic Probe Government Issue Robot. And there is also the insanely dangerous beast of burden that Snarf purchases named the gagglezoomer and its accompanying control mechanism that turns out to be a death leech. And finally, the beautiful and startlingly immodest Teleri, who Snarf falls in love with (which isn't much of a surprise, as Snarf falls for any pretty girl that he happens across), but who also seems to eventually fall for Snarf. All of these companions are allies after a fashion, and provide Snarf with help in his quest, but more importantly they also provide the story with a lot of humorous misadventures and misunderstandings.

A little more than halfway through the book the original story ends, which probably would have been a good place to end the strip. However, it was wildly popular among readers of Dragon magazine, and Elmore decided to continue Snarf's adventures. First Elmore wrote a short ten page interlude that featured Snarf and Teleri seeking adventure five years after the events of the first part of the book and getting sucked in to the travails of a small village that is plagued by a werewolf. A plan involving forming a rock band goes awry, and a follow-up plan involving making silver bullets for Snarf's pistol also fails, and in the end Teleri saves the day, as usual. The story is funny and silly, which is exactly what one expects from a Snarf story.

After this short side story, Elmore settles in for another long epic, as the pressures of being king get to Snarf and he decides to pass the reins of leadership on to another and join his friends on an adventure to the stars in the rescue ship sent for Aveeare. This second extended adventure transforms the setting from a fairly standard (albeit somewhat zany) fantasy world to a fairly standard (albeit, yet again somewhat zany) science fiction world. Unfortunately, this story line is not nearly as interesting or enjoyable as the first, feeling like something that was simply tacked on out of a sense of obligation. There is some decent development with respect to the relationship between Snarf and Teleri, and there are plenty of silly hi jinks involving bar fights, a hunt for gold, some native creatures who want to eat Snarf's pickup truck, and a race that features the gagglezoomer.

By 1989, the pressure of producing a monthly strip had burned out Elmore, and he decided to cut the story short. As soon as the characters made their way back to Snarf's home village, he inserted himself into the comic and explained that he was cancelling the strip. And just that abruptly, the run of SnarfQuest in Dragon magazine came to an end, and so does this volume. Even though the heroes return to find that a revitalized Suthaze is threatening to conquer the world while assisted by the magically enhanced death leech, that plot is simply left unresolved, and Snarf's adventures were put on hold. Elmore later picked up the series and printed new installments first in Games Unplugged, and then on his own website, and then in Knights of the Dinner Table. But none of these continuation strips are contained in this book, and as a result, the reader is left hanging in the same way fans of the original strip were.

With the exception of the rather unsatisfying inconclusive conclusion, The SnarfQuest Graphic Novel is a fun compilation. There is, after all, a reason that it was one of the most popular regular features that appeared in Dragon during the magazine's heyday. Snarf is, for all his faults, a fundamentally likable character and he, along with his supporting cast of misfits, provide plenty of humorous and entertaining adventure from the story's opening pages right up to the abrupt end.

This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

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