Monday, October 5, 2015

Musical Monday - Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon

Okay, so this song is not technically actually about literal werewolves, but instead almost certainly uses werewolves as a metaphor for particularly predatory people. Probably agents. Maybe bankers. Even so, the song always makes me think of actual werewolves, and so it becomes part of my regular Halloween music mix.

The real mystery related to this song is how John Landis managed to make the movie An American Werewolf in London and not include it on the soundtrack. I mean seriously, the name of the movie is An American Werewolf in London and you didn't include a song titled Werewolves of London in the film? That's simply inexcusable.

Previous Musical Monday: Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Warren Zevon     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Book Blogger Hop Halloween Edition October 2nd - October 8th: Madara and White Wrote the Song "1-2-3", and Then Holland-Dozier-Holland Sued Them

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: You're volunteering to read a book to a group of young children at a library. What scary themed book for kids would you read to them?

It would depend on the ages of the children involved.

For younger children, who were still in the "picture book" stage, I'd probably pick My Mama Says There Aren't Any Zombies, Ghosts, Vampires, Creatures, Demons, Monsters, Fiends, Goblins, or Things by Judith Viorst.

For slightly older children, I'd pick something by John Bellairs, probably something like The Figure in the Shadows, or The House With a Clock in Its Walls.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, October 2, 2015

Follow Friday - In Fantastic Four Issue 229 the Heroes Fight a Villain Who Is Basically a Black Hole

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - Rabbit Ears Book Blog.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Pick three book characters . . . Kiss? Marry? Kill?

Because I've been reading some critical work concerning J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, I'm going to pick three characters from that set of books.

Kiss: Galadriel. Because who wouldn't want to kiss an elven queen so beautiful that she melts the heart of a dwarf? Besides, she is in all likelihood the oldest living being in Middle-Earth, and so she's got to be a pretty good kisser. On the other hand, the seeing into the future thing she does would probably be inconvenient for a longer term relationship. I'm pretty certain that any conversation that stated with "I looked into the future and you're going to forget our anniversary five years from now" is a conversation I never want to have.

Marry: Éowyn. Because even though beautiful elven queens are beautiful, they just aren't beautiful Rohirrim princesses who will ride into battle with you and take on one of the greatest evil beings in the history of the world. Also, Éowyn seems to have a thing for bookish guys, which would bode well for the future of our relationship.

Kill: Grima Wormtongue. Sure, Sauron, Saruman, and the Witch-King are higher grade evil than Wormtongue, and Gollum and Shelob might rank higher on the creepy scale, but there are few characters who are as loathsome. Plus, there's the fact that of all the villains in the series, Wormtongue is the only one whose goals are essentially to commit rape, so there's some extra offensiveness there.

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review - J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and the Birth of Modern Fantasy by Deke Parsons

Short review: A scholarly discussion concerning the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard followed by some material concerning Superman.

A little Tolkien
Just a small dash of Howard
And some Superman

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: J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and the Birth of Modern Fantasy is a book that promises much, and while it does deliver to a certain extent, it also seems maddeningly incomplete. The basic format of the book is mostly laid out in the title: The first few chapters are about J.R.R. Tolkien, the next few are about Robert E. Howard, there is a chapter about Superman and the development of superhero comics, and finally chapter that gives fairly cursory overview of the development of fantasy following these three influences. While the author does cover the handful of elements he focuses on reasonably well, for a work that promises an exploration of the birth of modern fantasy, this book seems like a relatively perfunctory treatment of the subject, with at least as much left out as is included.

Parsons opens the book with a chapter that is principally a biography of Tolkien followed by a chapter of analysis of The Lord of the Rings. In the first chapter the author focuses heavily on the Boer War, World War I, and World War II as formative events in Tolkien's life, accompanied by a great deal of exposition concerning Tolkien's Catholicism and how this positioned him as something of an outsider in English society of the time. But the narrative also delves a bit into the influence the collegial groups the "Tea Club and Barrovian Society" and the Inklings had upon Tolkien, demonstrating just how difficult it is to maintain that a tenured professor at Pembroke College in Oxford was actually an "outsider". The tone of much of this chapter is adulatory, with the biography veering into hagiography at times. On the whole, it is a fairly decent summary of Tolkien's life, but it falls well short of being comprehensive.

In the second chapter, Parsons mostly analyzes The Lord of the Rings, and following up on the ground work laid in the first chapter, spends much of his efforts focused upon the connection between Tolkien's Catholic faith, the events of World War II, and the book. It is in this chapter that the worshipful attitude of the author towards Tolkien becomes most apparent, as he spends a fair amount of the chapter refuting the opinions of those who have been critical of the book in the past. A noticeable portion of this chapter is also spent contrasting Tolkien's book with the film adaptations made by Peter Jackson and others, usually to dismiss the films as being made without understanding the source material, although he makes an odd gaffe where he appears to think that the song Where There's a Whip There's a Way appeared in the Ralph Bakshi animated version of the story. It did not, it appeared in the Rankin-Bass animated movie The Return of the King. One weird quirk displayed by the author is that he seems to think The Hobbit was overly long, which is a criticism of that I don't think I have ever seen anyone make except in reference to the Peter Jackson adaptations. Except for a few instances in which specific authors who studied under Tolkien are referenced as having been his students, this chapter is entirely lacking in an evaluation of how Tolkien's work helped to birth and influence modern fantasy fiction. In fact, at several points Parsons takes great pains to distinguish The Lord of the Rings from the works of fiction that would come after it, explaining how the themes and symbols used by Tolkien are markedly different from its alleged successors. Between the sometimes sloppy fact-checking, and the lack of explanation concerning the development of fantasy from this root, this section seems disappointing.

Parsons then turns his attention to Robert E. Howard, taking much the same tack as he had with Tolkien: First a chapter that is mostly biographical information about Howard, and then a chapter that is mostly an examination of Howard's writing that spotlights his stories about Conan. As revealed by Parsons, Howard provides a stark contrast with Tolkien. While Tolkien lived in southern Africa, moved to Britain, fought in World War I, was orphaned relatively young but still educated at some of the finest institutions in England before becoming a professor for much of his life, Howard seems to have essentially never left a tiny section of rural Texas, never gained any education beyond high school, and tied to an ailing mother until shortly before he died. While Tolkien lived the comfortable life of an Oxford professor, Howard scraped out a meager living writing for pulp magazines that were at best sporadic in paying him. All that said, much of the chapter serves not as a contrast to Tolkien, but rather an exploration of, and to a certain extent apologetics for, Howard's fairly pervasive racism and his brief relationship with Novalyn Price Ellis. While Parsons doesn't seem to place Howard on quite the same pedestal as he has placed Tolkien, he does go to great lengths to soft-pedal Howard's racist attitudes, at times using them to explain Howard's rage at his relatively marginal position in society, but at others going to great lengths to explain that they weren't really an issue because even though he took great pains to detail the ethnicities of the characters in his stories, they were all portrayed as variations of Caucasian, and thus could not be seen as racist. Despite this, the biographical chapter on Howard is much more interesting than that on Tolkien, mostly because it presents a much more complex view of the subject.

Parsons elected to focus his attention concerning Howard's writing heavily upon his selection of Conan stories, which seems reasonable given that he is Howard's most famous creation. The odd thing that even though he spends a fair amount of time discussing Howard's failed novel Post Oaks and Sand Notes and gives little more than a perfunctory examination of his stories featuring characters such as Solomon Kane, Kull, or Bran Mak Morn, which seems like a strange oversight. Much of the chapter is taken up with an analysis of how Howard used Conan as a vehicle to comment upon the corruption of civilization and the relative purity of barbarians such as the Cimmerian, which a significant portion of the balance is taken up with a broadsided attack upon L. Sprague de Camp and some fairly sharp criticism of the various Conan films that have been produced over the years. In what appears to be an unintended twist, the chapter makes a much better case for de Camp's efforts having a greater influence on the development of modern fantasy than Howard, as without the work put in by de Camp in reprinting Howard's stories, writing new tales featuring Conan, and licensing works in other media such as comics, it seems likely that Howard's work would have fallen into obscurity. The thinly veiled contempt that Parsons seems to hold for de Camp seems like it would be more appropriate for a book attempting to defend the purity of Howard's vision, rather than a work intended to examine the initial development of modern fantasy and trace the origins of its foundational works.

After evaluating Tolkien and Howard and their respective works, Parsons turns his attention to Superman, the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. This seems like an odd choice, as the only substantive relationship the Kryptonian seems to have with The Lord of the Rings or Conan is that he was created in the 1930s. Although Superman did more or less spawn the modern super-hero, and as a result the fictional universes published by DC and Marvel Comics, he doesn't really seem to fit into the fantasy genre unless one defines it in the broadest and most generous terms possible. The development of Superman, let alone super-hero comics in general, is simply a topic that is too broad to be adequately tackled in one chapter of a book, and the inadequate nature of the treatment in this volume is readily apparent. After Parsons describes the nature of the earliest Superman stories, and then covers the genesis and early development of Batman and Wonder Woman, he launches into a discussion of the influence of Dr. freric Wertham and his crusade against the comic book industry. Finally, Parsons delves into the filmed representations of the super-hero, and at least with respect to the 1978 film, he is reasonably satisfied with the portrayal. Unfortunately, Parsons fails to connect the mythos spawned by Superman to the development of modern fantasy in any but the most tenuous manner. Superman certainly spawned a host of imitators in comic book form, and multiple fictional universes for his successors to inhabit, but they aren't really so much fantasy fiction as they are the representatives of their own genre.

What makes the digression into Superman and other comic book super-heroes disappointing is that the author gives little or no attention to many of the critical figures in the development of early fantasy. In the final chapter, titled "The Inheritors", Parsons covers work by Lloyd Alexander, Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, and George R.R. Martin. Edgar Rice Burroughs is referenced in passing at one point, but almost entirely ignoring his contributions to the shape of modern fantasy seems like an egregious oversight. Further, including material about those authors makes the absence of commentary concerning such pioneers of fantasy such as Fritz Lieber, Poul Anderson, and Michael Moorcock all the more glaringly obvious, especially given the fact that so much of Moorcock's writing is so directly in dialogue with Tolkien's and Howard's. The final chapter of the book surveys so an extended range of time and material while discussing so few examples that it seems both overly broad, and perfunctory at the same time. More crucially, the book once again doesn't really do much to explaining or analyzing the birth of modern fantasy fiction, in part because it omits such large portions of the roots of the genre, and in part because it spends more time giving biographies of the authors and assessing film adaptations than it does focused on how the works created and influenced fantasy fiction.

In general, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and the Birth of Modern Fantasy is not a bad book, but it is a somewhat disappointing one. What there is of the book is reasonably well presented, but the author doesn't seem to actually want to focus on how modern fantasy came into being so much as he wants to discuss the lives and books of what seem to be his favorite fantasy authors. As a summary biography of Tolkien and Howard, and a brief examination of The Lord of the Rings, Conan, and Superman, this book is reasonably satisfactory, although Parsons' work seems to be relatively superficial: For example, nothing in this book seems to offer more concerning Tolkien and his work than what Humphrey Carter has already written. While this might serve as a reasonably interesting introduction to the authors and works cited within it for someone relatively new to the subjects discussed, anyone looking for an in-depth exploration of the roots of the modern fantasy genre is advised to look elsewhere.

Potential 2016 Hugo Award Nominations

Deke Parsons     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review - Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Short review: Darrow is a Red working as a miner deep under the surface of Mars, oppressed by the system. Then his wife is killed for defying the law, and he turns his efforts to gaining revenge.

First a Helldiver
Then flogged, hanged, and left for dead
But reborn as Gold

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: Red Rising is a dystopian novel set on Mars that tells the somewhat cliched story of how a member of the lower classes oppressed horribly by the system, chooses to act in order to take vengeance for the death of a loved one. But the story is much more than that, as it depicts the pervasively insidious nature such a system has upon those who find themselves at its highest rungs, tempting and seducing even those who are most dedicated to its demise and who have sacrificed so much to undermining it.

Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in a highly stratified society in which people are categorized by color. Some people are Blues, Purples, Pinks, Greys, and Silvers. At the top of the pyramid are the privileged and powerful Golds, who run everything. But in Darrow's life, he has only seen other Reds, some Greys and Obsidians, and one or two Golds, because he lives deep under the surface of Mars, working in a colony dedicated to mining precious helium-3 to be used to help terraform the surface of the planet so that it can be made habitable for humans. Darrow is a Helldiver, with the manual dexterity to work dangerous mining equipment, but he is living in an intentionally unfair society in which the Reds are kept on short rations, and to obtain even basic medical supplies Red women must sell themselves to higher caste men. Even when Darrow's tribe produces the most helium-3, theoretically entitling them to bonuses, the spoils are instead given to another group. Despite this, Darrow is disinclined to fight the system, in part because all of the workers have been told that their sacrifice is a heroic effort to pave the way to making Mars a paradise for the benefit of future generations.

As a story in which a downtrodden member of the underclass accepts his position in a dystopia doesn't usually make for a particularly interesting story, there needs to be a catalyzing event that sets the protagonist into motion to change their society. In Red Rising, the catalyzing event takes the form of Darrow's beloved wife Eo. Being forced to work a dangerous job, live on the scraps of others, beg for medicine, be shafted out of rewards, and knuckle under whenever the authorities happen by is not enough to get Darrow to rebel. Not even the judicial murder of his father and the threat of being flogged and seeing Eo flogged for a trivial infraction is enough to spur him to action. But when Eo deliberately provokes the Gold overseer by singing a forbidden song and is executed for her crime, Darrow defies the law and buries her body, leading to his own execution, and through a series of events, to his joining a radical group of rebels known as the Sons of Ares and their enigmatic representative named Dancer.

Instead of being given the chance to throw bombs or launch a suicide attack on the oppressive regime, Darrow finds that the Sons of Ares have a longer term plan in mid for him. He is subjected to a series of harrowing surgeries, a grueling training regime, and extensive reeducation designed to allow him to pass as a Gold rather than a Red so that he can infiltrate the power structure and subvert it from within. Through this process it becomes clear that not only do the Golds occupy a higher status than the other castes, they are better, although whether this is due to genetic engineering, selective breeding, or some other process is not entirely clear. To complete the process, the Sons of Ares also give Darrow a falsified history, providing him with records detailing his family background and education so that he can gain admittance to the Institute - a training ground where the children of the elite Gold families are sent to receive their training. One might note that this raises a somewhat glaring question: If the Sons of Ares are able to subvert the ruling powers' records system this completely, why do they need someone to impersonate a Gold in order to undermine the system? Couldn't they already wreck the system if they have infiltrated it that much already?

Because this isn't a novel about brave computer system hackers infiltrating a secure network to destroy a government by corrupting their data, Darrow takes the entry test and is accepted into the Institute, where all of the candidates are drafted into various "Houses" that represent the Olympian deities. Because he has among the highest test scores of any candidate, Darrow is considered a juicy candidate for several houses, but because he is a member of the Red caste from Mars entering an establishment located on Mars, it makes thematic sense for him to be drafted into the House of Mars in order to load on even more symbolism, and so he is. After an initiation ritual in which half of the members of each house end up murdered by the other half, the real education of the Institute begins, which consists of the members of all the houses engaging in a months long conflict to establish dominance both within each house and between the various houses. This portion of the book feels a little bit like a mixture of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson mixed with The Hunger Games, with a little bit of rape and enslavement thrown in for good measure. Once this segment gets going, it dominates the rest of the book with the twists and turns of shifting alliances, reversals of fortune, and all-out battles.

As interesting as the fighting between House Mars, House Minerva, House Apollo, and all of the others is, it is secondary to Darrow's own internal struggle. Having been modified to have the body of a Gold, educated to have the mind of a Gold, and taught to behave as a Gold, Darrow, in a sense, actually is a Gold, despite having started as a Red. And this fact is a honeyed trap for Darrow, as he finds himself behaving like, and at times thinking like a Gold rather than an infiltrator sent to overthrow the Gold regime. Further, his attendance at the Institute places Darrow into close contact with many young members of the Gold caste, and while several of them are cruel and callous, many others are sympathetic, or even likable. He even finds that he may have romantic feelings towards a young woman dubbed "Mustang", a development that Darrow is naturally conflicted about and makes him feel as if he has betrayed Eo's memory. Darrow also discovers that the system is corrupt and unjust at all levels, and not merely for those on the bottom rungs. Through his time at the Institute he begins to slip into Gold ways of thinking, playing the internecine warfare game well, but initially, on their terms, a mistake that proves costly. It is only when Darrow violates, perhaps not technically the letter of the rules, but certainly the spirit of them that he is able to truly make his mark. It is these elements - Darrow's internal struggle against the temptation to accept his new position in life, and the humanization of the privileged oppressor class - that set Red Rising above the pack of dystopian novels, and makes it something unique.

In the vast field of dystopian science fiction, it is difficult to be notable. By serving up a fast-paced and interesting story, Brown has managed to accomplish this feat. Red Rising establishes its setting, provides the reader with enough background to make you empathize with the protagonist, and then moves through the plot at a tempo that is rapid enough to keep the story moving, but not so rushed as to gloss over important developments in the story. Along the way,Red Rising also provides interesting characters, an action-filled plot, a little bit of political philosophy, and a fair amount of emotional impact. Overall, this is a strong book that is sure to please anyone looking to scratch their dystopian fiction itch.

Subsequent book in the series: Golden Son

Pierce Brown     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, September 28, 2015

Musical Monday - Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival

I'm going to wander away from putting together my perfect idea of a Five Year Mission set for a bit. I'll be getting back to that later, but today I'm going to use some Credence Clearwater Revival to commemorate last night's lunar eclipse and subsequent blood moon. Unlike many people I know, I was able to see the eclipse, as the sky was clear enough that it was visible. I'm not sure if that actually qualifies as a "bad moon", but I'm thinking it is close enough to make this song the right one to choose for today.

The fact that we are approaching Halloween and this song featured prominently in the movie An American Werewolf in London is purely coincidental. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. At least until next week.

Previous Musical Monday: Charlie X by Five Year Mission
Subsequent Musical Monday: Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon

Creedence Clearwater Revival     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Blogger Hop September 25th - October 1st: Construction of Hadrian's Wall Began in 122 A.D.

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Do you belong to Shelfari, Goodreads, LibraryThing, and other similar sites? If so, can you list all of the book sites you belong to so others can take a look at them?

I have a LibraryThing account, which I use as my primary book cataloging resource. I have just under ten thousand books cataloged there, and five hundred or so reviews.

I think I have a Goodreads account as well, although I can't remember if I actually opened one or just thought about doing so. If I do, it has been so long since I used it that I may as well not have one.

I'm certain I've never had a Shelfari account.

Previous Book Blogger Hop: 121 Is the Official End Score for Cribbage

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, September 25, 2015

Follow Friday - The 228 Incident Was an Anti-Government Uprising in Taiwan That Led to the White Terror

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - There is no featured blogger this week.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: If you could have any job, what would you do?

I'd probably teach. Maybe history, possibly English, or economics. Or something like government or civics. I know, that seems like a kind of mild choice for a dream job, and one might even wonder why I'm not doing that right now instead of grinding away every day as a lawyer. The answer to that last question is that there are economic realities that must be dealt with that make tossing everything aside and taking up a teaching position somewhere unfeasible at the current time. On the other hand, most Federal employees do make plans for what they will do after they elect to retire, and right now, for me, finding a teaching position somewhere is on the short list.

I suppose, from a certain perspective, I already have this job, as I do tutor students on a part-time basis, mostly in history or English, but sometimes in economics or civics. It isn't really the same though, but it is something of a start.

Follow Friday     Home

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Review - Fire with Fire by Charles E. Gannon

Short review: Caine Riordan is involuntarily frozen in cryosleep for more than a decade. Then the people who froze him thaw him out and make him a secret agent. Oddly, Caine goes along with this.

Reluctant agent
Best at almost any job
Plus some aliens

Full review: Fire with Fire is the first book in the Caine Riordan series, which, naturally enough, features the polymath and generally capable at everything hero Caine Riordan. The book seems to really be two books more or less smashed together with varying degrees of success. One of the two books is an interesting two-stage first contact story in which humans first make contact with another race, and then find out that they've been under observation all along. The other book is a military science fiction story that feels a bit like a high tech Frederick Forsythe novel that seems at times to be just a little too happy to gaze at its own very detailed navel.

At the outset of the novel, Caine Riordan is a nosy reporter poking his nose into mysterious goings on on the moon. His investigations land him in trouble and lead to his being put into cold storage for several years. Eventually, Caine is thawed out by the very same people who put him on ice to be quickly trained as a somewhat unwilling intelligence operative and sent to investigate possible industrial malfeasance on a distant planet. This entire situation feels incredibly contrived, as several elements to it simply don't make sense other than as an artificial means to justify a reluctant protagonist for the story. Leaving aside the fact that the explanations as to why Riordan would consent to work for people who effectively imprisoned him for more than a decade seem quite flimsy, before he was taken out of circulation it seems that Riordan was reasonably well known. It seems quite odd that someone would try to organize a covert operation around a somewhat famous news reporter who suddenly turned up after being inexplicably absent for twelve years. The reasoning the Institute of Reconnaissance, Intelligence, and Security (IRIS) uses to justify using Riordan seems somewhat suspect as well: The claim is made that Caine is a "polymath", and thus suited to outside-the-box problem solving, but with the vast range of people available for them to recruit, it seems odd to pick someone who has a justifiable ax to grind against IRIS on such weak reasoning.

Riordan's assignment, which IRIS pulled him out of mothballs to send him on, is an investigation on the planet Delta Pavonis, at which point the dual nature of the book becomes apparent. On the one hand, Riordan finds himself embroiled in a cat and mouse game with both the corporate interests controlling the planet and at the same time presented with a collection of clues concerning the nature of the local inhabitants and some mysterious ruins of seemingly off-world origin. Oddly, Riordan's cover story is blown as soon as he reaches Delta Pavonis, rendering the reason that IRIS supposedly chose him for completely moot. He still forges ahead anyway, and after some moderately drawn out intrigue he gets to the meat of the mission, exploring the planet and making contact with the local fauna. But it is through this portion of the book that the cracks in the story begin to appear: The sections about making contact with alien humanoids and exploring strangely out-of-place ruins are excellent and interesting, while the at times incredibly (and almost tediously) detailed espionage story feels like it is simply an obstacle that sits in the way of getting back to the exploration and discovery parts of the story.

The dichotomy between the two elements of the book is what makes Fire with Fire so oddly frustrating. I have read many books by Frederick Forsythe, Tom Clancy, and others written in a similar vein and enjoyed them greatly. However in this book, the sections that are reminiscent of the novels by those authors seem flat and uninteresting, in way, almost intrusive. When Riordan sets out to return to Earth from his expedition to Delta Pavonis, the novel focuses heavily on the military intelligence aspect of the story, first covering the various attempts by shadowy forces to prevent the protagonist from delivering his report about his intriguing findings, and then the various other intrigues that result in assassinations, kidnappings, and rescues. These events are all presented with a fair amount of detail, but even so they lack impact. One weakness of the intrigue plot thread is that the villains opposing Riordan and IRIS are so far back in the shadows that not only is who they are unclear, what they want is entirely opaque, so when they show up, they seem to be almost a random occurrence rather than an organized force to be dealt with. There are a few points in the novel where the aims of this cabal could have been explained: A mysterious olive-loving assassin appears in a few scenes, and when one character is kidnapped, one of the kidnappers could have been used as a mouthpiece for the nefarious plotters. But the olive-lover brusquely bats away any inquiries of any kind, and the kidnappers are all mercenaries kept entirely out of the loop by their employers.

A small digression (but with a point): I have seen both the Western The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai, the Kurosawa movie it was based upon. I hold to the somewhat maverick opinion that The Magnificent Seven is a better movie, based mostly upon the existence of the character Calvera, who leads the bandit gang. There is no comparable character in The Seven Samurai, and the bandits who threaten the Japanese village in the movie are mostly presented as an undifferentiated mob. By including the character of Calvera, the makers of The Magnificent Seven gave the villains a face that the audience could latch on to and dislike. But Cavlera also gave the bandits a mouthpiece to tell their side of the story. Granted, their side of the story was reprehensible, but it was also understandable. When the bandit gang did the things they did, their actions didn't seem random or inexplicable - they had goals that the audience could see, making their actions seem more dangerous than they would have otherwise. To bring this back to Fire with Fire, one of the weaknesses of the book is the lack of any kind of Calvera style character to serve as a mouthpiece for the opposition. We are told that, for example, the evil-doers want to prevent Riordan from presenting his findings at an international conference of world leaders, but we have no idea what they hope to accomplish by doing so. Well, we know that they don't want Riordan to personally deliver the information (although they can't hope to prevent the information from getting to its destination by other means), but what benefit will accrue to the villains as a result is completely unknown.

Despite this weakness, Fire with Fire remains a good book, saved by the science fiction ideas at its core, and after meandering for a bit through the doldrums of military intelligence and intrigue, the story gets going again as the first contact elements return to the fore. After some seemingly needless secrecy, Riordan, along with a cadre of other characters, meets up with the alien Dornaani at a prearranged location deep in interstellar space. Although he is not a trained diplomat, or a government official, and has no real qualifications for such a task, Riordan's presence is justified by the first contact he made with the primitive denizens of Delta Pavonis, making him the only human to previously interact directly with an alien. Before too long, the human delegation finds itself embroiled in a diplomatic tug or war between a veritable menagerie of alien factions, with humanity's potential induction into an interspecies cooperative organization as the putative bone of contention. In contrast to the middle portion of the book in which the intrigue dragged, the interstellar diplomacy is riveting, despite the fact that most of the various players spend their time isolated from one another in sealed rooms. The only problem with this part of the book is that it ends too soon, and the action returns to Earth space for a bit more of the comparatively uninteresting human military intelligence intrigue in the final pages.

My mixed response to the book is in part due to the character of Caine Riordan. As noted before, Riordan is journalist with no particularly applicable skills and a legitimate grievance against IRIS, and yet the organization decides to assign him to one of their most critical missions. Riordan proves to be remarkably adept at pretty much everything, despite being at most a partially trained neophyte with respect to most of his endeavors. Riordan is almost preternaturally capable, and is able to make the correct deduction pretty much every time, outshining even experts in their own field on occasion. He is, in short, very close to the Platonic ideal of the competent man, which ends up justifying all of the contortions the others in the book go though to involve him in events that his actual resume doesn't really suggest he would be qualified to meaningfully participate in. At the same time, while we are told that Riordan is an independent-minded man who resents authority, he goes along with authority at almost every turn in the book - even when the enormous, and for IRIS pretty damning, secret of his mysterious missing one hundred hours is revealed he still elects to continue serving as an agency operative. The various contradictions resulting from the dichotomy between what we are told about Riordan and what his actions actually show him to be combined with his nearly supernatural ability to be right all the time make Riordan seem less like a character and more like a plot contrivance that the author pushes around to make the story move forward.

Fire with Fire is at times quite enjoyable, and at others quite frustrating. One can see why it was nominated for a Nebula Award, but one can also see why it didn't win. When the book is firing on all cylinders, as it does whenever dealing with the first contact story line, it is excellent. Whenever Riordan is driving the action, the story moves along at a fairly rapid pace. On the other hand, when the book runs off the rails, usually whenever Riordan is merely reacting to events, or when others are trying to manipulate Riordan, the story tends to run off into a ditch and get mired down in a morass of detail. The book contains tantalizing mysteries that beg to be followed-up upon, such as the mysterious ruins on Delta Pavonis and the primitive aliens who seem to know more than they should about humanity, but the book simply drops them to go back to the cloak and dagger plot, and the characters apparently forget about them as well. That said, even at its weakest, Fire with Fire remains fairly decent, and the high points of the novel more than make up for any deficiencies elsewhere. Overall, if you are looking for military science fiction with some interesting ideas mixed into it and an improbably competent and forgiving protagonist, then this is just the thing you are looking for.

Subsequent book in the series: Trial by Fire

2014 Nebula Award Nominees

Charles E. Gannon     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, September 21, 2015

Musical Monday - Charlie X by Five Year Mission

Unlike The Corbomite Maneuver, the song Charlie X isn't really a "funny" song, although given that the original Star Trek series was inherently campy, a lot of songs written about it have humorous notes. For example, I am reasonably certain that in the original episode whenever Charlie Evans (played by Robert Walker) rolled his eyes back in his head when he used his powers he was supposed to be scary and creepy. But now, whenever I see the episode, I can't help but find him hilariously silly. And when Kirk decides to teach Evans to be a man by taking him down to the Enterprise gymnasium for some wrestling, the sequence now appears to be both incredibly homoerotic and also incredibly goofy.

On the other hand, the episode is fairly creepy - Charlie is a petulant teenager with almost no impulse control and strange supernatural powers that allow him to lash out and punish those he takes a dislike to by stealing their voices, removing their faces, turning them into lizards, or simply making them disappear. In some ways, this episode of Star Trek is reminiscent of the 1953 Jerome Bixby short story It's a Good Life, which was made into a Twilight Zone episode of the same name in 1961. It is probably no accident that Bixby later wrote four Star Trek episodes: Mirror, Mirror, By Any Other Name, Requiem for Methuselah, and Day of the Dove. The humor in this episode is tempered by the impending sense of horror as Charlie lashes out again and again, and even the best efforts of the Enterprise crew prove to be ineffective at stopping his rampages. Unlike It's a Good Life, this episode has a happy ending, as the aliens from Thasus show up to take Charlie into hand and fix all of the problems he caused (essentially pressing the reset button for the first time in Star Trek history).

But the real question this episode raises is why, exactly, does Yeoman Rand have a button in her quarters that opens a communications channel directly to the captain's chair on the bridge? Is this a booty call button?

Previous Musical Monday: The Corbomite Maneuver by Five Year Mission
Subsequent Musical Monday: Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Five Year Mission     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Book Blogger Hop September 18th - September 24th: 121 Is the Official End Score for Cribbage

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Where do you keep your passwords for all of your different sites?

Mostly in my head. I know that is not an optimal method, but I haven't been able to come up with a better one that I can stick with. So that's how I keep track of them.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, September 18, 2015

Follow Friday - Cormac mac Airt Became High King of Ireland in 227 A.D.

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - I Heart Reading.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Help us give our Feature Interview Questions a fresh look! What questions do you think we should ask our weekly features?

I'm sure there are going to be dozens of silly proposed questions like "If you were a vegetable, what kind of vegetable would you be?" or "What is your favorite non-chocolate based dessert?" I could probably reel out a couple dozen of those, but that's probably not a very helpful collection of answers.

On the other hand, coming up with serious questions is a lot harder, especially since most of the obvious one, being obvious, are already on the list of questions Parajunkee and Alison Can Read use. Here are a few I came up with:
  • How do you pick which books to review? Even if you restrict yourself to one genre or even one publisher there are probably more books available than you can ever read or review. How do you pare the list down?
  • Have you ever read a book intending to review it, and in retrospect decided not to? What was the book, and why?
  • Do you review anything other than books?
  • Do you do any writing other than reviews? What else do you write about?
  • Are there any kinds of books you would absolutely refuse to review?
  • What do you consider to be your best review? Your worst?
  • What makes you unique as a book blogger?

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Event - The Doubleclicks, Molly Lewis, and Joseph Scrimshaw at Jammin' Java, September 10th, 2015 and the Black Cat, September 15th, 2015

The Doubleclicks at Jammin' Java
The Nerd Night Out Tour, headlined by the Doubleclicks and featuring Molly Lewis and Joseph Scrimshaw, made a stop at Jammin' Java in Vienna, Virginia on Thursday, September 10th, and another at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C. on September 15th. As we love the Doubleclicks, the redhead and I went to both shows.

As one might expect, both of the shows were very similar. After all, it would be kind of silly to expect that two musical acts and a comedian would completely rewrite their routines for shows that were less than a week apart. There were some slight differences that mostly amounted to the Doubleclicks performing a somewhat different selection of their music at each show, and a skit in the spirit of Dr. Seuss that was only performed at the Jammin' Java show. In addition, Professor Shyguy made a guest appearance at both shows, but played different material at each, and Storm DiCostanzo of the musical act Paul & Storm appeared at the Jammin' Java show but not the Black Cat show. For the most part, I'll be focusing on the Black Cat show in this post, and simply noting the few points where it diverged from the Jammin' Java show.

The Doubleclicks opened with the song Cats at Parties, their tribute to the travails of introverted nerds at social gatherings, bringing the crowd in for the refrain of "Party, Parties". After this kick-off to get the crowd into the spirit of the evening, Molly and Joseph joined them on stage for a fantastic humorous skit in which they mentioned the names of all of their sponsors while Aubrey interjected silly (and perfectly in character) insults like "son of a breakfast muffin" and "toilet ponies". The skit was filled with silly jokes and asides, setting the happy tone for the entire show.

As soon as the skit closed, Angela introduced Molly Lewis for her set, and as one would expect Molly proceeded to sing about murder, vaginas, potential pregnancy, and penises. She led off with her song about killing people in video games by karate chopping them in the rear end called Chop, Chop. After explaining the genesis of the song, and the fact that she had performed it in front of him when he was given a lifetime achievement award by the Harvard Humanist Community, Molly performed her Open Letter to Stephen Fry, and at Jammin' Java she threw in some of the additional material she has added to the song over the years. Molly then talked a little bit about her musical Thanksgiving vs. Christmas, noting that she is firmly on the side of Thanksgiving, before singing the song The Pumpkin Spice Lament, bemoaning the fact that pumpkin spice seems to always be prematurely overwhelmed by Christmas-themed flavors. Molly then moved on the genitalia portion of the show, first singing Kapo, her song about the Hawaiian goddess of fertility and her flying vagina, which includes the hilarious lyric "clam slam John Hamm", and then sang what she calls her dumbest song ever titled Johnny Dicklegs, about a cowboys with two giant penises instead of legs.

Joseph Scrimshaw
at the Black Cat
Knowing that once one sings a song about a cock-limbed cowboy there's nothing that can really do as a follow-up, Molly ended her set there. That left comedian Joseph Scrimshaw to come on stage and try to pick up the pieces, a fact that he was quick to point out. Scrimshaw quickly segued to talking about how he's from Minnesota, a state with the claim to fame that Oregon Trail, a game in which people would rather die of dysentery than stay in Minnesota, was developed there. From that point, he moved on to a set full of references to William Shatner tweeting about Earthquakes, the differences between people named Joe and people named Joseph, the utter lack of caring displayed by restaurant websites, and the frequency with which people blow him off in real time using Twitter. Much of the set was focused on Scrimshaw's two favorite topics: Star Wars, and Social Justice. This led to jokes about Obi Wan Kenobi Yelp reviews, light sabers and mansplaining, dick pictures as a romantic gesture (and a digression about Emperor Palpatine sending dick pics), the benefits of being old, and how much Joseph Scrimshaw hates Kinkos, or as it is called now, FedEx Office. As a side note, for reasons best left explained by Joseph Scrimshaw himself, one way to show him some love via Twitter is to send him a nice tweet with the hashtag #ScrewYouJosephScrimshaw.

The show stepped to the side for a bit and had Professor Shyguy make a guest appearance. Professor Shyguy uses his Nintendo GameBoy to make chiptune music. In both shows he did a duet with Angela from the Doubleclicks, singing My Eyes from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog. At Jammin' Java he also performed a song in which all of the the words were first in alphabetical order and then in reverse alphabetical order, while at the Black Cat he performed a song that may have been called Turn Back Around, but to be honest, I didn't hear the title so I can't be sure. The redhead doesn't like chiptunes music, so she's not particularly enthusiastic about Professor Shyguy. The only real issue I have with his act is that he always seems to have his music just slightly too loud for the venue he is playing in, and it kind of overwhelms the lyrics. If he just reduced the music volume by a slight bit, he would be much more enjoyable.

After Professor Shyguy, the show got to the main event as the Doubleclicks took the stage. The main difference between the two shows was mostly in the number of songs the Doubleclicks performed. In the Jammin' Java show it seems that a portion of the time that would have otherwise been used for songs was instead devoted to a Dr. Seuss style skit involving everyone on the tour plus special guest Storm DeConstanza. It was a funny and fairly cute skit about sexism, but I liked the Black Cat show in which Aubrey and Angela played more music just a little bit more, mostly because I can't ever gwt enough of the Doubleclicks' music. That said, both shows had an excellent selection of the duo's music, including Cats and Netflix, President Snakes, Really Big Chickens, This Is My Jam, Nothing to Prove, Tabletop Games, and Clever Girl. At the Black Cat they pulled Maximilian the keyboard cat out to perform an adorable meowing version of the Doctor Who theme song, while at Jammin' Java they performed a spontaneously written song in which they took lyric suggestions to fill in to a Mad-Libs style form. As always, their performance was fantastic, full of wonderful geeky fun mixed with some pretty strong feminist themes.

Following the Doubleclicks set, Scrimshaw and Lewis came back to the stage with Aubrey and Angela for a round of Truth and Dice, a routine in which Scrimshaw rolled dice to determine which random somewhat silly question he would ask the other members of the tour with the goal of getting to know them better. So Aubrey was asked questions such as what kind of YouTube show Black Widow would have, or whether she would rather shoot fire or printer ink out of her hands (she picked printer ink when it was revealed should choose what color she could shoot), while Angela was asked what cool battle phrase she would shout ("Suck it patriarchy") and which Muppet would be most likely to send a dick picture (Gonzo). Molly was asked if she would accept a Candy Crush invitation from Wonder Woman, or if she would buy life insurance from George R.R. Martin (she opined that the policy would take so long to read that you'd die before you could sign it). The only problem with this segment is that because he was doing all of the dice rolling, Scrimshaw didn't get asked any questions, leaving a rather obvious gap in the "getting to know one another" portion of the show. On the up side, at the Jammin' Java show Molly put on her Eeyore outfit for this segment, and did the politest mike drop in history, which was incredibly adorable.

Sadly, like all shows, Nerd Night Out came to an end. On the upside, the show was closed out with a rousing rendition of Love You Like a Burrito performed by all four members of the tour, although Scrimshaw's contribution to the song was mostly humorous rather than strictly musical. At Jammin' Java, Storm joined the group for the final song as well, playing the keyboard cat. And with that, the show, and on September 15th the tour, was over. It was a great pair of shows, and I can't wait to see all of the performers again.

The Doubleclicks     Molly Lewis     Events     Home

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review - Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons by Tom Purdom

Stories included:
Fossil Games
Haggle Chips
Dragon Drill
Canary Land
Research Project
Bonding with Morry
A Response from EST17
The Path of the Transgressor
The Mists of Time

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: Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons is a collection of twelve of Tom Purdom's pieces of short fiction that were published between 1994 and 2012. The stories in the volume are quite eclectic, ranging from a story about Prussian soldiers facing off against a dragon to a story about a divided humanity making first contact with a divided alien race, to stories about genetic engineering, the alleged humanity of robots, and time travel. The only real unifying theme to the stories is that they were all written by Purdom, and thus are all pretty good.

The volume opens with Fossil Games, a story title that works on two levels, one literal and one metaphorical. In the future, advances in genetic modifications have created severe dichotomies between generations of humans. People born in one generation wind up intellectually so far behind those of the succeeding generations that they simply cannot meaningfully contribute to society. Morgan is one such antique individual who decides to band together with a collection of others of varying degrees of obsolescence and head out of the Solar System to spend their extended lifespans exploring other stars. Through their journey, Morgan applies his energies to manipulating the interpersonal conflicts between the various inhabitants of the converted asteroid they all call home, trying to defuse disagreements between groups with wildly different philosophies concerning the relationship between humans and the rest of the universe. Everything comes to a head when fossil evidence of life is found an a desolate planet and the ship's complement erupt into almost open war about how to deal with the discovery. Morgan tries to use his finely honed political skills to navigate a compromise and winds up making everyone involved annoyed with him. The story is an interesting exploration of the dangers of meddling when others have dug into their own intractable positions, but also ends on a note of equanimity, as only one who knows that they have hundreds of years ahead of them to play with could display.

On the surface, Haggle Chips is about a fairly run-of-the-mill political dispute that the protagonist becomes embroiled in as the result of being kidnapped. While Janip is on his way to deliver high-tech replacement eyes to a wealthy client named Elisette, he is abducted to be used as a bargaining chip by his captors, a collective that opposes the development of a dam financed by Elisette. In order to try to make Janip more sympathetic to his captor's cause (and provide a way to watch Janip more closely), the collective's leader Sivmati induces a young member of the group named Farello to strike up a relationship with him. Although Janip does not explicitly know that Sivmati used technology aimed at manipulating emotions to make Farello more receptive to Janip's advances, both Janip and Elisette assume this to be true. While the story uses the political dispute and Janip's confinement as a vehicle, the story is really about the deeper question of how one relates to an individual who has had their mental state rigged in this manner. Janip makes some escape attempts, and it becomes clear that Farello is attached enough to him that she wants to accompany him in his flight. But given that her affection for Janip is at least partially the result of what can only be called brainwashing, is it fair to allow her to run away from her whole life to be with him? Janip and Elisette engage in some rather facile reasoning to decide that taking advantage of her conflicted nature is ethical, but in the end Janip is at least self-aware enough to wonder if they made the right choice.

Purdom takes a break from stories about genetic enhancement and pharmaceutical manipulation with Dragon Drill, the tale of a confrontation between Frederick the Great's disciplined Prussian soldiers and a dragon. Unwilling to allow the sacrifice of a Hapsburg princess to save his newly conquered province of Silesia, Frederick sends two battalions of infantry, one battalion of grenadiers, squadrons of cavalry, and three artillery pieces to engage the mythical beast. Using the princess as bait, the Prussians engage the creature in a lengthy battle in which modern firepower and military discipline triumphs. As usual for these stories, the outcome of the fight is merely a vehicle for the real point: The now safe Hapsburg princess notes that her family had saved a land they held by inheritance at the cost of a single life once every fifty years, while it cost the Prussians more than a hundred men to retain a province they claimed by force. The Prussians reply that there are no monsters resulting from reason similar to those such as the dragon produced by belief in superstition and myth. But the reader may note that the product of reason (at least in this story) is that men have been turned into the monsters, sacrificing one another, or even killing one another in the name of discipline and enlightenment. Superstition conjures monsters to harry humankind, reason makes humankind behave like monsters.

Canary Land tackles the question of immigration, and human obsolescence as it follows George Sparr, an American genetic engineer who emigrated to the Moon in search of a better life. Unfortunately, the Techno-Mandarin program he had purchased when he made his move provided him with only the barest rudiments of the language, and he found himself working the most menial of jobs playing the viola as live entertainment in restaurants. George is strong-armed into breaking into a research facility ostensibly at the behest of one of the owning company's board of directors who supposedly wants to check to make sure the lead researcher (and fellow board member) isn't lying about their research. The story moves along in a somewhat confusing manner - mostly due to the fact that George doesn't really understand what is going on, as he only has a worm's eye view of the events triggered by his actions. The story flips the usual immigrant narrative, showing the reader a story in which someone from Delaware County is unskilled labor, highlighting his relatively dismal options which include being little more than a relatively well taken care of lab rat. The central question posed boils down to this: How much human potential would be wasted if the difference between being useful and not useful is how effective of a translation program one can afford? If humans are defined by what they can afford, how does one bridge the divide between have and have not? By the end of  Canary Land George is able to come to a reasonably happy resolution to his situation, but it isn't what he intended, and it seems clear that it is in large part due to some unexpected patronage. But what, one wonders, will happen to the thousands of other immigrants who aren't quite as lucky? Purdom poses disturbing questions, and offers few answers.

For most first contact stories, the danger posed is that a breakdown of relations will result in war between the two species. But what if war was an effectively unknown concept to the alien species? What would the failure state of a first contact situation look like then? Research Project, a story told from the perspective of nine-year old Jinny as she studies the first contact between humanity and Ifli, focusing specifically on the alien Postri-Den and the human Orlando Mazzeri, both experts in alien psychology, using notes from their writings to set them up as viewpoint characters as well. The Ifli are a herbivorous pacifistic race, and are shocked and appalled by the murderous and predatory ways of humanity, but seem willing to negotiate some sort of agreement with us despite their distaste for human proclivities. The problem is that despite both species doing their best to negotiate a compromise, the assumptions each relies upon turn out to be so different that what seems like a reasonable course of action to one proves unacceptable to the other. Woven into the story is the personal journey of Postri-Den, and just how high the price is that he pays for his affinity for humans. In the end, the failure of negotiations results in the Ifli simply leaving, metaphorically burning the bridge between humanity and their society. The story highlights the fact that even with good intentions, cultural differences can make agreement impossible,  but what makes it truly disturbing is how blasé the various characters in its "present-day" are about the fact that humanity had fumbled away its chance to make a beneficial alliance with another race - to the point where some of the adults don't even recognize Postri-Den's name when Jinny brings it up, making his noble sacrifice seem like an almost futile gesture.

Sheltering is an interesting story in that the science fiction element is almost entirely off-stage. Pearson is an old war game enthusiast hiding in a bomb shelter with several other people while the outside world falls apart. To pass the time, Pearson plays wargames on his computer, drawing the attention of a young boy who is sharing the shelter, and the ire of the boy's parents, who think that play-acting at war while there is real war happening is morally repugnant. The story is fairly straightforward and serves mostly as a vehicle for Purdom to muse on how we regard war, and how we let children know what kind of monstrosity there is in the world, although there is some interesting commentary on the development and historical use of wargames as well, including what can be learned from them, and how those who don't absorb those lessons can suffer disastrous consequences when called upon to face the real thing.

Science fiction is rife with stories about the developing humanity of mechanical creations, usually focusing on the unexpected development of sentience in robots. Bonding with Morry follows in this tradition to some extent, as Morry obtains a mechanical personal companion to help him around the house. Morry intentionally chooses an inhuman looking model and names his companion "Clank" so as to ensure that he will continue to regard it as a machine and not a person. At first Morry uses Clank mostly for housecleaning, cooking, and other relatively simple household chores, but as the story progresses and Morry gets older, he becomes more and more dependent upon his mechanical assistant. Eventually Morry succumbs to pressure from machine rights activists, renames Clank to Clark, and updates the robot's body to be more human in appearance. The story seems to be moving along in a fairly conventional manner as Morry ages, becomes infirm, and finally is left with only Clark to care for him on his death bed, but in typical style for Purdom, the story pulls back just at the end and the author reminds the reader that no matter how human looking Clark is, an no matter how caring and thoughtful he seems to be, he is still an amalgamation of engineering and software that had to be put together by human hands. The denouement of the story is an interesting reversal on a well-worn science fiction trope, and a nice tribute to engineers and software programmers.

Culturally we are disposed to despise collaborators. Quisling, traitor, and turncoat, are among the severe epithets uses to describe such individuals. So when Purdom tackles the question of humans collaborating with aliens in Sepoy, the reader starts the story firmly convinced that the protagonist Jason should not betray the New England Confederation to work with the Tucfra Hegemony when it is suggested in the opening paragraphs by their recruiter, a pretty woman named Marcia. After all, despite being disabled, Jason has conveniences that make his life easier and an occupation that he is good at and which he can do from his own home. He is human. He is a free man, not beholden to some alien government. But when William and Jeanette show up from the Department of Internal Security looking to use Jason as a witness against Marcia, the story takes a dark turn. Unfortunately, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the New England Confederation, and by implication all of the other human governments on Earth, is rotten to the core, and not worthy of Jason's loyalty. It is at this point that the story loses much of its impact, as Purdom has to ramp up the villainy of the two security agents to almost cartoonish levels of evil, and at the same time make the Tucfra paragons of virtue in order to make Jason's final decision seem palatable to the reader. To cap everything off, the story makes clear that Jason doesn't even really have a choice at the end, which makes much of the plot leading up to that point seem like a set of railroad tracks. The real problem with the story is that it presents Jason's moral dilemma as being not really much of a moral dilemma at all, and as a result it is not nearly as interesting as it could have been.

Legacies is a military science fiction story, but it approaches the topic from an unusual angle: What happens to the children who are left behind to pick up the pieces after their parents head off to fight gloriously in battles in the coldness of space. The central character in the story is Medical Captain Dorothy Min, an officer charged with ensuring the emotional well-being of Deni, a child with both parents deployed in a conflict against the breakaway asteroid metropolis known as Akara City. When the news that Deni's mother has been killed in the conflict, Min ramps up her attempts to get the child's remaining parent to consent to a procedure that will allow Deni to come through the crisis with his emotional core intact. Hemmed in by regulations and bureaucratic foot-dragging, Min finds herself caught in the middle between her rules-be-damned civilian medical mentor and her buttoned up former senior NCO father, both of whom are sympathetic to the needs of the child, but who have very different ideas about the proper course of action for Min to take. Through the story, Min struggles with what to do, but in the end she does the only thing she can do, even though it is a tragic and almost entirely unfair outcome. In the end, Purdom reminds his reader that not only is life harsh, but as irrational creatures humans have a tendency to make it worse than it has to be even though no one actually intends to do so.

Many first contact stories are fairly straightforward when it comes to who humanity should speak to: The duly authorized human envoy speaks with the representative of the alien authority and they either overcome the cultural differences and come to some sort of agreement or they don't and conflict ensues. The question A Response from EST17 poses is more complex: Who should humanity speak to, the local authority or the dissident? And which one has humanity's interest in mind? Further complicating the issue is the fact that the story features not one, but two human probes, each of whom contests the other's authority to speak for humanity. The back and forth between the two human probes, their respective contacts with the aliens, and the different factions among the aliens raise a myriad of questions, many of which remain unresolved at the end of the story. Everything revolves around a message the aliens intend to deliver to humanity providing the combined learning of more than two dozen alien civilizations that serve as a gateway to immortality, unlimited energy, and a host of other benefits. But the message is a honeyed trap which some within the alien society want to want humanity to eschew, both to save humanity from the turmoil of assimilating the knowledge, and to possibly shake up what they see as their own moribund society. Like many of Purdom's stories, A Response from EST17 seems predictable at first, but then turns one's expectations completely on their head by the end, offering a delicious reversal and leaving the reader with numerous disquieting questions.

Another story that seems at first to be about one thing and then turns on its heel in the middle is The Path of the Transgressor, which starts off focused on a researcher named Davin who is studying some otter-like alien life forms that live in large colonies on the shore of a lake, but then changes to a struggle for survival when Lizera, Davin's wife, is set upon by pack hunting animals while returning to the couple's shared dwelling. Although they are both armed and armored, and accompanied by genetically engineered guard cats, the pack's numbers prove almost overwhelming, and then the real meat of the story rears its head: The insidious divisiveness of human prejudice. Lizera, it turns out, is a genetically engineered "geisha", designed to serve the needs of others, and mentally conditioned to love Davin and place his needs above her own. Prejudice against people like Lizera is apparently widespread, which is why Davin chose to conduct his research in a remote area, far from anyone else. Now, surrounded by predators, Davin finds that the prejudice against his wife runs deep as he meets obstacle after obstacle in arranging with the colony's administrator for a rescue. The story wends along into the dangerous twilight as the politics swirl about the characters, until eventually Davin and Lizera's predicament is resolved in a somewhat satisfactory manner, but even the modest victory turns out to be tainted when Davin discovers the true nature of his wife: Despite the risks he ran for love, her self-abnegating nature prevents her from appreciating, or even comprehending, his actions. Love with a "geisha", it turns out, is a one-way street to a certain extent.

A time travel story involving a form of time travel that allows for observation but not interaction The Mists of Time recounts the documentation of a historical event by a pair of observers who have wildly differing ideas regarding how to frame what they see. The event being observed is the capture of a Portuguese slave ship by the British HMS Sparrow on slate patrol under the command of John Harrington. One observer is Emory FitzGordon, a descendant of Harrington who is mostly motivated by hero-worship for his esteemed ancestor. Accompanying and technically running the observation expedition is Giva Lombardo, who has a very different view of the historical events, colored by her focus on the monetary reward offered to the British crewmen for delivering liberated slaves to the authorities, a moderate amount of distaste for the British sailors themselves, and sympathy for the perspective of the slaves at issue in the conflict. The story alternates between Harrington's viewpoint and FitzGordon's viewpoint, making the reader feel a fair amount of empathy for their points of view, but as the plot progresses one starts to think that Lombardo has the better arguments. The real thrust of the story is that even when directly viewing a historical event, two people can have radically different interpretations of it, and one has to always have to take into account the viewpoint of the reporter, and even time travel won't solve that problem.

Overall, this volume is an excellent survey of Tom Purdom's fiction over the last two decades. Every story is at least good, and a couple are excellent - most notably Fossil GamesA Response from EST17, and Bonding with Morry. But it isn't just the uniformly good quality of the stories in this volume that makes it so good: The stories also cover almost the full gamut of science fiction ideas, touching on so many different facets of the genre that this is almost a single volume primer on modern science fiction. For anyone who is a fan of Tom Purdom, or anyone who is a fan of science fiction in general, this book is an excellent read.

Notes: This volume contains the Hugo- and Locus-nominated story Fossil Games, as well as the Locus-nominated story Sepoy.

2000 Hugo Award Nominees

1993 Locus Award Nominees
2000 Locus Award Nominees

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Monday, September 14, 2015

Musical Monday - The Corbomite Maneuver by Five Year Mission

Continuing the run of humorous songs from Five Year Mission, here is the quirky and silly tribute to the invented material behind Kirk's greatest bluff. Confronted by a superior adversary, Captain Kirk resorts to fabricating an imaginary material that he tells his mysterious adversary is built into the hull of the Enterprise and will explode and destroy any attacking ship with an equal and opposite reaction to any offensive weapon used against it. So, of course, Five Year Mission had to write a song from the perspective of the future salesman who would actually sell such a material for use in star ships in the Star Trek universe. Never mind that it is supposed to be imaginary even in the imagined future: Just sit back and listen to the future equivalent of a used car salesman pitch products from the hair club for men of the future.

Previous Musical Monday: I, Mudd by Five Year Mission
Subsequent Musical Monday: Charlie X by Five Year Mission

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