Friday, December 30, 2011

Review - Tintin in America by Hergé

Short review: Tintin comes to the United States to face down the Chicago mob and the Blackfeet.

Nabbing Al Capone
Riding through the Wild West
Normal Tintin day

Full review: Tintin in America wasn't the first Tintin book written, but it is the first book that has anything resembling a Tintin story. Granted, the story is fairly bare bones and doesn't make much sense, but unlike Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, which are little more than a series of gags, there is a story. There is a reason that on the back cover of each of The Adventures of Tintin the first two are left off and this is the first book that gets listed. On the other hand, the story that is contained in the book is disjointed and nonsensical, making this one of the weakest of the Tintin books.

The book opens with Tintin coming to visit the U.S., and the gangsters who run Chicago get together to make a plan to keep him from ruining their business. Apparently Tintin foiled the diamond smuggling operation of one of their number in Tintin in the Congo and they don't want him to do the same thing once he arrives in the Windy City. This is the start of one of the odd things about the Tintin series: Tintin's job is ostensibly "journalist", but for the most part he more or less acts like his job is "amateur detective and righter of wrongs". In fact, fairly early in the book the mobster Bobby Smiles offers to hire Tintin to help him take on Al Capone. Tintin responds that he "came to Chicago to clean the place up, not to become a gangster's stooge." But this isn't anything like what an actual a journalist's job would be. I could see Tintin saying he is coming to Chicago to investigate and report on organized crime, and having the mob resent his poking his nose in, but saying he's there to "clean the place up" is just silly.

Of course, Tintin doesn't do any actual investigating either, but that's mostly because the mob is run by idiots. Rather than waiting to see if Tintin's investigatory skills lead him anywhere, they try to kidnap him the minute he sets foot in the country. Of course, they botch the attempt (and all their subsequent attempts to bump our hero off), but in doing so, they spur Tintin's investigations. Essentially, without the mobsters in the story constantly trying to get rid of him, Tintin wouldn't have anything to do. He doesn't seem to have a clue as to how to even begin to foil the mob on his own, merely reacting to their constant bumbling attempts to kill him by turning the tables, tying them up, and turning them over to the police. In short, if the gangsters just left Tintin alone, he'd never have been able to catch them.

But the mobsters do come after Tintin, and as a result, he has a series of adventures that more or less consist of mobsters trying to kill him, and then Tintin capturing them. There is a brief bit where Tintin captures Al Capone, but the police officer he tries to alert to this doesn't believe him. This little sequence is a bit odd, as it seems that Hergé thinks the only reason no one had caught Capone is that they simply didn't know where to find him. Those who expect to see Tintin pull off daring escapes and use his wits to foil the villains will be disappointed, as he is usually saved by the incompetence of his opposition: they use the wrong gas when they try to gas him to death, they tie him to wooden weights when they try to sink him in Lake Michigan, when a lynch mob tries to hang him the rope breaks again and again, and so on.

Eventually Tintin tangles with fictitious mobster Bobby smiles, of the "Gangster's Syndicate of Chicago". When Bobby Smiles takes off for "Redskin City" (apparently just a short drive from urban Chicago) Tintin moves from Al Capone territory to the Old West where he obtains a cowboy outfit and acts like he is in a John Wayne movie. One has to wonder where in 1930s Illinois or Indiana a collection of cowpokes and native Americans could be found, but Tintin finds them, and sets off on a series of fairly hackneyed western adventures involving bank robberies, train heists, lassoing horses, and because there's no Captain Haddock, an uncontrollably drunk town sheriff. Once again the format boils down to a string of disjointed sequences in which Tintin gets into trouble and then finds his way out as he pursues Bobby Smiles.

Hergé does take the opportunity to include a little bit of social commentary in this section, as Tintin accidentally discovers oil on an Indian reservation. After being offered tens of thousands of dollars for his well, Tintin reveals that the land belongs to the Blackfeet Indians, whereupon the tribe is forced off their land by soldiers and a city is built in their place within a day. However, this just barely makes up for the embarrassingly racist depiction of the Blackfeet tribe contained in the preceding several pages. The current edition of the book was rewritten to tone down the racist elements that were in the original, excising some less than savory depictions of African-Americans and altering some other elements of the story. Even this alteration is somewhat controversial, as there is some indication that these changes were made at the behest of publishers who were leery of having minority characters included in the book at all.

Even so, this is a Tintin adventure, and as a result, it is a fun book to read. That said, this is a bare bones Tintin story. None of the familiar  cast of regulars have been introduced yet - the adventure consists of Tintin and Snowy gallivanting about with no sign of Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Thompson and Thomson, or even Bianca Castafiore. Despite this, the story is silly fun, even if it is little more than a linear series of gag set ups and ensuing pratfalls. Although this volume isn't up to the standard of later Tintin adventures, it is still a worthy opening for the series.

Subsequent book in the series: Cigars of the Pharaoh

Hergé     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Follow Friday - Forty-Two Is the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything

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 two Featured Bloggers of the week - Ce-Ce's Garden of Reviews and From the Shadows I Review.
  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 had to spend eternity inside the pages of a book which book would you choose and why?

My first choice would be to live in Middle-Earth, the world of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. But I'd want to be an elf, and there's a reason the elves call their time in Middle-Earth "The Long Defeat". It is also no accident that most heroes that oppose Morgoth and Sauron come to tragic ends, so living in Tolkien's world would come with some ready-packaged depression-inducing elements. On the other hand, elves live forever, so you really could just spend eternity in Rivendell and Lorien if you wanted to.

But I think, all things considered, the fictional reality I would really like to live in would be the world of Andre Norton's science fiction. Though not explicitly tied together, most of her science fiction novels seem to take place in a common setting with free traders plying the space lanes, the patrol chasing down space pirates, strange aliens and bizarre alien worlds, psychic powers, artifacts left behind by the forerunners, and a plethora of other strange and wonderful things. I never tire of reading Norton's books, and I doubt I would ever tire of living in them.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Forty-Three Is the Atomic Number of Technetium

Follow Friday     Home

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review - Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture by Stephen H. Segal, Zaki Hasan, N.K. Jemisin, Eric San Juan, and Genevieve Valentine

Short Review: Geeky movies, television shows, video games, books, and comic books provide the lessons that shape the lives of geeks.

With Form, Feet, and Legs
And Knowing Is Half the Battle
Billions and Billions

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: Geek Wisdom is a cute and funny book that takes quotes from movies, television shows, books, songs, video games, and even internet memes loved by geeks and then expounds on the greater meaning that these snippets have for those in geekdom. Or at least the greater meaning that the quote has for the contributor who penned that particular entry. The material the quotes draw from runs the gamut from the classic to the contemporary, ranging from referencing the genius of 19th century inventor Nikola Tesla to the villainy of the 2007 video game character GlaDOS. Each quote is given a half-page to a page write up describing the context of the quote, and some moral lesson the author draws from it.

The quotes in the book are sorted into six loose categories: wisdom about the self, relationships, humankind, conflict, the universe, and the future, each with an associated "master quote" used to title the second. For example, the section about "wisdom about the future" is titled with the Carl Sagan quote "Billions and Billions" while the section on "wisdom about the future" is titled with the Zager & Evans lyric "In the Year 2525". There appears to be little rhyme or reason for why particular quotes were selected other than "the contributor thought is was a cool quote and it vaguely fit the category", but for the most part the quotes are memorable and the essays about them are interesting. The essay quality is somewhat uneven, however, which I suppose is par for the course for a book that resulted from a five way collaboration. The essays are not attributed to individual authors, so it is difficult to determine whose contributions were consistently good, and whose might have been regularly sub par. As an added bonus, most of the essays have a little footnote attached that gives a snippet of information tangentially related to the subject matter of the post. Given the typical geek's love of nerdy trivia, this little feature indicates that the writers certainly know their audience well.

The one problem I have with the book is that "memorable" doesn't necessarily mean familiar. Although the book is titled Geek Wisdom, and the references are all ones that I knew, for anyone who is not roughly my age (and thus not steeped in the geek culture contemporary to me), many of the references are likely to be outdated and alien. Aside from references to pop hits from the late 1960s, the book also has references to movies like Ghostbusters, a movie released in 1984, and Highlander, a movie released in 1986. While a good chunk of the current geek community is reasonably familiar with these movies (and the many other references from the 1970s and 1980s), these movies are twenty-seven and twenty-five years old. How long will it be before they fade into memory and geeks are not able to recognize quotes from them on sight? How long before a reference to Phil Hartman is met by the response "Phil who?" Will anyone remember Quantum Leap in the future, or will it be consigned to oblivion like Automan? And as a result, while this book is funny and interesting now, it seems to me that there is a good chance that substantial chunks of it will result in nothing more than head-scratching in ten years. On the other hand, references to I, Robot, and The Left Hand of Darkness are older than references to The Karate Kid, and are probably not about to fade from the collective geek consciousness any time soon, so maybe this concern is overblown.

While anyone expecting to get truly deep and profound insights out of Geek Wisdom is likely to be disappointed, the book does offer a collection of fun and witty commentary pieces about topics that are certain to be near and dear to a geek's heart. And of course, being geeks intensely interested in such things, there are sure to be debates and arguments over why certain quotes or references were not included, complete with Comic Book Store Guy griping. As a book written by geeks, for geeks, Geek Wisdom hits most of the right notes, especially if you happen to be the right age for all of the references. Overall, this is a great book for any geek to have on their bookshelf to turn to whenever they need just a little bit of inspiration.

Stephen H. Segal     Zaki Hasan     N.K. Jemisin     Eric San Juan     Genevieve Valentine

Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review - Seven Wings and the Bleeding Twin Flowers by T.K. Francisco

Short review: I'm not sure the world is waiting for a good Christian post-apocalyptic science-fiction time-travel story, but if it is, it is still waiting.

God commands the Wings
Go one hundred years ahead
And MacGuffin hunt

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.

Full review: This book presents a dilemma for me. The author seems reasonably nice, and is definitely earnest. She was nice enough to send me a review copy of her book, which she is obviously proud of and put a lot of work into. The problem is, that the end result is a really awful book.

And it is a book that is bad on just about every level. The story is a Christian post-apocalyptic science fiction time-traveling tale about seven (actually five) time travelers sent by God one hundred years into the future to stop the anti-Christ that rises to power in the present. Why they have to go into the future to do this isn't really explained, the characters just get prophetic dreams and a bunch of heavy-handed signs that tell them they have to do this, and like good Christian soldiers they put their heads down and obey. And while the basic framework of the story is merely bland, what makes the book an unreadable mess is the laughably bad science in the science fiction, the wooden and almost interchangeable characters, the mustache twirling villains, and the almost clockwork occurrences of deus ex machina events to get the heroes out of the predicaments they find themselves in. Throw in some really weak puzzles to be solved, random out of left field superpowers, and a Xanatos plot that doesn't make any sense at all, and you have a book that fails on almost every level possible. Even the writing is mediocre at best, as the author indulges in a steady stream of Tom Swiftly style flourishes and a didactic delivery style.

The most obvious, and egregious, problem with the book is that it tries to be a science fiction book, but the author clearly has difficulty with basic science.

"This guy theorized that time traveling at the speed of light, which as we know to be 372,000 miles per second, makes each second the equivalent of one year in time. Astronauts have traveled hundredths of a second into the future by moving around the Earth in the same direction as its rotation. The opposite is true when traveling backwards in time."

This sort of passage is littered throughout the book. And it is both meaningless technobabble and laughably wrong. The one concrete fact in the passage - the speed of light - is simply wrong. And not wrong by a little bit. The speed of light in a vacuum is actually 186,282 miles per second, a fact that is easily Googled. But neither the author, nor the editor, nor anyone in the author's writing group bothered to take the ten seconds needed to fact check this. Further, the language belies the author's attitude towards how science is done: "This guy" is supposedly a physicist named Francis Kirkland "theorized" a whole pile of things about time travel. And it is clear in the book that by "theorized", the author means "made a wild-ass guess" because she never talks about anything that has been done to test any of Kirkland's guesses, or any data that he relied upon when making these guesses. He apparently just sat up one day and thought "time traveling at the speed of light makes a second equal to a year!" for no real apparent reason. Later, when talking about time paradoxes, the author has the same character say that physicists have yet to "posit" answers to these questions. Apparently the author thinks that the phrase "posit answers" means "come up with a definite conclusions about something", as opposed to the actual meaning which is "put forward" or "propose", because physicists (and generations of science fiction authors) certainly have proposed answers to time travel paradoxes.

"Astronauts have recently recorded what they believe to be the seventh wormhole or black hole in outer space. According to their observations, each one of Earth's seven continents has one of the seven wormholes located directly above it. In summary, each wormhole will allow you to travel in time to a particular region or continent."

I must admit, that reading passages like this made my brain hurt. The author has previously indicated that she in fact knows that the Earth rotates. So one has to wonder how each of the continents (which all rotate with the Earth) has a black hole directly above it. Are the black holes in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth? If so, this would place them about 42,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, which is basically right on top of us. One has to wonder how we have managed to somehow not detect black holes that close to Earth. I suppose the black holes could be in highly elliptical geosynchronous orbits, but then they would vary between 1,000 kilometers and 70,000 kilometers from the Earth, and once again, would be close enough that our not having already detected them would be ridiculously implausible. Further, when our breathless informer continues "in summary", one has to wonder "in summary of what?", because they haven't given any information that would need to be summarized. Perhaps she meant to say "in conclusion", but the leap from "there are black holes orbiting the Earth" to "you can time travel to those continents" is a huge leap with no foundation at all. The author doesn't even think it necessary to provide us with any kind of groundwork for why this would be so, we are just told "there are wormholes above the continents, therefore, time travel to them".

"Kirkland believes that he and his colleagues may need to look deeper into numerology, the study of numbers, for possible answers in relation to time travel. I don't need to point out that it may not be coincidental that there are seven wormholes, seven continents, seven main planets in the zodiac, seven wonders of the world, seven colors in a rainbow, seven seas on Earth, seven thrones, seven churches, seven seals, and the list goes on and on."

And this is where you realize that Francisco not only didn't bother to check some basic facts before writing her book, but simply doesn't understand how science works at all. It seems that she thinks that science is some sort of magic process where you feed in random thoughts on one end and get technological devices on the other. Of course, the whole list of "sevens" is a fairly ridiculous list - Antipater chose his famous seven wonders not because they were magically significant, but rather because they were sights that tourists would want to see: In short, the "wonders" were basically nothing more than a tourism guide. And not only that, the seven wonders were not uniform from list to list (even Antipater's list changed at least once). There are seven continents because the Greeks differentiated between Europe and Asia, a sensible distinction based upon their knowledge of the world, but one that makes little sense when you know the true nature of the Eurasian land mass. The "seven seas" is such a flexible concept that there have been a myriad of different lists with literally dozens of different bodies of water listed on them. Pretty much all of the sets of "sevens" listed are meaningless nonsense, in many cases the list of "seven" isn't even a list with a set roster of items on it. Most of all, numerology is just hokum. It isn't the "study of numbers", it is an attempt to ascribe magical meaning to random coincidences. No physicist looking for answers to the problem of time travel would suggest looking at groups of "sevens" because some sailors in the middle ages thought that the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Arabian, Black, Caspian, and Red Seas, plus the Persian Gulf were important bodies of water.

The truly depressing thing about this is that all of the quotes thus far have been drawn from pages twenty-two and twenty-three  of the book. The ridiculous science, however, pervades the book. A nuclear weapon is destroyed by a lunar installation that "draws solar gases" and focuses them into a solar beam, causing one to wonder how one gets solar gases - which can only be found in the solar atmosphere - on the moon. A nuclear explosion knocks the Earth off its axis somehow, which somehow causes the average temperature of the Earth to go up so much that the heat rises to 115 degrees in Michigan in September. Left unexplained is how a change in the axial tilt of the Earth would cause a worldwide rise in temperatures. Later an asteroid three miles across falls into the Atlantic Ocean, causing "mountain high tsunamis". Left unexplained is how a three mile wide asteroid that crosses the Earth's orbit went undetected before. Later, when the heroes of the book reach the future, they are informed that there are hybrid mutations that run rampant over the Earth as a result of genetic changes made by injecting genetic material into test subjects, which is a method that simply wouldn't work. And so on. Time and again, ridiculous events take place based on facts and processes that are not just speculative, but are simply contrary to known science.

For example, late in the book, after all the volcanoes on the Earth simultaneously erupt at once, the ash expelled makes normal methods of communication technology useless, so the heroes try to set up a communications laser to link to NASA's satellite network. But their laser isn't powerful enough, they decide they have to get "more laser power" to make it work. And so they set out get gather more lasers. At first, one wonders exactly where they are getting more lasers in rural Michigan, and how this will help. But later the when they are looking for that last little boost of "laser power", one of the characters remembers a cache of key chain laser pointers that he had stashed away. And at this point the reader realizes that the author thinks that one makes a more powerful laser by taking a bunch of tiny lasers and pointing them in the same direction  or something. Not only that, one realizes that the author didn't even bother to do enough research to find out that key chain "laser" pointers aren't actually lasers at all. In many ways, it seems like the author had a series of buzzwords - genetic engineering, solar beams, lasers, and so on that she felt she had to include to make it a "science fiction" novel, but wasn't willing to do the research necessary to understand how these elements worked.

The truly sad thing about the ridiculous science fiction that is in the book is that it wasn't really needed because the story is riddled with out and out fantasy. At first the fantasy elements consist of prophetic dreams and signs, but before too long the story includes visits from guardian angels and the acquisition of divinely provided super powers. It is when the five members of the "Seven Dreams" crew reach the ice-covered future (and acquire the final two members of their cadre) that the reader starts to wonder why the author bothered to include the pseudo-science about how time travel works, or anything else that transpired before. After they pick up some hover craft with futuristic "camouflage paint", the heroes wander about looking for MacGuffins, getting their bacon saved by guardian angels, and gaining the ability to shoot laser beams from their eyes, change reality with their imaginations, teleport from place to place, see the future, and other magical superpowers. Guardian angels carry messages back in time to warn the relatives the heroes left in the past about evil doers, which makes all of the efforts to manufacture and preserve a functioning time machine seem kind of pointless. More to the point, it makes pretty much everything the characters in the book do seem pointless if they are going to get saved at every turn by a deus ex machina.

And so the book pretty quickly falls into a fairly predictable and unexciting pattern. Each chapter opens up with a couple of verses of poetry that describe what will happen in the chapter. Then a character has a prophetic dream that describes what will happen in the chapter. Guided by the prophetic dream, the characters head off to find the next MacGuffin, an exercise that seems pointless, as all these MacGuffins do is tell the heroes where to find the next MacGuffin in a kind of cosmic scavenger hunt. On the way the heroes get themselves into trouble whereupon a guardian angel shows up and magics the trouble away. Finally, the guardian angel bestows magical powers on one of the members of the team. The "Seven Dreams" are color coded, having been given special badges before they set out to time travel, and their powers are supposed to have some sort of mystical connection to their color. Adding this to numerology, there seems to be no New Age woo that Francisco won't incorporate into her book. The color coding doesn't make much difference other than to allow the reader to keep track of the otherwise mostly indistinguishable characters by their particular color coded superpower. The individual "Seven Dreams" really don't matter much anyway, since they don't do much themselves other than following the directions given to them in prophetic dreams and then getting saved by angels.

Which highlights a problem that I have found in most Christian fantasy fiction I have read: The characters don't really do much of anything for themselves. In a book like Janette Oke's Love Comes Softly, which is more or less realistic fiction, the characters, although guided by their faith, operate in a fictional reality in which God's plan for them is not clear. But when God is sending prophetic visions and intervening directly into the story - to the extent that the hand of God literally reaches down from the heavens with a quill to write "I will prevail against all evil!" - then the characters aren't characters so much as they are chess pieces being moved about a cosmic chess board in which the game is rigged for God's side. This may seem theologically pleasing for certain evangelical brands of Christians, but it makes for a dull story. After all, if God is telling the heroes what to do and sending them direct assistance, a feeling of inevitability takes over the story. While we expect that usually a protagonist in a book will succeed, the dramatic tension in the story derives in large part from the possibility that they might fail. But when a deus ex machina isn't just a dramatic final turn of events, but rather a regular occurrence, failure becomes a non-factor, and the story becomes a dull process of following characters about as they do preordained tasks that they are preordained to succeed at. For example, the back cover blurb of the book says "[b]ut thanks to the forethought of their eccentric grandpa, the Stravos family has a chance of surviving this catastrophic disaster . . ." But their chance of surviving is not because of their grandpa's forethought, but rather because he had been bombarded with prophetic dreams for a decade and a half prior to the start of the book. Grandpa didn't do anything but follow instructions.

But this is more or less natural when one realizes that despite the extensive Stravos family tree near the opening of the book, the characters are mostly an undifferentiated mass with no individual identities. The characters who stay in the "present" quickly divide up into "grandpa", "the guy from NASA", "the other men", "the women", and "the children". The characters who travel to the future are mostly interchangeable except for their divine super powers, and quickly become little more than "the girl with laser eyes", "the guy who can read minds and control thoughts", "the guy who can teleport", and "the guy who can see the future". As an aside, I note that one does have to pause and wonder why any other members of the "Seven Dreams" are needed when one character is bestowed the ability to change reality with his imagination, a power that seems to encompass all the other Dreams' super powers and more. Any character who is a nonbeliever (and therefore might be an interesting counterpoint to the firmly devout main characters) is quickly shown to be a fool, and either immediately converts or gets killed. And why wouldn't they in the face of God hammering them over the head and shoulders with events too obvious to be called by the subtle name of "signs"? There is also a fair undercurrent of sexism in the book - while the men go out and get stuff done, the women stay home and take care of the children, cook for the menfolk, and tend the underground garden in the bunker. There is a plucky young heroine on the "Seven Dreams" team, but before the end of the book she is teamed up with an obvious future husband. Perhaps to cover up this lack of character development, the book is replete with Tom Swiftly's, the characters rarely "say" anything. Instead, they "intone", "report", "exclaim", "shout", or otherwise deliver their lines using a thousand different synonyms for "said".

One has to wonder sometimes if Christian fiction writers think their readers are dumb, because they seem to feel the need to spell everything out, just to make sure the reader doesn't miss it. To make sure the reader knows that the protagonists are properly devout, she makes sure to tell you early that they listen to Christian rock stations. The characters consult God (or are "in dialogue with God") over every decision, large or small. When grandpa is leading the family in prayers at a picnic they hold during the apocalypse, he pointedly invites anyone who has doubts to shed them and pray for guidance, a passage presented in bold text just in case the reader didn't understand that this is an important moment. Even the puzzles the characters face as they wander pointlessly about the snowbound Michigan landscape are obvious. Each MacGuffin is supposed to be something of a mystery, but the "mysteries" are as mundane as the characters getting a vision that they have to find something that says "WOLLOH PMAC" on it, and then when they find it and see its reflection they realize that they are meant to go to Camp Hollow. Apparently writing things backwards is enough to confound the devout.

I suppose this sort of dimness on the part of the heroes is okay, because the villain, former U.S. Vice-President turned World Dictator Victor Shesh has a plan so convoluted and nonsensical that having God send his chosen representatives on a pointless scavenger hunt seems brilliant in comparison. We learn that Shesh and Iranian intelligence operatives conspired to have an Iranian bomb destroy the Dome of the Rock, so everyone would get mad at the United States and attack with nuclear weapons, prompting a global catastrophe that would cause the leaders of the seven most powerful nations in the world to convene at a meeting in FEMA's secure site in Michigan. Because of the ongoing disasters, all of the leaders have to be transported to the meeting by the black helicopter squads, and as soon as they start the meeting, Iranian intelligence agents who had infiltrated the black helicopter squads break in and kill all the world leaders except for Shesh. And this plan makes sense because it is obviously easier to do all this rather than wait for these same people to meet in their regular annual meeting of the G7 and kill them there. Pardon me while I roll my eyes. Once in power, Shesh's plans don't make much more sense, because he rounds up all the scientists in the world and has them inject genetic material into people and various animals seemingly at random in an effort to create a way to make him immortal. And along the way, create a collection of hybrid monsters to serve him. But they serve him because he has microchips implanted into their heads, allowing him to exercise mind control, so one wonders why he need wolf-man hybrids, bat-man hybrids, fly-mosquito hybrids, and the completely pointless bat-mouse hybrids, as well as a further plethora of other agglutinated creates to serve him rather than just implanting microchips into the heads of ordinary people. The various mutated monsters are supposed to be the result of immortality experimentation, but it seems odd that one would come up with a mosquito-fly creature as a result (even leaving aside the idea that injecting genetic material into creatures would work at all). But the most baffling part of this plan of Shesh's is that in the end it is revealed that Shesh is actually Satan, which makes you wonder why he needed some sort of immortality serum at all. Not only is this part of Shesh/Satan's villainous plotting convoluted and nonsensical, it seems completely pointless as well.

And I haven't even gotten to the subplot involving the hemophilia of the male protagonists, and the genetically engineered flower that will cure both their bleeding disorder and all cancer, a subplot that doesn't make any more sense than anything else in the story. Or the strange "Afterward" that isn't actually an afterward, but is actually a plot summary of the book. Needless to say, Seven Wings and the Bleeding Twin Flowers is a mess. While the idea of a post-apocalyptic Christian science fiction story might have some promise, the bad science, the bad science fiction, the heavy handed divine intervention, the stilted and wooden characters, the completely bizarre nature of the antagonist's plots, and the convoluted, albeit divinely ordained, path the heroes follow to try to foil him, make the book simply excruciating to read.

T.K. Francisco     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Friday, December 16, 2011

Follow Friday - Forty-One Was Brian Piccolo's Number, Sing a Song for Him

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 two Featured Bloggers of the week - Books Are Vital and Once Upon a Time.
  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: When you’ve read a book, what do you do with it? (Keep it, give it away, donate it, sell it, swap it . . ?)

Seven thousand two-hundred and eighty-three books. And counting. That's the number of books that I have cataloged in my personal library. I have at least a couple dozen sitting waiting to be cataloged even now. Now, given that, does anyone think my answer to this question will be "give it away", "donate it", "sell it", or "swap it"? Basically, any title that comes into my possession is almost certain to be retained. I'll gladly trade, sell, or give away duplicate copies of books, but I try to keep at least one copy of every book that I have read.

One might ask why. Well, for different books I keep them for different reasons. Obviously, if a book is good, or merely okay, I keep it because I may want to reread it. Or just because having it reminds me of how it is. For a lot of books, I keep them in case I want to reference something in them, and need to look it up. And for bad books, I keep them so that they can be safely quarantined on my shelf and not inflicted upon any other unsuspecting reader.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Ali Baba Faced Off Against Forty Thieves

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Review - Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier

Stories included:
Bottle Party
De Mortuis
Evening Primrose
Witch's Money
The Touch of Nutmeg Makes It
Three Bears Cottage
Wet Saturday
Squirrels Have Bright Eyes
Halfway to Hell
The Lady on the Grey
Incident on a Lake
Over Insurance
Old Acquaintance
The Frog Prince
Season of Mists
Great Possibilities
Without Benefit of Galsworthy
Back for Christmas
Another American Tragedy
Midnight Blue
Gavin O'Leary
If Youth Knew if Age Could
Thus I Refute Beelzy
Special Delivery
Little Memento
Green Thoughts
Romance Lingers Adventure Lives
Bird of Prey
The Steel Cat
In the Cards
Youth from Vienna
The Chaser

Full review: In 1952 Fancies and Goodnights became the second book to win the international Fantasy Award for best fiction book. That this book won is an indication that genre fiction awards were in their infancy, because in later years the awards would be subdivided more finely than in International Fantasy Award's two broad categories of "best fiction book" and "best non-fiction book". As it is not a novel, but rather a collection of short stories, Fancies and Goodnights would likely not have even been eligible for an award as a whole, which would have been a shame, as it is a very readable collection of dark and macabre stories.

Fancies and Goodnights is also somewhat unusual in that only a handful of the stories in the collection can properly be classified as "fantasy" in the broad sense (which, given the works of fiction that won the award includes science fiction within its ambit). The bulk of the stories are entirely mundane (although twisted) stories of spouses murdering spouses, or nephews plotting to kill rich uncles and claim their fortunes, or greedy villagers killing passers by for their presumed fortunes, and so on. The stories that might be classified as fantasy in the book are reminiscent of tales like Robert Louis Stevenson's The Bottle Imp, or Rudyard Kipling's The Monkey's Paw, insofar as they take place in a world that is almost exactly like our world, just with a fantastical twist that shows up to bedevil the protagonist.

Perhaps it is a consequence of reading them all together, and not as part of Sunday paper one at a time, many of the twists of the stories tend to become pretty predictable. In De Mortuis, when a pair of friends suspect a murder that hasn't happened, they spark an actual one. Or in Three Bears Cottage when a husband tries to poison his wife, it is fairly obvious that she will be the one to poison him. In Over Insurance, when a happy couple invests too heavily in life insurance for both of them, it is predictable that their happiness will be destroyed by their resulting poverty. Some stories have less obvious endings, such as The Touch of Nutmeg Makes It, but for the most part venal characters pursue their venal ends and the twists are not really twists so much as obvious plot developments. One might call them cliches, but when Collier was writing his stories most of the turns his stories took probably seemed fairly fresh to his readers. On the other hand, most of the titles of his stories give the "twist" away for the astute reader, so it seems clear that hiding how the story was going to end was not a priority for Collier.

There are just enough stories with a fantasy edge to make this a viable choice for the International Fantasy Award, although most of them follow a similar formula to the mundane stories, just with a supernatural element thrown in. So, in Bottle Party, when a man buys a bottle containing a genie that can grant him any wish he desires, the reader just knows that this will not work out well for him. Or when, in The Lady on the Grey, a caddish Englishman gallivanting about Wales responds to a summons from his caddish buddy and comes across a beautiful woman with a skittish dog, the reader figures out what sort of trouble the protagonist is in for almost immediately. When a father dismisses his son's imaginary friend in Thus I Refute Beelzy, the reader can feel the tension mounting as the story proceed to a fairly inevitable and messy end. On the other hand, in one of the creepiest stories in the volume - Evening Primrose - Collier imagines a shadow world that lurks under our noses, and crafts a story that is creepy and unpredictable. In a completely different way, the dreamily macabre story Green Thoughts drifts to its strange story and somewhat unexpected denouement, proving that Collier could, if he wanted, craft a story that was not entirely predictable.

And even though it is the fantastical stories that drove this book to being awarded, some of the best and most disturbing are the entirely mundane, such as Witch's Money, in which foolishness and ignorance cause an entire village to conspire in a shocking act of violence. Or The Steel Cat, where greed drives a man to betray what might be his only friend. Or one of the best stories in the book, Youth From Vienna, in which a jilted lover gets revenge upon his former intended and her new spouse in a most inventive and subtle manner. This is not to say that the supernatural tales like In the Cards (which I believe was later made into an episode of Tales from the Crypt) don't share this twisted and dark sensibility. Some, however, are darkly humorous, such as Halfway to Hell, in which a man kills himself, and then connives to trick the Devil out of his soul.

Although the stories are very British, and in many ways quaintly old-fashioned, they remain engaging and interesting to the modern reader. Because Collier's stories tend to deal with universal themes: quarreling spouses, greedy charlatans, jealous lovers, and so on, his writing has aged well, even though the specifics of his stories are now well out of date. For anyone who likes their stories to be tinged with a touch of creepy malevolence, Fancies and Goodnights and excellent collection of quality stories.

1951 International Fantasy Winner: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
1953 International Fantasy Winner: City by Clifford D. Simak

What are the International Fantasy Awards?

International Fantasy Best Fiction Book Winners

John Collier     Book Award Reviews     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review - The Radiant Seas by Catherine Asaro

Short review: After fifteen years and four children Soz and Jai are found and the galaxy goes to war. Really big war. And this time Soz is not messing around.

Following exile
War to avenge a brother
Return a husband

Full review: The Radiant Seas is the fourth book in Asaro's Skolian Saga series, but it is the direct sequel to Primary Inversion, the first book in the series. After diverting the series to stories featuring other members of Sauscosny's extended family, the Saga returns to the two heirs to rival empires who faked their own deaths and fled to a deserted planet no one else is supposed to know about in order to be together. And although all they want is to be left alone, it should come as no surprise that pretending the rest of the universe doesn't exist is not sufficient to make the rest of the universe pretend you do not exist. And before too long the story has massive fleets of starships facing each other in bitter battles while cybernetically enhanced commandos launch surprise attacks on secret installations.

The first section of the book follows three mostly independent but linked stories. In the first, Sauscony and Jaibriol set about making their home on the planet they share together, and start a family. In the second, Kurj, Sauscony's brother and Imperator of Skolia, tries to decide the question of who will succeed him now that Sauscony is thought to be dead, and at the same time manage the herculean task of running an empire that is under siege by a more powerful adversary and seems to depend upon his micromanagment. Finally, the elder Emperor Jaibriol, ruler of the Eubian Concord, continues to plot against the Skolian Empire while attempting to navigate the snakepit of treacherous plots that seems to be the norm for Eubian politics.

The two critical turns of events in this segment when the Eubians are able to attack the weak link in the Skolian infrastructure: the rare and valuable Rhon telepaths. The first occurs when the Eubians employ a new weapon that interferes with the control portions of the Skolian ships and allows them to capture Prince Althor. For the Eubians, capturing Althor is a double coup as he is both of critical military value, and because he is a powerful Rhon telepath, and therefore the ultimate "provider" for a Eubian Aristo. Since the Eubians are, by nature, brutal and accomplished torturers, Althor is subjected to horrible treatment in an effort to wrest information out of him, which finally culminates in the revelation of information that reveals the location of Soz and Jai. But this information is made critical by the second turn of events, where the Eubians, via a piece of intelligence provided by an Earth Senator, ambush the Skolian Imperator Kurj in an effort to capture him, relying upon the same technology they used to expedite their capture of Althor. But in the interim the Skolians had come up with a counter, and Kurj is able to both foil his own capture and decapitate the Eubian government by killing its Emperor.

But with the Eubian government in disarray, and the now dead Emperor's widow feeling insecure in her position, recovering Jai as the legitimate heir of the Eubian throne to be installed as her puppet becomes critical. And while Jai's return makes sense as a matter of Eubian internal politics, it exposes one of the oddities of the Eubian Aristo's as villains that bothers me. Jai proved to be Soz's perfect soul mate because he was a Rhon telepath, a fact that he has to hide from all of the other Highton Aristos for fear that they will regard him as a subhuman "provider" and subject him to a life of torture. But being a Rhon telepath is established as being an incredibly valuable asset - the existence of Soz's family of Rhon telepaths is what allows for the existence of the psiberweb, the only technology that allows the Skolian Empire to hold its own against the much larger Eubian Concord. The backbone of the Skolian military is made up of telepaths, giving the Skolians a much-needed military edge. The Eubians, on the other hand, relegate telepaths to the bottom rung of their society, and abuse them horribly to the point that Skolian military telepaths prefer to kill themselves rather than be taken prisoner. And the reason they do is the Highton Aristos that sit at the top of the Eubian heap are born sadists who feed off of pain inflicted upon telepaths. In short, a hugely valuable asset is wasted by the Eubians in the name of the sadistic pleasure of its elite

This waste of the potential of telepaths wouldn't be such a perplexing element if the Aristos weren't so incredibly rare, which makes their iron grip on control of their Empire almost inexplicable. The Aristos essentially have no particular special powers that make them anything other than parasites on actual telepaths, and yet a few hundred of them can command an empire of billions. Not only that, oppress an empire of billions, as everyone in the Eubian Concord other than the Aristos are slaves. While the brutality of the Aristos is explained by their particular genetic heritage, their ability to retain power seems somewhat implausible. The Aristos are certainly villainous - born purveyors of cruelty - but whereas we are told that Rhon telepaths are naturally brilliant and possessing of mental abilities that are critical to the survival of their nation, the Aristos essentially seem to have no particular common characteristics other than their depravity. The Jedi in Star Wars have their force powers. The Lensmen in the Lensman series have their psychic abilities. In those cases, even if the elitist message bothers the reader, it is understandable how this political system came about. But the Aristos don't seem to have anything special about them other than their dependence upon actual telepaths for pleasure. And as a result, it is hard to figure out how the Aristos, essentially parasitical psychic vampires, rose to dominate the largest known space-faring nation, and how, despite systemically criminally wasting one of their most valuable assets, they manage to stay there.

Leaving the question of Eubian politics aside, once Jai has been located and seized by the Eubians and installed as their unwilling Emperor Soz has to return to the position of authority and responsibility that she abandoned to be with Jai. And with the two lovers installed as the heads of state of the two nations, what had been a long running mostly cold war explodes into a hot war. The war escalates the ongoing technological arms race that was started with the development of quasis interference generators that caused ships to lose control of parts of themselves, countered by hiding Klein bottles inside Klein bottles, and then moving on to the Eubians pressing their "providers" into service to try to counter the Skolian use of telepaths in their military forces, and finally to the hiding of entire fleets inside Klein bottles. The odd element is that the last development takes the most effort, but seems have the least usefulness, since once the "Radiance Fleet" encounters the Eubian forces they "decloak" and engage in a pretty standard battle formation.

Unfortunately, it is when the book focuses on the war between the Skolian and Eubian forces, it loses focus. While it makes sense that in a war between star spanning empires the confrontations would be between thousands of ships manned by million of personnel, but once the numbers get to that scale, it becomes very difficult to relate to the action. At a certain scale, when 750,000 ships face off against 500,000 ships the numbers detract from the story rather than add to it. As has been famously observed, "one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic". By ramping up the numbers to presumably realistic levels, Asaro transforms the tragedy of a massive war into a counting exercise. It is only when Soz separates herself from the massive fleet she leads and pursues a commando raid with a handful of soldiers that the war feels real.

And at its core the story is of the star-crossed lovers seeking to be reunited. Soz's raid into the heart of Eubian space is thought by everyone around her to be a foray intended to recover her brother Althor, but is actually the efforts of a lover seeking to recover her beau. This is intended to be wildly romantic, but to go on her crusade, Soz has to leave her children behind in the hands of a trusted friend on Earth for the duration of the war. And knowing her children have been left behind, her decision at the close of the novel seems not so much heroic or romantic, but rather irresponsible and almost callous. Granted, it does set up the political conclusion that forms the emotional peak of the book, but it seems out of character for someone who moved an entire nation to recover her lost husband to be willing to essentially abandon all of her children to go into self-imposed exile.

In the end, the book closes with everything changed, and in another sense nothing changed. Two empires that have always been at war, go to war again. Two lovers have been thought dead, found, separated, and then reunited, are thought dead once more. The action starts with a secretive group of telepaths hiding in exile, and ends with much the same situation in place. But at the same time the war results in nations being decapitated, and a multigenerational plan that was conceived to topple one ends up neutering the other. Despite the somewhat wooden nature of the villains, and the dizzying scale of the conflict, it boils down a ferocious warrior seeking her lost love. The end result is sweeping space opera romance that moves the Skolian Saga in interesting directions.

Previous book in the series: The Last Hawk
Subsequent book in the series: Ascendant Sun

Catherine Asaro     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, December 12, 2011

Review - Dancing with Eternity by John Patrick Lowrie

Short review: In the future no one dies, families are a forgotten artifact of the past, and space travel is accomplished by thinking about it. So why go to the most dangerous planet in the known galaxy?

If you can reboot
You just might live forever
Let's do stupid stuff

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: In the future no one dies. Well, hardly anyone dies. And no one is born. Except on one planet. Instead, people are hatched to work as indentured servants for massive interstellar corporations for their first lifetime, after which they can be "rebooted" for a second life. And then a third. And a fourth. And theoretically as many times after that as they want to. Marriage and parenthood are are almost forgotten concepts. Everyone is connected to the 'net, and if their body dies unexpectedly, they can upload their consciousness to its ether and be rebooted as good as new. Because everyone is interconnected, it is possible to know intimately the perspective of anyone you meet who is willing to share their viewpoint with you, and as a result, violence is almost unheard of. And interstellar travel via a weird "perspective parallax" process akin to magic is possible.

Science fiction is a hard genre to write. It is probably harder than most people who read science fiction realize. Not only does the author have to assemble some semblance of characters and plot, but he has to define a setting for the reader. But the element that is the most difficult is for an author to convey the point of view of a character from a society alien to the reader. Granted, many science fiction authors don't even try, creating futures in which there are faster than light starships, galaxy-spanning civilizations, and other technological and political differences, that are populated by people who seem to have stepped out of the 1950s (or the 1970s, or the 1930s, or whatever decade the book was written in). Sometimes this works well in the hands of a skillful author, such as Delany's Triton or Varley's Ophiuchi Hotline. In the hands of a less skillful author, it is far less effective. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, Lowrie is simply unable to make the alien viewpoint of his nigh-immortal 40th century characters seem real to the reader, and as a result, the story of Dancing with Eternity just never seems to gel.

The protagonist of the story is Mohandas, referred to as "Mo" by the other characters. He starts the story down on his luck, unable to pay the taxes assessed for getting scales as part of his most recent body sculpting job - in the future people can choose to reshape their bodies almost any way, but most seem to choose to have cat fur, or look like historical celebrities, or something similarly dull and mundane (in contrast to the radical body sculpting people indulge in in much older science fiction works like The Ophiuchi Hotline, or The Golden Globe) - and he's stuck on a backwater planet, cut off from the 'net, working a crappy job and drinking in a crappy bar every night. While drinking away his sorrows he's approached by "Steel", a beautiful woman with cat eyes and fur who asks him to join her starship crew to join in on a mission the particulars of which she cannot divulge. Because she's really beautiful, Mo agrees.

Which brings up some of the problems in the book: first. the characters keep doing wildly impulsive and dangerous things with little motivation, and second, most of the information about the plot is hidden from Mo (and thus the reader) for large chunks of the book. It turns out that the mission Mo signed on for is to visit the most dangerous place then known. This is revealed pretty early. But big chunks of information is held back from the reader for most of the book, presumably to create a feeling of suspense. But when critical chunks of the plot are held back from the reader for more than half of the book more or less "just because", it doesn't build suspense, just annoyance. And when a plot point is held back that long (or longer in some cases), it builds in the reader the expectation that when the secret is revealed it will be that much more stunning in importance.

Which brings me to another problem with the book: no matter how important are strange a concept or an event seems to the characters, unless you effectively convey the strangeness or importance to the reader, the reader just won't care. And despite his best efforts, Lowrie just wasn't able to get me to marvel in wonder at the fact that people once had "mothers" or that Mo was once "married". The main problem is one that plagues science fiction: if you make the characters in your imagined world too alien, then the reader can't really relate to them. And Lowrie hurts his cause by frequently not following up on the implications of his changed world: in a sequence that is supposed to be pivotal, a drunk character recounts his experiences in the last war a thousand years ago - an event that seems mostly to have been included to allow for some didactic commentary on gender relations - in which female commandos working for a feminist regime attacked his unit and singled out the female unit commander as a "gender traitor". But Lowrie had already established that technology was developed enough at the time to allow for people to change genders if they wanted, making the whole issue of gender disputes seem kind of pointless in the first place, and rendering the idea of a "gender traitor" kind of silly.

This isn't to say that Dancing with Eternity a bad book. There are some interesting ideas here, but they never seem to add up to anything more than an adequate story. We learn early that Mo is extremely old, even by the standards of the 40th century, but this never really amounts to much more than a curiosity. Steel's plan involves going to the most dangerous place known in the galaxy to try to solve the problem of why people need to reboot every so often, but the "plan" is more or less wishful thinking. And once they reach their destination, Steel, who is supposed to be smart turns out to be a complete idiot about research. And the rest of her crack crew, supposedly with hundreds of years of experience behind them, seem to be little more than dilettantes when it comes to scientific inquiry. And when the big secrets of the book are revealed, they turn out to be pretty uninteresting. And in large part, mostly irrelevant to the story.

I suppose the most common emotion the characters themselves have in the book is one of boredom. Because they live so long, they can take decades to perfect and implement their personal plans, a world element that is supposed to make Steel's rush to get her project done seem remarkable. But once again, while it may seem remarkable to the other characters that Steel would be in such a "rush" (with a project that takes months to execute), for the reader it just isn't that stunning, despite the author repeatedly telling us it is so. Dancing with Eternity is a book that wants to be about big ideas and big decisions, but because the characters are at the same time so alien and so pedestrian, it never rises above adequacy.

John Patrick Lowrie     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review - Robots and Empire by Isaac Asimov

Short review: To foil a nefarious spacer plot, Olivaw decides to condemn most of the population of Earth to a slow, horrific death for their own good.

Evil spacer plot
Olivaw will save us and
Irradiate Earth

Full review: This novel marks the explicit bridge between the Robot novels - The Caves of Steel (read review), The Naked Sun (read review), and The Robots of Dawn (read review) - and the Foundation series - Foundation (read review), Foundation and Empire (read review), Second Foundation (read review), and others - also linking in the Galactic Empire series - Pebble in the Sky (read review), The Stars, Like Dust (read review), and The Currents of Space (read review). Figuring out which series to place this novel in is something of a puzzle, as it belongs to the Robot series, the Galactic Empire series, and the Foundation series, but at the same time doesn't really belong to any of them.

This novel mostly sets in place the events leading to the irradiated and devastated Earth in the Galactic Empire series, and also establishes R. Daneel Olivaw as the nigh-omniscient benevolent guardian of humanity.The story is a planet hopping tale that follows Olivaw, Giskard, and the spacer Gladia (introduced in The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn) as they trace a nefarious spacer plot to eliminate Earth's population, leaving the galaxy free to be colonized by the "superior" men of the spacer worlds. This novel establishes for the first time the dubious Zeroth Law of Robotics, to allow Olivaw and Giskard to overcome their Three Laws imposed inhibitions and act for the greater benefit of humanity (a very nebulous standard at best). In the novel, Asimov justifies the irradiation of the Earth as a means to benefit humanity over the long term, a course of action that can only be possibly justified if you assume a godlike level of prescience on the part of the robots in the story, and even then, I have serious doubts.

The end result of Robots and Empire is to leave humanity without a viable home world, cast into space by supposedly benevolent robots acting for our benefit. Most of the book is merely a set-up to explain elements of other, better novels. The novel is also responsible for making R. Daneel Olivaw the annoying character that dominates the later-written Foundation novels.While the planet hopping intrigue story contained in the novel is adequate, the creation of the Olivaw-monster that infects the Foundation universe and the inhuman end result that he arrives at (apparently condemning millions to slow radiation induced death is a good thing) drops the story down to merely average at best.

Previous book in the series: The Robots of Dawn

1986 Locus Award Nominees

Isaac Asimov     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Review - The Ring by Danielle Steele

Short review: Arianna must survive the horrors of World War II. But its okay, she's got elfin beauty so everyone she meets wants to help her out.

First a suicide
Then a girl survives a war

Full review: I have always been of the opinion that Danielle Steel was an inexplicably popular mediocre romance novelist. So I was asked to read her novel The Ring, because then I would see that her books were actually quite good. Now that I have read the story of Kassandra, Ariana, and Noel, three generations of Germans who live during Hitler's ascent to and fall from power and beyond, I am of the opinion that Danielle Steele is an inexplicably popular mediocre romance novelist.

The novel is told in three broad parts. In the first, set in the 1930s, Kassandra, a wealthy and beautiful German woman married to a much older banker, has an affair with a dashing young author named Dolff. Against the backdrop of Hitler's ascendancy, it is revealed that Dolff is Jewish. Even though Kassandra's improbably tolerant husband knows about her affair, he is sympathetic to Dolff, and advises her to tell him to leave Germany before things get really bad for the Jews. Dolff, of course, won't hear of it, asserting that he won't be driven out of his country by thugs. This ends rather predictably with Dolff getting killed, Kassandra's affair getting exposed by the Nazi's, and her suicide. This part of the story is more or less a paint by the numbers tale of Nazi evil and Jewish persecution. There's nothing wrong with that, but the resolution is pretty much telegraphed from the beginning. The problem with this part of the story, and the problem that runs throughout the rest of the book, is that the central character Kassandra seems to have no personality other than "dumb and incredibly beautiful". She's mostly passive - she falls into an affair with Dolff because he takes her for long walks to break up her dull high-society life. She doesn't have a hand in the raising of her children because she's told not to. She pretty much does nothing on her own for her entire sojourn in the book, and then she dies.

And after Kassandra dies, the story shifts a couple years forward and her daughter Ariana takes center stage. Ariana is much like her mother - almost entirely lacking in personality, but stunningly beautiful and fragile looking in a way that makes people want to take care of her. She seems smarter than her mother, which seems like kind of a low bar, but for much of the book is almost as passive - getting imperiled, getting rescued, having men fall at her feet, going along with doing what she is told to do, and so on. Of course, she and her family are "good" Germans who despise the Nazis, but they passively keep their heads down hoping the regime and the subsequent war will pass over them until their hand is forced by the impending draft of Ariana's younger brother. Ariana's father takes her brother to Switzerland, promising to return to get her and flee with her as well. And predictably, he is unable to, leaving Ariana to face down the Nazi establishment that wants her father's money and her brother's service. And so the story continues in predictable fashion.

But the truly annoying thing about the book is that one gets the sense that were Ariana not pretty and dainty, her life would have turned out much less well. For much of the book she doesn't actually do anything but inspire men to rescue her. Far from being the master of her own destiny, she is simply buffeted along by the winds of fate and occasionally benefits from having a man swoop in to hand her some help and send her on her way. One has to wonder, however, what would have happened to Ariana if she had been an unattractive girl instead. When she is set to be sent off to be a forced concubine for a lecherous Nazi general (and all of the "true" Nazis in the book are greedy, lecherous, and sadistic), a "good" German officer swoops in to save her and take her to live with him, with perfectly honorable intentions. Later, we are off-handedly told that another girl was sent to mollify the jilted general when Ariana became unavailable. So because of Ariana's ethereal beauty, she was saved from being repeatedly raped by a German general, but another girl was not so lucky, and got to live a life of torment because Ariana lucked out. In short, one starts to despise Ariana for her undeserved fortune, and wonder what plucky but unattractive women who might have actually taken some initiative would have done if they hadn't been swept aside to horrible fates in Ariana's pretty but vapid place.

The book really falls apart once the war is over and Ariana makes her way to the United States as a refugee. She is taken in by a Jewish family, who assume that because she is a refugee from Germany, she must be Jewish. Passively, she refuses to correct them, eventually marrying their obviously available son. But one wonders how a girl who seems to have never actually even met a Jew before would be able to impersonate one well enough to fool a Jewish mother. But this is only the first of the implausibilities in the final stages of the book, as serendipitous coincidences pop up left and right. A big confrontation looms, and then it dissipates away. People are reunited in improbable ways. The story gets wrapped up at the end in a big bow. One sort of gets the impression that Mrs. Steele got tired of writing the story and rushed to tie up all the loose ends in the last forty or fifty pages.

In the end, The Ring is a fairly bland and inoffensive book with nothing much to recommend it. With nonentities as heroines, a predictable plot, and cardboard villains, it isn't a bad book, but there's not much that is memorable to it. In short, this book did nothing to change my opinion of Danielle Steel as a writer, or get me to want to read any of her other books.

Danielle Steel     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Friday, December 9, 2011

Follow Friday - Ali Baba Faced Off Against Forty Thieves

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 two Featured Bloggers of the week - Keeping Up With Roxy's Books and Anonymous Reads.
  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: Keeping with the Spirit of Giving this season, what book do you think EVERYONE should read and if you could, you would buy it for all of your family and friends?

The real problem with this question is picking just one book. I mean, I think everyone should read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but not more than I think everyone should read Please Ignore Vera Dietz (read review). Or Dune. Or I would want everyone to read The Lord of the Rings. Or maybe The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. There are simply too many good books to only recommend one. Fortunately, most people have about twenty-two thousand days or so available, so we can all probably get more than one book read.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Review - Forward the Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Short review: Seldon takes the reins of power and develops psychohistory under the benevolent guidance of omniscient robots.

Some benevolent robots
A hero lessened

Full review: Later in his life, Asimov went back to writing about the events surrounding the Foundation trilogy, his seminal work of science fiction. (As a side note, this was actually Asimov's final published piece of fiction, and was published posthumously). This book takes place immediately before the events that commence with the book Foundation. It details the years of Hari Seldon's life immediately before he established the Foundation project, and also attempts to explain why he was considered such a dangerous individual by imperial political forces.

Through much of the book Seldon serves the Emperor Cleon as First Minister, using the power granted by his position to push forward research on psychohistory, eventually perfecting it into a useful tool. This changes the nature of Hari Seldon that was implied in the original series which seemed to depict him as a rogue mathematician who challenged the establishment by coming up with a predictive theory of history. Instead, Seldon is now firmly entrenched as a member of the government, leveraging the resources of the Empire to develop his theory. Instead of being an outsider who poses a threat to the accepted orthodoxy, Seldon is reduced to the head of a government project that some think has gone awry. Along the way, Seldon's enemies (and random events) strip away most of his loved ones, and he finally sends the last of them into exile to found the Second Foundation.

And like most of the other books extending the Foundation series, this book features Asimov's robots shepherding humanity towards their own secretive goals. Olivaw, having decided that psychohistory must be developed, manipulates events to place Seldon in power as First Minister which seems to be an odd choice. After all, if you want to develop a scientific discipline, it seems that having to fill the job of running a galaxy-wide Empire while doing your research on the side would be a hindrance, not a help. And Seldon's constant companion is the robot Dors, who is supposed to guard Seldon while he completes his work. The upshot of these elements is that it is clear that Seldon's project is the result of robot guidance and robot protection - and it is only when that guidance and protection are removed that things begin to go wrong for Seldon, which results in his conviction and exile.

All of these elements serve to diminish Seldon as a character, especially the presence of the nigh-omniscient guardian robots (although Dors proves remarkably dim concerning one critical plot point). Not only that, the plan for the development of psychohistory seems remarkably dumb for one worked out by omniscient robots. Science develops by the interchange of ideas. Scientists publish papers. Other scientists with similar skills study those papers and then expand upon or express criticisms of the ideas in them, producing their own papers to be disseminated among the academic community. It is this give and take that drives the development of science, a fact that Asimov, as a biochemist, probably understood. But when developing psychohistory, Seldon does almost all of the work as part of a nonpublic government project, making suppressing it easy to do when his enemies catch up with him. If he had disseminated the information widely, then the science probably would have developed much more quickly, and the genie would have been much more difficult for his opponents to cram back into the bottle. But what do I know: I'm not an omniscient virtually immortal robot.

Like most of the later Foundation-related books, this one is not as good as the original trilogy. Given that the original trilogy is rightly regarded as an essential work in the genre, a little fall-off is somewhat to be expected. Unfortunately, as often happens, by explaining the events that were implied in the original books as back-story, the tale is somewhat diminished. In the prequels, Seldon's character is transformed from a maverick scientist to a political functionary, which I think diminishes him. As in Prelude to Foundation, the introduction of the robots into the story is also jarring. However, the story is pure Asimov, and like most Asimov, it is an interesting, and reasonably well-presented story.

Previous book in the series: Prelude to Foundation

1994 Locus Award Nominees

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review - Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Short review: Seldon wanders around Trantor developing psychohistory. Because the best way to develop a new science is to do it on the run.

Hari Seldon speaks
The Emperor is nonplussed
Olivaw monster!

Full review: Despite being the "first" book of the Foundation era, this is one of the last books written in the series. It probably wasn't worth the effort. In context - the original Foundation trilogy was a masterful piece of science fiction writing when it was produced: innovative, interesting, and thought-provoking. Then, late in his life, Asimov decided to expand on the Foundation trilogy, and in the process, mash it together with his Robot books. The result was not pretty.

The basic plot line follows Hari Seldon, the man who developed psychohistory. It begins just as Seldon gives a speech about the potential science of psychohistory, a discipline for which he has only worked out the preliminary foundations. The Emperor Cleon I is interested, and interviews Seldon, but becomes convinced that psychohistory is nothing more than a theoretical toy. Seldon is then contacted by a journalist named Chetter Huminn who convinces him that Cleon's first minister (and the true power in the government) is after Seldon, and Seldon has to hide. Most of the book details Seldon's travels about Trantor with his bodyguard (and later wife), a woman named Dors, as he both tries to work out the fundamentals of psychohistory and evade the first minister. Along the way he finds and adopts a boy named Raych, and collaborates with another scientist named Yugo.

In the end, it turns out that Huminn is actually the first minister, and is also actually the robot R. Daneel Olivaw who has been benevolently guiding humanity for thousands of years. The whole of Seldon's time on the run was orchestrated by Olivaw so he could work out psychohistory to the point where it would be a useful science. There are some explanations as to why Olivaw thought it necessary to engage in the charade, but they only make him seem more ridiculously omniscient than before, and sink the series to further depths of silliness. Asimov's writing saves the book from the ridiculously convoluted plot, but that doesn't make the book any better than average. And for a book tied to both the excellent Foundation trilogy, and the original Robot books, average is a disappointment.

Previous book in the series: Foundation and Earth
Subsequent book in the series: Forward the Foundation

1989 Hugo Longlist
1989 Locus Award Nominees

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