Saturday, March 31, 2012

Review - Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

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

Now they are victors
But the Capitol's ire
Is focused on them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous book in the series: The Hunger Games
Subsequent book in the series: Mockingjay

2010 Locus Award Nominees

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Friday, March 30, 2012

Follow Friday - There Are Fifty-Four Milligrams of Caffeine in a Can of Mountain Dew

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 - Alluring Reads and Justin's 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: Do you read one book at a time or do you switch back and forth between two or more?

I usually read two or three books at once. There isn't any particular reason I do this, it just always seems to work out that way. Right now I'm reading That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis (read review) and More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (read review), as well as slowly working my way through American Fiction, Volume Nine and Building Web Sites for Dummies.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Herbie the Love Bug Is Car Number Fifty-Three

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review - The Wellsprings of Life by Isaac Asimov

Short review: The basics of biology as explained by Asimov.

If you want to learn
Some basic biology
This is a good start

Full review: Asimov is most famous as a science fiction author, with good reason as he contributed some of the classic works of the genre: Foundation, The Caves of Steel and others. However, Asimov was probably a better science writer than science fiction writer. His straightforward and simple style translates better to conveying useful information than it does to creating eloquent fictional prose.

The Wellsprings of Life is a basic guide to biology and evolution. There isn't really anything here that one would not learn in a well-run high school biology class, there wasn't anything I hadn't seen before and I never progressed beyond high school biology. There were details I didn't remember (after all, how many people who don't go on to work in some biology-related field remember the names of the various phases of cell division), but there wasn't anything that I could not pick up quickly. The book is, of course, limited to the state of the science as it existed in 1960, when it was written, so a couple of nuances are missing, but there is nothing incorrect in the material presented (since our understanding of basic biology has not changed significantly since then - more advanced stuff, sure, for example, since it had not been discovered yet, Asimov misses much about the genetic code, but that doesn't detract from the material he does cover).

Despite this, I found the book very interesting and informative. Not because it provided new information, but because it presented it in an easy to follow manner, and, more importantly to me, organized it and showed it in context. Where the book excels is where it links up the various discoveries and shows how they relate to one another - Asimov is at his best when discussing how Darwin, Mendel, and other giants of the history of biology relate to one another, and linking their disparate discoveries into an overall framework for the reader. Unlike many basic science courses where various elements are treated individually, Asimov tried to show how each discovery built upon the others, and also show where advances in the field were ignored or derided due to personal animosities or political turf wars between those in the field.

In an educational environment where foolishness like "Intelligent Design" is being touted as a valid alternative to be taught alongside actual science, there can never be enough clearly written, concise books that provide actual scientific knowledge in a succinct and easy to follow manner. This book does that, and for that, I recommend it highly.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review - The Collapsing Universe by Isaac Asimov

Short review: Asimov explains the basics of cosmology.

Atoms, planets, stars
Neutron stars, black holes, white holes
Are cosmology

Full review: The Collapsing Universe is a nonfiction Asimov work that focuses on the birth, life, and death of stars, explains the creation and physics of black holes, and discusses the birth and potential death of the universe. Asimov's straightforward writing style, which can be a hindrance when he writes fiction, works to the book's benefit here, as the concepts, ideas, and facts are presented in a clear and easy to follow manner.

Though the book was published in the 1970s, and scholarship concerning the subject matter of the book has changed in some ways, the fundamentals of the field have not. As this book doesn't seek to do more than educate the readers on those fundamentals, the science discussed by and large remains accurate. Those who are already well-versed in physics won't find anything new or particularly insightful here: Asimov's science books were mostly intended to introduce an untrained person to the field and educate them to a reasonable understanding of the subject. The book is very math-light, as befits the introductory nature of the book.

For someone who wants a decent, non-math intensive introduction to cosmology this book would be an excellent resource. For someone already knowledgeable in the field, it would be nothing more than a diversion. If you have studied cosmology before, you can give this a pass. If you want an introduction to the subject, this book is a good way to start.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review - Earth: Our Crowded Spaceship by Isaac Asimov

Short review: Overpopulation is a problem. Asimov explains why.

Too many people
Crowded onto Earth's confines
Will create problems

Full review: Asimov was always concerned about the possible overpopulation of Earth, and the negative consequences he foresaw would result. Overpopulation shows up many times in his fiction: the Robot stories, the Lucky Starr stories, numerous short stories (notably, for example, in The Winnowing). Asimov feared the consequences of an overpopulated Earth, and this volume, written for UNICEF, makes that abundantly clear.

It is difficult to argue with any of the information in the book - Asimov makes a very convincing case that the Earth will inevitably be asked to support more humans than it possibly can. In many ways, Asimov's estimates concerning how quickly population pressure will develop are too conservative: in the years since the book was published, human numbers have grown faster than he predicted.

The book loses some of its effectiveness, however, because Asimov harangues the reader at times, and gives prescriptions that are impossible to adopt in a manner that will be effective (requiring the altruistic coordination of many governments at least). While he does a good job at explaining the problem, he does a poor job at coming up with a workable solution. As a warning, the book is well written. As a guide to solving the problem, not so much. Overall, it adds up to a book worth reading, but not much more than that.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Musical Monday - Spock Impersonator by The Doubleclicks

Today is March 26th. Today is also Leonard Nimoy's birthday. So here is a song about falling in love with a Spock impersonator. And, even though the character wasn't played by Leonard Nimoy, a Worf impersonator. And also a Q impersonator. Although the Spock impersonator is the first one she casts aside in the song, I suspect that someone who merely has the character flaw of being highly logical would be a better boyfriend than someone who had violent tendencies or who was capricious and omnipotent. On this basis, I think it would be safe to conclude that you would have a better chance at attracting a beautiful nerdy woman posing as Spock rather than a displaced Klingon or a bored godling.

On a side note, the Doubleclicks have a new CD coming out on April 30th, 2012 called Chainmail and Cello, and this song is on it. You should order a copy for your very own.

Previous Musical Monday: Roll a d6 by Broken Record Films
Subsequent Musical Monday: Justice League Opening Theme

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Follow Friday - Herbie the Love Bug Is Car Number Fifty-Three

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 - Short and Sweet Reviews and Sarah's Books & Life.
  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: What is the longest book you’ve read? What are your favorite 600+ page reads?

Leaving aside books like The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1 (2,624 pages) and Volume 2 (also 2,624 pages), I suppose the longest books I've ever read are mostly casebooks I read in law school like Cases and Materials on Evidence by John Kaplan (1,604 pages) and Constitutional Law by Geoffrey R. Stone (1,600 pages). Or if I wanted to pick something that was mostly fiction I could select a work like Bulfinch's Mythology (1,040 pages)

Those probably aren't very good choices though, because they are more or less textbooks, which I don't think is what the question was intended to find out. The longest single volume I've read that would be classified as fiction would be Dragonlance: The Annotated Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (1,312 pages), but that is actually three books compiled together, so it doesn't really count. As a single work, I suppose the longest book I've read would be the history Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson (928 pages), which is obviously nonfiction. The longest work of fiction that I have read is Dhalgren (read review) by Samuel R. Delany (896 pages - for some reason, it always seems to come back to Delany for me).

I have read several books over six hundred pages long, too many to list them all. In addition to Dhalgren, my favorite "long" books include American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Brightness Reef and Earth, both by David Brin, Footfall and Lucifer's Hammer both coauthored by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Playgrounds of the Mind also by Larry Niven, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (read review), The Once and Future King by T.H. White, and Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein.

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Review - The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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

A brutal future
Where the Capitol rules and
Children kill children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subsequent book in the series: Catching Fire

2009 Locus Award Nominees

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review - Legend of a Ninja 2: Rise of the Shadowsalve

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

Darwin and Leena
Meet Rumble in a bar fight
Let's be a new clan!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous book in the series: Legend of a Ninja: Beneath the Shadows

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Review - Legend of a Ninja: Beneath the Shadows by Jarius Raphel

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

Cool posing ninjas
Hiding, fighting, teleporting
Very pointlessly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subsequent book in the series: Legend of a Ninja 2: Rise of the Shadowsalve

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Musical Monday - Roll a d6 by Broken Record Films

Sometimes a parody song is so much better than the original that it makes you wonder exactly why the original was famous to begin with. This is the case with Roll a d6 and the song it parodies Like a G6 by Far East Movement. The original is a bland and boring song about how great it is to get drunk every night. At one point the lyrics boast that when the singer drinks "they do it right". I suppose that means they don't throw their alcohol into their eye or ear or something. Because what the world needed was another paean to the "fun" of mindlessly wandering from bar to bar and getting sloshed into a stupor. Not only that, the original lyrics don't even flow very well: even with some nonsense words thrown in there to fill in the gaps, the rhymes are frequently clumsy and forced.

Connor Anderson and Broken Record Films took this insipid earworm and transformed it into something that is not only funny, but is also more interesting and better-written than the original. Instead of a night of stumbling around drunk, a group of friends get together and imagine themselves as heroic wizards, dwarves, and rangers facing down hordes of goblins and zombies then tangling with a fire-breathing dragon. I only have a few quibbles with the video. The first is that at the beginning the main character is somewhat hesitant to say that she'll be busy gaming all night. But if geeks are all ashamed to admit the things that they enjoy doing, then we'll never shake this stupid entrenched idea that heading out to a bar and drinking and smoking is an acceptable way to have fun with your friends, but playing games with them somehow isn't. The second quibble is that they appear to be playing 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons in the video, and for the most part, one would roll a d20 for things like perception checks and saving throws, not a d6. This is, of course, a very minor nitpick, mostly because the song isn't really about a specific die type, but is about the fun of an all-night gaming session with your friends. My third quibble is what is the DM doing playing a character in game? I figure it is because they wanted to use the actor in the fantasy sequences, but it just seems odd to have him taking the role of DM at the table and then show up as a wizard "in the game".

So, for taking a song about drunk morons, transforming it into something brilliant, capturing the raw fun of tabletop role-playing gaming, and giving me something worth listening to over and over again, Broken Record Films is my Musical Monday selection for today. Also: There seems to be something of a mystery as to what character class the female singer is supposed to be. My guess is that she's a single classed elf wizard or sorcerer using a bow as a racial weapon. But that's just a guess.

Previous Musical Monday: No Easy Way to Say This by The Doubleclicks
Subsequent Musical Monday: Spock Impersonator by The Doubleclicks

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Follow Friday - If You Drop a Deck of Cards You Can Play Fifty-Two Pick-Up

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 - Reading with ABC and The Fairytale Nerd.
  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: What is the best book you’ve read in the last month? What is the worst book you’ve read in the last month?

The best book I have read in the last month (with apologies to Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games) was The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein (read review), a collection of short works by Heinlein. If all it had included was "-All You Zombies" and The Man Who Traveled in Elephants, it would have topped the list, but once you add stories like The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag and "-They", it really is no contest.

The worst book I have read in the last month is Roger Bagg's Expedition Beyond: The Anderson Theory (read review) a fairly uninspired mash-up of Jules Verne and Michael Crichton with some horribly awful science and a padded out story.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Herbie the Love Bug Is Car Number Fifty-Three

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review - The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

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

Three soldiers stop by
Then three more come for a rest
Then we talk treason

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

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

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

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

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

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

1956 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
1959 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: A Case of Conscience by James Blish

1956 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: Exploration Team by Murray Leinster (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 1)
1959 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Big Front Yard by Clifford D. Simak (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 1)

What are the Hugo Awards?

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Novel
List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Novelette

1958 Hugo Award Nominees

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Review - Expedition Beyond: The Anderson Theory by Roger Bagg

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

Large cracks in the Earth
One man's very strange theory
Beautiful natives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Bagg     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review - Conquerer: A Novel of Kublai Khan by Conn Iggulden

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

Gyuk, then Mongke,
Then war with Arik-Boke
Kublai is Great Khan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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