Dragon and Soldier Book Review

Dragon and Soldier: Dragonback book 2
by Timothy Zahn
244 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018)
ASIN B079JKBDCN

Dragon and Soldier follows the same pattern as Dragon and Thief, the first volume in the Dragonback series. Jack and Draycos get into sticky situations, and then scrape by on Jack’s thievery, Draycos’ bravery, and sheer pluck. In the first volume, Draycos helped clear Jack’s name of a crime he did not commit, and in return, Jack now feels honor bound to help Draycos find the organization responsible for shooting down the K’da’s ship and killing all of his shipmates.

Since the only lead they have is the make of the fighters that downed Draycos’ ship, and the dragon’s hunch that pirates would have been less professional while a planetary defense force would have had more ships, Jack decides to infiltrate one of the Orion Arm’s many mercenary groups in order to steal their intelligence on their rivals.

With this plan set in motion, we get a chance to see how seedy the Orion Arm really is. Virgil took pains to inculcate a me-first attitude in Jack after his parents died, and here we start to get an idea of why. In the first book, Jack’s prime antagonist was the Braxton Universis corporation. It isn’t too hard to see huge corporations as wicked, but in the Dragonback universe, even the little corporations are heartless too.

The mechanism that Jack uses to infiltrate the Whinyard’s Edge mercenary organization is their practice of indenturing teenagers as cannon fodder. In theory, Internos, the confederation of the human worlds, opposes this. In practice, the individual worlds do as they like as long as the money is good. The money is apparently very, very good.

Whinyard’s Edge isn’t interested in providing much training to their new recruits, but fortunately for Jack, Draycos is the inheritor of a [very] proud martial tradition, and he can make up for some of the shortcomings in Jack’s accelerated short course in soldiering. Jack also gets a few pointers from a female recruit, Alison Kayna, who is set up to be an ally, an enemy, a love interest, or maybe all three somewhere down the line.

This was a pretty good adventure. Jack and Draycos learn how to work together, and we get a good setup for the continuation of the series, even if neither Jack nor Draycos can catch a break. I look forward to seeing more of their world.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Timothy Zahn

New Thrawn series:
Thrawn
Thrawn: Alliances

Quadrail series:
Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review

Soulminder

Original Thrawn Trilogy:
Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Blackcollar series:
The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review
The Backlash Mission: Blackcollar series book 2 review

Dragonback series:
Dragon and Thief

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

Underlord Book Review

Underlord: Cradle Book 6
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (March 1, 2019)
ASIN B07NJ3B6HN

If you have been following along with the Cradle series, you will have a pretty good idea of what to expect by now. Our young protagonist, Wei Shi Lindon Arelius, will have adventures, face insurmountable odds, and advance his Path. Wight has got a good thing going here, and he sticks to what works. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: these books are just fun. But I want to stop a moment and look at why it works. Indulge me.

And work it does. When Underlord released on March 1st, 2019, it rose at least as high as #5 on Amazon’s Kindle store, and maybe higher. Wight doesn’t run any sort of amazing social media campaign, his books mostly sell by word of mouth and through the praises of reviews like this one. His release schedule helps, you don’t have to wait years in between installments. But I think this is good evidence that Wight gives his readers what they want. What they [I] want is a good story, and Wight does that.

Fresh off of reading J. D. Cowan’s multi-part review of Sam J. Lundwell's Science Fiction: An Illustrated History, I have a new appreciation for just how good the Cradle series is, and new gratitude to Will Wight for writing the things I like to read. In particular, I learned something about just what it is I like about stories like this. Lindon needed insight into himself in order to advance, and in much the same way I needed insight in what makes a story good in order to be able to understand my own tastes.

One of the things I learned from Cowan’s review is that science fiction isn’t really a genre. In fact, debates about what is or isn’t science fiction tend to get bogged down, because the usual definitions don’t cut nature at the joints. By analogy, what is usually called fantasy isn’t a genre either. Cowan proposes instead that science fiction, fantasy, and horror are all subgenres of adventure fiction, which is meant to evoke the emotion of wonder in the reader.

Wonder is a trait from adventure fiction and its subgenres fantasy and horror. It is the adventure of exploring new lands, peoples, and possibilities.

This was the insight that I needed, because now I can understand what I like, and what I don’t. There is an irreducible element of personal taste in all of our entertainment, but I learned that adventure fiction is the kind that I like to read, precisely because the emotion of wonder is what I am after. There are lots of books labeled as sci fi or fantasy that I don’t like, but this is because genre, the emotion meant to be evoked, has been confused with milieu, or setting.

In the sense that I mean the term, setting a story in the future doesn’t make it science fiction. Swords and dragons don’t make a book fantasy either. If the emotion the author is trying to invoke in me is despair or rage, I don’t really want to read that book, no matter what trappings it has. I finally understand why Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was a romance. He was connecting his work with an older tradition, not inventing a new one.

Wight’s books work for me because he is taking me on an adventure! I see the remarkable world of Cradle: Iteration 110 though Lindon’s eyes, and I get to see him grow up as he learns about the marvelous world in which he finds himself. The speculative fiction element is subdued, but not wholly absent. The focus here is on Lindon and his journey, rather than exactly what kind of society you would get if we lived in a simulation and cheat codes were enabled. There is just enough thought given to the structure and sociology to make it plausible. Everything else is about fun.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Will Wight

Cradle Series:

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4 Review

Ghostwater: Cradle Book 5 Review


Traveler’s Gate series:

House of Blades: Traveler's Gate Book 1 Review

The Crimson Vault: Traveler's Gate Book 2 Review

City of Light: Traveler's Gate Book 3 Review

Traveler's Gate Chronicles Book Review

Dragon and Thief Book Review

Dragon and Thief: Dragonback book 1
by Timothy Zahn
231 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018)
ASIN B079JC54C8

The Dragonback series is a what they now call a YA [Young Adult] series, but I still like the older designation of a juvenile novel, since I grew up with it, and also because a lot of what is branded as YA seems like utter crap. Here is what Jerry Pournelle had to say in 2011 about juveniles:

I followed Robert Heinlein’s rules on ‘juveniles’ when I wrote it: no sex scenes, and as Robert used to say, a juvenile has young protagonists and you can put in more science and explanations of what’s going on in juvenile works; which is to say it’s a good story, and has always appealed to adults as well as to the 10 – 15 year olds it was sort of written for.

I like re-posting Jerry’s re-iteration of Heinlein’s definition because I find that my appreciation for a well-done juvenile novel only grows with time. I am of course influenced by having small children that I want to share stories with, but I also just like this kind of story, and I have for a long time. Something that is truly only fit for children cannot really be a juvenile novel in this sense, because the author needs to craft something as interesting to adults as to teenagers. A good juvenile is also mildly didactic, which fits well in the general hard sci fi mold. In this case, Zahn’s juvenile series is less about some useful aspect of science than about a young man learning what it means to be a good man after growing up as the orphan apprentice of a con man and a thief.

The hook which sets this series in motion is our young protagonist, Jack Morgan, stumbling across the wreckage of an unfamiliar starship. Within, he finds a lone survivor, desperate and near death. That survivor is dying precisely because he is alone. The K’Da are interdimensional symbionts. Draycos can push himself into three-dimensional space for brief periods, but in order to rest he must allow himself to relax by becoming two-dimensional on the surface of a compatible host. Unfortunately, his host, and all the other crew of his ship, were killed either in battle or in the subsequent crash.

Lacking recourse, Draycos gambles his life upon the possibility that Jack may provide the sanctuary he needs. Gathering his failing strength, he jumps! Zahn will likely have a lot of fun working out the implications of what this means over the next five novels in this series, but for now, Jack Morgan has gained an impressive tattoo/traveling companion with fierce claws and a strong sense of justice.

After this unlikely meeting, Jack and Draycos find that their lives are entwined in more ways than either initially suspects. Jack, despite [or because of?] his past life of crime, is hiding on this desolate planet because he has been unjustly accused of a crime. Draycos and his former crewmates were there seeking a new home, refugees of the losing side of an interstellar war. Somehow, this all hangs together, and part of the fun is finding out how and why.

Jack and Draycos immediately find themselves in each other’s debt, for Jack saves Draycos from dimensional dissolution, and Draycos returns the favor by saving Jack from the mercenary soldier prowling about the crashed ship looking for survivors, or witnesses. Fear and necessity bind them together initially, but the rest of the book, and presumably the following books in the series, are about Jack and Draycos learning about one another while trying to unravel the mystery in which they find themselves entangled.

The structure of Dragon and Thief is primarily a caper, as Jack uses his apprenticeship in crime to good advantage. This makes the novel rather fun, as we get to see Jack and Draycos bluff and scam their way through various adventures. However, Draycos himself makes for an interesting contrast, because his rather grand sense of honor is a continual foil for Jack’s primarily self-serving survival skills.

Jack is simultaneously fascinated and annoyed by Draycos, who like a knight of old, is fierce in battle, but he will not press an unfair advantage or abandon a fallen enemy in distress. Draycos, for his part, is occasionally appalled by Jack’s instincts, but mostly sees their fortuitous meeting as an opportunity to set Jack back on the straight and narrow in recompense for saving his life.

The interplay between them, mediated by the ship’s AI which houses the memory of the con man who raised Jack, is what raises this from an entertaining caper novel to a disquisition in very very applied ethics. The stakes in the story are dramatically high, but the basic questions are more fundamental: do you help someone because you expect recompense, or simply because it is the right thing to do? Do you defend yourself with maximum ruthlessness and force, because your enemies will not deign to extend you the same consideration, or do you seek the minimum of force which will allow you some measure of safety? Who can you really trust? And what hidden agendas lie behind offers of help and good intentions?

Since this is a juvenile novel, and not a work of historical fiction or political intrigue, these questions receive relatively straight forward answers. Which is in my opinion appropriate for the intended audience. At some point, harder questions and harder answers need to be proposed and given, but the result will be better built upon a foundation like this. It is far too easy to drift into nihilism otherwise.

I really liked this book, and I recommend it to fans of adventure fiction and juvenile novels in the Heinlein mold. You can pick the first three of six volumes up on Amazon right now for $2.99 USD, which is a great deal. I’ve got reviews coming of volumes two and three, so don’t fret.

My other book reviews

Other books by Timothy Zahn

New Thrawn series:
Thrawn
Thrawn: Alliances

Quadrail series:
Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review

Soulminder

Original Thrawn Trilogy:
Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Blackcollar series:
The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review
The Backlash Mission: Blackcollar series book 2 review

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

The Best of C. L. Moore Book Review

The Best of C. L. Moore
by C. L. Moore
452 pages
Published by Diversion Books (September 22, 2015)
ASIN B07H15QVLC

Catherine Lucille Moore  By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34553491

Catherine Lucille Moore

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34553491

I had heard of Catherine Lucille Moore, but this was my first exposure to her work. I saw this collection of her short stories come on sale on Amazon, so I decided to give it a try.

In my typical fashion for a short story collection, I’ll do a short review of each story, and then look at the collection as a whole.


Shambleau *****

Not only is this story my introduction to Moore’s work in general, it is my introduction to one of her most famous characters, Northwest Smith. N.W., as his partner-in-crime Yarol calls him, is very much the anti-hero. I call him an anti-hero insofar as he doesn’t particularly demonstrate the chivalry of other nearly contemporaneous characters like the Geste brothers. However, I think you could almost as accurately call him a hero, if the hero you have in mind is someone like Odysseus.

Northwest Smith is a pirate and a smuggler, a desperado of renown. Like Odysseus, he is cast adrift from his home. He definitely shoots first and then neglects to ask any questions. He is happy to lie to your face and then rob you blind. He is not, however, a force of random destruction, he just is wholly out for himself. In the pre-Christian moral universe of the Homeric Greeks, N. W. would have fit right in. However, he does not actually live in that moral universe, but in one whose foundation is Christianity, which is a thematic element we will return to later.

In addition, the story itself is a re-working of Greek legend, but with an eldritch horror element that feels quite natural here. Greek myth itself doesn’t have the existential dread of living in a universe that contains many things older than, more powerful than, and also indifferent at best to man, but it readily compatible with it. The Greek Gods were anthropomorphic, but often cruel and indifferent. However, the real monsters do not even rise to that level.

“Shambleau” uses the venerable conceit that old stories often contain a gem of truth. Stories in this vein treat their subjects as not at all metaphorical. With suspension of disbelief, such a story can be strange and frightening because you can imagine it to be mostly true. Many of my favorite authors have recycled myth and history to great effect, and Moore does an excellent job here. Even more remarkable, since this was her first commercial sale. “Shambleau” is one of the stories almost everyone talks about when speaking of C. L. Moore’s work, and I think it a remarkable piece. I can see why Moore had such a long career and so much influence on other authors.


Black Thirst ***

Whereas “Shambleau” had a touch of eldritch horror, “Black Thirst” is quite simply Lovecraftian. This is the second Northwest Smith tale, and in typical planetary romance fashion, it is set on a young and torrid Venus, whereas “Shambleau” was set on an old and dusty Mars.

This story gave off a pretty strong Tim Powers vibe for me. Powers’ early novel, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, in particular. The antagonist of “Black Thirst”, the Alendar, has a likeness to Powers’ Norton Jaybush. Most of Powers’ protagonists are nothing like Northwest Smith however.

Unfortunately, while this possible connection is intriguing to me, I started to lose steam on the collection here. “Black Thirst” is very much in the vein of Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. I liked the John Carter stories well enough, but not enough to read again, so I found more of the same unispiring. Not even the Lovecraftian element was good enough, since it was more of a mood than a repetition of Lovecraft’s peculiar way with words.


Mantorok – The Corpse God

Mantorok – The Corpse God

The Bright Illusion **

“The Bright Illusion” is the weakest story in this collection. I might actually have given up here, but I am glad that I did not. My best description of this is Lovecraft in spaaaace! It features a human coerced into serving as an agent in a titanic battle between two beings so great in power and majesty they are worshiped as gods, although they are nothing of the sort.

Except, this story ends on a curiously hopeful note, which in the hands of lesser author would have been merely schmaltzy. We get “Love conquers all” mixed up with “There are fates worse than death”, but I am most fascinated by the way in which this is used to illustrate the fundamental inadequacy of the victor of the titanic battle of the “gods”, who is forced to admit that the worst it can actually do is kill you.

This is curiously not like Lovecraft, and piqued my interest despite the overall weakness of the story compared to the rest.


This is the most perfect image I could find of Jirel.

This is the most perfect image I could find of Jirel.

Black Kiss *****

“Black Kiss” was the story that rescued the whole collection for me. It helped that I stumbled upon a recently written blog post, Fandom: An Illustrative History (Part I: Origins and Tales From the Crypt). This blog post illuminated Moore’s work in particular, and my love of science fiction in general.

The blog post has a lot of sci-fi inside baseball that need not detain us here, but this part stuck out to me:

The Gothic is the beating bloody heart in any good traditional romance story and is what gives it the universal core so needed in fiction. White against black. Dark against Light. Hero against Villain. Eternal Life against Endless Death. Temptation against Virtue. It goes beyond the surface into weighty themes of the Ultimate, God, and True Justice. The knowledge of a battle between forces beyond both parties at play that haunt the scenery and the overall world behind the story. It underpins every action and decision, and the thought that salvation or damnation is a stone throw away is the most nail-biting experience of them all. Now those are stakes, and they were an integral part of all fiction until the second half of the 20th century where the worst thing that can happen to you is that a monster might kill you in the dark where you can't see it.

The term romance, as used here and in my own musings above, echos the sense in which J. R. R. Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was a romance, by which he, and I, means a story of heroism and adventure and wonder. This was a development of the earlier chanson de geste, such as the Song of Roland. Not a bodice-ripper, although you might actually be confused if you search of images of Jirel of Joiry. I picked the one image I found that matched the story best.

The moral universe of Jirel is explicitly a Christian one. Defeated, and in extremis, Jirel seeks the possibility of a weapon beyond mortal ken in the bowels of her castle. She has previously explored the forbidden passage with her chaplain, but now she disregards his entirely sensible advice to turn back and she descends into a strikingly imagined Hell to exact vengeance. Jirel reaches a point where she can progress no further without discarding the Crucifix she wears about her neck. She proceeds.

I have no idea what Moore’s beliefs, or personal life, were really like. But at the distance of 85 years, what struck me was she simply assumed her readers would understand the peril in which Jirel was placing herself. If you don’t think there are fates worse than death, this story won’t make any sense at all. The stakes are not death, but damnation.

Jirel finds that which she seeks in that mysterious tunnel under her castle. But what we seek, and what we really want, often aren’t truly the same things. Moore’s denouement is so characteristically feminine that I don’t know how to properly do it justice, other than to say that the image I selected for this short story is simply perfect, and all the others are irrelevant cheesecake.

I am also almost certain that Tim Powers lifted parts of this story into his works, particularly The Drawing of the Dark. There is a scene in “Black Kiss” with a spiral tunnel that Jirel transits, and Powers wrote of a spiral staircase under a brewery in Vienna that his protagonist descended to seek power, claustrophobically close. Once I saw the similarity here, I couldn’t unsee it in other places too.


A Tryst in Time ***

A time travel/reincarnation/love story. I was impressed with how well Moore blended the masculine adventure elements with star-crossed lovers. Not exactly my thing, but well-imagined.


Science laboratory, The University of Iowa, 1930s   Rights Information: There are no known copyright restrictions on this image. The digital file is owned by the University of Iowa Libraries, which is making it freely available with the request that the Libraries be credited as its source.    More information about this image:  digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ictcs/id/7358

Science laboratory, The University of Iowa, 1930s

Rights Information: There are no known copyright restrictions on this image. The digital file is owned by the University of Iowa Libraries, which is making it freely available with the request that the Libraries be credited as its source.

More information about this image: digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ictcs/id/7358

Greater than Gods ****

This short story feels to me like something written much later, for example Ballard’s work, with its elements of science run amok and managerial expertise turning into despotism. On the other hand, Heinlein’s first published story came out the same year as this, 1939, and Heinlein’s work is often similar to “Greater than Gods”.

Due to an accident in converging time streams, a scientist finds himself thrust upon the horns of a dilemma. In one future, his choice of a wife means that a pacifist, matriarchal, and quite stagnant society will occur. There is no more war, but no more technology or drive either, and that society’s grip on prosperity is slowly slipping away. In the other future, the other woman he is considering proposing to will bear him a son, who will beget a long line of sons who will dominate the Earth, and far, far beyond. This society is militaristic and regimented, but also capable of genuinely great things.

At this distance in time, I am fascinated by the dilemma Moore gives us. Today, no one could possibly propose this as a genuine dilemma in literature. I don’t think it could be done, because even I feel like maybe the peaceful but incompetent society is clearly better. However, the story makes no sense at all if you cannot truly feel that heroic deeds and exploring the universe and inventing new things are genuinely good things, which counterbalance the very very topical jingoism of this late 1930s tale.

Also, Moore superficially presents us with the thought that future history depends on whether each woman bears a daughter or a son first, but on another level, what really matters is the character of the mother, and what kind of child that union will create. I won’t spoil the choice the man makes in the end, which is what makes this story really transcendent.


Mary and Eve    by Sister Grace Remington OCSO

Mary and Eve

by Sister Grace Remington OCSO

Fruit of Knowledge *****

A dramatic retelling of the Fall of Man and the Temptation of Eve. Of Biblical stories, the sin of Adam and Eve retains popular currency even now, while other stories have begun to fade from our memories.

”Fruit of Knowledge” is perhaps a typical expression of the West in the twentieth century, insofar as the sin that truly separates Man from God is not simply disobedience, but sexual desire. On the other hand, if this story had been written today, Adam would have had sex with Lilith, not simply spoken to her and enjoyed her company for a brief time before the creation of Eve.

Like “Jirel of Joiry”, “Fruit of Knowledge” is set within a Christian moral universe. Moore sets the Fall shortly after the rebellion of Lucifer, an act which does not appear in the Hebrew tradition, but is instead from the Revelation to John. Also, there are hints that the Fall of Man was in some sense a happy accident, an event that was allowed to happen, because a greater destiny was in store. This is a speculation that goes back to Augustine of Hippo, so far as I know.

Finally, the children of Lilith, referenced by Moore here, were used by Tim Powers in his novels The Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves.


No Woman Born *****

Moore explicitly links this to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, through the dialogue of her characters. This is a tale of the creation of a monster by means of good intentions, and also truly terrifying to me.


Daemon ****

I think I can trace this short story to two Tim Powers novels. First, the setting, Atlantic sailing in the age of the buccaneers tinged with Vudun, is much like On Stranger Tides, the book that was optioned for Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Next, The Drawing of the Dark, Powers’ contribution to the Arthurian legend, which hinges upon the titanic change in the world wrought by the first Christmas.

No, three, because the influence of the Grait God Pan, who was the center of Powers’ Earthquake Weather.

This was a fantastic little story, from near the end of Moore’s career. Poignant and well-crafted, with acute psychological insight. Not as striking as “Shambleau”, but far better written.


Vintage Season ***

A sad tale of time-traveling voyeurism, but a well-executed one.


Ben’s final verdict *****

I almost gave up on this collection, but I am glad I didn’t. Moore wrote some great stories, of a kind I don’t think you can find anymore. I can’t find any interviews or essays where Powers talks about Moore, but after reading this, I have a hard time imagining he didn’t read her works and find inspiration in them. Highly recommended.

My other book reviews

Cobra book review

Cobra
by Timothy Zahn
236 pages
Published by Baen (2015)
ASIN B00XLTZTIK

When I read the cover blurb for this book, I expected something like the Blackcollar series: military sci-fi about super soldiers, cyborgs in this case instead of pharmaceutically enhanced ninjas. That impression is completely wrong. While there are some battle scenes in this book, that isn’t really the focus. This isn’t really military sci-fi at all, but rather speculative fiction about politics using super soldiers as a thought experiment.

This is the second book I’ve read recently that looks at the problem of how a society would change if people appeared within it who were faster, stronger, and generally more dangerous than the norm. The first, Heroes Fall, was in the superhero genre. The reaction of that society to superhumans in their midst is mostly adulation, with a few generally ignored naysayers. The corruption of society is subtle and slow, underneath the public fanfare.

For the Dominion of Man, the seventy-world setting of Cobra, their cyborg super soldiers were created [perhaps in a bit of a panic] to help win a war, without much thought for what would come afterward. Men with unusual strength, automated reflexes, and lasers built into their fingertips are not universally loved once demobilized, especially when accidents and misunderstandings that escalate into things far worse start to occur.

Don’t poke the cyborg, even if he  is  a drifter

Don’t poke the cyborg, even if he is a drifter

I was reminded of David Morell’s First Blood, a novel that really captured the struggles of Vietnam veterans to find a place back home, or the ending of The Hurt Locker, when Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. James stands bewildered by the endless varieties of breakfast cereal in a supermarket. Men who did everything their government and society asked of them come home to find that they no longer have a home to return to.

The bulk of the book is taken up with the search for an acceptable political solution to the problems the Cobras pose to their society. Officially, the Cobras are war heroes. In the public eye, they are mostly objects of fear and loathing. Unofficially, the Central Committee that runs the Dominion considers them a threat; bored and frustrated former soldiers that have more in common with each other than their fellow citizens can become agents of revolution.

While we are treated to brief interludes within the halls of power on the planet Asgard, we mostly see this play out through the eyes of Jonny Moreau, a bright young man who volunteered to go off to war, and found that he was changed forever by the experience. We follow Moreau from young adulthood, when he volunteers for service, into middle age, when he brokers a deal to preserve hard won freedoms and privileges for his fellow Cobras at immense personal cost. I gather there are a number of sequels that follow from this book, as Zahn explores the further implications of Jonny Moreau’s actions at the end of this book.

Since this is hard sci-fi, many of the problems the Cobras face, both in battle and life, stem from the physical consequences of their modifications. During the bootcamp section of the book, the Cobra trainees spend time learning how to pick up unusually heavy things without tearing their ligaments or giving themselves subdermal hematomas. Their bones have been strengthened, and their strength and speed supplemented by servo motors, but the rest of their bodies remain much as they always were.

First and foremost, they are men, and they want the same things as anyone else: a job, a family, a home. Unfortunately, most other people don’t want them around. In a memorable incident in his home town after Jonny comes marching home, a couple of young punks hassle him in a local entertainment center, and then swerve their car towards him when they seem him walking on the street later. Jonny’s programmed combat reflexes take over [literally, COBRA means computerized body reflex armament], he shoots out the tires of the kids’ car and they both die in the resulting crash.

The reason this all happens is that the computer implanted in the brain cannot be removed with causing brain damage, and the finger lasers cannot be removed without amputation, and that was a price the Central Committee was unwilling to pay [or unwilling to be seen to be willing to pay]. Although, I did wonder why they didn’t do something about the power source, which was implanted in the chest, and thus much easier to get to. Much of the other equipment Jonny carried into war was successfully removed, but none of it other than the strengthened bones would work without power. I do remember reading about how much heavier their bodies got, so maybe it was seen as too much of a burden to leave them with limbs too heavy to lift. Perhaps this could have been explored a bit more.

The Central Committee itself is interesting, insofar as it really is an Inner Party. The Central Committee almost functions as a character, one analogous to Lathe in the Blackcollar novels or Thrawn in Heir to the Empire, powerful and far-seeing, capable of predicting its opponents and laying traps. It is also quite good at governing, since the Dominion of Man seems quite peaceful and prosperous. Except, in this case, everything that happens is because the Central Committee made a mistake in even allowing the Cobras to be created. Over the many years depicted in the novel, we see the Central Committee continue to dominate, but also to make critical mistakes at times. I enjoyed how Zahn took a central idea in his style and inverted it, making the the clever and powerful Central Committee the antagonist.

I also liked the broad sweep of the novel, covering several decades in the life of Jonny Moreau. Since the kind of things Zahn wants to explore in this novel take a long time to work themselves out, nothing shorter than a generation would have been adequate. Looking through the blurbs for the many sequels, we will continue to follow the Moreau family as the implications of Jonny’s solution work themselves out over the generations to follow. Overall, this was an interesting novel, and I’m curious to see where Zahn decided to take the society he created in the conclusion of this book.

My other book reviews

Thrawn
Thrawn: Alliances

Other books by Timothy Zahn

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review

Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review
The Backlash Mission: Blackcollar series book 2 review

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

Cascade Point and other Stories book review

Cascade Point and other Stories
by Timothy Zahn
405 pages
Published by Bluejay Books (1986)
ISBN 0-312-94041-6

Since I am working my way through Timothy Zahn’s back catalogue, when I saw this short story collection containing “Cascade Point”, the novella for which Zahn won the Hugo, I knew I needed to check it out.

Like my previous review of J. G. Ballard’s short fiction, each short story has its own mini-review, along with a mini-score out of five stars. I’ll conclude with my overall impressions of the collection.

This book can be bought used, or you can find another, more recent ebook that contains several of the same stories.


The Berlin Wall  Pudelek (Marcin Szala) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

The Berlin Wall

Pudelek (Marcin Szala) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

The Giftie Gie Us ****

A post-apocalyptic tale from the end of the Cold War, with the title inspired by Robert Burns’ poem "To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church". This was a serious throwback for me, with the final conflagration being a nuclear war over oil. The other thing that surprised with with vivid memories was a reference to the strength and permanence of the Berlin Wall. When I was a kid, those tropes were commonplace, but now they are dated enough to shock me.

Each story in this collection has a short afterword written by Zahn, and here he mentions that this was his first run in with the First Law of Science Fiction: there are no truly “new” ideas. Zahn’s trick in this story is nearly the same as “Anasazi”, a short story by Dean Ing published at nearly the same time. It also ends up being the same as Tim Powers’ much later Three Days to Never.

Which I don’t think matters much, and neither does Zahn, since he says this was also his introduction to the Second Law of Science Fiction: it is what you do with an idea that matters. I think Zahn wrote a believable story here about finding love, and common humanity, in the midst of disability and ruin. I’ve said before that I enjoy Zahn’s moral realism. This is an early example of just that.


A moonscape by Chesley Bonestell

A moonscape by Chesley Bonestell

The Dreamsender **

This one was even more of a throwback than “The Giftie Gie Us”. With its setting, the Moon, and antagonists, mostly deadly serious military men, “The Dreamsender” felt like a 1950s juvenile. This was only Zahn’s second story he sold, so he can be forgiven for trying out different styles to see what fit.

One of the weakest stories in the collection, but still fun.


Evaporating black holes were theorized by Stephen Hawking in 1974

Evaporating black holes were theorized by Stephen Hawking in 1974

The Energy Crisis of 2215 ***

This is the closest thing to hard sci fi I have come across in Zahn’s work. His afterword says this story came out of a series of lectures at the University of Illinois in 1979. In the novels I am familiar with, Zahn typically wears his education in physics lightly. Here, it comes to the forefront, providing a wealth of technical details about a power plant that uses a captured black hole as a power source.

I also liked the way in which Zahn subverted the trope of the anti-science politician here. Jerry Pournelle used to complain frequently about Senator Bill Proxmire, who campaigned against the kind of pie-in-the-sky projects that Jerry liked. I think Jerry even used to write unflattering caricatures of Senator Proxmire in his books. Zahn takes a more Machiavellian approach here, which is a minor theme of many works in this collection.


CRISPR technique  J LEVIN W [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

CRISPR technique

J LEVIN W [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Return to the Fold ****

With the recent revelation that a researcher in China used the CRISPR technique to genetically engineer human children, this story could have been written yesterday. This is a fantastic exploration of what it would feel like to be a human engineered for a purpose by other men.

…what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. – C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

Tied up in this naked exercise of power are genuine moral dilemmas about the sacrifices necessary for as grand a project as interstellar trade. I appreciate his approach to character motivation here, which feels like “let’s see what person would do in this situation”. Characters panic, make mistakes, connive, save face, and repent. Not bad for 37 pages.


The Shadows of Evening ***

This one blurs the line between sci fi and fantasy. The setup is clearly sci fi, with a crashed colony ship, but the mysterious shadow that grows upon any bit of refined metal or mechanism more complicated than a lever feels like magic. The people of Vesper managed to survive this massive handicap, and even learned to fight back, developing a mental technique that could disperse the shadow temporarily. A guild of Shadow Warriors is formed to allow a modest level of technological development by mastering the difficult technique.

Things go on this way for generations, until a new, easier technique is developed. The Shadow Warrior guild is not impressed, used to challenges from frauds and charlatans. Except this time, the Disciples of Light are actually on to something.

Change is hard, especially when it destroys your livelihood. The real action here is psychological, in the reactions of Turek, the grizzled veteran of many years struggle against the shadows, when someone comes up and takes it all away from him.


Not Always to the Strong ***

A previously unpublished followup to “The Shadows of Evening”. The Disciples of Light have unleashed a technological revolution on Vesper, but technological revolutions easily turn into political ones when technology is used to make new and better weapons.

Zahn spends some time looking at the unintended consequences of sudden flood of technology, and also at the character of the now marginalized men who sacrificed to give their fellow men a better life than they otherwise would have had.

In the afterword, Zahn expresses some regret he never got a chance to expand on this storyline. I would have liked that too, as a reflection of technological development and human choices, this could have been an interesting twist on the usual kind of rising from the ashes story you get in post-apocalyptic fiction.


The Challenge *****

This is videogame fiction a loooong time before there was videogame fiction. Zahn says as much in the afterword. The story itself was fun, but even more fun is seeing what Zahn guessed right and what he didn’t.

Good guesses:

  • Online videogames supporting the more mundane activities of the Internet through advertising

  • Multiple screens with heads up displays

  • Competitive level building

Not so good:

  • The interface is all text! You have to type out your actions like Zork. This would be really interesting to see if it existed now. I expect you could get really fast with practice, but this is so different from either joystick or mouse and keyboard control.

  • The numbers of people involved are so small. The most popular game in the world only has a few thousand fans. I can’t see how the ad budget works out. Nick Cole’s Soda Pop Soldier and Pop Kult Warlord reflect how big games could get as entertainment.

I enjoyed this one a lot. A prescient guess about the future, with a little bit about the consequences of electronic entertainment thrown in.


The Cassandra ****

A sci fi tale of social ostracism, disability, and sacrifice. In the afterword, Zahn notes this is one of the few tragic stories he has written. I had also noticed Zahn’s preference for the upbeat, but I think this one comes off well.

One of the best parts of this story is the working class supporting character who ends up training the outcast Alban to work in a commercial kitchen when he can’t find any other work. That guy feels just like people I have met in real life, which is my usual standard for good characterization.


Dragon Pax *****

I think this is plausibly a precursor to the Heir to Empire books. Zahn takes a hard, Machiavellian look at war, politics, and survival. And it’s got dragons. It asks much the same question as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, what would you give up to ensure that ordinary people can enjoy the fruits of order and prosperity? This story makes what would be a Straussian reading of the events in question, if you weren’t in on the secret.

I almost said there aren’t any real benevolent dictators, but then I remembered Lee Kuan Yew, who at least demonstrates that the concept isn’t purely a fantasy of Plato. At the very least, it doesn’t work out well often. But often enough, you can find examples of some hard bastard who did some good. Which explains the popularity of the argument, “yeah, but he’s our bastard”.


Job Inaction ***

Sci fi writers sometimes come up with interesting ideas about technocratic solutions to social problems, and this is a competitor to universal basic income, with a 1980s flavor. Zahn tried hard to come up with something that would work, even though he wouldn’t like it.


Teamwork **

Another throwback story, this one reminded me quite a bit of Ballard’s collection, except it has a happy ending. A psychological story with a thin veneer of 1950s era B-movies. I didn’t really find much of interest here, but this clearly isn’t where Zahn invested his storytelling long-term.


The Final Report on the Lifeline Experiment *****

A moral thought experiment along the lines of his later Soulminder, itself a collection of short stories expanded to novel length. This explores the debate over whether fetuses are human, using the world’s only verified telepath as the investigator. I found Zahn’s story subtle and provocative, which is not where you really expect these things to end up.


Cascade Point *****

I can see why they put “Cascade Point” at the end. I probably would have been tempted to stop reading after I got here, because this was really good. Zahn deserved the Hugo for this. I also think his success here established [or reinforced?] his style, because “Cascade Point” feels like the Timothy Zahn I know and love. Most authors have a style, and this collection was fun to read precisely because I got to see Zahn trying on different styles early in his career. This one is clearly the best fit.

The story and characters are both familiar, and yet unexpected. Zahn’s characters are fully fleshed out, which is remarkable in so short a work. This could have been a novel, but being longer wouldn’t actually make it better [which is how I feel about Ender’s Game too, but Card went ahead and made it a novel anyways].

Zahn’s idea for faster-than-light travel here is more interesting than just about any that I have ever come across. Probably this is because we both have an education in physics, but I find his topological method of transforming a rotation into linear motion to be absolutely fascinating.

To then find a way to work in not only the convenient psychiatric patient subplot, but also the more interesting character development the ship’s crew undergoes as they claw their way back from the abyss is why Zahn has now been writing books for a living for almost forty years.


Ben’s final verdict *****

I am glad I picked this volume up. I got to see a different side of Timothy Zahn, as he explored different ways of telling stories. I also got to see the story that first made him famous, and justly so in my opinion. As a fan, I love this book, and I think any other fan of Zahn probably will too.

The blurb in the back of one of the most recent Zahn books I read said he is the author of nearly 100 short stories and novellas. I have my work cut out for me.


Pop Kult Warlord Book Review

Heavy is the head that wears the crown….

Heavy is the head that wears the crown….

Pop Kult Warlord: Soda Pop Soldier Book 2
by Nick Cole
Kindle edition, 318 pages
Published November 4th, 2018 by Castalia House
ASIN B07K6SRSLW

A man with decisions to make. Choices that weigh heavily on him. Heavy is the brow that wears the crown, someone once said.

I may be weird, but I found the opening chapter of Pop Kult Warlord riveting. I think I might actually watch the SuperBowl of videogames, if it existed as described. John Saxon, by now known only by his online alias PerfectQuestion, is competing in the world championship of online videogames in Havana. The game in question, WarWorld, is the ideal combination of FPS and MMO. You can LARP as a Colonial Marine in game, only communicating in scraps of dialogue from Aliens, or you can go pro like PQ did, and focus entirely on being better at putting digital bullets into digital heads than the other guy or girl in exchange for corporate sponsorship, fame, and fortune.

PerfectQuestion is a top-tier competitor, and he is in demand as a digital mercenary. In a world where e-sports pulls in billions in ad revenue, the world’s most popular and recognizable player can write his own ticket. Unfortunately for him, he is starting to feel like he is too old to be playing videogames all night, and longing for a simpler, more fulfilling life.

I’ve played a lot of videogames in my day, so I know what he means. I like videogames a lot, and I write about that frequently on my blog, but I would never trade videogames for my career and my family. The hours I’ve invested in gaming have tapered quite a bit over the years, in a natural progression of family involvement. John Saxon, alias PerfectQuestion, is on the outside looking in, and starting to wonder if the grass isn’t really greener in suburbia.

Unfortunately for him, fate has other plans. When his agent shows up with a truly sweet offer, PQ lacks any of the mundane grounding of a wife, kids, or a mortgage to effectively question whether a deal that is too-good-to-be-true really is. So he finds himself on a plane to Calistan, the Islamic Protectorate of Orange County. Once there, PQ quickly finds himself in over his head, and hilarity ensues.

Like some of my other favorite authors living [Tim Powers] and dead [Jerry Pournelle], Cole uses his favorite places in Southern California to add verisimilitude to Pop Kult Warlord. Even after the Meltdown, the rogue-AI apocalypse from the prequel CTRL ALT Revolt!, the denizens of Orange County remain much as they are now, a mishmash of different cultures jammed into some of the nicest real estate in America.

When he isn’t doing the bidding of Rashid, the Sultan’s son, PQ gets to see both the beauty and the squalor of Calistan. He can enjoy the gulls and the waves off of Rashid’s private island, drive fancy sports cars, tour slums and barrios, witness summary executions, you know, the usual. He even gets to fall for a doe-eyed Mexican beauty, who may or may not be involved with the Aztec Liberation Front [or is that Liberation Front of Azteca?]

tumblr_inline_o85q4mgqPu1r09uvv_250.gif

The Sultan has long suppressed Catholicism in his domain, but I was rather pleased to see that when PQ does finally meet up with an underground priest, he is in fact a faithful Catholic. Even in extremis, he counsels the Mexican terrorists to repent and follow the Gospel [which doesn’t rule out armed resurrection per se].

All of the intrigue and duplicity PerfectQuestion has found himself embroiled in comes to a head, and then to a fairly satisfying conclusion. I’m trying hard to avoid spoilers, since this book really is hot off the presses, but for the most part, those who live by the sword, die by the sword. In a grand sense, justice is done, but the price is often severe. Some bear that price more than others.

Finally, I should comment on the book’s structure. This is the third book I have read in as many weeks that employs a parallel structure to tell a more complicated story than a simple narrative would allow. I don’t know whether that is a mere coincidence, or just the hot stuff for authors right now, but in this case I felt like it worked out fairly well. I wasn’t surprised when I saw how it all fit together in the end, and I liked how it tied into the last volume in the series, while pointing ahead to possible future works.

PerfectQuestion isn’t getting a white picket fence anytime soon, but I look forward to his next adventure.

My other book reviews

Other books by Nick Cole

Soda Pop Soldier book review

Other books by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review
Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review
Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review
Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review
Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review
Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review
Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review
Imperator: Galaxy's Edge Book Review
Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7 Book Review
Message for the Dead: Galaxy's Edge #8 Book Review
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review

Thrawn: Alliances Book Review

Old School Star Wars by Timothy Zahn

Old School Star Wars by Timothy Zahn


Thrawn: Alliances
by Timothy Zahn
Del Rey (2018)
350 pages
ISBN 978-0-525-48048-8

This book was a breath of fresh air for me. Timothy Zahn has written something that feels like an old-school Star Wars adventure in the new Star Wars canon. The Star Wars novels written since Disney nuked the Extended Universe have ranged from the merely competent to downright awful, with a few excursions into active hostility towards the fanbase. So far, other than Zahn’s reboot of Thrawn, none have been fun.

This book was a lot of fun.

It might even be better than Thrawn, although that book was trying to do something very different than this one, which makes the comparison difficult. The last book in Thrawn’s story was a political thriller. This one is simple adventure, although Zahn made an interesting choice to tell two stories, widely separated in time, but unified in setting and protagonists.

The settings Zahn chose map onto The Clone Wars and Rebels respectively. We thus have one foot in the sunset of the Republic, and another in the dawn of the Empire. This book makes the most sense seen within the context of those cartoons, which are among my favorites of the Disney era.

We also lack the window into Thrawn’s mind the previous book provided, other than some brief observations on body language. Instead, we get to see into Vader’s head. I didn’t mind the shift in emphasis, because Zahn was able to deftly explain the way Vader sees himself. Years ago, I remember reading a fan theory that Obi-wan’s betrayal, the shock of accidentally killing his wife, and the process of being made into Vader caused a psychotic break in Anakin’s mind. Vader remembers being Anakin, but it was like it all happened to someone else. And precisely because of how horrible those experiences were, and his own complicity in how it all turned out, Vader doesn’t have much interest in introspection regarding his former life.

I don’t know who wrote that fan theory, or even where I read it, but they nailed it.

Zahn also gets to have a bit of fun with fan-service. Dave Filoni’s Rebels took a clever Thrawn gambit from the original trilogy of books, the Marg Sabl, and returned it to the canon by having Ahsoka Tano, Anakin’s padawan in The Clone Wars, invent it. In Alliances, Zahn brings it full circle by having Anakin teach it to Thrawn.

Another super popular character that arose from the margins of Star Wars

Another super popular character that arose from the margins of Star Wars

Zahn resurrects the Noghri commandos here, who were the nemesis that brought justice upon Thrawn’s hubris in the original story arc. It isn’t at all clear what might happen this time, since Thrawn’s new origin story shifted his personality subtly. Padmé also makes an appearance here, and I feel like Alliances does her justice. Since Zahn also created one of the most popular female Star Wars characters, Mara Jade [whom I suspect of being based on his wife], I’m not surprised that he can write Padmé convincingly.

Of course, Zahn needs to pay his dues as well. One of the worlds in the book is Batuu, and the city upon it Black Spire Outpost, which is the name of one of the attractions under construction at the Galaxy’s Edge theme park at Disneyland. Zahn works hard to find a way to tell an interesting story while still putting in the requisite product placement and nods to other products in Disney’s Star Wars portfolio.

It probably helps that this isn’t the first time he’s tried.

Zahn has written this book before, Outbound Flight. I read it in 2016, and so far, it has been the only Zahn book I’ve given a tepid review. I felt it was just too hard for Zahn to try to reconcile his early 1990s inventions for the course of the Star Wars universe post-Return of the Jedi with the later prequels. This was Zahn’s opportunity to reboot that story, where Anakin Skywalker met Thrawn out beyond known space, and he made the best of it.

I would say that this is hearkening back to the Star Wars that could have been, the road that was not taken, but Timothy Zahn and Ron Howard and Dave Filoni and Gareth Edwards make me think there is an active resistance to the identitarian overreach of The Last Jedi.

This isn’t just the Star Wars that was, in the old Extended Universe, it is the Star Wars that is.

My other book reviews

Thrawn

Other books by Timothy Zahn

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review

Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review
The Backlash Mission: Blackcollar series book 2 review

Starcraft: Evolution

Why I can never be Tyrus Rechs

I recently completed my book review of Requiem for Medusa by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole. It took me a little longer than I would have liked. I first read the book on vacation in June, and I tried to start writing the review shortly after I got back, but I found myself stuck.

This was an unwelcome surprise, and one even moreso when I discerned that the reason I was having trouble was that I was disappointed. I like Cole and Anspach’s work, but I also like to be honest, so I decided to sit on the review for a while, and then re-read the book after I’d had some time to digest it.

I’m glad that I did, because I found out that the book itself is awesome. I also found an interesting take on the character and personality of Tyrus Rechs, and this is a good place to explore some of the interesting bits I left out of that book review.

This will be a bit more personal than I usually make my book reviews, but that I why I separated this into another blog post. Only regular readers need to suffer from my introspection, not random Amazon review readers. I am also going to give away all of the secrets of the series, less volume 9, Retribution, since I only just started it today. Consider yourself warned about spoilers.


I really liked Imperator, the Galaxy’s Edge standalone novel about Goth Sullus. The review I wrote for it is my favorite of the Galaxy’s Edge series so far. Sullus turned out to be Tyrus Rechs’ oldest friend, another practically immortal survivor of the twisted experiments of the lighthugger Obsidia. The impression I got from Imperator was that Casper Sullivan always lived in Tyrus’ shadow. While a capable warrior in his own right, no one looks badass standing next to the Tyrus Rechs.

I also got the impression that Tyrus and Casper both loved Reina, the woman who saved them from captivity on the Obsidia. And that maybe Casper felt he got out-competed by Tyrus here too. Thus, I wasn’t really all that surprised when Casper killed his oldest friend, because this is the way friendship turns into jealousy. And here, the reason is that I think Casper always wanted to be Tyrus, and he could never be him. They were just fundamentally different people.

Tyrus and Casper each instantiate an archetype of manliness. I’m going off the schema from the book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, which I’ve found pretty informative, especially in explaining stories.

King Arthur – Charles Ernest Butler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

King Arthur – Charles Ernest Butler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tyrus is the warrior, you can think of him as something like King Arthur. He’s epic, and strong, and dashing, and probably gets all the girls too.

Tyrus is a fundamentally simple man. You do the just thing because it is the just thing, and that is that. While there is something refreshing about this, Tyrus is also something of a blunt instrument. He is like the man with a hammer, except he has an autocannon. Every problem looks like something to shoot. Preferably lots of times. Tyrus is introspective enough to understand this about himself, but he is fundamentally accepting of himself as well. He can rest in his own skin.

Casper is more like Merlin, a more introspective and devious character, but also key to Arthur’s success. He can see further, and knows when discretion is the better part of valor. Arthur probably never appreciates Merlin, or stops to thank him for what he does.

As Goth Sullus, the politician and tactician Casper Sullivan becomes more truly what he is. He gains unspeakable powers from beyond the Galaxy’s Edge, the ability to peer into men’s minds, shape reality, bend all to his will. But….something is missing for him. The power isn’t enough, or in the service of the rightful King.

The Moirai – By William Blake - The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,

The Moirai – By William Blake - The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,

There are two more archetypes in this schema, which interestingly, Reina seems to fit both. The Lover, and the King. She is the love interest, and her name even invokes the sound of reign, which seems right as Reina represents what both Tyrus and Casper fight to preserve, even when they find her conducting vile experiments in another lighthugger, the Moirai, the Fates of Greek legend. I don’t yet know what happened to Reina, other than some hints in Imperator, so I’m interested to see what comes out of Retribution. [My guess, she is the Mother in the heart of the Cybar mothership.]

One of the things that surprised me most about Requiem for Medusa was that it portrayed Tyrus and Casper’s fundamental similarity and difference in the same way, at the same time. Imperator showed a Casper, as Goth Sullus, willing to blow up the whole galaxy to see justice be done. In Requiem, we see a Tyrus willing to do exactly the same thing.

Except, the way they both do that is characteristically different. Casper wants to see cosmic justice. Every mourner’s tear wiped away. Tyrus just wants to kill every bastard involved in setting up his woman, and everyone who happens to get in the way of that. Casper ruined the galaxy in his fool’s quest. Tyrus just ruined himself.

When I realized that, I realized why they were friends. In a way, they both wanted the same things, and just pursued those things in their own characteristic ways. Yet, at the end of the day, I realized that I just couldn’t identify with Tyrus Rechs, even though I had wanted to ever since I first met him in Galactic Outlaws.

Tyrus Rechs is a hell of a warrior. Steadfast, loyal, unmovable. Simple even. I respect him, but I found that I was disappointed that I can’t be like him for one simple reason:

I am Goth Sullus.

The Backlash Mission Book Review

The Backlash Mission: The Blackcollar series book 2
by Timothy Zahn
Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (October 16, 2012)
352 pages
ASIN B0094ANS2E

The second book in the Blackcollar series picks up several years after the conclusion to the previous volume. The Blackcollars of Plinry have wrestled concessions from the conquerors of Earth that allow them to continue to train guerrilla fighters and operate a small space fleet.

With the possibility of re-establishing contact between the human worlds, now there is an actual glimmer of hope that the disparate resistance movements might organize into something greater, rather than simply trying to survive as long as possible.

Our young POV character, Allen Caine, has graduated from his guerrilla training on Plinry, but he lacks the supernatural reflexes and strength of the true Blackcollars, because no one on Plinry has access to Backlash, the drug that transforms their bodies into living weapons. He convinces his superiors to let him lead a mission to Earth in the hopes of finding the drug or its formula.

Of course, once on Earth, we get to see the Blackcollars in action again. The tactical doctrine of the Blackcollars, or at the least the group from Plinry seems to be equal parts Sun Tzu and GRU. Blackcollars never face an enemy where he is strong, and focus on controlling the flow of battle by understanding the motives and patterns of behavior of their opponents.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In addition to psychological insight, the Blackcollars use a combination of compartmentalization, misinformation, provocation, and wheels-within-wheels style planning to pull victories from seemingly impossible odds.

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

― Sun tzu, The Art of War

Of all of this, is is really only the last item that I find somewhat implausible. Other fictional commanders, such as Colonel Falkenberg, make use of deception as well, but Falkenberg would scoff at the complicated plans Lathe relies upon. It seems like there are too many ways for things to go wrong, but Lathe’s plans always seem to work out perfectly. I would have liked to see some improvisation on the fly, but I admit it is kind of fun to see how it all comes together in the end.

That aside, I rather enjoyed this sequel. We got further development of the world and its history, and I feel like Zahn tightened up his intrigue a bit, although sometimes I was a bit baffled by the arguments between the two human collaborators assigned to hunt down the Blackcollars. They were of course quite successfully bamboozled by Lathe’s wilderness of mirrors, but even in those terms sometimes the discussion didn’t seem to make sense.

I consider that a pretty minor flaw in an otherwise very enjoyable work.

My other book reviews

The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review

Other books by Timothy Zahn

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review

Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Thrawn

Starcraft: Evolution

Solo: A Star Wars Story Movie Review

An attempt to rehabilitate a reluctant hero

An attempt to rehabilitate a reluctant hero

Solo: A Star Wars Story 
Director Ron Howard 
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, and Donald Glover
Writers Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan

I finally watched Han Solo’s origin story. I really liked it. I saw it as an attempt to rehabilitate the reluctant hero Han of the original Star Wars.

I don’t say that lightly. The poor box office for Solo was widely interpreted as a failure of a Star Wars movie starring a white man, but there is a counter-narrative that the failure of Solo was really a delayed reaction to the identitarian overreach of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

In a cruel twist of fate, it turned out that Hilary’s avatar lost too.

In a cruel twist of fate, it turned out that Hilary’s avatar lost too.

With my Straussian hat on, I’m starting to lean towards the latter interpretation. Aside from Chuck Wendig’s lackluster novels, the recent entries in the new Disney Star Wars canon have been subtly reactionary while checking all of the proper boxes. Rogue One was a carefully crafted homage to the original Star Wars that was in fact more Star Wars than Star Wars. It filled in the plot holes of the original movie, while also honoring it. On the other hand, it was the love story of a father for his daughter, full of regrets for the life of hardship he had bequeathed to her. On the gripping hand, it was also about the unsentimental hard-asses the Rebellion was full of in order to win.

Star Wars Rebels turned into the way Disney rehabilitated the most popular character in the Extended Universe. A character who is as unforgiving as any Roman general.

Thrawn is where justice meets mercy and crushes it unsentimentally

Thrawn is where justice meets mercy and crushes it unsentimentally

Solo is the least woke Star Wars movie of this decade. Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra is a tragic hero, compromised by her own cooperation in evil. L3-37, the droid revolutionary, is played for laughs, Lando is a cheater. Only Han [and Chewie, neglected hero of the Rebellion] comes out well.

In part, that is because he is still young and naive. I can see a plausible character arc, in which Han, as he gets more experienced and more jaded, finally finds out that cowardice and betrayal really does pay off, à la Woody Harrelson’s Beckett. Which isn’t quite what happened in Episode Seven, which involved a remarkable feat of self-sacrificial love, but is close enough in spirit to generate hard feelings in fans.

To be fair, Harrison Ford wanted out, so they wrote him an out. I can just imagine a different way to play it all out, since I was deep into the Extended Universe from the beginning. This is not the EU, but I think Ron Howard and the Kasdans, father and son, did pretty well, given what they had to work with.

I’m sorry Solo didn’t do that well at the box office, I think it deserves a second look [or a first] from Star Wars fans who feel betrayed. Also, props to whomever retconned in the West End Games attempt to make sense of the twelve parsecs line. I always kind of liked that explanation.

My other movie reviews

The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard Book Review

The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard
by J. G. Ballard; Introduction by Anthony Burgess
312 pages
Published by Holt, Reinhart and Winston (1978)
ISBN 0-03-045661-4

I am a great lover of scifi short story collections, and this volume of J. G. Ballard’s work, lent to me by a co-worker, is no exception. There are some top-notch stories in here, spanning just over twenty years of Ballard’s career. In the past when I have reviewed collections of short stories, I have usually featured a few really notable ones, and discussed the general theme of the work.

This time, I want to try the technique of giving each short story its own mini-review, along with a mini-score out of five stars. I’ve seen it done to good effect in other reviews, and it seems like fun. I also plan to discuss the general themes of the collection.


The Concentration City ***

One of the reasons I like reading old scifi is that because it ages so rapidly, you can get a better feel for the obsessions of the past. “The Concentration City” has a too obvious textual link with the then still new Nazi concentration camps, but a more subtle one with overpopulation. There is just one problem….

The eponymous city is huge. A county of the enclosed, multi-level city represents a thousand floors, one hundred thousand cubic miles, and a population of thirty million people. Each county is grouped with 249 others to form sectors, and 1500 sectors form a Local Union.

Concentration_City.jpg

Let’s look at that math. Each county is a thousand levels, so each floor must be 100 square miles. That is about the same as a medium size American city, like Sacramento. If you assume roughly even distribution of those 30 million people, you get 30,000 people per floor….

Sacramento currently has almost 500,000 people in it, and I don’t know anyone who finds it oppressively dense. An order of magnitude less people would make it positively rural by almost anyone’s standards. I think Ballard was going for something like the feel of Alex Proyas’ 1998 movie Dark City, a movie also about an inescapable prison city, but just had no quantitative sense at all.

The city as a whole makes better sense as a crushing mass of humanity. 30 million people per county times 250 counties per sector times 1500 sectors per local union gives you 11 trilliion 250 billion people. And we see several local unions in the text! That is a number that can boggle the mind! It clearly seems to have boggled Ballard.

The story is strong on atmosphere, but weak in details. The huge numbers probably worked to inspire the right feeling in Ballard’s readers, so I suppose I can’t fault him for that stylistic sense, I just like it when an author tries hard to get the little things right even when most people won’t notice. It is like a carpenter who makes the lines straight on the backside where no one can see, the mark of a true craftsman.

A visualization of a level, if you packed all 30 million into it

A visualization of a level, if you packed all 30 million into it

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Manhole 69 **

The flavor text in this tale of a psychological/surgical experiment gone wrong is heavily Freudian. Sixty years later, it looks kind of stupid, given how far Freud’s reputation has fallen, but I have to imagine the flavor text of a contemporary book would look just as ridiculous in 2078.
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Chronopolis *****

I love this one. At his best, Ballard had an impressive imagination that encompassed the good and the bad of both the thesis and the antithesis at once. Chronopolis is the ruin of a once great city that was overthrown in a revolution against the tyranny of precisely-scripted efficiency.

There is a bit more sloppiness about population density here, but what really struck me is that just before the protagonist is arrested for the forbidden practice of time-keeping, he restores the chimes of the bell tower of Chronopolis, and the muddled masses who mill about aimlessly start using the chimes to order their days again.

The city truly was tyrannical and inhumane in its time-keeping. It was also much more productive, supporting ten times as many people in far greater luxury. Being punctual is the epitome of quotidian, but it is easy to underestimate how valuable it truly is.

————————————————————

The Voices of Time ***

This was the first story in this collection that brought me up short. Ballard’s wikipedia entry describes his work as provocative and transgressive, and this is all of that in spades. “The Voices of Time” combines the mid-century English novel’s characteristic despair with post-apocalyptic dystopia.

We see a return of the themes from “Manhole 69”, but done far better; dubious scientific experiments attempting to literally excise the need for sleep from the human brain, badly suppressed erotic desires, and a pervasive sense of decline.

I’ve written a few posts recently about superversive science fiction. Superversive scifi attempts to create a sense of wonder and hope in the reader. The neologism is coined in opposition to subversive scifi, which seems to be aptly represented by Ballard. This story is hella edgy, and even though-provoking, but this isn’t the kind of scifi that inspires nerds to create stuff. This is the kind that inspires them to cut to feel.

————————————————————

Deep End ***

“Deep End” is a fantastic example of the kind of scifi that inspired the environmental movement. It also features an almost heroic protagonist, grimly determined to pay homage to a dying world, but also a bit cracked in the head.

The feel of this story is nearly Stoic in its unblinking acceptance of Fate, but not really interested in the cultivation of virtue that Stoicism entails.

————————————————————

The Overloaded Man ****

This story nails the feelings of alienation and ennui that accompanied the huge material successes of the mid-twentieth century. It also perceptively describes the dangers of mystical experience. Unlocking your psyche isn’t necessarily a good idea.

————————————————————

Billennium ***

Another overpopulation tale, but this one is subversive of the genre insofar as the protagonist ends up a capitalist in the end. Concern for overpopulation was a big thing in the middle of the twentieth century, but it largely got shoved down the memory hole at the beginning of the twenty-first, even though there are roughly twice as many people now as there were then. The rate of growth has slowed, but that likely isn’t the only reason. In part, I also think that those of us alive today simply don’t remember the world that existed before. Jerry Pournelle once pined for the America that had a population of 125 million people, which he thought was too many at the time. I can’t imagine my country with 200 million people not there.

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The Garden of Time *****

Another Stoical tale of the calm acceptance of a horrible fate, with the suggestion of some preventable tragedy in the unwritten past. The garden, an oasis of beauty, will inevitably be overrun by the masses of the unwashed. Count Axel and his beautiful wife are the only inhabitants of the villa within the garden.

Each day, they watch the surging horde approach the villa. Each day, the count spends of the substance of the garden to delay the inevitable, until at last, nothing remains.

I have a hard time imagining that I am on board with the idea Ballard was getting at here, but this is an achingly beautiful story.
————————————————————

Thirteen for Centaurus ****

Fallout-4-Lore-History-Vaults-Vault-Tec-101.jpg

This is the Fallout short story, reminiscent of the sick experiments the Vault Corporation conducted on its customers. In real life, the best examples came later than the fictional 1950s of the Fallout series. The Stanford Prison Experiment, fraudulent from the start, was in 1971. “Thirteen for Centaurus” was written in 1962, earning Ballard some points for prescience, but losing some for missing the likely perpetrators. The military-industrial-complex didn’t run most of the shitty science of the mid-twentieth century. They just featherbedded the Cold War.

————————————————————

The Subliminal Man ***

A haunting extrapolation of the finding in economics that the most efficient economies in the world replace their equipment most frequently. I was pretty surprised when I found this out some number of years ago, but now that I work in manufacturing I can see how it works.

Unfortunately, it is also pretty obvious that doing faster and faster it just because it is supposedly more “efficient” would be counter-productive. An interesting conceit for a story, but too clever by half.

————————————————————

The Cage of Sand ****

Unlike most of these short stories, “The Cage of Sand” was markedly improved by its ending. The premise was kind of stupid to me as physicist: eastern Florida had been turned into a facsimile of the Martian desert because we kept dumping Martian sand there to balance out the stuff we shipped to Mars in order to preserve the Earth’s orbital distance from the Sun. This was compounded by a plot device of dead astronauts in orbit, entombed in their space capsules, because they missed their one and only chance to rendezvous with an orbital platform.

Since my parents got me SimEarth on the Mac LC, I knew that there was no plausible way the fractional change in orbit from moving a few million tons of stuff to Mars would matter, due to the remarkable homeostasis of the Earth. But I already knew that Ballard wasn’t a details guy for the science stuff.

————————————————————

End Game ***

This one was completely unexpected. I didn’t need to be told that the Soviet Union was a tyranny the likes of which the world had never seen, but perhaps Ballard’s audience did in 1963. Clearly, Ballard had no sympathy for the Soviets in this tale of guilt, innocence, and power.

————————————————————

The Drowned Giant ****

At first, I was inclined to dismiss this uncanny tale of a overly large body washed up on shore, on account of Chesterton’s notion that mere physical size ought not to impress us. But then upon reflection, I realized Ballard was trying to criticize failing to see another’s humanity because of physical differences.

One point of contention I would take with Ballard is that he says the common people were more easily convinced that the bones left behind in the bay were merely a giant whale, than his professorial interlocutor. I don’t believe that for a second. Folk memory works just fine, you need to be highly educated to disbelieve your lying eyes.

————————————————————

The Terminal Beach **

As a child of the 1980s, I have struggled to understand the obsessions of my immediate predecessors with the Cold War. The Cold War still existed when I was a child, but it had obviously [to me] lost its sting. The apocalypticism of earlier generations regarding nuclear war often seemed disproportionate to me, and this story is all of that in spades.

Since it is also couched in now tainted Freudian terms, I find “The Terminal Beach” completely ridiculous. It doesn’t help that I have seen the same idea done far better by another author. You can get an interesting story out of the identification of sex and death, but Freud and Ballard alike didn’t manage to contribute anything interesting to the conversation.

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The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D ***

I’m curious to know if Ballard had some reason for hating the Chanel family, given his antagonist here. This is about the point in the collection where I started to wonder if I would finish. Many of these short stories are challenging, rather than enjoyable, but the ability of Ballard to tell an interesting story while riding his hobby-horses seems to have tapered off with time.

————————————————————

The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race *

This is the point where I started to question Ballard’s sanity. I think it was not actual mental illness, but rather a calculated pose. Whether that makes this better or worse, I am not sure.

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The Atrocity Exhibition *

In a way, this may be the ultimate Ballard story in this collection. Apparently he called the technique a “condensed novel”. My opinion of the short, choppy paragraphs with no transitions is that is just an unenjoyable as James Joyce, but at least shorter.

We get Freud, eros, thanatos, an attempt to make a literary device of weird mathematics, and painfully avant-garde style.

————————————————————

Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy *

Just about the only thing Freud ever talked about that seems to have stood the test of time is projection. As such, one wonders about Ballard’s obsession with Jackie O. But he’s dead now, so it is probably all sorted out.

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Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan *

Ronald Reagan inspired an impressive amount of vitriol from the writers of his day.

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Ben’s final verdict ***

There are some truly great stories in here. There are also some truly bizarre ones, that seem to lack the kind of enduring value that might excuse their sins against propriety. I am not sorry that I read this volume, but I doubt I would ever return to it. As Ballard aged, he seemed to get lost in his edginess and simply sought shock-value above all else. Some of these works are genuinely challenging, but few of them are fun. I’m not really surprised that Ballard doesn’t appear on the NPR list of 100 best science fiction books, voted on by fans. There is nothing here to be a fan of.

My other book reviews

Hack: A LitRPG Novel Book Review

This cover is ridiculous. But, I suppose lots of scifi/fantasy book covers are.

This cover is ridiculous. But, I suppose lots of scifi/fantasy book covers are.

Hack: A LitRPG Novel
by Paul Bellow
348 pages
Published by LitRPG Reads (April 29, 2018)
ASIN B07CRWBPZJ

I had seen this book pop up through Amazon's recommendations several times. I hadn't been willing to take a chance on it. The cover is ridiculous. Yes, I know that pretty much every scifi/fantasy book published in the last 100 years has a ridiculous cover, but I went ahead and judged the book by its cover anyway.

I did give it a chance when Nick Cole, author of Soda Pop Soldier and co-author of the Galaxy's Edge series recommended it to me. And it was free. The first hit always is.

I messaged Nick immediately after I started reading the book, because I was already hooked. This book was just plain fun. I went in with pretty low expectations. I had heard of LitRPG before, and arguably, some books I've really liked fall into this category, it was a pretty hard sell for me. A book about kids playing a videogame? Hard pass.

Which is a funny thing to say, since I'm probably close to the target audience for this kind of thing. Both a reader of scifi and a videogamer. Fan of self-published indie works. If I'm not it, I don't know who is. But I'm also kind of picky. I've had about a 50% rate of liking new series and authors I've tried out in 2018. Paul Bellow's Hack made the cut. 

Now, to the book! Eric, our teenage protagonist, desperately wants to play the virtual reality MMORPG his dad works on. He is desperate for two reasons. First, he is paraplegic; access to the fully immersive game will give him freedom of a kind he craves. Second, his best friend Sarah agreed to help him hack into the game, and he hasn't seen her as much recently as he would like to. The problem is, Sarah invited her boyfriend Josh along.

This is a simple setup, and it gives us quite a bit of energy to help keep the plot moving along, and ample opportunities for drama, misunderstandings, jealousy, and what have you. And, of course, the game is much more than it first appears. Secrets and conspiracies abound. Oh, and you can't log out. Eric's dad wasn't just being a jerk about not letting his son play the game.

As for the videogame RPG elements that make this genre what it is, such as character selection, leveling, experience points and whatnot, I find it to be a harmless conceit. The characters are kids. They grew up playing videogames, and now they are in a super immersive videogame, so they act accordingly. I suppose it won't be to everyone's taste, but we now live in a world in which you can find a book written to match just about any taste.

If you have tastes like mine, and you are looking for an entertaining read, then Hack is worth a look. But I'm still laughing about the cover.

My other book reviews

Linkfest 2018-08-13

While I am opposed to this kind of Luddism, it does demonstrate a kind of consistency. GMO does not actually describe all kinds of genetic engineering that we apply to food. Here is the article about the damage to the research plot.


Cash transfers and labor supply: Evidence from a large-scale program in Iran

The tweet that pointed me to this article about a UBI-style program in Iran noted that probably no one is interested in this example because no one wants Iran to be the good example. There are also complicated inflation-related effects going on.


Nonfiction: White Working Class by Joan Williams

A nice book review on a subject of perennial interest here: class in America. The author of the book used a idiosyncratic definition of working class, family incomes from $41,005 to $131,962 [class isn't about money!], which produces some oddities of analysis, but the book review is nevertheless interesting.


BLUE-COLLAR BLUES

Another take on the same book about the working class from Claremont Review of Books.


The Myth of Thrusting versus Cutting Swords

Any idea of fighting you get through popular entertainment probably has more to do with stage direction than making people dead. I appreciate the work of the Association of Renaissance Martial Artists does to understand the history of martial arts in the West.


A Striking Similarity: The Revolutionary Findings of Twin Studies

Twin studies have labored under the shadow of Cyril Burt's flawed experiment for a century. Recent work is much better.


Open Borders and the Hive Mind Hypothesis

I find open borders to be a nutty idea, but I appreciated this look at the economic models behind many prominent economists' support of this radical notion. There is something to be said for trying to make the poorest people at least a little richer, but I worry that the models don't take into account likely consequences of an economic contraction in first world economies accompanied by massive migration. For example: do-it-yourself interethnic strife. People would be mad. Sure, you can argue people should be happy to provide more for others, but that isn't what is going to happen if 58% of world population migrates. Hell, even if global GDP goes up, there will be enough losers to be really mad about it.


This graph, and accompanying thread contains a massive amount of detail about agricultural productivity.


The Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge

J. R. R. Tolkien casts a long shadow on modern fantasy. However, if you wish, you can find lots of books written before his influence was so prevalent.


The Fake Split of Scifi and Fantasy

I too am sympathetic to the idea that speculative fiction is really of a piece, no matter the trappings.


Linkfest 2018-07-30

Lord of the Rings by Frank Frazetta

Lord of the Rings by Frank Frazetta

The images from today's linkfest are Frank Frazetta illustrations of the Lord of the Rings. Frazetta was a prolific illustrator of comics, book covers, album covers, and paintings. His style is instantly recognizable to any fan of science fiction and fantasy, and perhaps is the epitome of SFF cover art. There are a lot of links this week about science fiction and fantasy works, so this just seemed right when it came through my Twitter feed. His children and grandchildren still benefit from his work, so please patronize their online shops.


THE MUD, THE BLOOD AND THE YEARS: WHY “GRIMDARK” IS THE NEW “SWORD AND SORCERY”

Warhammer 40k is the thing I had most often heard described as grimdark, but it turns out there is a wide variety of books that could be described by that label. I might have to check it out.


WHY WAS THE 20TH CENTURY NOT A CHINESE CENTURY?: AN OUTTAKE FROM "SLOUCHING TOWARDS UTOPIA?: AN ECONOMIC HISTORY OF THE LONG 20TH CENTURY"

The first of two related Brad DeLong links this week. An nice capsule history of China's relative position in the world during the twentieth century.


Curing cancer statistically via mammography

Many modern diagnostic techniques, while quite accurate in absolute terms, can have false positive results in numbers higher than true positives because the actual occurrence rate of what is being sought is low.


A slightly gloating post, but arguably deservedly so, that self-published authors are overtaking traditional publishing at a rapid pace in science fiction and fantasy, with lots of graphs. Even more damning is the fact that much of the traditional science fiction and fantasy book sales of the traditional model are The Handmaid's Tale, currently trendy as an anti-Trump book.


Congress is giving the officer promotion system a massive overhaul

I once considered a career in the military. This is a big change in how promotions, especially the end of up or out.


DjT4HdHU8AA-czM.jpg

Robots and Jobs: A Check on Fear

A reasonable take, based on historical data about automation.


ARISTOTLE RETURNS

I might argue he never left, but there is a genuine neo-Aristotelian moment in analytic philosophy.



Underestimating the power of gratitude – recipients of thank-you letters are more touched than we expect

I just received a handwritten thank you note from my mother, so this came at the right time.


Why did the Industrial Revolution occur in England?

Why did the Industrial Revolution occur in England?

Pseudoerasmus tweets a chart looking at how few people were employed in the English agricultural sector in the eighteenth century.


THE MEIJI RESTORATION: A PROBABLE IN-TAKE FOR "SLOUCHING TOWARDS UTOPIA?: AN ECONOMIC HISTORY OF THE LONG 20TH CENTURY"

A counter-point to DeLong's piece on China above, but with a disputed claim about agricultural productivity in Japan.


Compulsory Licensing Of Backroom IT?

I would genuinely like to know if the claim that different executions of custom IT software are  a large differentiating factor in the market right now is true.


Dollars for Docs

Public records on payments to physicians from pharmaceutical companies and medical device companies in the US.


“WHY ARE DEVELOPERS ONLY BUILDING LUXURY HOUSING?”

Some data on why it makes economic sense [for developers] to build expensive housing right now.


DjT4HdGUYAAh0vs.jpg

The Marriage of Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton

A beautiful reflection on the little touches that make Tolkien so great, and why the Fellowship was comprised of bachelors.


When Ramjets Ruled Science Fiction

Some of the most fun ideas in science fiction get disproven later. Ah well.


I need this for professional purposes.


The humanities are suffering from not being vocational.

 

DjT4HdGU8AAp7JQ.jpg

Another Thrawn: Alliances Excerpt

Thrawn: Alliances alternate cover  I hope they blend the eyes on that actor a little better for the final version

Thrawn: Alliances alternate cover

I hope they blend the eyes on that actor a little better for the final version

Another excerpt from Timothy Zahn's new novel Thrawn: Alliances has been released.

Taking a final look at the nav display, Anakin pointed the Actis toward the horizon and poured power to the drive—
Abruptly, R2-D2 trilled a warning. “What is it?” Anakin said, frowning as he checked his rear display.
And felt the back of his neck tingle. There was a ship back there, the size of a medium freighter but of unknown configuration.
Settling into orbit right beside his hyperdrive ring.
“Unknown ship, this is General Anakin Skywalker of the Galactic Republic,” he called. “Identify yourself and state your purpose.”
Nothing. Maybe they didn’t communicate on any of the Repub­lic’s standard frequencies.
Or, more likely this far out, didn’t speak Galactic Basic.

I enjoyed Zahn's reboot of the Grand Admiral last year, so I have fond hopes for this one as well.

Linkfest 2018-06-11

I meant to get this one out last Friday. Ah well.


How we can learn from the history of protectionism

It is easy to find lots of economists who are down on protectionism, but the evidence turns out to be rather mixed on exactly what its effects are. There are countries that have done poorly with this policy, and countries that have done very well indeed.

It’s Time to Think for Yourself on Free Trade

Dani Rodrik is an interesting and thoughtful economist. This example from his article is illuminating:

In some sense we all know this. Consider another thought experiment: Suppose Harry and John own two companies that compete with each other. How do you feel about each of the following four cases?
  1. Harry works really hard, saves and invests a lot, comes up with new techniques, and outcompetes John, resulting in John and his employees losing their jobs.
  2. Harry gets a competitive edge over John by finding a cheaper supplier in Germany.
  3. Harry drives John out of business by outsourcing to a supplier in Bangladesh, which employs workers in 12-hour shifts and under extremely hazardous conditions.
  4. Harry “imports” Bangladeshi workers under temporary contracts and puts them to work under conditions that violate domestic labor, environmental, and safety laws.
From a purely economic standpoint, these scenarios are what economists call “isomorphic” — they are formally indistinguishable because each creates losers as well as winners in the process of expanding the economic pie in the national economy. (That is, Harry’s gains are larger than John’s losses.)

For economists to call these four situations in some sense identical is probably important for analysis, but it probably also warps the mind to do that too regularly.

JASP

JASP is an open-source project supported by the University of Amsterdam.

JASP is an open-source project supported by the University of Amsterdam.

I haven't used JASP myself, but I saw people talking about it on Twitter. I will give it a try, and perhaps report back. I am entirely in favor of easy to use stats tools.

Burying Your Father and “Return of the Jedi” (1983)

This was a fascinating reflection on fatherhood, spurred by the climax of Return of the Jedi.

Is Global Equality the Enemy of National Equality?

I like Dani Rodrik's work, but sometimes I also think he's nuts. This is a good example of why. I think really bad things would happen if we tried to implement this suggestion of globally free labor movement.

Tolkien 101: The Animated Tolkien Movies

A roundup of the animated Tolkien adaptions over the years. The author has a whole series on this subject. Ooh, and one on Conan!

Even Dead, The Expanded Universe Is Better Than Disney Star Wars. And That's A Good Thing

I have said my piece on Disney's decision to reboot the Star Wars universe, but in the time since, I have found the new novels pretty lackluster. There was some crap in the old EU, but the crap to good stuff ratio seems poor in the new canon. Thankfully, the animated series are making up for the deficit.

The Lifespan of a Lie

A retrospective of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, that is a case study of the failures of social science that led to the replication crisis. The first person, and the last person, Philip Zimbardo lied to was himself.

Normalizing Trade Relations With China Was a Mistake

A perennial theme here at the blog: are we sure we really knew what we were doing?

Message for the Dead Book Review

Message for the Dead

Message for the Dead

Message for the Dead: Galaxy's Edge #8
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Kindle Edition, 496 pages
Published April 25th 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07C33BB7D

In a tweet storm last month, I threatened to write an essay about the millennialism of the lighthuggers portrayed in Imperator when I had a chance. As it turns out, the end of the world came and found me before I was ready. Let my unreadiness serve as a warning to the others. Tempus fugit. Memento mori.

Tempus fugit. Memento mori.

Tempus fugit. Memento mori.

In many ways, this is a book of endings. An end to scheming. An end to corruption. An end to freedom. An end to life. The progression from the first to the last is the essence of the Faustian bargain. We trust more in our own power than in the power of God. We insist that our will be done.

Isildur's moment of doom

Isildur's moment of doom

Griffith about to make Isildur's mistake

Griffith about to make Isildur's mistake

For Goth Sullus, the vice that makes his fall possible is justice. Yes, justice. I am not fool enough to call good evil just to make a point. However, it is precisely by means of a thirst for justice, for vengeance!, that evil enters the soul of the man known as Goth Sullus. [I admit that I suspect envy played a part as well, but we shall see] Yes, the galaxy is a dumpster fire. And Sullus insists that justice be done, though the heavens fall. His justice is swollen to madness in isolation from all else that is good and holy.

Yet, there is still hope. That hope is a slim hope, desperate even. Yet for all our weakness and foolishness, we have not been left to face the monsters alone. Although, it damn well feels like it. What it feels like, is the end of the world.

As I said, this is a book of endings. Yet, this is a specific type of ending. Not every apocalypse is created alike you see. This is only an introductory apocalypse. In an introductory apocalypse, the wicked system of the world is swept away. The world will then be united under the rule of the saints. During that time, things will be as they should be. However, the great enemy has merely been bound, not destroyed. At the end of the eponymous millennium, a revolt will occur, in which the cosmos will be consumed. That is a terminal apocalypse. Simply the end.

Now, clearly, something is amiss in the schema I have just described. While Goth Sullus certainly sees himself as worthy, I have my doubts. We also don't really know what role Aeson Keel, or Ravi, or Prisma Maydoon will serve in the end. We don't even really know what happened to Reina, although I have some dark suspicions. 

Without the ability to see into the hearts of men [or whatever Ravi is], we cannot really know what is to come. It is only by their fruits that we shall know them. Yet despite the bitter fruits that have fallen from Goth Sullus, I have hope for him too.

My other book reviews

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review

Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review

Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review

Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review

Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review

Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review

Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review

Imperator: Galaxy's Edge Book Review

Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7 Book Review

Soulminder Book Review

The dome of the Florence Baptistry, showing the hierarchy of angels  By Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) - taken by Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2267968

The dome of the Florence Baptistry, showing the hierarchy of angels

By Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) - taken by Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2267968

Soulminder
by Timothy Zahn
Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (September 23, 2014)
334 pages
ASIN B07B675RVC

For Dr. Adrian Sommer, a split second of driving while distracted leads to tragedy—and obsession. His family destroyed, he devotes his entire being to developing Soulminder, a technology that might have saved his son as he wavered on the edge of death. Sommers’s vision is to capture a dying person’s life essence and hold it safely in stasis while physicians heal the body from injury or disease. Years of experimentation finally end in success—but those who recognize Soulminder’s possibilities almost immediately corrupt its original concept to pursue dangerous new frontiers: body-swapping, obstruction of justice, extortion, and perhaps even immortality.

Soulminder is a little different that the other books of Timothy Zahn that I have read. I picked it up in late December, and I started reading it immediately, but it didn't hook me. I turned to other things, then I came back to Soulminder in March. The more I read, the better it got. This book is not a page turner, but rather a slow burner.

Part of the reason for that is the structure. This work was expanded from a serialization in Analog magazine, with three of the chapters adapted from that previous publication. Accordingly, this isn't a traditional novel, with a continuous flow, but rather is more like a collection of novellas with common characters and a common theme, sometimes with separations of many years in between the events each chapter.

Another reason why this book is different is that it is a different kind of science fiction. For a long time, my working definition of hard sci-fi has been: the method of good "hard" science fiction leaves the reader usefully instructed in certain principles of physics or biology after reading a story that otherwise closely resembles a Western. Many of the best works in the field use this formula, but it isn't the only one that works. 

Isaac Asimov had a three-part typology that explains some other ways:

In 1953, Isaac Asimov published an article titled "Social Science Fiction" in Modern Science Fiction. In that article, he stated that every science fiction plot ultimately falls into one of three categories: Gadget, Adventure, or Social.
Gadget: The focus of the story is the invention itself: How it comes to be invented, how it works, and/or what it is used for. The invention is the end result of the plot.
Adventure: The invention is used as a dramatic prop. It may be the solution to a problem, or it may be causing the problem itself, but the main focus is on the caper and how the invention's presence helps or hinders it.
Social: The focus of the story is on how the presence of the invention affects people's daily lives, whether for good or for ill. The chief distinction between this and the other two types is that the presence of the invention influences the plot rather than causing it or being the goal.

Soulminder is social science fiction in Asimov's model. There isn't any attempt to describe the scientific principles of Soulminder for the very simple reason that there aren't any. This is a technology that doesn't exist in our world, and we don't have anything that even vaguely approaches it. Thus, we can't learn about soul transfer like we learn about linguistics in The Way of the Pilgrim, or about orbital mechanics and extra-planetary habitats in The Martian. What we can learn about is what our world might be like if a technology like this existed.

The depth at which Zahn explores this question impressed me more and more as I read through Soulminder. My first hint that Zahn was up to something really interesting came in chapter two. Dr. Adrian Sommer, co-inventor of Soulminder, is on a televised panel with several religious media figures to debate the merits of his technology. Since I have a background in moral theology and moral philosophy, I found the stances each expert took to be plausibly within the range of acceptable opinion in their respective faiths, but mostly I found the whole exchange a little boring, since it was mostly a rehash of existing controversies in our world. However, it turns out the debate was really just a red herring for the really interesting question that comes up while Dr. Sommer is sitting in the green room during a commercial break: one of his clients has been caught in the soul trap after suffering an entirely expected third heart attack, but he also has an organ donor card and the hospital is about to start harvesting his organs, since he is legally dead.

On the one had, Dr. Sommer's client probably deserves a chance to be put back into his body once his infarcted heart has been dealt with. On the other hand, at least four people will benefit from the technically dead client's organs. On the gripping hand, it isn't at all clear that the client's heir/protege has pure motives when he insists that the legal precedents around organ donation be followed. This is very, very applied ethics.

And Dr. Sommer has a decision to make. He very much wants to do the right thing, even when he frequently doesn't know what that is. So he makes his decision, and he goes on, through the rest of the book, doing his best to make sure the moral monsters of the world can't take advantage of the power over life and death that he has created.

Earlier in chapter two, Dr. Sommer tries to enlist the help of the Reverend Tommy Lee Harper, a fiery televangelist who is staunchly opposed to Soulminder and all its works. Dr. Sommer suspects that Harper is a man of integrity, and Sommer is right, Harper has so much integrity that he won't help Sommer defend a technology Harper thinks is fundamentally wicked, and contrary to God's plan, no matter what the earthly stakes are. 

Sommer closed his eyes briefly. “It’s not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons,” he quoted quietly, “but out of bad archangels.” “You and C.S. Lewis make my point for me,” Harper nodded. “Soulminder is an archangel, Doctor, so far as earthly creations go. I’m very much afraid that it’ll be beyond your ability to keep it from becoming a demon.”
...
For a long minute Harper gazed past Sommer, at the lights of the city stretching to the horizon. Then, slowly, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Dr. Sommer,” he said, “but I can’t help you.” The knot in Sommer’s stomach retightened. “Why not?” he asked, fighting to keep his tone polite. “You see the evil in what Marsh is doing—” “But you ask me to support one evil to keep another from happening,” Harper interrupted him. “I can’t do that.”

The ethical dilemma at the hospital bed, and Zahn's portrayal of Rev. Harper, a man who would simply have been an obscurantist villain in many a book, convinced me that Zahn had written something truly compelling, a moral thriller. 

Once I got into it, this book just kept getting better and better. The schemes, grift, and oppression that come into being just because Soulminder exists are breathtaking. Much of it is even plausibly high-minded. The professional witness program, spearheaded in my own great state of Arizona, offers up the bodies of volunteers to the souls of murder victims so that they can testify at their own trials. Justice will be done. However, it is never that simple, especially since only souls that had been rich enough in life to pay Soulminder's fees can be captured and returned, and professional witnesses tend to be the same kind of people who volunteer for drug safety trials. And that is the kind of program the United States governments run. There are plenty of less savory places in the world, and they have Soulminder facilities too. Harper's prediction has a lot going for it.

While I appreciate the moral realism with which Zahn approaches the likely consequences of soul transfer technology, I was also pleasantly surprised by some subtle philosophical points that seemed rather Thomist. For example, the body matters as much as the soul. If you find yourself in someone else's body, you can inherit their habits, emotions, and memories as well. Depending on who that person was, you may find yourself with some unwelcome side effects, like the crime lord who stole the body of a pious young Catholic who happened to share a resemblance, and then discovered that he unexpectedly felt guilty!

If you can persevere through an opening that is admittedly a bit slow [the first chapter was originally written in 1988 or 1989], you will find a work of surprising depth. Not exactly space opera, but worth your time.

My other book reviews

Soulminder
By Timothy Zahn

Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7 Book Review

Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Kindle Edition, 374 pages
Published February 23th 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B079NGCX1T

Turning Point is an ugly book. It is ugly, because war is ugly. And this is warre, war to the knife. Firebombs, orbital strikes, death and destruction.

The war my grandfathers waged  By English: Ishikawa Kōyō - 写真のアップローダが出典を示していないのでどこからこの写真を持ってきたのか不明だが、該当写真は1953年8月15日発行の「東京大空襲秘録写真集」(雄鶏社刊)の12, 13ページに「道路一杯に横たわる焼死体、誰とも知れぬ一片の灰のかたまりにすぎないが…」のキャプション付きで掲載されているので著作権問題はクリアされている。, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3681456

The war my grandfathers waged

By English: Ishikawa Kōyō - 写真のアップローダが出典を示していないのでどこからこの写真を持ってきたのか不明だが、該当写真は1953年8月15日発行の「東京大空襲秘録写真集」(雄鶏社刊)の12, 13ページに「道路一杯に横たわる焼死体、誰とも知れぬ一片の灰のかたまりにすぎないが…」のキャプション付きで掲載されているので著作権問題はクリアされている。, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3681456

In theory, when statesmanship and diplomacy and the just use of force have been applied prudently, none of this is necessary. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. And then, when good men find their back against the wall, they will do things that are more horrible than even they could have imagined they would do, if you had asked them before the deed was done.

This is also a book about divided loyalties. In the self-image of the Legion, they are loyal servants of the Republic. In practice, the oligarchs of the Republic use them and hate them, and the Legion returns that hate in spades. The Legion is already divided against itself, and against its masters, but truly, the split runs deeper than that. 

The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every leeje, with the result that brother will turn upon brother, and the galaxy will burn. There are hints that something far worse than venial and self-serving politicians, even worse than Goth Sullus, tyrant holdfast, is lurking in the darkness. Yet, I still have hope, hope that the worst can yet be avoided, even if we don't quite know what that could be.

My other book reviews

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review

Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review

Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review

Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review

Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review

Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review

Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review

Imperator: Galaxy's Edge Book Review

Turning Point (Galaxy's Edge Book 7)
By Jason Anspach, Nick Cole