The Long View 2007-05-03: Spam, Spamalot, Spam, Nightfall


This is a pretty good quote about the attractions of sacred or magical objects:

he is as aware as Tennyson was that "Grail Questing" is a dark and even sinister enterprise, usually undertaken by dark and sometimes sinister people

Much like political office, usually the one who wants it the most deserves it the least.

John also mentions in passing the short story “Nightfall” by Issac Asimov. I haven’t read much of Asimov’s work, so I’m curious whether I would find it as remarkable as John’s description of it. My opinion of other scifi authors of that era has been dwindling as I have discovered that I liked the pulps that preceded them better.

Spam, Spamalot, Spam, Nightfall

Here is what happens when you leave your email address out where evil robots can harvest it.

For several weeks, I had been getting occasional messages with Subjects like "Message Undeliverable." Since files were often attached to these messages, I assumed that these messages were just virus-laden spam that have somehow eluded the vigilance of McAfee and my ISP. Well, I thought, these things happen. Then, two nights ago, the count of these undeliverable emails entering my Inbox rose to a dozen an hour. Finally taking a look at them, I realized that my primary email address was being inserted as the Reply address of those spam messages that include strings of random sentences. I was getting the messages that had been returned by mail systems. The next morning, I found 101 such messages.

I first made sure that my own PC had not been zombified in order to send out these messages itself. When I contacted my ISP, they commiserated (actually, I think a good robot commiserated). Yes, they said, spammers use legitimate email and website URLs to trick spam filters. Very regrettable. Perhaps I would like to tweak my own filters to keep these Undeliverables out? Later, they sent me new security software for a highspeed service other than the one to which I subscribe and which would have disabled my machine if I had succeeded in installing it.

The number of Undeliverables has fallen steadily since the peak of two days ago and now has almost ceased. The earliest messages, by the way, were almost all in English; the last few dozen were often in Spanish or Portuguese. The relatively small number of East Asian messages were scattered throughout the episode.

* * *

At the Schubert Theatre in Manhattan last week I saw the play Spamalot. It does not have much spam in it, really. And the fish used in the Finnish Fisch-Schlapping Song were rubber, not real fish. It's not a secret (indeed, it's a point of pride) that the play is essentially a musical version of the hilarious 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is a bit of an attempt to add a story arc, so that the play ends in the finding of the Grail and in marriages, one of them gay. (The finding of the Grail involves a bit of audience participation; if you sit in the bottom rows, dress nicely and don't drink too much during the Intermission.) The play is, of course, a musical, though not much of the music is memorable. The piece with the most energy is "You Won't Succeed on Broadway." At one point in the play, King Arthur is tasked to stage a musical, and the song explains that you won't succeed on Broadway if you don't have any Jews. The audience ate it up.

If you liked the movie, you will like this play. If you are the sort of person who would like the movie but has not seen it yet, then you will like the play much more. The only original bit of humor in Spamalot that is up to the old Monty Python standard is the Very Expensive Forest. And that's the joke: the name.

Audience members who feel that sections of the play are too familiar to require their complete attention are advised to spend the time studying the complementary copies of Playbill that they will find in the theater. They will find this information about the writer of the play discussed immediately before Spamalot:

Bin Faaarkrekkon (Writer) Faarkrekkeion's career typifies the Finnish economic miracle. Born the son of a humble woodcutter, Bin worked his way up through shrubbery management to become Professor of Treadmill Dynamics at the University of Tooti, believed to be the 28th most northerly university in the world. "I have always been interested in the relatively rapid transition from a predominantly rural agricultural base to one of the most advanced industrial economies in the Western world, and one day in the sauna, it came to me: What a great subject for a musical."

The fraud is merrily cumulative.

* * *

In the same week in which I saw Spamalot, and not altogether coincidentally, I saw Richard Stanley's The Secret Glory, which, as I have noted before in this space, is a documentary that deals with the life of Nazi Grail Quester Otto Rahn. The producer/director is to be congratulated for doing important primary historical research. He interviewed Rahn's niece (who remembers her eccentric uncle fondly) and Rahn's old publisher. Most remarkably, he spoke at length with Paul Ladame, now appearing as a merry old soul, who had accompanied Rahn on some of his spelunking expeditions in Cathar country.

Rahn and Grail mythology are special interests of Richard Stanley; the DVD I saw included a long comment from him that was almost as interesting as the documentary. He takes aspects of it quite seriously, perhaps with good reason. He describes the SS castle at Wewelsburg as, literally, a place of nightmare, the land of the anti-Grail, while Montsegur is a place of peace and comfort. He does not cite The Idylls of the King, but he is as aware as Tennyson was that "Grail Questing" is a dark and even sinister enterprise, usually undertaken by dark and sometimes sinister people. On the other hand, despite the amount of time and effort he has put into the subject, the result still lacks a critical sense.

The Grail mythology is important, but the fact is that the Grail-Cathar aspect of it was cooked up by opium-using anti-Catholic French writers in the latter 19th century. These fabulations are no better in this context than they are in their better known appearance in The Da Vinci Code. The documentary would improve with a little didactic narration to that effect, or at least an interview with a real expert. A little more disclosure would also be welcome with regard to the "footage" of the Albigensian Crusade, which was lifted from Eisensein's Alexander Nevsky.

The oddest thing about The Secret Glory is that, despite the amount of time the director has been working on it, it's still a work in progress. The cinematography is fine, and the music is suitably spacey, but the voices in the soundtrack are muddy.

Still, it's worth the price of admission when Stanley tells in his comment about his attempt to view a vase that Rahn discovered in one of the putative Cathar caves. Rahn did not claim that this is the Grail itself, but the object has been called "the Pyrenean Grail." For some years, it was on display at a museum in Tarascon, but now it is in a private collection. When Stanley asked to see it, the situation closely resembled the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and now also Spamalot) in which King Arthur asks a castle of French knights whether they would like to join his Grail Quest. The knights say "Non."

"We already have one. It's very nice."

"Well (Arthur asks), may we come up and see it?"

"Of course not: you are English!"

Stanley does not mention any taunting. Perhaps there will be something about the trebouchet in a subsequent DVD.

* * *

Readers who cannot follow these inside jokes really do have to see the film or the play.

* * *

Meanwhile, Jay Manifold at Voyage to Arcturus holds the super-Earth model of Gliese 581c in light esteem:

[T]hat star is only 1.3% as luminous as the Sun, is substantially less enriched in "metals" (in astrophysicists' parlance, any element heavier than helium), is younger than the Sun, and is variable - thus the designation HO Librae.

He is as in favor as the next guy of building the Terrestrial Planet Finder, but suggests that hyping Gliese 581c as Earthlike is chiefly political propaganda toward that end. He further suggests we are missing the point of astronomy if we are interested only in planets that are like Earth.

These points are well taken. Still, sometimes I wonder whether Earth is the best representative of an Earthlike planet.

Readers will recall Isaac Asimov's story, Nightfall, which is sometimes called the best science-fiction short story ever written. Nightfall deals with an inhabited world in a multiple star system, where the one sun or another is always in the sky. The planet's orbit is so complicated that the people there don't develop a theory of gravity until after they have invented radio. The story is about the cyclical chaos that ensues on the one point in many centuries when an eclipse brings real night. While the characters are debating this prospect, one of the scientists mentions that a theoretically stable model for a planetary system had been developed in which a single star is the center around which several planets revolve. These planets may not just revolve, but also rotate, so any point on the surface would be in darkness half the time. He notes that life could not develop very far in such a place, even if it came into existence, because of the importance of light for biology.

Incidentally, it was only when looking for that link to Nightfall posted above that I learned that Robert Silverberg had expanded the story into a novel. That's a good idea for a novel, but not for a title: if I saw it in the bookstores, I mistook it for an anthology.

Finally, Nightfall was also the subject of a film released in 2000 that is apparently one of the worst science-fiction films ever made.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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Gemini Warrior Book Review

Matthew White and Jason McCrae are oddly similar. Other than being five years apart in age, they could be twins. Living in Serenity City, they easily could have never crossed paths with one another. Except that a mysterious woman needs test subjects who are as similar as possible to one another….

Gemini Warrior: Gemini Man book 1 by J. D. Cowan Published by Silver Empire (2019)

Gemini Warrior: Gemini Man book 1
by J. D. Cowan
Published by Silver Empire (2019)

Once they pass the “test”, Matthew and Jason find themselves trapped in another world, prisoners of their erstwhile employer. And she is only just getting started with making them do things they don’t want to do. Fortunately for them, passing that test means they have possession of an artifact of great power, the Gemini Bracelets.

Castor and Pollux are not amused by your shenanigans

Castor and Pollux are not amused by your shenanigans

Every volume in the Heroes Unleashed series has been very different. Gemini Warrior surprised me by being an isekai, although since I follow the author’s blog, I feel like I shouldn’t have been. Cowan often writes of adventure stories, and isekai in particular. Also, I should say that his series of posts on the history of science fiction as a genre has been an inspiration to my book reviews, changing how I see everything.

In line with Cowan’s argument that the heart of adventure fiction is wonder, Gemini Warrior is a pulpy, desperate quest, where Matthew and Jason try to escape the world of Tyndarus, master their powers, and defeat the wicked. Along the way they might have to learn how to trust one another, narrowly escape death, and somehow find time to get romantically involved.

What it isn’t is a thinkpiece about Tyndarian society, or the character of Matthew and Jason. The other two volumes I’ve reviewed in the Heroes Unleashed universe are like that, and I think they are done well, but I appreciate that Cowan can write a story in a different mode in the same universe, and make it fun.

An only mildly inaccurate portrayal of the object of power in Tyndarus

An only mildly inaccurate portrayal of the object of power in Tyndarus

We do get to see what Tyndarus is like. I am fascinated by the religion of the inhabitants of Tyndarus, its sacramental character, and the frankly Eucharistic object of power that Matthew and Jason contest with the woman who brought them to this world. It is not that there isn’t a great backstory, it just takes a back seat to the immediate problem that lizard men and evil sorcerers are trying kill them.

We also experience the character of our protagonists. If anything, Matthew and Jason are fairly typical young men, in that they are vaguely disappointing by not amounting to much or doing anything worthwhile with their lives. They are both callow youths, unremarkable except for the mysterious similarity that got them into this mess in the first place.

This is of course standard for an adventure story of this sort, but at the same time everything is set up just so, such that subsequent volumes will give us new wonders, and new adventures. By pulpy, I do not mean the opposite of well-crafted. I am also interested to see where Cowan takes the story, since Matthew and Jason don’t seem to be Primes. Maybe everything will all make sense later, but insofar as they were granted powers by an artifact, they seem quite different than Primes, who just wake up one day different than they were before.

Overall, I enjoyed Gemini Warriors. I am happy to see books of this style written, and I look forward to seeing where the adventure takes us next!

I received a free copy of this book via Booksprout.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books in the Heroes Unleashed series

by Morgon Newquist
Heroes Fall: Serenity City book 1

by Cheah Kit Sun
Hollow City: Song of Karma book 1

Empire of Bones Book Review

Empire of Bones Saga Volume 1
by Terry Mixon
Yowling Cat Press (April 20, 2019)
ISBN 978-1947376021 [Volume 1-3 omnibus edition]

I was provided a review copy courtesy of the author.

Empire of Bones is a future history space opera with a military scifi feel. I think all of those things are important descriptors, because it sets the stage for what kind of book this is trying to be. If you are interested in that, this book will be a lot of fun.

So what kind of book is this? Primarily, it is an adventure story, the kind of thing J. D. Cowan usefully described as “exploring new lands, peoples, and possibilities”. The primary fun is seeing what is around the next corner. But there are a lot of different ways to approach this kind of story, so let’s look further.

We, and the protagonists, find ourselves in our own far future, which is why I call it a future history. A future history, and its close cousin alternative history, look at how the world might be if you assume a certain pivotal event occurs. The primary difference is whether that event is in the past, or the future. The preeminent example of this in my mind is Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s CoDominium, and the greatest book set in that universe is the Mote in God’s Eye, which which this book shares common themes. The Terran Empire, a galaxy-spanning civilization, came to a terrible end nearly five hundred years prior to this novel, except the Imperial heir escaped to a remote world to refound the dynasty. Now, that world is reaching out to the stars again.

In addition to the second foundation of the Empire of Man, another element that Empire of Bones shares with Mote is a naval emphasis. There is a grand old tradition of naval adventure novels, with Master and Commander being an example, which military scifi novels of this type tends to draw upon. The convention has become that space navies follow the tradition of oceanic navies, with different authors picking different national traditions to draw upon in order to flesh out shipboard routine.

An interesting difference here is that Niven and Pournelle based their navy on the age of sail. In the CoDominium, it takes weeks to traverse between Alderson points within a system, making travel times long for a journey of any distance. For Empire of Bones, the drive technology is far more powerful, resulting in travel times over similar distances of mere days. In addition to altering the political dynamic by making it possible for the universe to effectively be smaller, it makes ship combat very different, like battleships that move like fighter aircraft. Well, fighter craft with a hell of a lot of momentum.

It is also a space opera, which means that our hero and heroine are legendary figures in the making. We can expect them to get into trouble and then barely escape, using pluck, wits, and any sweet Old Empire technology they manage to scrounge up. I also think space opera is dominant in the mix, which means that we are not primarily going to be getting a careful look at how history might unfold if you follow Toynbee’s model of history, which is the back story of Mote. You also aren’t going to get detailed logistics or the kind of fussy battle planning which means the Captain never leads the away party.

We do get pitched battles, unknown enemies of unusual viciousness, melodrama, and romance. Space Opera. For example, our female protagonist, Kelsey Bandar, spare heir to the Terran Empire, is ostensibly on board the ship as the understudy to a more experienced diplomat.

As it turns out due to an unfortunate series of events, Kelsey ends up with approximately the same negotiating skills as Korben Dallas.

If you want scifi that is more on the speculative end, or military scifi that strongly focuses on realism [you send middies to die on away missions], then you may not find what you are looking for here. If you like seeing bad guys blown up and exploring and reconquering worlds that humanity lost, then this is probably for you.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Takeover: Part 1 Book Review

Cover art for Takeover: Part 1 by  Tommaso Renieri

Cover art for Takeover: Part 1 by Tommaso Renieri

Takeover: Part 1
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Published 2018 by Galaxy's Edge Press

Takeover brings us back to where it all began, the dusty world of Kublar. Except now, after Chhun’s victory over Goth Sullus on Utopion, everything is different. In the years since the Battle of Kublar, the Kublarens have been integrated into the galactic economy, built up glittering cities, and even acquired a Zhee refugee problem. All of this was sponsored and shepherded by the Republic. There is just the little problem that the Republic doesn’t exist anymore.

The Chinese word for crisis isn’t actually comprised of danger and opportunity, but it makes for a good story. Breaking up the Republic means that ambition plus good luck can make you a king in some out-of-the-way corner of the galaxy. Unfortunately, lots of other people have the same idea, so potential potentates need rough men with guns to guard them while they sleep.

Which makes for interesting times on Kublar. The power vacuum created by the fall of the Republic allows men of wealth and power to set up personal fiefdoms in the quest for more power, and more money. Which is where our two POV characters, Carter and Bowie, come in.

By Tomchen1989 - Own work, CC0,

By Tomchen1989 - Own work, CC0,

Carter is an ex-legionnaire, hired out to the highest bidder in a desperate attempt to keep his marriage together and his kids in a good school. The money is good, but working for shady characters in far-flung places puts even more strain on family life than a regular deployment does. At least when you work for the government, everyone can pretend what you are doing is legit.

In our world, the forever war in Iraq and Afghanistan produced lots of guys just like Carter. Their primary skills are in killing people and breaking stuff, and if they are really honest with themselves, they kinda miss being deployed, even though it is hell on your marriage, and you miss all the stuff your kids are doing.

Bowie, on the other hand, strikes me as much less of a team player than Carter. While Bowie has useful skills, he is just a little too focused on looking out for # 1. You want him on your side, but not necessarily on your team. Which is probably just fine with him.

I can’t think of any real-world analogues of Bowie, but he did strike me as being a bit like Agent 47.

Hitman: Sniper Challenge  by  PatrickBrown

Hitman: Sniper Challenge

by PatrickBrown

While Kublar seemed a lot like Afghanistan in Legionnaire, this doesn’t really seem like the model in Takeover. Excepting their strategic rock deposits, there isn’t actually much economic opportunity in Afghanistan today. Nobody other than the locals is much interested in fighting over it. What Kublar reminds me most of is China around the turn of the twentieth century.

This is also known as the Warlord Era. After the fall of the Qing dynasty, and a failed attempt to unify China as a Republic under Yuan Shikai. There was danger and opportunity aplenty, with intrigue, battles, fortunes made and lost as China rapidly modernized after the sclerotic Qing dynasty was overthrown. This is the China of the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a brief period where anything could happen, and foreign influences mingled freely with local tradition.

Takeover is a bit of an experiment, a serial sold only on Part 2 is already out, and I’ll likely review that one too shortly. The price is right, only a couple of bucks for a short story with a lot of punch, done in a style similar to Nick and Jason’s previous work together. I hope this experiment works out, because I would really like more of this.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Galaxy’s Edge season 1:
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
Retribution: Galaxy’s Edge #9 Book Review

Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations:
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review

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)

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: 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


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

50 dangerous things you should let your kids do

50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do

Book website

The Magistra sent me a video by the author of this book a year ago. You should watch it. Now, go out and buy his extended book length treatment of the same subject. I'm planning on using a gift card I got for my birthday from the Family Social Scientist for this book.

h/t Tom

The Long Walk

The Long Walk
by Slavomir Rawicz
$16.95; 245 pages

A classic adventure story, a tale of endurance and survival, The Long Walk is the story of a Polish officer who escaped from a Siberian Gulag and walked to India.

Whilst doing research for this review, I discovered that another man claimed that Rawicz had stolen his story. Witold Glinski says that the events in The Long Walk actually happened to him. Glinski claims Rawicz read an account of his voyage in the Polish embassy in London, and based the book on that recollection. In retrospect, this explains the curious character of the book. The book is incredible, but too incredible to be fake. There is just something about the book that rings true. But nonetheless, the book has a dreamy character, with strange bits that probably are the result of Rawicz making things up that he didn't really know. Reading Glinski's account makes much more sense of the things that happened, the flow is better, and nothing seems out of place.

Accusations had been leveled against Rawicz from the moment the book was published, but the BBC discovered evidence that Rawicz was in fact serving with the Polish Army after being released from the gulag during the time the events in the book occurred.

Despite all that, I liked this book. Given that it does seem to be based upon true events, it is still worth a read, even if it wasn't Rawicz who actually walked to India. There are a couple interesting things in the book that I noted. One thing that came to mind only because I am reading The Science of Conjecture by James Franklin, is the Soviets had a strange insistence upon obtaining confessions. Rawicz/Glinsky spent several months in the Lubyanka prison while the NKVD was attempting to obtain his confession. In retrospect, this seems strange. Why bother? There was not really any danger of a popular uprising in the WWII period, they did not need to obtain confessions.

However, going back to the 10th century in Continental Law, there was a preference for confession above all other forms of proof in legal cases, due to the difficulty of interpretation of other kinds of evidence. Confession was felt to be unambiguous in ways that other kinds of testimony were not, primarily for religious reasons. This struck me as funny, in a perverse way, that the Soviets insisted on confessions for their show trials when the ultimate reason for doing so traces back to the Torah.

This book is also excellent for the sense of the vast emptiness it effectively creates. Central Asia has a whole lotta nothing going on, and this book will make that impression stick in your mind. Unlike most reviewers who either like it because they think it is true, or hate it because they think it is a hoax, I think this book is worth a read even though it is demonstrably a hoax, because it is nonetheless tied to real events, and it can give you an interesting view of the Soviet Union from the WWII period.

My other book reviews