Thursday, March 31, 2016

Action and Reaction In Stone-Age Afghanistan

Review: A Long Time Until Now by Michael Z. Williamson

One of my favorite sub-genres of time-travel science fiction takes one or more people from the present and "drops" them into the past, revealing interesting things about both present-time and historical cultures, sciences, and philosophies. 

In this novel, Williamson's first of a planned Time Displacement series, ten US troops riding in two mobile units in a deployment in Afghanistan encounter what they first believe is an IED. The explosion sends them off the road into a grassy plain, cooler by twenty degrees than the sweltering heat they had been driving through.

[H]e saw where their tire marks started and went downhill. He didn’t see an origin for them. The tracks started in the middle of the rough area. There was nothing farther uphill except grass-covered slope...

The distant mountains are the same; everything else has changed. Somehow the ten soldiers have been displaced to Stone-Age Afghanistan. They will have only whatever supplies are in the two MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Armored Vehicles), and whatever they know (or have stored in reference files on their smart phones, laptops and tablets.)

Fortunately, this is a pretty erudite group. The LT1 (the only officer) is an engineer. The smart-aleck Oglesby turns out to be a fairly adept linguist (which helps when they need to communicate with the local tribes.) One of the two women in the group has a good knowledge of edible plants, the other is their IT resource.

The story is enhanced by the close attention Williamson pays to each individual's reactions to their predicament. It feels real; it seems like the way a small group would behave. The author has not made it easier on himself, either. These are not supermen or -women. He has given each of the ten their own issues and problems and biases to deal withand some of them are problems for the group as a whole, like the creationist who insists on "witnessing" to them all (up-time and otherwise), or the feminist who worries so much about the men around her that she contemplates suicide as an escape.

In addition, the displacement that brought the Americans also moved several other groups: a Neolithic hunting band with domesticated dogs, a large group of Roman soldiers, several 16th-century Mughal musketeers. The challenge to our present-day group is to trade with these disparate peoples for what they need, and prevent them from taking over. 

The story is only slightly marred by excessive repetition. (I thought if I read one more comment from the Romans about English being "Latin mixed with Germanni," I would scream.) Otherwise, it is signature Williamson: you get an establishing scene, and action, some introspection, then more action. The action is rational, the rationality of each introspection depends on whose voice is sharing it at the time.

FInally, the story itself is enjoyable. You become intimately acquainted these people; you want them to succeed. And each time they do, you wonder how they will continue.

Because time, and their up-time supplies, are running out.

All Else Being Equal (It Never Is)

Review: The Last Girl by Joe Hart

The Amazon Prime program nets me goodies beyond free shipping; one of the best from my point of view is Kindle First. Once a month I can choose a free ebook from a small selection, most prior to full release. The selected authors get readers who will review (or at least rate) their books, which can give them a jump-start when the books are fully released.

Alas, my to-be-read (TBR) list routinely exceeds my available reading time. I selected Hart's novel as my Kindle First one month, tagged it into the "TBR" and "Review This" collections on my Kindle, and went back to the four or five books I was actively reading at the time.

I shouldn't have waited. The Last Girl is a stunning commentary on gender equality and the factors that make it difficult to achieve. The premise: a virus that has made it vanishingly difficult for girl-children to be carried to term. By the time Zoey and her friends are born, there are very few women left. The prepubescent girls live in a prison-like school, supported by women teachers, male mentors and their sons. The girls are all being groomed for the day they will "graduate." 

The problem is, no woman ever returns to the "school" to report what happens after graduation.

I kept being reminded of The Island, the movie with Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson (which was supposedly based on the novel Spares by Michael Marshall Smith.) In the movie, clones are told that they are privileged to live on their idyllic island. Actually they are being held in reserve as spare parts for their donors. I wondered if, like Johansson and McGregor, Zoey would escape with her mentor's son, a sympathetic fellow who may have smuggled books (The Count of Monte Cristo, the ultimate escape fiction) and other contraband to her.

But the tale runs deeper than that; and even once she has won free of the sinister school and its graduation program, Zoey still is not liberated from the restrictions imposed by the scarcity of her gender. 

This novel is the first of a planned trilogy. The story stands well on its own, however, and the promise of additional novels is an added bonus. We'd like to find out if it's possible for Zoey to achieve an equality that doesn't deny the extra abilities of her gender.

If she can, there is hope for us all.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Six New Entries to the Invisible Library

Review: Heroics for Beginners by John Moore

The invisible library is "a collection of books that only appear in other books. Within the library's catalog you will find imaginary books, pseudobiblia, artifictions, fabled tomes, libris phantastica, and all manner of books unwritten, unread, unpublished, and unfound."

John Moore has given us not one, but six new entries with this novel, a romping spoof and a quick read. Robert Taylor's 
The Handbook of Practical Heroics, like his other work, is part of a medieval "...for Dummies" genre. (Other practical handbooks cover fly-fishing, gardening, antique refinishing, and—my favorite—dragon slaying, followed by burn and wound dressing.)

The heroics advice is brief, to-the-point and imminently practical, exactly the kind of invisible library fodder a medieval hero would want to check out!
When a wise old sage tells you not to let a magical talisman fall into the wrong hands, take him seriously. Do not laugh it off until the object is stolen and the Forces of Evil are unleashed. —HANDBOOK OF PRACTICAL HEROICS, Robert Taylor

Kevin Timberline, Prince of Rassendas, has a problem. Actually, he has several problems, including finding an acceptable nickname, so he doesn't wind up like his father, King Eric "Not Eric the Good, But the Other One." But he loves Princess Rebecca of Deserae, whose hand has been promised to Prince Logan, providing he retrieves the Ancient Artifact (model seven, and brand-new) stolen by Lord Voltmeter (He Who Must Be Named). 

Inspired by the handbook given to him by Princess Rebecca's father (who thought it was the fly-fishing guide), Kevin decides on a preemptive crusade to storm Lord Voltmeter's Fortress of Doom, and earn the princess' hand for himself.
...the sunshine fell upon a shelf stacked with circular black objects. Kevin moved in for a closer look, then picked one up. It was a coffee mug, cheap black ceramic with the words FORTRESS OF DOOM painted in large red letters. Underneath was the slogan ENSLAVE THE PLANET. And then he understood where he was... He was in the Fortress of Doom gift shop.

This book succeeds in spoofing a genre with light touches of laughter. There's an Evil Assistant whose costume is a running gag. There's a chain-mail bra that turns out to have been a Pretty Good Idea, even if the fur thong briefs were not. And there's an old seeress whose prophesy on Kevin's heroics is ominous—and too bad that he didn't get some tips on the stock market while he had the chance!

You'll like the way Moore has written a real sword-and-sorcery story within the parody, and how the humor actually makes sense in the context of the tale. It made me want to get another Moore novel, like maybe Slay and Rescue, which is a similar spoof of fairy tales. 

Alas, of all the Moore spoofs, only The Lightning Horse is currently available for Kindle.

Liner Notes:

  • Voltmeter's nickname is the only Harry Potter reference. 
  • The Handbook of Dragon Slaying was described as "co-written with Holly Lisle".
  • Arguably the most famous book in the invisible library is The Necronomicon

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Enchantment of Realpolitik

Review: A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

Here's a YA fantasy with an interesting premise: a European school teaches magic to those who attend. Before too many parallels to Harry Potter spring to mind, there are differences. Greenlaw College is more university than the preppy boarding school of Hogwarts. Rather than being hidden in the midst of present-day Muggles, Greenlaw College graduates live openly in pre-WWI Europe.

The most important contrast is the author's style. J.K. Rowling's Potter books are charming in their level of detail and focus on the practice of magic. 

Stevermer's characters, however, are immersed in the political and personal implications of practicing magic, ignoring the practice itself to concentrate on the results.

Faris Nallaneen will be Duchess of her small north-central European province, Galazon, when she reaches her majority in a few short years. Her uncle, meanwhile, as regent and head of her family, has decreed that she must go away to attend Greenlaw College.

Faris knows that her uncle's plans are not likely to be for her benefit, but she discovers that running away from school is not a solution. For one thing, there is the mysterious Tyrian, who shows up whenever he is needed to save Faris' life (or prevent her from running away). For another, there is Menary of Averill, a spiteful miss with powers she did not learn to use at Greenlaw College, who has an unexplained grudge against Faris. And finally, there is Faris' growing love of learning and Greenlaw itself, almost enough to balance her homesickness.

When Menary and Faris fight over Tyrian in the Dean's Garden at Greenlaw, both are expelled. Now Faris must return to her uncle in disgrace—paying a visit on the way to one of the wardens of the world in Paris. What she learns from the Warden of the West will completely overturn her view of the world and her place in it, and give a deadly new meaning to her school battles with Menary of Averill.

The pre-WWI world in which Faris lives is clearly not our own, but there are enough congruent points to free Stevermer from the need to create everything afresh. So Faris, Tyrian and her other companions travel on the Orient Express, for example, when she returns home to Galazon. She reads The Prince and The Prisoner of Zenda at school, and we can assume we know how each will inform her. And when her chaperone and friend, Dame Jane Brailsford*, insists that Faris buy clothes while in Paris, we know why.

Despite the uneven start, College rewards its reader with a pleasant time, plus just enough food for political thought to keep it real in the layers between the fantasy.


* The sequel, A Scholar of Magics, follows Dame Jane Brailsford home to England where she encounters an American sharpshooter.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Private [Starship] Enterprise

Review: Girl on the Moon by Jack McDonald Burnett

Comparison of Burnett's Girl on the Moon with Andy Weir's The Martian is inevitable, so I'll just get it out of the way at the start. Both novels open with a disaster that strands a single person on a distant globe. And both were first "independently" published, independently, that is, of any traditional publishing house.

That's it, full stop. In Girl Conn Garrow's world, the Mars trip ended in complete disaster, killing all the astronauts involved, and NASA hasn't been back. No man has set foot on the moon since Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt left in 1972. And no woman has ever been on the moon.

The last person who tried, Peo Haskell, CEO of Dyna-Tech, was turned back on the brink of landing her privately-owned lander. Conn's own dream of going to space, fueled by her admiration of Peo Haskell and by witnessing a night of mysterious lights on the moon that was visible from Earth when she was a child, was derailed when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Disqualified by NASA because she is permanently on medication to treat her condition, she redirects her ambition to engineering. If she cannot be an astronaut, she can still make it possible for others to go to space in her stead.

At school, Conn connects with her idol Peo, and begins working for her to set up a private-enterprise trip to Saturn. An unusual video sent in secret to Peo holds a cryptic puzzle that Conn helps solve. They learn it is an invitation from the aliens who lit the moon that long-ago night, offering to meet near the Apollo 15 lander. The Chinese will be sending their own separate mission in response. Not to be out-done, NASA immediately sets up a rival moon-shot as a joint effort with the European Space Agency.
NASA wasn’t letting the moon get away from them again.

Dyna-Tech, stretched thin to support the four-year trip to Saturn, scrambles to set up its own mission to the Moon. Solving one problem after another, Conn is intimately connected with both space shots, telling herself that this is as close as she could possibly come to her dream. Because of the novel's opening scene, we know better; Conn will be the commander of the two-person moon-shot that will put her on the surface in time to meet the aliens. In their privately-funded launch, Peo Haskell and Dyna-Tech can override the restrictions NASA uses for astronaut selection.
"I wonder how many kids like you NASA misses out on because there are no Rite-Aids in space ... "Nope, sorry, you're lactose intolerant, we can't train you."

Once you get past the largest unreal plot-point, ETs with YouTube accounts, the story seems realistic. It is further given reality by countless details that make sense in an 18-year distant future. Yet what feels even more real than the slightly-advanced tech are the emotional interactions, the jealousy and envy and spite, the admiration and aspiration and generosity, the fear and delight, displayed by all these people, human and alien alike. New authors (and sometimes veteran writers as well) can make the mistake of painting characters as either black or white. Burnett dodges this bullet; even Conn is a frustratingly messy mix of emotional reactions.

Conn must battle her own shortcomings and biases, the petty and major problems of any large commercial effort, her own government and the rival governments of those who meet the aliens on the moon, and the aliens themselves. Are these visitors to the Solar System evil, bent on conquering humanity by tempting them with alien tech, as the anti-science evangelist Bowman insists? Are they simply guilty of preferring to work with the Chinese and the Russians, as the US government accuses?

Or are they interstellar con-artists, looking for the equivalent of a Manhattan bead exchange?

Conn and her friends have a lot of mysteries to solvenot least of which is what the aliens want from our moon. Their struggle to find those solutions is exciting, and the suspense makes this novel a quick read. That they accomplish it all in the context of capitalist free enterprise is delightful.

I'll be waiting with bated breath for the next Girl (on Mars?) from Burnett.

Liner Notes:

  • The publisher is Kindle Press, thanks to a successful Kindle Scout campaign. Because I was one of many who nominated this novel, I got a copy for free.
  • An excellent map of the Apollo 15 landing site is available online from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
  • Conn receives congratulations for being the first woman on the moon from a female US president named Clinton. The date is 2034. Chelsea?

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Real Warming vs. Hot Air

Review: Carbon Dreams by Susan Gaines

In the earliest stages of the global climate-change debate, Susan Gaines used the topic to fuel an intriguing tale of how science theory is used (and abused) by policy-makers. Whatever your personal stance on the issue of human-driven climate change, there is sufficient real information on human-driven policy change (let alone data change) to spice the arguments pro and con.

Carbon Dreams is fiction, with just enough real science, culled from Gaines' extensive background in chemistry and oceanography, stirred in to make it believable and exciting. The fictional nature of her story allows us to suspend disbelief and simply enjoy.
[In organic geochemistry]... we use organic molecules the way a geologist might use a rock, or a paleontologist a fossil—as clues to the age of a sediment, what kind of organisms existed, what the ecology was like, the climate... I found a group of lipids that contain the imprint of seawater temperature in their structures. They come from microscopic algae that no one even knew existed until last year.

Dr. Tina Arenas is a organic geochemist working on the leading edge of the science at Brayton Institute of Oceanography, BIO (a loosely-disguised Scripps Oceanographic Institute). What Tina wants is to try her proposed method for determining paleotemperatures from marine sediments on the second cruise of the "big drill" science ship Explorer. She agrees to let her friend Katherine, who is already invited, game her theory to the ship's director, Sylvia Orloff.

Before she can find out if Katherine has been successful, Tina's advisor, Garret Thomas, informs her that her grant application has been refused, and she will need to divert her work into a field that can get funding—perhaps oil exploration. Without this grant, she cannot participate on the exploration cruise even if she is invited. With Thomas' help, they massage her grant application to focus on a possible "petrochemical application" in her original thesis, and succeed in getting funding based on that adjustment. (Although Tina feels that this is slightly underhanded, and takes her research in a direction she hadn't intended to go.)
"I went to a seminar... in the geology department. The geologist presented a model that used the thermal history of a rock to tell if the conditions had been right for petroleum formation...¹ They got into this big argument in the middle of the guy's talk. Apparently there isn't any way of knowing the thermal history of these rocks..."

In the meantime, Tina has a life outside the lab, a very spicy love affair with the landscaper for the BIO grounds. As an agriculturist, Chip has a different take on Tina's "misuse" of the grant process—his is the ecological voice in the novel, and as Tina becomes more involved with him, her views coincide more and more with his.

Almost as fascinating as the human characters are the scientific theories Gaines peppers liberally throughout the story. Tina's advisor theorizes about the origin of life in structured clays, and the erudite debate between them occupies the first part of the tale. Theories about ancient climate changes fuel the current-day science, and the novel does a good job of presenting these theories in context (with their authors disguised) to underpin the search for causes.
Maitland's was provocative, as usual... He'd explained why CO2 wasn't lower during the interglacial, but not why it was higher by fifty percent... Maitland postulated that phytoplankton had played a major role; even though most of the organic matter produced was quickly oxidized back to CO2 by bacteria, this occurred after it sank out of the surface waters, effectively pumping CO2 into the deep sea and out of contact with the atmosphere.²

Gaines has avoided the B-movie cliché of presenting scientists as naive or focused solely on their science. Her scientists are human, with foibles and ambitions like people in any other endeavor. And while some readers may be uncomfortable with the conclusion of the story, it's best to keep in mind that this is fiction. Informed fiction, but still fiction.
But the majority of scientists are saying that global warming is inevitable. Oh, sure, they'd use words like 'probably' and 'maybe,' but a few are starting to concede that we should do something. This Cox is a dissenting opinion. ... Sometimes the dissenting opinions are the important ones.

And sometimes truth is found in fiction.

Liner Notes:

  1. Deriving biofuel (essentially, distilling petroleum fractions) from algae was already theoretically possible when Gaines' novel was being written. Today, there are multiple companies profitably producing fuels of various types, including jet and rocket fuels.
  2. Reading about Maitland's theory in this novel, I was reminded about the vast amounts of methane trapped in marine clathrates that played a major role in John Barnes' Mother of Storms.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Resting On Her Laurels (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

DC-Powered Mine Locomotive (Photo courtesy Ken C.)
British mountaineer George Mallory, who famously said the reason for anyone to want to climb Mount Everest was "Because it's there," was once cornered by a gushing fan, who asked him how he came to have so many adventures. 

"I do not have adventures," was his icy reply. "I plan too well."

Mallory may have planned well, but his third and final attempt on Everest ended in misadventure. He and his partner Andrew Irvine were last seen in 1924 while they were still on their way to the summit. 

Mallory's remains were finally discovered in 1999, after multiple expeditions who climbed Everest to search for his body, "because it's there."

Certainly the most exciting things that have happened in my life came from a deep well of ignorance and a failure to plan ahead. Often the excitement was in retrospect, as we realized what might have happened, had we been just a tiny bit less lucky. Yet in talking about our experiences, it is the white-knuckle stuff that captures the audience's imagination.

I'm not alone, as many of the stories from Ken Cummings' memoir, Meant To Be Here, attest. Here is one from time he spent as a student working in a CONSOL coal mine in the thick "Pennsylvania" coal seam under West Virginia:

The locomotives in the 
Blacksville #1 mine were electric-powered, from a DC circuit of 600 volts and several hundred amps. The positive line was a thumb-thickness copper bar fastened to the roof four to five feet overhead. Return current moved through the steel tracks under the locomotive. The locomotive's pick-up, a spring-loaded arm,  touched the copper bar to complete the electrical connection. Its springs pressed it against the exposed copper powerline overhead, letting it slide along the contact surface as we moved. 

Unfortunately, whenever there was a joint or bump in the copper bar, the pickup mechanism would bounce away from it, and break contact with the copper. The pickup was still close enough to the powerline for the high-amp current to jump the resulting gap. The arc of DC electricity vaporized some of the copper with a vivid green flash whenever it occurred, and it happened frequently enough to make me very nervous. 

I was lucky, though; the sparks never caused a fire while I was there.

Back at school in the year after I was at the mine, I needed to contact CONSOL for some reason. They were very slow responding, and at last I learned the reason for the delay. The east end of the Blacksville #1 mine had exploded and burned, killing a work crew I'd spent a few days with while I worked there. The day of the explosion, the crew had been trying to get a continuous miner onto a sled to be dragged elsewhere by the attached locomotive, when there had been a ground fault from the power supply to the rails. BLAM!

When the recovery crews finally reached the site of the explosion, many weeks later, all they found was a high-alloy belt buckle that had been worn by one of the men. The rest was ash.

To this day, what makes my skin crawl is the memory of the time I had worked with this now-deceased crew, when they were trying to move the 
continuous miner in the same way—unsuccessfully because the power kept tripping out. 

I was at the rear of the continuous miner as they tried to shift the massive machine one last time before they gave up. I saw a fat arc jump between the machine and a rail, tripping the circuit. I was witnessing the exact same thing that would kill nine men a year later. 

The only difference was, the day I was there, there wasn’t enough coal dust in the mine to make the BLAM happen.

This week's prompt for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge reminded me of the trade-off between excitement and danger, between the chance of having a great story to tell afterward, and having no afterward in which to tell it:

March 23, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write an adventure, experienced or witnessed. Explore your own ideas about what makes an adventurous spirit. Is it in the doing? Does standing witness count, and if so, how? Be adventurous!

The Chinese made it a curse: May you live in interesting times. Me, I'll settle for a little less adrenaline in my current life. It can stay in the anecdotes. It seems Granny Marta agrees.


Resting On Her Laurels

"Tell us about flying the plane, Granny!" Marta sighed, gathered the youngest into her lap.

She began, "I was a passenger on a little airplane, nineteen, flying off to college. I thought that was the real adventure, you know..., Anyway, something happened to the pilot. They called from the cockpit, can anyone fly a plane? I had flown Pa's crop-duster. No one else volunteered, so I did."

"Were you scared, Granny?"

Almost to death, she thought. "A little," she admitted, "I just did whatever they said."

The memory still made her queasy. Any crash would have been my fault.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The First Race Across America

Review: Horatio's Drive, documentary by Ken Burns

In late May 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson, a doctor from Vermont eating in a restaurant in San Francisco with his new bride, overheard a statement made at a nearby table, to the effect that automobiles were a fad that would not last because they could not carry a man across the country. 

On a whim, Jackson laid down a $50 bet that he could drive to New York City in 3 months or less. He bought a "slightly used" Harry Winton car, hired a bicycle racer/mechanic named Sewall Crocker to come with him, and three days later, they left San Francisco on the trip. 

Jackson's wife "gave him his independence" to do this, but declined the chance to accompany him. She returned to Vermont to await his arrival and keep the rest of his family posted on his progress. 

In addition to the bet, Jackson would have competition. Unknown to him, the Packard and Oldsmobile companies had well-planned manufacturer-funded and -supplied expeditions, one starting a few weeks later from San Francisco, the other from Pasadena. These entries in the race would find advance supplies along their routes, including guaranteed petrol caches. Jackson, on the other hand, turned down the offer from the Harry Winton factory to sponsor him (made only when he had reached the Mississippi), rather than lose the independence of making his own way.

"Nel" Jackson's commentary (voiced by Tom Hanks) comes from the many letters and postcards he wrote to his wife. Reactions to the arrival of an automobile crossing the country are garnered from newspaper clips, memoirs, and the PR efforts of the other two competitors. 

The documentary by Ken Burns detailing this first trans-continental road trip is poetic and thrilling. Using clips supplied from archives, plus a realistic "Horatio Cam" view crafted by Alan Moore, the film gives us a real sense of what it might have been like to travel any distance by automobile at a time when the roads were little more than cart tracks and game trails, and there were no roadside inns, restaurants or filling stations. 

The final thrilling note comes almost as an afterword. All three cars drive the entire way in 1903; the Oldsmobile even goes the extra distance to dip its front wheels in the Atlantic (touting its trip as the "only true sea-to-sea transit of the United States"). But that same year, two bicycle mechanics in South Dakota were making history with another kind of vehicle, as Teddy Roosevelt sent the first telegraph "message sent 'round the world". 

And in October 1903, two things happened. Harry Winton drove a car from his factory to set the world record speed of 68 mph. And Horatio Nelson Jackson, behind the wheel of the same car he had driven across the country that year, was pulled over to receive a speeding ticket—for driving faster than 6 mph. 

When Hayduke Was a Verb

Review: Hayduke Series by "George Hayduke"

When the Hayduke books were published in the late 70s and early 80s, they were carefully labeled "for entertainment purposes only... not for children or the mentally unbalanced.

I remember reading them in that spirit, wholly comfortable with the idea of (someone else) wreaking vandalism, humiliation and even bodily harm in the effort to get revenge for some slight. With titles like Getting Even, Revenge and Byte Me! Hayduke's Guide to Computer-Generated Revenge, they were obviously not about turning the other cheek.

Still, they fit with the iconoclastic, Luddite-inclined spirit of the time. If the neighbor persisted in playing his icky music too loud, we'd just see how he liked having dirty words burned into his lawn with vinegar. If the power company kept parking their maintenance vehicle in our favorite space at the restaurant, heck, we'd just gum up the engine with two quarts of Karo syrup! And that jerk who dissed us at the office, well, wait until he gets to the hotel on his road trip—we've super-glued the trunk lock shut over his family's luggage.

At the time the books first appeared, there was some suspicion that "George Hayduke" was a pseudonym of Edward Abbey. The first Hayduke book, a tabloid-size papercover copyrighted in 1980, refers to Abbey's book The Monkey Wrench Gang, first published in 1975. But the main character of Abbey's fictional paean to desert eco-terrorism is a "Vietnam veteran, George Washington Hayduke III". (Abbey's name is also attached to the 1990 publication, Hayduke Lives!, released just after Edward Abbey died in 1989. This book may have been completed by an unattributed writer.)

For these reasons, I think it is more likely that the Hayduke pseudonym was chosen by someone who approved of the anti-development activism message of The Monkey Wrench Gang, and wanted to extend it to the petty spite of personal revenge. The copies I have are filled with pretty low-tech vengeance suggestions, but more recent publications include computerized revenge techniques. Hayduke is also the author of several do-it-yourself manuals for building silencers and other explosive means of making a point.

To repeat as I began, I remember chuckling over the nasty little tricks detailed in these books when I was in college. Rereading them now, in an age serious terrorist threats, I feel a little chill down the back of my neck. I hope Abbey's last title, Hayduke Lives!, is in error—I'd prefer Hayduke safely under the sod.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Claiming Hell

Review: Hell's Gate by David Weber and Linda Evans

If multiple universes could exist, they might intersect. If magic was a reality in at least one of them, there might also be another world with people of supernatural ability. And given that magic-practicing humans in each would want to expand into the adjacent worlds of their respective multiverses, eventually they would meet. If they did, a war of magics might erupt.

That's a lot of "ifs," and the authors take an uncomfortably long time setting the scene. It doesn't help that neither human civilization uses names, military ranks, gods, or countries anything like our own common usage. 

The reader is left to wallow in that welter of the unfamiliar, trying to set two different imaginary worlds into place mentally, before the story can truly commence. The only help is that one group of humans use "Talents" (ESP-like magical gifts), and supplement them with mechanisms like trains, artillery pieces, and dynamite. The other group uses "Gifts" (spell-magic talents they can use themselves, or code into personal crystals"PCs"for use by the non-Gifted), as well as modified organisms like dragons. 

Oh, yes, and there are sentient apes and cetaceans in one of the multiverses. Sigh.

Previous writers who took on the multiverse concept left one side to the familiar. Think of H. Beam Piper with Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, or Wen Spencer's Tinker in the Elfhome novels. Eric Flint's Ring of Fire novels started with a single town swapped into an unfamiliar alternate time and place in 1632

In the Weber/Evans Hell's Gate series, we have to stretch to encompass good and bad guys for both sides of the conflict in a totally alien battlefield. Furthermore, the geography of each multiverse is the same as our own mundane Earth. It makes the battleground and home worlds in which these two cultures contend eerily familiar, but just different enough to delay and defeat the reader's attempt to assign places to a familiar globe.

If the novel shares a common failing with other Weber tales, it is the blank-and white nature of the various opponents: good guys are not only good, but stellar (even holy!); bad guys are not simply mistaken, but married to evil. Yet as with the Honor Harrington and Safehold oeuvres, there are enough of each on both sides of the conflict to keep it real.

More real than this is the "fog of war" that develops when these two civilizations meet. Although each had the firm intention to keep any eventual encounter peaceful, that intent does not survive the actual contact. "Guns" begin to blaze, people die on both sides, and it doesn't even need conspiracies of disinformation and propaganda from both civilizations to spin the conflict out of control:
Once hostility begins to grow, simple clarity of communication isn't enough to make it magically disappear. If two nations have a tradition of dislike, if they treat one another to public displays of discourtesy or petulance, if they get into the habit of denigrating one another in efforts to sway international diplomatic opinion to favor their side in some dispute, misunderstandings and flares of temper can occur quickly, particularly during times of increased stress.

This is the opening of a new series, so we should not expect the good guys to tidily win before the end. Even so, there is a appalling number of characters in whom we investe interest who die in horrific wayssome of them before the tale is really underway. 

Yet despite its complexities, clumsy phrasing, and slight stereotyping, despite all the discomforts and delays, the story itself is compelling. We see how the misunderstandings contribute to disaster. We want the Prince to defeat the plans of his evil father-in-law, we want the Talented couple to survive as POWs, we really want the evil general and his sadistic minions to pay for their crimes.

And we're dying to know what the whales plan to do!

Liner Notes:

I found several things helpful in keeping the two civilizations straight in my mind:

  • The group with ESP Talents (the "mechanicals" as I call them) give their veterans the right to use the honorific "chan" in their names. The other civilization (or "magics") has a cultural group that includes the honorific "vos" in their surnames, but it isn't a reliable way to spot them in the narrative, especially since these folks may be hiding their Gifts.
  • "Dragoons" belong to the mechanicals, "Dragons" to the magics.
  • A couple of blank projection-maps helped me keep the geography of the two groups straight. Since the mineral wealth is common from one universe to another, silver and gold lodes and oilfields help site the places discussed. Obvious geographic landmarks like Gibraltar, the Mediterranean and Black Seas, gulfs and straits and island continents, all help to position the alien location-names on an understandable map.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Time Travel Terrorists

Review: For King and Country by Robert Asprin and Linda Evans

In this interesting take on time travel, only the time-traveler's mind can move back through time. On arrival, the time-shifted person provides guidance to (or takes over) a person in the destination era, in a schizophrenic guest/host relationship.

The story is driven by an IRA terrorist who is known to have acquired a place on the time-exploration team, and complicated by uncertainty about his (or her) precise identity. The terrorist's goal is to assassinate King Arthur, and so prevent the ascendancy of Britain over Ireland.

But how will the terrorist, who is after all unable to carry modern weaponry back to Arthurian times, manage to create this mayhem? The answer is the terrorist's knowledge of a bio-weapon, available anywhere (even today), and a plan to "weaponize" and deliver it to the best effect.

This is not a riveting novel; it is easy to put down and just as easy to pick up again later and read on from that stopping point. It is enjoyable and well-written, with engaging characters and a diverting story, worth reading for the plot twists and sense of everyday life in Arthurian Britain and Ireland.

Liner Notes:

  • The outcome from deploying the bio-weapon used in this story will appall anyone, yet it is equally accessible today for use by any terrorist.
  • After you've read this novel, you will never again casually slide a used knife into the slot of a knife-stand without sterilizing it.

Stepping Up (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

When I was still in my 40s, the first steps were taken in a new movement to use the unique skills of retired persons. "The greatest generation" certainly deserved their retirementbut many, it became clear, did not want to lay down the tools they had honed and perfected throughout their careers.

They sought a platform to continue contributing. Mentoring, advising, lending their experience to those in need, they volunteered or worked part-time at a far smaller salary than they had commanded before retirement. By the time the baby-boomers, my generation, began to retire, this was an accepted practice.

I think sometimes (often as I prepare for my own senior volunteer job) about those first volunteers, whose age did not stop them from stepping up to fill the need they saw.

Charli Mills talked about the first person to step up in the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week, and prompted us to write about it:

March 16, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about the idea of “just one.” If all it takes is just one, what is the story? Explore what comes to mind and go where the prompt takes you. Bonus challenge: eat cake while you write, or include cake in your flash.

Yes, it takes just one person to step up. But far more important is the response of others who also step up, giving support to that brave first volunteer. Never far from my heart is the topic of libraries, books and librarians, the seed for my response to the prompt this week.


Stepping Up

Late! Myrna ignored the glares from the group of retired librarians, hitting the restaurant buffet first for tea and a slice of cake.

"Sorry!" she breathed, sinking into place at the large table. "What did I miss?"

Her fork halted halfway between plate and mouth at the answer. "The city voted last night to defund the neighborhood libraries program. They don't have enough money to staff them AND the Metro library downtown."

Myrna ate her bite of cake, said, "We'll be staffing the neighborhood libraries, of course."

One member looked at another, startled. Several seconds passed, then, "Of course!"

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Slaying Gods (With Vindaloo Sauce)

Review: The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall

Vish Puri is a "most private investigator," in the lilting descriptive of Indian English. His job-title is all you need to taste the flavor of Tarquin Hall's stories of life and crime in India. Spicy fried foods and rafts of Hindu deities form the foundation of this tasty tale, which is further garnished with glimpses of Punjabi home life and tidbits of middle-class Indian culture.

The murder Puri investigates is the very public slaying of "Guru Buster" Dr. Jha, whose death by sword, mid-guffaw under a tree in a park, was witnessed by several other members of his "Laughing Club." The murder weapon has vanished.

And the witnesses swear the good doctor was slain by a twenty-foot tall Kali, the multiple-armed goddess of death, floating in the air before she vanished completely.

Vish Puri calls in his associates to investigate, starting with the fact that the most recent guru Dr. Jha had vowed to expose had predicted a dire future for him. The detective believes this guru may have helped his prediction come true, so he needs to investigate the Swami and his very young female disciples. The witnesses give several different accounts of their experiences of the murder, so Puri must sort through them all to separate truth from liesor from mere exaggerations.

While the "big crime" occupies Vish Puri, his wife and her mother are engaged in another case, tracking down the thief who robbed their "ladies' lottery" party. (Think Tupperware party with no plastic on sale, or penny bridge without any cards. The money collected from each party-goer is given to the lucky woman whose name is drawn.)

Was the murder really committed by a god with the power to levitate and vanish at will? Could the ladies' lottery prize really have been stolen by one of their own? And will Vish Puri ever get enough to eat? The mystery is delicious, the characters are tasty and memorable, and the constant talk of Indian food is enough to send readers to the nearest curry restaurant.

I would probably never have purchased a mystery like this, despite the brilliant colors and wild action of the cover. Fortunately, it caught my eye on a visit to a Little Free Library. Somebody bought it on sale (it still had a $6 discount sticker on the front), read it (judging by the food stainsgulab jamun? vindaloo sauce?on the final pages of Chapter Four), then donated it to the library where I found it.

I will pass it on in our own Little Free Library, to brighten the day (and activate saliva) for yet another reader.

Liner Notes:

  • If you purchase this book and the other Vish Puri novels, I strongly recommend the eBook edition. I had forgotten how onerous it was to look up unfamiliar words in the Glossary (if they are included), or on the Internet. 
  • Even if you're thoroughly familiar with Indian food names and cultural terms, you may still need to search out definitions for the urban slang that Hall salts liberally through his tales. Fortunately, he does include these in the Glossary.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Judicial Activism and the Power of Life and Death

Review: Decision by Allen Drury

When Pulitzer Prize winner Allen Drury wrote Decision, the US was deeply entrenched in the Cold War, the crime rate in the US was sky-rocketing, domestic terrorists wore peace signs, black berets and tie-dyed shirts, and the Supreme Court was already a center of "judicial activism," with decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade.

Drury's power does not lie in elegant phrases and interesting metaphors, but in his profound understanding of how men and women in positions of power work with each other. Drury wrote of a Supreme Court under fire from both sides of the American political spectrum; a court which, although divided inside by the passions and beliefs of its associate justices, must present a united front to reach a decision. This was a Supreme Court just coming to realize the potentials of its power:
"They can't just arbitrarily set aside one sentence and impose another!" gasped the young lady from the Des Moines Register, a new reporter at the Court. "Who says they can't?" the Washington Post responded tartly. "They're the Supreme Court of the United States, aren't they? Who's to stop them?"

Drury wrote from a conservative stance, and at the time he wrote this novel, was still willing to embody reasonable people in his more-liberal characters. So we meet new Associate Justice Taylor Barbour, coming to the court after a whirlwind confirmation by a conservative Senate, appointed by the Eisenhower-esque President for whom he had served as Secretary of Labor. Barbour has a good friend and former Yale study-partner, Moss Pomeroy, already on the court. He comes to a court that is precariously balanced between conservative and liberal. Taylor Barbour intends to embody that balance within himself, as he has all his life.

As these events transpire in Washington, DC, a shadowy figure gradually emerges into the light in Moss Pomeroy's home state, South Carolina. At first glance, Earle Holgren is a survivalist living modestly to avoid detection. But we learn of the inheritance that bankrolls his bitter fanaticism and of his plan to "make a statement" about the local nuclear power plant that has finally been completed.
...He estimated that at the time of the explosion, it would be quite dark. It would be a pretty sight against the looming mountains and trees. It would flower like a fountain. It would be a rose of death... He neared the roped-off area where uniformed guards watched impassively as a small group, some students and some leftovers like himself from an earlier age, stomped and shouted, their placards proclaiming hatred, dire prediction and fear. He stopped for a moment and watched them with contempt. What children they were... He felt no community with them any more. His methods were more direct.

What makes this novel echo so eerily in this millennium is the central emotional issue in the subsequent trials of Earle Holgren. Taylor Barbour's bright daughter Janie is visiting Sarah Pomeroy on the day of the power station opening. The explosion kills Moss Pomeroy's daughter outright, but injures Jane Barbour severely, and as the trial commences, she is in a persistent vegetative state. Barbour must set these emotional reactions aside as the suspected perpetrator comes to trial, much as Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes advised a new colleague on the court in 1939:

Justice Douglas, you must remember one thing. At the constitutional level where we work, ninety per cent of any decision is emotional. The rational part of us supplies the reasons for supporting our predilections.  —The late Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, quoted by Justice William O. Douglas in his autobiography.

Drury's novel brings other characters into the fray: a huge national organization named Justice NOW! that seeks to strengthen criminal penalties, including the death penalty; as well as a curious amicus curiae filed on behalf of "CBS, et al" (the alii in that "et al" comprise all the major TV news broadcasters of the time) which seeks a judgment from the court to allow televising the execution of Earle Holgren, once his sentence has been imposed.

Allen Drury is always compelling reading, and of his novels, perhaps only his Pulitzer-winning Advise and Consent is more meaningful to current events than Decision. If your local library doesn't have them both, I'll be surprised.

News from 1632

Review: Grantville Gazette, edited by Eric Flint

When Eric Flint conceived the “Ring of Fire,” a cosmic event in that transposed an entire town (Grantville) from year 2000 America to year 1632 Germany, he created more than the basis for a series of novels. The concept attracted fans, inspiring them to comment and even write their own “fanfic” stories in the milieu Flint devised.

Some of those fans are writers in their own right: Mercedes Lackey, for one. Others are just as able if less well known, as this second collection of fan stories shows. Many of these stories began their life in the 1632 Slush Pile at Baen’s Bar. (For those who desire to get into science fiction writing, this is one path to publication.)

My favorite of these compilations is the second. (The first was Ring of Fire whose highlight was a David Weber story.) Grantville Gazette includes five fiction and three non-fiction pieces, plus an introduction by Eric Flint. The book also gives the ground rules for stories in the Ring of Fire milieu, the most important being, if it isn’t native to the time, and wasn’t in the real-life town of Mannington, West Virginia, you can’t use it in the story. For that reason, ideas and knowledge are the strongest assets possessed by the Grantville “up-timers.”

Portraits” by Eric Flint places an up-time American nurse posed as a cheerleader in the model’s seat of Pieter Paul Rubens. Technically, Rubens is an enemy, yet he manages to persuade the girl to sit for him, dressed in nothing but Old Glory and her own dignity. She has a secret agenda, however, one that is only revealed after her portrait is complete.

Anna’s Story” by Loren Jones tells the events of the night of Ring of Fire from the perspective of a rural German girl, and the crotchety old farmer who takes her into his farmhouse. Anna is appropriately wide-eyed over the wealth of the Americans, while her mother is worried that this lord they have come to live with will expect more from them than a servant’s work.

Curio and Relic” by Tom van Natta introduces a type of gunsmith not often discussed in time-travel stories. Paul Santee has a gun collection ranging from matchlocks to machine guns. More important, he knows how to repair, cross-part and modify ammo to supply most of the firearms that made it down-time with Grantville. The Vietnam vet has an important part to play in Grantville's defense.

Sewing Circle” by Gorg Huff is the longest story in the anthology, and my favorite. Junior achievement meets time travel in this tale of five high-school freshmen (with a cartel of middle-school investors) who bring twenty-first century economics and nineteenth-century technology together to help prevent inflation in Grantville.

Virgina de Marce returns in this second Grantville story collection with “The Rudolstadt Colloquy.” American notions of freedom and tolerance run headlong into Medieval religious thought, and the result is a quiet—even yawn-inducing—meeting. The problem, from the American’s point of view, is that Medieval passions run to suppression of freedom. What’s needed is a call to revolution, taken straight from the music of “Mother Maybelle,” Johnny Cash’s mother-in-law.

On the fact side of the ledger, three fascinating pieces explain the technological background of the Grantville universe. “Radio in the 1632 Universe” by Rick Boatright (the source of Eric Flint’s radio expertise for the novels) explains the Maunder Minimum that affects radio reception for Grantville, and also details the limitations on up-time materials experienced by the locals. Remember, if it wasn’t in Mannington, WV, it can't be in Grantville. Period.

They’ve Got Bread Mold, So Why Can’t They Make Penicillin?” by Bob Gottlieb explains the difficulties and challenges of up-timer doctors in 1632. They know where penicillin comes from in the same way most of us know how TV works. Making it is a whole ‘nother industry! Meanwhile they have plagues, starving refugees and a local war to contend with.

Horse Power” by Karen Bergstralh puts the genetic contribution of up-time horses into perspective with details of two equine genes (X-Factor and HyPP), one beneficial and one lethal, and the difficulty of identifying either one in 1632. A catalogue of down-time horse breeds and the availability of Belgian draft horses within the Ring of Fire completes her discussion of the “horse power” available in Grantville.

If you’ve enjoyed the “1632verse” novels, both the fact and the fiction in this compilation are must-reads. For those who have never encountered Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire, I recommend reading at least 1632 first.

Illuminating What Is Hidden

Review: The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen, translated from Spanish by Simon Bruni

When I began reading this novel, my Kindle First selection for March, it immediately evoked for me The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (also a translation, now that I think of it). There are similarities in the opening pages of the story: a young child lives hidden underground, with family, only dimly understanding all the reasons why they must stay hidden.

And yet, as I continued to read, the differences between the two books gradually overwhelmed the similarities. For one thing, the eleven-year-old boy of Paul Pen's story was born in his cellar. 

With Anne Frank, we know the reasons her family stays hidden; for Pen's boy (who is unnamed throughout the tale), it is a mystery. The boy has no memory of life other than lived in a cellar. His Mom and Dad, his Grandma, his sister and brother, are all the family he knowsindeed, they are all of humanity for him. An occasional footstep overhead is interpreted as the sinister "Cricket Man" whom the boy has been taught to fear.

Despite his hidden existence, the boy lives a carefree life between visits from the Cricket Man. He nurses a cactus, pushing it across the floor so it sits in the single beam of sunlight that shines into the cellar. He studies his book of insects, especially the fireflies, whose ability to make their own light has captivated his imagination. He observes, but does not question, the many mysteries that surround him: Where does the family's food and other supplies come from? Why is there always an extra place set at the table, with food for a seventh person served at each meal and then thrown away? Who is the father of his pregnant sister's child? Is the door to the outside locked, or could he really leave whenever he wanted to go?

We develop our own questions as well, as we read. Why does the boy's father insist so ferociously that his sister must wear her mask? No other member of the family, all of whom bear hideous scars from a fire, is required to hide their damaged faces. What really happened to the chick the boy somehow managed to hatch from an egg?

And where do the fireflies come from? The fireflies start to appear just as the boy has begun to question his life underground. He collects them carefully, hoarding them in a jar against the day when he will need light in his darkness. Just as carefully, he gleans answers to his questionsbut are they truthful answers? He has no way to judge.

The solutions to these mysteries will horrify as much as they satisfy. As with Anne Frank, the boy serves as a foil to a terrible reality. At least for this boy, we can delight in the fictional nature of the horror, and be satisfied that the innocent may eventually go free to live in the light.

Liner Notes:

  • You will probably not realize in reading it that this novel was translated from Spanish. Settings, syntax, and details are perfectly translated (or perfectly conceived in the original language) so that there are no ethnic clues. It helps that there are no proper names used anywhere in the story.
  • For maximum enjoyment, put aside any awareness of how fireflies actually behave in the real world. It is essential to approach them as the child himself does: as wonderful beings that produce their own light.