Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Breathtaking, Brutal—and Brilliant

Discussion: The Far Arena by Richard Ben Sapir


There are books I've read so often, I can no longer really review them. The Far Arena has been on my every-few-years list for over 30 years. Something about the Cold War revival of a frozen Roman gladiator by an American oilman, a Soviet physician, and a Norwegian nun just draws me back, time and again.

I first encountered the novel in a friend's collection in 1985 or '86. Rarely had I been so tempted to a five-finger discount! I borrowed it again every few months for a while until I had memorized several passages—when he moved away, I knew I had to find my own copy. 

I almost walked past it in a second-hand bookstore, because the cover was so different. Another publisher, plus an artist (or marketing department) that did not read past the opening chapters, lead to cover art that focused on "John Carter" buried deep in the ice.

What caught my eye, in fact, was a cover-quote from Howard Fast, author of Spartacus. "Breathtaking," it said, "you must read it." I had just re-read Spartacus, and the name grabbed my attention. Voila! I had my fix.
Even if Publius had my speed and strength and my perfect weapons and I but a club, still I would emerge alive. I had walked on arena sand, and Publius had not. ("Eugeni", Lucius Aurelius Eugenianus)

Over several moves, I lost and replaced the novel several times, most recently to add it to my Kindle. Each time, I dove into the story, rapt in a tale that addressed much more than the real life and culture of Rome, as seen through the eyes of a half-Greek slave rising to arena stardom in Rome. 

Each of the other three, modern protagonists has a similar journey to make, from their first innocent encounter with the gladiator, to their struggle to understand what they really want from him, to a final arena, with a battle that will cost each of them something very precious. 

Of the three, I most identify with Lew McCardle, the Texas petroleum geologist, promoted to Vice-President on the strength of his discovery in the ice. Again and again, his musings reveal a kindred spirit trapped by the Peter Principle in a conflict even his decades-past experience on the gridiron has not prepared him to face.

First, the na├»ve, focused engineer:
[H]e knew that good engineering did not have right angles in pipes.
Then the isolated husband wondering why he had chosen his wife, instead of a hookup girlfriend from his distant past:
She had everything to recommend her but a heart. And yet that is the last thing a young man looks at.
And the chip he carries on his shoulder, which may bring him down under its weight:
Oil men did not particularly like people who read books, nor did they trust them. Somehow Lew’s size, and his origins in a backwater Texas town, compensated for his reading.

The Cold War had yet to begin its thaw, with Soviets in Afghanistan, Reagan and Thatcher—and Gorbachev—still on or below the horizon, when Sapir was writing this novel. Many of Eugeni's reactions to modern life, his observations about the East/West conflict, rang solidly true to the readers who would soon sweep those politicians into office:
Why is it people think the authorities are some form of gods with either great justice or great, cunning evil, rather than the same plodding fools they see in their daily lives, and most of all in their mirrors?
And:
The purpose of an authority is to remain an authority, not dispense justice.

Re-reading it today, I find equally-cogent statements about the resurgence of Socialism and Communism, as well as identity politics:
You call people ‘masses’ when you treat them as a lump, as a hundred slaves more or less, as an army if you will. Nobody ever knew a mass or loved a mass or even paid the respect of hating a mass.
Because, Eugeni muses near the end of his story: 
...a man was a man because he thought, and all the cheers and all the illustrious parentage could not add one whit to any of his meaning.

It is not what one is, but what one thinks, that matters in the meaning of life. If one thinks.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Women on His Mind

Review: Lois McMaster Bujold's Penric & Desdemona Novels


Early in the novel Penric's Demon, a gormless young man pauses on the way to his arranged wedding to help an old woman at the side of the road. Unfortunately, she is inhabited by a demon, which jumps to young Penric when she dies, bringing along the memories and personalities of everyone possessed previously... all women.

As if being possessed by a demon weren't bad enough, Penric must now contend with the curious attention of a dozen women—many of them elderly—watching and criticizing his every move.

It's not all bad news, though. Penric acquires the powers of his ancient demon, whom he names Desdemona, along with the inescapable company of the clique of dames residing between his ears. And if their advice ruins his morning self-embrace, it saves him embarrasment far more often, and provides short-cuts to the scholarship he needs in order to be a competant sorcerer.

This book borrowed from world-building Bujold had already done for the Chalion fantasy series, although it is set in a different time in that world. The second two books of the Chalion trilogy are echoed in Book Two of this series, Penric and the Shaman. "Shaman" is the animal-bolstered equivalent of the sorcerer, so Inglis is, to some extent, Penric's peer. I was intrigued to see a different fantasy construct, the were-wolf, incorporated into the "paladin of souls" concept in Penric's world.

You can read these novels in any order you like, but I find they work best read in numeric order, 1-5. Further paragraphs may contain spoilers, so if you haven't read any of them yet, please stop here!

Book 4, Penric's Mission, came out before Book 3, Penric's Fox, was available for Kindle, so I orginally read them out of order. The third novel's story rises naturally out of the second, though, since it concerns a demon who has jumped, not to a human, but to the nearest creature available, a fox. It is also the closest to a murder mystery I have read from Bujold's pen. Desdemona really comes into her powers here, lending all her various riders' knowledge to the task of rescuing the lost demon.

Mission, on the other hand, is about Penric rising to the use of his powers, coordinating everything he has learned with the sorcerer's abilities to rescue General Arisaydia and his sister from an oppressive government. There is almost an engineering quality to his use of Desdemona's powers. (This is nothing more than I would expect from Bujold; my first encounter with her work was Falling Free.)

Book 5 is the first that doesn't feature Penric in the title. Mira's Last Dance has one of his embedded personalities, a courtesan with a predatorial way of controlling men, take center stage in the effort to enroll General Arisaydia in Penric's sponsor's cause (the escape that began in Mission). 

Not only does Penric's mission continue in Book 5, but his developing relationship with the sister does also. The convoluted way in which his female inhabitants inhibit this blossoming romance is a delight to read, conflict being the principal driver of good fiction! Throughout the series, in fact, I was reminded of the conflicts between Johann Smith, Eunice Branca and Jake Saloman (all residing in Eunice's head) in Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil.  


Liner Note:

Amazon lists these books as novellas. At around 100 pages, four of them are definitely short enough to class as novellas, but Penric's Mission is 224 pages. Further, all five read as novels, with lots of action (mental and physical) to reward the reader. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Choose Wisely

Review: Hobson's Choice with John Mills, Brenda de Banzie, Charles Laughton


What makes a "classic" movie classic? For me it goes beyond the black-and-white film, and the stars, directors and screenwriters of the 40s and 50s. It has more to do with a philosophy, the sense that binary values exist. Call them good and evil, or right and wrong, but classic movies in my library tell the story of what happens when people must choose.

My favorite example is named for that choice: Hobson's Choice. Superficially, the titular choice belongs to the Charles Laughton character, a boot-seller in Old Salford (near Manchester).

The very common, Mancunian-accented widower Henry Hobson has three daughters, a modestly prosperous boot-shop, and a drinking problem, made worse by living over the shopand across the street from the local pub. So the choice might be his, to drink or be sober.

Each of his daughters are also Hobsons, though, at least until they marry. His two younger girls have selected prosperousand teetoalbeaus, and shifted to as posh a fashion as they can afford for courting. Despite their obvious steps to escape the influence and lifestyle of their father, however, the thick Manchester accent reveals the thin veneer of their change. Their choices have not challenged the limitations of their upbringing, so much as painted over them.

Then there's Maggie Hobson (de Banzie). Henry's oldest daughter knows exactly what she wants: the best bootmaker in Manchester, Willie Mossop (Mills)—and in that sense Mossop is also Henry Hobson's "choice". Hobson pays him pennies, and gives him a place to stay "down cellar" in the workroom under the shop. When a local dame finds Mossop's boots superior, Maggie siezes her chance and gives Mossop a choice: he can marry her and make a success in their own shop. Or he can stay and make boots for pennies for his sot of a boss for the rest of his life.

This movie might have been grim, filled with defeated people barely clinging to their dreams in a gritty industrial town. Instead, it is filled with lovely images of romance growing well-fertilized from the common soil of effort and discipline. I can watch it often, and never fail to be uplifted by its message: Success in marriage and business—and life—require the same commitment. 

It's your choice. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Material Value of Dreams

Review: The Untethered by S.W. Southwick


"[W]hen the price of peace with others is the surrender of one’s highest values, conflict becomes one’s greatest asset." The conflicts in Southwick's dystopia are disturbingly familiar, with elements that echo today's headlines. 

In a world where most people are increasingly constrained to toe the line and give at least lip-service to the dual social concepts of Unity and Sacrifice, anyone who does not conform must self-identify as criminal, or become actively anti-socialSociety regards either as negative, of course, and so the real choice is self-abnegationaccepting the values imposed by societyor isolation from it. 

Advisory: This novel contains sex, drugs, and fighter jets. (From the author's description)

Young Roble Santos is anti-social, labeled delinquent, then abandoned to the foster system. Unlike his friend Danny Sands, the son of his last foster parents, however, Roble is never conflicted about what he wants. Given the choice between pursuing his dream of creating the ultimate jet plane or conforming, Roble rejects society's expectations and runs away. In his last interview with the Alexa Patra, the driven head of a private charity that places Nevada children in foster "care," he tells Patra:
"I don’t need to hear how scary the world is and how I shouldn’t try anything. I don’t need to know how much suffering there is out there,” he pointed out the window, “or how bad I should feel about it. What I need…” he looked up, his grey eyes pleading, “…is to see someone who is still happy after growing up.

If that sentiment seems familiar, perhaps you have read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead or Atlas ShruggedI felt that connection from the first pages of The Untethered, and began looking for deliberate allusions to those novels. They weren't hard to find. 

But if Howard Roark and John Galt are flawless, pristine exemplars of Rand's philosophy, they are less accessible for it. Roble Santos and his fellow objectivists (Libby Dodge, Halvern Black, Victor Lafayette, Nicolette Popov) pursue their dreams whole-heartedly, with total focus and absolute rejection of society's demands—yet they are not blemish-free. Their foibles make them human even while their accomplishments reveal they are something more.

The protagonists share something else, however: all their dreams involve something material, a creation which will not exist in the world until they create it. Roble Santos makes this material, objective reality obvious in one scene on an airbase in Okinawa:
"Sir, I know what keeps your adversaries at bay.” Sircor folded his arms, muscles flexing under his uniform. Roble pointed at a picture of Sircor standing with a group of Thunderbird pilots. “Your piloting ability is real.” He pointed at a model jet on the desk. “Your fighter jets and maintenance performance are real. That,” he gestured out the window, “Skeleton Eagle sitting at Naha—is real. Those realities keep them at bay, sir.”

On society's side of the conflict, criminals like Jesus Gorronza, politicians like Preton Moore, religious leaders like Randal Graph, and ordinary citizens like Donald Sands and his wife, give the required lip-service to the ideals of their culture, while feeding off whatever amount of power over others their actions can give them. Southwick gives these antagonists all the petty banality that such characters usually possess. It is also no surprise that many of them are in the government, or campaigning to be involved in
[T]hat sweet, unlimited democratic system, allowing plunder at the drop of a vote.

The most revealing characters are those in the middle, who try to straddle the divide between the pull of their dreams, and the yearning to please society—or who embrace the idea that doing what pleases them makes them criminals. When laws are written by those who want above all to consolidate power over others and impose their own beliefs, pursuing your dreams may actually, literally, make you a criminal:
There is no sanctuary against those who impose their beliefs on others through laws, not one single strip of dry land on this Earth.

Whether the goal is to feed the worldnot by theft/taxation or by shaming donors into giving, but by creating more productive crops—or to teach children to think, to explorerather than to compel them to parrot one's own thoughts—the concept of sacrificing one's individual identity into a collective group identity is ultimately destructive to both the dream and the person who dreams. 

For everyone who wishes to fly, who yearns to soar (and to forget all those whose envy drives them to shoot you down), The Untethered is your next great reading experience.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Honor Among Men

Discussion: Honor of the Queen (Honor Harrington Book 2) by David Weber


This is a discussion because I've read this book far too many times to "review" it. Weber's Harrington is just beginning her naval career, fresh from her triumph On Basilisk Station1. She's about to meet the intransigently paternal, religious societies of Grayson and Masada, where Honor must serve with, and command, men ill-prepared to cope with strong, capable women.

Contrasting forces and philosophies abound in this novel: diplomacy vs. military action; strong religious beliefs vs. religious fanaticism; even environmental technology vs. Luddite anti-techs.


Diplomacy

Honor commands a task group, in support of a diplomatic mission headed by once-Admiral Raoul Courvosier, whose mission is to bring Grayson into alliance with the Kingdom of Manticore. (At this point in Weber's Honorverse, although Manticore has a protectorate in the Basilisk system, it is still a single-system kingdom.) Honor can whole-heartedly support Courvosier, despite her suspicion that diplomacy is a sneaky way to achieve something, because she respects his tactical experience. 
War may represent the failure of diplomacy, but even the best diplomats operate on credit. Sooner or later someone who's less reasonable than you are is going to call you, and if your military can't cover your I.O.U.s, you lose.

Others in the diplomatic mission are not as respectable; in fact, one of Honor's long-running enmities is about to develop as she deals with a nit-wit diplomat who seems to believe that his touchy-feely assumptions about the Grayson-Masada conflict ought to be considered. In the character of Reginald Houseman, Weber was ahead of his times, writing about "snowflakes" before the type was recognized.


Religion

I often think of the opposed religious groups portrayed in this novel when I see entire religions tainted by the perfervid actions of a tiny minority within them. Grayson's society may have a religion at its base, but it is also a balanced, constitutional polity. When we and Honor first encounter Grayson, women are treated more as near-adult children: they are to be protected, guided, and treasured. In contrast, Masada's women are chattel. 

Many reviewers have cited the black-and-white nature of Weber's characters. Good guys are all good, bad guys are not just opposed, they are evil. So here in this novel, the Graysons are revealed as capable of learning to respect Honor and, by extension, others in the Manticoran navy who are, or are commanded by, women. 

If Captain Harrington is as outstanding an officer as you believe—as I believe—she invalidates all our concepts of womanhood. She means we're wrong, that our religion is wrong. She means we've spent nine centuries being wrong.

Technology

Weber sets up the story of Grayson and Masada with a pair of ironies. First, Grayson was settled directly from Earth as a religious colony, pro-environment, anti-technology "true believers." Arriving at Yeltsin's Star, they found a lovely, blue-green worldthat was poison to human life. They did not discover this fault until they had already, literally, burned their boats. A second world in the Yeltsin system, Masada, with its less-welcoming climate, was out of their reach once they made land-fall on Grayson.

The colonists spent the next generations battling their environment, gradually re-acquiring space flight, and needing the technology they had rejected back on Earth simply to survive. After a schism divides them into the few, fanatic "Faithful" and the larger original colony with their adapted belief in appropriate technology, Grayson decides to use their limited space flight to move the Faithful to Masada.

The Faithful on Masada could now re-abandon technology and revert to the original belief system. But they do not, because now they are focused on reclaiming the original world of the colony and substituting their belief for that of Grayson, whom they call "The Apostate."


I find the technology and religion themes comforting to re-read, especially as I am aware of how they will play out again in later novels in the series. With so many similar conflicts in today's news, I reflect, with David Weber, on the need for open discussion:
There are two sides to every dialogue, but if you accept the other side's terms without demanding equal time for your own, then they control the debate and its outcome.

Liner Notes

  1. I discussed On Basilisk Station in the post The Beginning of Honor.
  2. I prefer the older cover illustrations by David Mattingly. The recent editions in paper- and hardcover are distressingly spare, focused on Harrington's image—and Nimitz is nowhere to be seen!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Selling the Nazi Narrative

Review: The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left by Dinesh D'Souza

I remember as a youngster being puzzled by a common mob punishment in the Western world: tarring and feathering. Okay, being covered with feathers was ridiculous, but surely it wasn't as big a deal as all that!

Then my history teacher opened my eyes. Think of the tar as like napalm, he told me. It was boiling hot; victims were not only burned, they were permanently marked with scars. Feathering simply added insult to injury, although the "feathers" also commonly included barnyard straw, dung, and other filth that practically guaranteed an infection.

Imagine, then, that an entire communityan entire philosophyundergoes this brutal mob punishment. Further, there is no defense allowed; hands are tied and mouths stopped. The final injustice? The mob applying the tar and feathers are themselves guilty of the offense being punished. Their victims are not.

There are Nazis still among us, I know. Not all of them post on white supremacist blogs or wear swastikas. Some of them are more like the bearded ladies in the stoning mob in Monty Python's Life of Brian, masquerading in virtue as they cast their stones.

D'Souza's book documents the many ways in which the American progressive, socialist and communist left turns this accusation upon their political opponents, despite the long history of support, acceptance—even adoption—of Nazi and fascist thought by the left. In this inversion, defending any non-left political philosophy becomes, in and of itself, a proof of "fascism." 
Mussolini and Hitler became “right-wingers,” and the people who supposedly brought them to power became “conservatives.” The Left, then, became the glorious resisters of fascism and Nazism. To make this story work, fascism and Nazism had to be largely redefined.

We accept that actual Nazism is vile, because we agree that the actions and accomplishments of the Nazi regime in Germany were largely vile. We accept that fascism was foul, to the extent that it supported and agreed with the goals of German Nazism during the Second World War. Without knowing the history of these philosophies in the USA, we are in danger of agreeing that violence to suppress these evils here, now, is a good thing.

D'Souza reveals that the violent suppressors of Nazi and facist evil are themselves the actual successors to the mid-twentieth century Nazi, fascist thugs, and their violence is just the latest incarnation of that evil we thought we won against in WWII.
John Locke says that whatever other tasks a government undertakes—whether humanitarian or otherwise—its primary duty is to protect its own citizens from foreign and domestic thugs. That isn’t fascism; it’s classical liberalism. [Emphasis mine]

Let's have an end of defending against this calumny by saying it's "the pot calling the kettle black." It is more a case, as D'souza's careful scholarship shows, of the pot calling the bone china black.


Liner Quotes:

In the German camps and on the Democrat-run plantations, forced labor was employed with “human tools” solely with regard to productivity and with little if any regard for the lives of the workers who were, in both cases, considered inferior and even subhuman. The analogy between two of the worst compulsory confinement and forced labor systems in human history is not merely legitimate; it is overdue.
[The Nazi platform included] universal free health care and education. If you read the Nazi platform without knowing its source, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you were reading the 2016 platform of the Democratic Party.
H[itler] admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the Wild West, and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination—by starvation and uneven combat—of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity.
Democrats like Senator John C. Calhoun insisted slavery was a “school of civilization” although it was apparently not a school from which anyone was intended to graduate.
[A]nother refugee from Nazism who nevertheless in his youth worked with the Nazis and now directs, in much the same manner Mussolini and Hitler did in their early days, his own private militia. Note that Trump doesn’t have a private militia, but this guy does. With him, as with Marcuse, fascist thuggery derives its moral legitimacy and public respectability from a fake anti-fascist pose. His name is George Soros.