Fallen Dragon

I continue to be immersed in the intricacies of pre-World War One diplomatic history, so you get another retro review.

This one is a Peter F. Hamilton book, one of his few standalone works.

From November 23, 2003 …

Review: Fallen Dragon, Peter F. Hamilton, 2002.Fallen Dragon

As the novel states at the beginning, the fault of most things in the universe is money.

And money is the problem with space exploration in the mid-24th century. Space exploration and colonization just isn’t paying for itself. Colonies take centuries to repay investors. To make matters worse, some declare themselves independent of their corporate founders on Earth. The solution? The “asset-recovery mission”, legalized piracy where corporate armies swoop down on colonies to plunder them.

Lawrence Newton is a sergeant in such an army, and, when he gets word of an impending mission to the planet Thallspring, he starts to plan a little private asset realization of his own. On Thallspring, we get the story of a mission frustrated by local resistance headed up by Denise Ebourn who is much more than the simple storyteller and schoolteacher she appears to be. Continue reading

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Stealing Other People’s Homework: Just Drop the Last Chapter

Since I’m in the middle of reading Christopher Clark’s thick The Sleepwalkers, you again don’t get anything new.

However, rather than give you another retro review, you get somebody else’s look at three new books on the social ills of America — specifically their diagnostic excellence and prescriptive ignorance.

They Called Him Wild Bill

Having just returned from South Dakota, it’s entirely appropriate I revive this retro-review from November 13, 2003.

Rosa, incidentally, is from Britain and still considered the world greatest authority on Mr. Hickok.

Review: They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok, Joseph G. Rosa, 1974.They Called Him Wild Bill

There are many figures from the American West whose lives are encrusted with legend and myth, but, with Wild Bill Hickok, the process started even before he was dead.

It was a short life, done at 39 when he was shot in the back by one Jack McCall in Deadwood, South Dakota.

In those 39 years, Hickok helped his father run a station in the Underground Railway, fought as a guerilla in Missouri, went behind enemy lines as a scout and spy in the Civil War, drove coaches and wagons, guided hunting parties, served as a detective for the U. S. government, prospected for gold, acted in a traveling stage show with Buffalo Bill Cody, gambled, and, most famously, served as a lawman in Hays and Abilene, Kansas. During that time, he killed men and exhibited a shooting skill with revolvers unmatched at the time.

I grew up not far from Deadwood, a town that has enshrined Hickok’s grave and memory, but this is the first full-length, adult biography of him I’ve read, and I found it a good, credible introduction to his life. Continue reading

Tin Men

If my last few reviews of new books (The London Project and Lightless) seem a bit cranky, well …

It’s summer time, migraine weather. My serotonin is low (you do know that people with low serotonin are more prone to commit “altruistic punishment“?), and I have fantasies of Agent Oranging my whole lawn.

And Amazon wants their review now.

So here’s my homework, Mr. Bezos.

Review: Tin Men, Christopher Golden, 2015.Tin Men

One of the criticisms of mixing the sexes in combat units is the romantic and sexual distractions degrading combat performance. Given that the first two chapters feature a lot of that involving our hero, Danny Kelso, and Kate Wade, the legless woman he flirts with before missions, you’d almost think Golden was making some ironic comment on the wisdom of that.

Now, I have criticized the warrior babe notion before (Clash of  Eagles and Shock & Awe), but it works here because technology has put downloaded warrior minds in robots that carry lots of ammo, have lots of armor, and their own power plant.

Don’t get excited. That’s as far as Golden’s technological speculation goes. The world seems little altered by all those technologies. Perhaps it’s because the Tin Men aka Remote Infantry Corps are proprietary American technology.

America uses the Tin Men — nicely invulnerable and operated by people safely based in places like Wiesbaden, Germany — to police the world. How America manages to pay for this is never explained though, at the G-20 summit in Athens, Greece, the American president is about to put the screws to the world — perhaps to make it a better paying proposition, but we never get the details. (Do I even need to say Greece? Like Athens, Georgia would ever host a G-20.) Still, I’m sure Niall “Pick Up the White Man’s Burden” Ferguson would approve of Tin Men.

Well, as Napoleon found out when he tried to bring better government to Spain, people don’t like foreigners telling them what to do even when it’s for their own good. (And, no, post WWII West Germany and Japan don’t count. That’s a special case. Who would you rather be occupied by? The USA or USSR?)

An international alliance of Bot Killers, so-called anarchists, have banded their abilities, partly aided by villain Khan, and developed weapons to take out the Tin Men. More importantly, they’ve decided to burn down modern civilization by setting off a series of electro-magnetic pulse weapons throughout the world. Thus Golden scraps a lot of his tech. And a nasty secret is revealed about Tin Men.

It’s not a copy of a mind that’s downloaded into a Tin Man. It’s the mind. The body back in Wiesbaden is just a mindless zombie while the Tin Man runs. And, once you knock out a lot of electronic infrastructure with EMPs, the only way the Tin Men’s minds are going back in the their bodies is if they make it from Damascus, Syria to Wiesbaden. (Golden brings up the question of how long those bodies can be mentally vacated before irreversible damage sets in, but he gives no answer.)

And, of course, now when you kill a Tin Man, you’re killing the operator. Khan and his allies are out for blood.

The story alternates between three groups: the Tin Men in Syria, the besieged G-20 conference in Athens, and Wiesbaden. The main story of the Tin Men fleeing towards home reminded me of Xenophon’s Anabasis which tells of Greek mercenaries fleeing Persia for the safety of the Black Sea.

There are traitors and lovers and civilians who die nobly and civilians who learn to kill and cowards and brutes who shape up when it counts. It’s entertaining. Golden surprises with whom he chooses to let live — not many. It must also be said that he makes an effort to show the world through all his characters’ eyes and not making them rhetorical puppets.

Just don’t think you’re going to read deep thoughts on wartech’s future or political philosophy.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Them

I’ve returned from the land of no internet connection (well, at least the zone I was in). As usual, I didn’t do a lot of reading, so you get another retro review.

I am working on new stuff.

Jon Ronson, of course, went on to a successful career and a movie adaptation — The Men Who Stare at Goats.

A retro review from October 23, 2003.

Review: Them: Adventures with Extremists, Jon Ronson, 2001.Them

With an open mind and some charming naivete, Ronson went on an expedition to find not only those who obsess about the secret masters of the world but, just maybe, the masters themselves.

Like others who have actually done honest fieldwork amongst these political exotica, Ronson meets a lot of kind, polite, and charming people — as long as you happen to be the right race or creed. Many are reasonable and tolerant too — at least when they don’t have any power to realize their visions.

From the vast zoo of modern conspiracy theory, Ronson mostly concentrates on the ZOG/Bilderberg/Trilateralist/Satanist clade which is usually associated with the right wing. But his years of research turn up some surprises.

In pre-September 11th London, Ronson hangs out with Omar Bakri, self-described as Osama bin Laden’s man in London. In America, we meet Thom Robb, Grand Wizard of some Klan sect in a world rife with internecine sniping, egomaniacs, and FBI informers. His claim to fame? He wants his disciples to follow his self-help program — oh, and stop using the “N-word”. With Jim Tucker, reporter for the notorious and defunct Spotlight newspaper, he attempts to infiltrate the annual meeting of the legendary Bilderberg Group. Then there’s ex-British sportscaster David Icke who insists that, when he talks about a conspiracy of world ruling reptilian space alien Illuminati, he really means space aliens and not Jews.

And Ronson doesn’t find extremism just among the conspiracy mongerers. The infamous actions of the U.S. government at Ruby Ridge are recounted as well as the press’ general inability to see a distinction important to the Weavers and their supporters — racial separatism as opposed to racial supremacy. The Anti-Defamation League comes across as far too ready to see anti-Semitism and pass its faulty judgements to a gullible media. Canadian activists try to stop Icke from public speaking — all in the name of racial tolerance. And when Ronson actually interviews a founding member, Denis Healey, of the Bilderbergs on their history and activities, suspicions are not entirely allayed.

Ronson makes few outright comments and judgements on his subjects, provides no grand summing up of his findings and that may be the book’s biggest flaw. The closest he gets is the concluding statement that nobody really controls anything. The book is more reportage than analysis. But that reporting is done with a sharp eye for the humorous and sinister. Bakri tells of what a future Islamic London will be like — and is chided at a meeting of fellow jihadists about his inept fishing. Who is the man following Tucker and Ronson in Portugal during the Bilderberg meeting? Hollywood, a claimed nexus of the Grand Jewish Conspiracy, comes off as petty, apolitical, and a place of insincere boutique faith as Ronson follows Tony Kaye, director of American History X, around. Klansmen argue the merits of silk or cotton robes. Ronson infiltrates the Bohemian Grove — attended by U. S. presidents and vice-presidents — and finds a rather silly, decades old frat boy ritual that just doesn’t have the same drawing power it used to among the up-and-coming junior world ruler set. And more than once, Ronson, a Jew, finds himself guiltily associating with anti-Semites.

To be sure, some of the books chapters seem extraneous. An auction of Nicolae Ceausescu’s relics adds nothing. Neither does a chapter on Ian Paisley taken from an early newspaper article.

Ronson’s book reminded me of Phillip Finch’s God Guts And Guns which went among the American radical right and the works of Laird Wilcox about American political extremists. Its humor and willingness to consider outre theories like David Icke’s reminded me of Alex Heard’s Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels In End-Time America, the work of Ronson’s fellow Englishman Louis Theroux, and the pages of The Fortean Times.

Anybody interested in strange beliefs, conspiracy theories, or political extremism should read this book.

Borderlands of Science

Charles Sheffield.

Again.

But this time it’s just science.

A retro review from October 5, 2003.

Review: Borderlands of Science, Charles Sheffield, 1999.Borderlands of Science

There are two primary audiences for this work. The first is anybody interested in understanding a wide variety of scientific topics. Though not as thorough and wide ranging as Isaac Asimov’s science guides, Sheffield writes with the same clarity and his own style of wit. Even somebody who regularly reads popular science magazines may find some new insights here.

Sheffield delves into the origins of life, subnuclear and quantum physics, possible mechanisms for space travel, physical descriptions of the solar system, superconductivity, viruses and prions, and a lot more including a whole section on “scientific heresies”.

The second audience are those interested in writing science fiction, specifically the sort of hard science fiction Sheffield wrote. To suggest story ideas, Sheffield explores some of the borders of modern science where conventional theory gives way to speculation. Along the way, he points out some common traps to avoid when handling topics like near lightspeed travel and suggests specific fiction titles as examples of how a concept has been dealt with. He does not offer any advice on the literary aspects of science fiction or in marketing it. His sole interest is in helping you get your real science right and make your imaginary science plausible.

While the book doesn’t have a whole lot about the thought processes of scientists, Sheffield does cover the historical and contemporary objections to some scientific theories, the prejudices that sometimes blind good scientists, and some of the amazing minds that have roamed across several disciplines.

Admirers of Sheffield’s fiction will also probably like the asides about its scientific inspiration.

My only objection to the book is that I wish some sections would have had more detail.

The book includes a useful bibliography of fact and fiction titles for further research and an index.

 

Reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Dark As Day

More Sheffield.

Another retro review. This time from October 1, 2003.

Review: Dark As Day, Charles Sheffield, 2002.Dark As Day

Those returning to the universe of Sheffield’s Cold As Ice and The Ganymede Club will be pleased to find their old friend Bat here. The reclusive, snoopy genius has exiled himself to a moon of Saturn. Unfortunately, his home on Pandora figures in the plans of the ruthless and pushy Ligon family who want to reverse their recent slide from third to tenth in the rankings of richest companies in the solar system.

Reluctantly involved in their plot is Alex Ligon, sort of the black sheep of the family. When not being bullied by his family into running errands — or auditioning for arranged marriages — he works for the government rather than Ligon Industries. He’s proud of a vast, sophisticated computer model of the entirety of human civilization in the solar system — until it shows mankind going extinct in less than a century. Bad modelling or a ominous and valid warning?

Meanwhile, young Millie Wu has signed on to work for one half of the Beston brothers — aka the Bastard and the Ogre, SETI researchers whose obsession about finding alien signals is matched only by their obsession with besting each other. Wu can’t quite believe her luck when she seems to have detected a genuine signal.

On Earth, Janeed Jannex and her childhood friend Sebastian Birch decide to emigrate to space, but their recruiters prove to surprisingly be interested in Birch’s almost idiot savant fascination with, of all things, clouds. Continue reading

The Ganymede Club

More Charles Sheffield.

Another retro review.

This time from September 22, 2003 …

Review: The Ganymede Club, Charles Sheffield, 1995.Ganymede Club

It’s five years after the Great War that killed nine billion people in the Solar System, but violence hasn’t ceased. It’s just returned to the traditional forms of individual murder for profit and paranoia
.
The targets in question are haldane Lola Belman, a therapist trained in the aracana of the mathematical underpinnings of the brain, psychotropic drugs, and medicine, and her patient who seems to be suffering a severe bout of false memories.

Unlike its prequel Cold As Ice, there are not a lot of neat scientific concepts here. The plot is not driven by scientific exploration and corporate and political intrigue but mostly by the suspense of the characters trying to figure out things the reader knows already, specifically who’s trying to kill them and why. And those characters are generally a more interesting lot than those in the earlier novel. The only overlap in the cast is with the best character: the Bat, an obese and extremely private genius who delights in solving all sorts of puzzles from scheduling conflicts in the spaceship transportation network to murder. Here we see him twenty years earlier in his career.

Essentially, if you like a good, suspenseful science fiction tale with a bit of hard science, this novel is for you. Sheffield has created, in these books, a universe of adventure, discovery, and intrigue about 90 years in the future. Each stands alone, and the books can be read in any order.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5

I strongly recommend James Gunn’s six volume The Road to Science Fiction anthology series as a good look at the history of Anglophone science fiction. In the sixth volume, foreign language science fiction is covered.

However, I only reviewed this volume.

A retro review from September 2, 2003.

Review: The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5: The British Way, ed. James Gunn, 1998.Road to Science Fiction

Several novels are excerpted here. And one prominent one isn’t: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which Gunn argues is a transition from the gothic but not yet fully in the camp of self-aware science fiction. Lt. Col. Sir George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking is the first of those future war novels written by politicians and military men determined to influence public policy. Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, still in print, is a charming tale of life and culture in a two-dimensional world. That incomparable giant of science fiction, Olaf Stapledon, is represented by a selection from Star Maker, narrated by a “cosmical mind” who views the life of the universe. (Though oddly, in this volume, Gunn barely mentions his importance to the genre. For that, you must consult volume two.) The title for the section on Richard Jeffries After London; Or, Wild England is “The Craving for Catastrophe”. It is a pastoral tale of a simpler life after an unexplained disaster has befallen the country.

That craving shows up in several more tales. Killer smog hits the city in Robert Barr’s 1892 story “The Doom of London.” “The Great Fog” of H. F. Heard wipes out worldwide civilization. Life gets extinguished on an alien planet in Arthur C. Clarke’s much anthologized “The Star.” “The Nature of the Catastrophe” in Michael Moorcock’s story of that name is never really explained. An amalgam of newspaper excerpts and fiction, this story unfortunately shares the oblique prose and loose setting of his Jerry Cornelius novels. Not readable in its own right, it still gives you some idea of Moorcock’s influence on the New Wave. Tanith Lee’s “Written in Water” is a last woman on Earth tale. The world that may be destroyed by an artist in J. D. Beresford “A Negligible Experiment” is our own. The disaster of John Wyndham’s “The Emptiness of Space” is a personal one. Its hero has survived a spell in cryonic suspension and fears his soul has left his body.

As you would expect, the anthology is full of several famous names. Continue reading

Year’s Best SF 3

I’ve read and liked most of David Hartewell’s Year’s Best SF (which is no longer published) but reviewed few of them.

Here’s one.  A retro review from July 28, 2003 …

Review: Year’s Best SF, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1998.Year's Best SF 3

The one piece of dross comes from an unexpected source: William Gibson and his story “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City”. It’s a minute, camera-eye examination of a cardboard structure in a Tokyo subway and obviously inspired by J.G. Ballard’s work. I detected no point to the series of descriptions, or, indeed, anything of a fantastical or science fictional nature.

Nancy Kress’ “Always True to Thee, in My Fashion” gives us a witty satire with a world where the seasonal variations of fashion cover not only clothes but also your pharmaceutically modulated attitudes.. The caged dinosaur of Gene Wolfe’s “Petting Zoo” represents not only the lost childhood of the story’s protagonist but a vitality lost from the race of man. Tom Cool gives us “Universal Emulators” with its future of economic hypercompetition that has created a black market for those who impersonate, in every way, the few employed professionals. In effect, the emulators grant them an extra set of hands. Its plot and characters would have done Roger Zelazny proud.

The voice of past science fiction writers echoes through many of the anthology’s best stories. Jack London’s The Sea Wolf provides the inspiration for Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth”. Its heroine realizes, despite whatever dangers she overcomes guiding posthumans through the Pennsylvania’s jungles, she will never bootstrap herself into being their equal. H.G. Wells looms over Robert Silverberg’s “Beauty in the Night”. Its child hero undertakes the first successful assassination of the brutal aliens that have occupied Earth, but his reasons have more to do with his oppressive father rather than the aliens’ behavior. John C. Wright’s “Guest Law” is a welcome return to the flashy decadence of Cordwainer Smith’s fiction. Its hero, a slave-engineer, watches in disgust as his aristocratic overlords corrupt the customary requirements of hospitality to justify piracy in deep space. Gregory Benford’s “The Voice” responds to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Here the convenience of implanted intelligent agents, hooked up to a computer network, led to literacy fading, and not a repressive regime of firemen. Benford agrees with Bradbury about literacy’s value but also undercuts him on the supremacy of writing as a means of communication. Continue reading