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Review 127: The God Engines

The God Engines by John Scalzi

There is not, to my knowledge, a whole lot of theological science fiction. Madeleine L’Engle’s books may qualify, but to be honest, it’s been years since I read them so I don’t know. The Golden Compass books, too, but they struck me more as fantasy, seeing as how there were no spaceships. My only successful foray into National Novel Writing Month produced some theological sci-fi, but it was questionable at best and is still fermenting on my hard drive somewhere.

In any case, that is what John Scalzi has given us, and if you’re a regular reader of his blog and his other books then you may find this one to be a little… off. You see, like many accomplished writers, Scalzi has a Voice, a way of writing that is immediately identifiable as his own, and which a lot of his fans have gotten used to. There’s no single thing I can point to that really illustrates what this is, but trust me – it’s there. A certain whip-quick sarcasm, a way of looking at old questions from a new angle and the ability to cut through the requisite fuzzy thinking that seems so endemic to the human race.

Not quite like this... but kind of.

In this book, he tries on a new voice, something that sounds kind of like his, but at the same time like he’s trying on something new. It’s as if Jonathan Coulton started doing Manowar cover songs. It’s not bad, it’s just something that takes a little getting used to.

Captain Ean Tephe is the commander of a great starship, the Righteous, one of the many ships in the fleet controlled by the Bishopry Militant. He and the other captains in the fleet are charged with carrying out missions for the Bishopry in the name of their God, a being of immense power who uses the faith of millions to rule them. Their Lord is a powerful and active god, one who brooks no dissent from His followers and who will suffer no challengers to His dominion. Long ago, the Lord battled countless other, smaller gods, and won, chaining them to his will and turning them into the engines of the great starships that carry His people out into the universe.

Some gods are less tractable than others. (art by Evolvana on DeviantArt)

The god that powers the Righteous, however, is not cooperating. Some ships’ gods are quiet and obedient, others chatty, some cowed into good behavior by fear. The god on this ship is defiant, despite the prayers of priests and acolytes, and the horrible whip that the captain wields to compel obedience. This god soon reveals itself to be part of a greater plan, one which enfolds both Tephe and his crew and reveals a truth about their God that is enough to drive men mad. It is a test of faith for the men aboard the Righteous, and if they should fail, their lives will end in short order.

It’s a very cool concept, really, one which I haven’t seen done before. Scalzi has powered a civilization by faith, quite literally, in a God that not only exists, but it quite active in the lives of His worshipers. His high priests exert complete control over a population that rightfully fears for their souls, and manage to channel the God’s power into various science-like applications. Through the use of amulets called Talents, the God facilitates communication over great distances, compels obedience, and opens gateways. He has a civilian population whose faith nourishes Him, and a military arm that travels the galaxy spreading His word and destroying His enemies. And it all makes sense.

As cool as the idea is, though, the book itself felt like a rough sketch rather than a fleshed-out novel. It’s quite short, as novels go, and we are introduced to a lot of concepts and characters in a fairly brief amount of time. The Bishopry Militant, for example, sounds like a great place to see intrigue and double-dealing, lies upon lies that somehow manage to get things done, and we do see a bit of that when Captain Tephe gets a secret mission to a new world. Scalzi showed us in The Last Colony that he can handle this kind of multi-layered politicking, and I think it would be even better in a place like this. Add to that the Rookery, a kind of church-sanctioned brothel/therapy center aboard the ships, where the women who work there have nearly as much power and influence as the Bishopry itself. What would happen if these two institutions came into conflict, and what weapons would they wield?

This god has some opinions he'd like to share.

The chained gods, too, are a wonderful chance to explore a lot of ethical questions. They are undoubtedly sentient beings of great power, enslaved by a God that is stronger than they. Is this kind of slavery justified? Would it be possible for a ship to work with its god-engine, rather than compelling it with whips and prayers. What do these gods know, and how reliable are they? The god powering the Righteous seems to know a lot about how this universe works, including some terrifying tales about the God that Tephe follows, but how much of what it says can be trusted?

And what are the powers and limitations of a faith-powered science? Much in the way that engineers and scientists in our world manipulate a few basic laws of nature to achieve amazing things, what could be done in a world where prayers have power and where a high priest’s whim can decide the outcome of an entire mission? How do you creatively solve problems in a reality like this one, where they deal in belief and faith, rather than wavelengths and mass?

So yeah, there was a lot that I wanted from this book once I figured out what Scalzi was doing with it. After a great opening line (and a third line that just left me confused), the learning curve was a little steep. Once you figure it out, though, the possibilities seem endless. Unfortunately, the book itself ends rather sooner than it should.

The less said about this album, the better.

It’s not my favorite book by Scalzi, not by a long run, but since he’s said he’s going to lay off the Old Man’s War universe for a while, I should be thankful that he is willing to experiment and try new things. As many music lovers know, it’s sometimes very hard to accept that an artist you love wants to try to do things that are new and different, rather than keep doing the things that made you love them in the first place. I remember when U2 put out Achtung Baby and my friends who fell in love with The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum were almost personally offended. Zooropa, of course, was not to be mentioned aloud in their presence.

That kind of experimentation and risk-taking, however, is ultimately what helps an artist grow. You may not like what comes of such experimentation, but that’s tough – it’s not about you.

I don’t know if Scalzi will return to this universe or not, but I hope he does. If he does, I hope he lingers longer than he did in The God Engines, and brings forth another wonderful and complex universe.

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“Faith is not for what comes after this life. Faith is for this life alone.”
– A God, The God Engines
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
The God Engines on Wikipedia
The God Engines on Amazon.com
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Filed under gods, good and evil, John Scalzi, morality, religion, science fiction, sins, space travel, theocracy, theology, totalitarianism, war

Review 112: Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

A little while after I started teaching literature, I thought about what kinds of books I’d like to do with students in the years to come. The texts I did last year – Fahrenheit 451, Things Fall Apart and a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories – are all well and good, but probably not what I would have chosen to teach. I wanted something that would speak to the students, that would engage with their lives, and which ideally was some good classic science fiction. So I went over to Ask Metafilter and asked them what science fiction they would recommend teaching to high school students studying English as a foreign language.

Child soldiers in science fiction are so cute....

Just about everyone mentioned Ender’s Game, and with good reason. It’s a good story, for one, and it addresses a lot of the issues that young people have to deal with that are often left out of the literature they have to read for English class. The adults in the book are like the adults in the students’ lives – slightly removed, seemingly omniscient, and not necessarily acting in their best interests, at least not as they see it. It deals with issues of bullying and isolation, of fitting in and standing out and accepting your place in the grander scheme of things. It’s about critical thinking and moral reflection, all wrapped up in the unending carnival that is youth.

In real life... not so much.

Ender Wiggin is, as our book begins, six years old, and he may be the last, best hope for humanity.

Ender comes from a strange place. In a near-totalitarian America, families are allowed to have only two children, in order to keep the population static. If a good reason exists, however, they might be allowed to have a third. That third is destined from the beginning to have a hard life, no matter what happens, especially if that third has been bred for a very specific reason.

Ender Wiggin is a Third. His parents had two children already – their son, Peter, and daughter, Valentine. Peter is a brilliant young sociopath, and Valentine is an equally brilliant pacifist. In ordinary times, either of them could have been an historical figure, but these were far from ordinary times. Earth is at war with an insectile alien race it has named the Formics (nicknamed “Buggers”), and has survived two invasions. Everyone knows there will be a third, and if they can’t fight it off then humanity will be scythed clean off the planet. The International Fleet needs a commander, one who has enough empathy to understand the enemy, but who also has the killer instinct to be able to wipe them out. Where Peter is too hard and Valentine is too soft, Ender Wiggin could be the one they’re looking for.

Almost makes me want to have my childhood stolen from me....

Young and frightened, Ender is taken off-planet to Battle School, where he and hundreds of other youths will take part in battle games to train them in how best to one day defeat the Buggers. While Ender knows that he’s been chosen, he doesn’t know why, and his experiences in the school lead him to wonder if being a Chosen One is really worth it. In game after game, Ender manages to prove his worth to the International Fleet by defying their expectations of what a battle commander should do. He is pushed to his limits and beyond by the International Fleet, whose motives and methods remain a mystery to him until he has accomplished their goal – one which he never even knew he was aiming for.

It’s a fun book, and a very quick read, and it’s one of those “I should have read this when I was a teenager” books. While I was never put in a position where my action could very possibly save the existence of all humanity, I – like every other teenager ever – had doubts about my place in the world. I saw the conflict between what I wanted for myself and what the adults in my life wanted for me. I was given responsibility that I didn’t want, and had to make a choice about whether or not I would live up to it. In other words, while the scale of Ender’s problems are much bigger than that of the average young person’s, they are essentially the same. I am fortunate in that Ender’s Game can work to explode a pervasive and not entirely accurate belief held by all teenagers everywhere, from the dawn of time until now: the belief that there is no one else in the world who understands what they are going through.

The big question then becomes, How do I teach this? What can I do to not only get my students to read it but to also understand its relationship to their own lives? However I manage to do it, that will hopefully reveal to them the whole point behind reading for pleasure: that you can look at a book or a story and say, “Yes – life is like this.” Not all of it, but you can find that moment, that point of any story that can connect what it is saying to your own life, and thereby learn something from it.

There are also a whole host of other issues that can be brought up with this novel, not the least of which is the systematic indoctrination of young people by their educational system. Perhaps a bit self-defeating, but the anti-authoritarian in me would be vastly entertained if I could somehow encourage these kids to look suspiciously upon the very foundation of the system in which they were currently residing. There is also the greater issues of how a society teaches its children, and the limited value of truth. We tell kids that “honesty is the best policy,” but this book blows that axiom away. If they had told Ender the truth about what he was doing and why, he would have refused, and Earth would likely have been wiped out. In the same way, how do we – adults, and especially teachers – lie to young people in order to achieve a greater goal? What value, then, do these lies have, and are they worth telling?

Even Peter would be helpless against the LOLCats.

We can explore redemption and atonement through Ender’s attempt to make up for the things he has done. Even more interestingly, we can look at Card’s prediction of how the internet would shape political discourse and how citizens can easily be manipulated. Peter and Valentine put on electronic personae through which they gain immense power despite their youth, using their own innate genius to spark debate on the topics that will achieve their own goals.

Outside the text, too, there is an excellent opportunity to discuss the relationship between a work and its author. While Ender’s Game is a brilliant story that is so well-written that it is recommended reading by both Quakers and the U.S. Marine Corps, its author holds some rather despicable views that don’t seem to mesh with the message he has put into his book. I speak here of Card’s public denouncement of gay marriage, including accepting a position on the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage. This group has made many attempts to block the spread of queer civil rights in the U.S., and it disturbs me that an author whose work I respect is spearheading the effort.

FINE. I didn't want to marry you anyway....

What, then, is my responsibility as a reader? Should I never read his work again, lest it be seen as a show of support for his politics? Can I even read him fairly from now on, or will I always be looking for that anti-gay undercurrent, perhaps where there is none? Or should I simply ignore the author and enjoy the work? There are a great many authors and artists who are in the same position as Card, and it is a worthwhile discussion to have.

There are so many topics to mine from this book that I had to stop myself from time to time and remember to enjoy it, rather than make mental lesson plans.

In any case, if you haven’t read Ender’s Game, I recommend that you do. If you have a young person in your life, see to it that he or she has a chance to read it as well. If you’re really lucky, it’ll foster a lifelong love of reading. If not, at least they might walk away with the understanding that their problems are pretty universal, and that, on the whole, things could be a whole lot worse.

They could be Ender Wiggin.

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“It was just him and me. He fought with honor. If it weren’t for his honor, he and the others would have beaten me together. They might have killed me, then. His sense of honor saved my life. I didn’t fight with honor… I fought to win.”
– Ender Wiggin, Ender’s Game”

Ender’s Game on Wikipedia
Orson Scott Card on Wikipedia
Ender’s Game on Amazon.com

I couldn't NOT put it in....

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Filed under brothers, childhood, children, coming of age, ethics, family, friendship, military, morality, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, sisters, teenagers, truth, war, young adult

Review 102: Dave Barry Does Japan

(Just a reminder – take the listener survey! Or I will be forced to do the honorable thing and disembowel myself to rid my family of the shame….)

Dave Barry Does Japan by Dave Barry

In September of 2008, I went to Hiroshima with The Boyfriend. I knew it would be a more serious place to visit than a lot of the other places I’ve been to in Japan, for obvious reasons, and as I thought about it, I remembered this book. You see, while Dave Barry is enormously funny, and I always have a hard time holding in my laughter when he writes, he also knows exactly when to turn off the funny and talk seriously about a topic. Such was the case with this book, and the chapter on visiting Hiroshima.

Oh, how I wish he were.... (photo by me)

But I’ll get to that later. Let me start by saying that yes, this is a very funny book, as so many of his books are. I can only imagine, though, how funny it is to someone who’s never been to Japan, much less lived there. I’ll bet that, while reading some of the more ridiculous examples of how different Japan is from the US, a lot of readers were thinking, “No, it can’t be that weird. He must be exaggerating for comic effect.”

 

No, no he’s not. Not in the least. Well, some, yes, because that’s his job, but all of the things that he points out as being “strange” about Japan – the ubiquitous vending machines, rockabillies dancing very seriously in a circle, kids practicing their English with strangers, plastic food shops, all of it is absolutely true. He is not, in fact, making this up.

Literacy is not vital to eating (photo by xeeliz)

He says at the beginning of the book, “So this book is not authoritative. If you want authoritative, go buy a real book.” At no point does he claim to be an expert on Japan, or that spending three weeks here would make him one. In fact, the main aspect he plays on is his eternal cluelessness. As he points out, Japan is like one big, very exclusive club into which you must be born if you want to become a member. There are rules that no outsider can ever really learn, much less on a three week whirlwind tour. There are people who try – there are a lot of foreign-born residents in this country who do their best to live according to the rules, but no matter how hard we try, we’ll never really become members of Club Japan. So, Barry just decides to do his best and try not to make himself look completely stupid.

He marginally succeeds, which is good – otherwise there would be no book.

Kneel-down comedy. (photo by Norimutsu Nogami)

With his family, Barry goes from Tokyo to Kyoto to Kyushu and back again, stopping to see temples and shrines, sumo, ceremonies, kabuki, rakugo and car factories, among other things. Through it all, they do their best to adapt to the strangeness of Japanese life and Japanese food, and he comes out with some wonderful stories that had me cackling on the bus ride down to Hiroshima.

Which I believe I mentioned before.

It’s an interesting chapter in the book. The chapter itself is flanked by two grey pages – a signal to the reader that this is a no-funny zone. There will be no jokes between these pages, and rightfully so. Barry and his family went there on the anniversary of the bombing, August 6th, and observed the Peace Ceremony. They looked at the statues and the monuments and the dome, and went to the museum, and came out with an enormous sense of… conflict.

There is no question in anyone’s mind that what happened in Hiroshima – and Nagasaki – was horrific. All you have to do is read the testimonials, look at the photos and the drawings in the museum, look at the charred and burned school uniforms, pieces of flesh on display, dioramas of the flattened city and you know that the nuclear bomb is nothing that you can really joke about. Hundreds of thousands of people died because of those bombs, and not all of them died right away. Soldiers, yes -Hiroshima has a history as a military city – but babies, students, innocent men and women also perished in fire, blast, trauma and, of course, the long, lingering death of radiation sickness.

No city deserves that. Ever.

Not all that funny, really.... (photo by me)

At the same time, Barry feels that the bombing is presented without context, and he’s not the only one to think so. From what he could see, it looks like America just decided to do this horrible thing, and there’s not sufficient explanation to visitors as to why this was done. What would make a supposedly civilized nation do such a patently evil thing to so many people?

It’s very hard to justify what was done. I know the arguments – that Japan was training civilians to defend the home islands to the death, that millions more might have died in a long, drawn-out battle, that the Soviets were ready to swoop in and take over – but all those justifications kind of sound hollow when you see the photographs of people with fifth-degree burns, and read about the thousands of children who were orphaned in a fraction of a second. To those leaders, however, at that time, the dropping of those bombs was a necessary option, and I don’t think even they knew how bad the effects would be.

Regardless, the bombs were not dropped capriciously. They were dropped following a long chain of events, decisions and ambitions that reached back decades. And I think I agree with Barry that more attention should be paid not only to the aftermath of the bombing, but also to what led up to it. Maybe just because I don’t want my country to look like a monster.

This country is even weirder than he thinks. (photo by me)

Anyway, the Hiroshima chapter aside, it really is a very funny book. Even funnier if you’ve ever been to or lived in Japan. It’s not the kind of book you buy if you’re actually interested in learning about Japan, but if you want some good laughs, go for it.

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“Compared with the Japanese, the average American displays in communication all the subtlety of Harpo hitting Zeppo with a dead chicken.”
-Dave Barry, Dave Barry Does Japan

Dave Barry on Wikipedia
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Filed under Dave Barry, Hiroshima, humor, Japan, travel, war

Review 101: World War Z


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

(Just as a reminder – go take the listener survey! You’ll have good luck for seven years, I swear!)

So where were you when the zombies came? I remember where I was. I remember vividly.

It was the third lesson of the day – still one more to go before lunch – and one of my regular students was due for her weekly lesson. She came in each week like clockwork, and while her English never got a whole lot better, she seemed to enjoy herself. Actually improving her English was secondary to having a nice chat, I think, and we could always count on her to liven things up.

Not this day, though. For one thing, except for me, none of the teachers showed up. Normally that would be a problem, but a lot of students weren’t in either. It was just a few of us and one staff member. We had heard of some new sickness going around, but we work for a company that doesn’t accept sickness as an excuse for missing work. After all, I’d seen students come in with a cold that would have kept me at home, and Mrs. Kuroda was just that kind of person. Come hell or high water, I knew she’d be there. And she was.

No sooner did she get in the door than she collapsed. Her skin was pale and waxy and she had a bandage on her hand. It had little yellow flowers on it, I’ll always remember that. Like she’d made it out of a dress or curtains or something. I don’t know why that sticks in my memory, but it does.

The staff, Naoko, called 119 for an ambulance, and one of the other students, Shyunsuke, who was studying medicine at Kyodai, tried to see what was wrong with her. He laid her on her back, felt for a pulse, and got all panicky. “Shinda,” he said over and over. She was dead.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever had anyone die in your workplace, but it’s weird. We didn’t know what the protocol for this kind of thing was. There were only six of us in the building, and none of us were really experts in dealing with sudden and unexpected death. Aki, a high school girl, started crying. Naoko kept redialing 119, but no one was answering. I was about to suggest moving her into another room when suddenly the most horrible sound came from the body on the floor.

It was somewhere between a moan and a gurgle, like someone drowning in syrup. We all looked at Mrs. Kuroda.

She was moving.

Slowly, jerkily, she was moving, getting her feet back under her and moaning the whole time. Naoko started to go to her, to see if she was okay, and I remember yelling, “Don’t!” At the time I didn’t really know why I yelled that. I know now. My years on the internet had pretty much prepared me for it, but I wasn’t nearly ready for the way the Mrs. Kuroda grabbed Naoko and took a huge bite out of her throat. Blood flew everywhere, and I think everyone was screaming. Mrs. Kuroda dropped Naoko and started making her way towards us, her arms reaching for us and that low, wet growl coming from her throat. I knew what she was then.

I grabbed a chair from a lesson room and started shoving her back, like some kind of lion tamer. I yelled for the other students to get out, but they weren’t moving. Aki was crying harder, Shyunsuke was busy vomiting, and the other two had hidden somewhere in the building. “Everybody out!” I yelled again, and gave Mrs. Kuroda a shove away from the front door. Then I swung it at her, aiming for the head, of course. It connected, and she went down. I ran back, grabbed Shyunsuke and Aki by the arms and yelled “Everybody out!” again.

I had barely enough time to shepherd them to the door than Naoko started to twitch. And Mrs. Kuroda was already trying to stand up.

We ran. Didn’t even care where we ran to – just away. The streets were quiet, but once I knew what I was looking for, it seemed like the zombies were everywhere. I’ve never run like that in my life, you know. Always used to joke that I would run when I was chased. So there you go.

We broke into a sports equipment shed at Otani University and each took one of those aluminum baseball bats. Then we headed for the Botanical Gardens. I still don’t know why we chose there, especially after what happened to Aki. A large, sprawling garden with lots of twisting paths and forests? Can’t imagine what we thought we’d accomplish. I just knew that we couldn’t barricade ourselves in a building – that never works, right?

I got the zombie that took Aki, and Shyunsuke was the one who made sure that Aki wouldn’t wake up again. Then we headed for the Great Lawn, on the theory that we’d be able to see any zombie coming from a few hundred meters.

Bad move.

It would have been a fine idea if there were more of us and if we were all armed with shotguns and chainsaws. All we had, though, were the two of us and some dinged-up aluminum bats. Against half a hundred zombies that all wanted to take a good look at the tasty humans who had so kindly put themselves on display. Shyunsuke and I were back to back, and I could hear him saying something over and over again in Japanese. I didn’t know what he was saying, but I reckoned it was a prayer of some kind. I was doing some praying myself as those things got nearer. I could see the dull shine of their eyes and hear their feet shuffle across the dead grass and wished for the first time in my life that I had a gun.

Not for them.

We were saved, improbably enough, by an SDF helicopter. It was doing flybys around the city and saw the zombies moving towards us. Some of the soldiers started taking head shots while others lifted us up into the copter to safety. Shyunsuke pretty much broke down as soon as we were safe, and I’m not ashamed to say that I did too.

That was the last I saw of the zombies. The rest of the story you already know – Japan was evacuated until the zombie threat was cleared. I wasn’t allowed to go back to Osaka, so I could only pray that The Boyfriend made it out alive while I waited in the refugee camp in Pusan. When I did make it back, after the war, I found that everything on this side of the river had burned to the ground. At that point, I prayed that he’d died in the fire. Anything other than becoming one of them.

It’s been a long while since “victory” was declared over the zombies, inasmuch as they care. People in Japan don’t like to talk about it, though. You get the feeling that we all did things and saw things that we’d rather forget, and if any nation is good at selective amnesia, it’s the Japanese. So I was really glad when this book came out. It made me feel… less alone.

Brooks went around the world, interviewing people who had experienced the Zombie War – including a couple of guys up in Kyoto, even. He listened to their stories, kind of like Studs Terkel, and wrote down what they had seen and done. He talked to everyone – soldiers, sailors, housewives, government officials – everyone who would talk to him. What he made of it is maybe not a comprehensive account of the war, but a broad look at all the things that people went through during those horrible years.

A soldier who went through the Decimation in the Russian army; another who witnessed the Iran-Pakistan “war”; that asshole who made “Phalanx,” which so many people thought would save their lives, Brooks talked to them all. He showed how the Great Panic killed so many people, and how the Redeker Plan and all its emulators saved so many more, as heartless and cruel as it was. He looked at the army and how they had to figure out how to fight an enemy that doesn’t need to eat or sleep, and which recruits new members as it kills them.

We still don’t know where the zombies came from or why they rose up. And I don’t think it really matters. As this book shows, there was so much death and pain, with so much heroism and glory, that the question of where the zombies came from is really immaterial.

It opened my eyes, I’ll say that much. From the refugee camp, we got very little news at all about the world. Just that the war was continuing. We heard about the civil war in China, and whatever it was that happened to North Korea – everyone heard about that. But the rest, I didn’t know. Not until now.

Brooks’ book is exactly what it claims to be. It’s an oral history, the collected stories of dozens of people who survived the war, and it’s something that our descendants will need to read carefully. For those of us who survived the war, the pain may still be close. So if you’re not sure if you’re ready for this kind of book, give it time. But do read it.

We must never forget what happened to the world when the Zombies came. In many ways, the living dead showed us just how important it was to be alive.

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“Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be all right.”
– Dr. Kuei, World War Z
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World War Z on Wikipedia
Max Brooks on Wikipedia
World War Z on Amazon.com
World War Z website
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Filed under horror, Max Brooks, memoir, zombies

Review 97: The Civil War


The Civil War by Bruce Catton

When I was a kid, my grandparents thought they would do something that every grandparent should do – share what they love with the next generation. They bought me a subscription to the Time-Life series on The Civil War. Now for those of you too young to remember, Time-Life used to publish these monthly book series on various topics. The idea was that you would receive the books once a month, each book on a different topic in the series. My father had the Science Series, which I absolutely adored, and my grandparents thought that I would fall similarly in love with the Civil War series.

After all, they both were interested in this most unfortunate periods in U.S. history. It spanned five years, cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and permanently altered the face of our nation. What’s not to love?

Predictably, I found them kind of boring.

The pictures were all in black and white, static in composition and full of dead guys with beards. There were lots of dates that I couldn’t comprehend, talking about places I’d never been and full of names I’d never heard of. I got them, flipped through them and was just not interested.

Looking back, I know that I was a bad grandson and I feel bad that I can’t tell my grandparents that.

Now that I’m older, and I know some things about my country and its history, I can really appreciate the enormous change that the Civil War brought upon the United States. As horrible as it was – and it was horrible – without that war our nation would be a pale shadow of what it is today. If it were a nation at all….

We all know the facts: in 1860, following the election of Abraham Lincoln and years of arguing about slavery and its place in a modern nation, eleven states seceded from the United States and formed their own Confederate States of America. In response, Lincoln raised an army from the remaining states in the Union and launched it at the Rebels. After five years of relentless fighting, the war was won in favor of the Union. The rebel states were accepted back into the Union, and the nation has been putting itself back together ever since then.

That’s the big picture, and that’s basically what this book does. In less than 300 pages, Catton gives an interesting and dynamic overview of the War, from its origins in such decisions as Dred Scott and the Missouri Compromise up through the assassination of Lincoln and the failures of the Reconstruction. It follows the major battles of the war, listing the strikes and feints of each army and introducing all the major players. Between these, he talks about the political and social effects of the war – how the economies of the two states fared, how the international community viewed the conflict, and what the ultimate fate of the slaves was.

The pace of the book is very good, even if the blow-by-blow descriptions of the battles get a little soft in the middle. Catton acts as a narrator for the war, telling it as one might tell a story. He works up to climactic moments, then leaves us there to consider for a while before moving on to the next event. What’s more, he’s fair. It’s very easy for people to be unfair to the South – they were rebels, after all. Traitors, some might say. But Catton wants us to understand that the South was doing what it thought was in its best interests, as with the North. What’s more, he wants us to know that the South fought harder than any army has since, sacrificing countless men and an entire culture to a war that they really could not win. He does not demonize the South, nor does he praise the North. He is simply a storyteller, who knows from the beginning the tragic tale that he has in store for us.

So yes, I think this book is an excellent read, especially if you’re just getting into the Civil War. My one real complaint about it is that the book lacks adequate maps which would otherwise help a reader visualize what kind of maneuvers the armies of the North and the South are making. There are maps at the back of the book, but I wouldn’t call them “adequate.” They’re black and white where they really should be color – having both the Union and the Confederate advances marked with black arrows isn’t really helpful. Given the intricate interactions between armies, some kind of clear visual aid might have been useful.

If you have access to the internet, of course, you can get a slightly clearer view of what happened, where and when. Mind you, even the better maps that you can find on line still take some interpretation. Still, it would have been nice to have the book more accessible to those of us who don’t carry the maps in our heads.

The reason why this is important is that even though this book is kind of an index tour of the Civil War, it still gets into a lot of detail – which general moved which army across which river is vital to understanding how the war progressed. The reason the book can go into such detail is that this is one of the most extensively studied conflicts in our history. Every battle, the movement of every army has been studied and documented over the last century and a half, and there’s no sign of it slowing down. The Civil War is fundamental to how our nation became what it is, and as such it is an obsession for the United States.

That’s what this book really tries to understand – why, of all the wars that we have fought, are we so obsessed with this one? You don’t see people doing a lot of World War 2 re-enactments or dressing up to fight mock battles of our cute little war with Spain. I’m pretty sure there won’t be any kind of Afghan War Re-enactment Society a hundred and fifty years from now.

It was a horrible war. It took more lives in a single battle than we’ve seen in our current Middle East conflict so far. It was fought by untrained, inexperienced men who had no idea what they were in for when they signed up. It was a war fought not only for territory but for ideals – for the South’s ability to maintain its agrarian slave culture and for the North’s ability to keep the Union whole. It was a war that could have gone a thousand different ways, each more horrible than the last, and the fact that it ended as well as it did is completely due to the strength of character possessed by all the men involved in sealing that bloody peace. It was a war that was, perhaps, inevitable.

That was something I took away from this book. The Civil War had to happen. In order for our country to progress, it had to do away with the things that was holding it back, slavery being one of those things. It was a test to see if the union could balance its ideals of liberty and order, and to see if it was worthy of forging ahead. It was a war that settled who we are as a nation, at least for a little while, and put paid to the question of whether we were a bunch of congenial states or a true nation, ready to take its place in the world.

The Civil War is one of those topics that people spend their lives studying, and rightly so. Its effects can be felt even today, and the echoes from the shots fired at Fort Sumpter and Gettysburg and Shiloh won’t fade as long as this nation survives. For Americans, to know the Civil War is to know how grateful we should be that we have the country we do. It is often said that soldiers die to keep us free, but I would say than no army of the United States since then has done so more literally than the army of this conflict.

For those of you who aren’t American, this might give you a little insight into our character. Most nations wouldn’t survive such a conflict, with such immense losses of life and the utter destruction of an economy. But we did, somehow. The wounds from that war aren’t entirely healed – there are still scars. But we have stayed together since then, and I reckon that nothing is going to tear us apart again.

So Grandmom, Grandpop, I’m sorry. I really should have appreciated what you tried to teach me. But now I do, and I can pass it on to others….

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“A singular fact about modern war is that it takes charge. Once begun it has to be carried to its conclusion, and carrying it there sets in motion events that may be beyond men’s control. Doing what has to be done to win, men perform acts that alter the very soil in which society’s roots are nourished. They bring about infinite change, not because anyone especially wants it, but because all-out warfare destroys so much that things can never again be as they used to be.”
Bruce Catton, The Civil War
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Review 76: Changes


Changes by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count: 20

Well, the title promises changes, and that is certainly what you get in this book. And the first of these comes right on page one: Harry Dresden has a daughter. Surprised? Yeah, well so was he.

The mother is Harry’s old lover, Susan Rodriguez, whom he hasn’t seen in many years. The reason for their separation is pretty simple, the kind of story you’ve heard over and over again – boy and girl meet, avoid their obvious attraction to each other for a while, and finally hook up. Boy tells girl all about the world of supernatural horrors in which he lives, girl finds it more intriguing than horrible, and manages to get herself bitten by vampires. Girl is able to resist turning all the way, but knows that she can’t be around boy lest her emotions overwhelm her and she devours him whole. Boy and girl have one last night of fun together, girl vanishes into South America to join an underground cabal of vampire hunters.

Boilerplate, really.

No sooner does Harry discover that he has a daughter that she finds out she’s been kidnapped, taken as a hostage by the Red Court of vampires for some purpose that is no doubt terrible and nefarious. As much as Susan knows it will hurt Harry to find out she’d been hiding their daughter from him, she also knows that he is the only one with the power and the resources available to get her back.

After all, Harry is a Wizard, a member of the White Council, if not one of their favorite members. He has contacts within the council that could prove useful, as well as resources that reach from Heaven to Hell. A far cry from the lone wolf that we met way back in Storm Front, Harry now has connections and resources that will allow him to take on some of the most powerful beings in the world as they attempt to use his daughter for their own evil ends.

As the title implies, of course, Harry does have to make some very serious choices in this quest; choices about how far he’s willing to go in order to save his daughter, to say nothing of whether saving his daughter is even the right choice to make in itself. After all, the Red Court has been at war with the White Council for some time now, and the slightest mistake one way or the other could just make the whole thing worse. The last thing the White Council wants is their least favorite loose cannon (and, not for nothing, the guy who got the whole war started in the first place) complicating matters unnecessarily. The supernatural world is pretty much ready to fly apart as it is, and one mis-step could mean death and destruction on a scale greater than anyone has ever known.

In the end, the choices that Harry has to make in this book will haunt him for the rest of his life, if not longer. I would probably not be wrong in saying that this book marks a major turning point for the series.

If you’ve been reading this from the beginning, which you really should have, then this is going to be a rough book. I’ve made mention before of how Butcher likes to play hardball with his characters sometimes, but this book is so much more than that. This book is an all-out attack on everything that Harry holds dear to him, a scouring of his life that puts him into an entirely new situation. What this is in preparation for is anybody’s guess, but I can tell you this much without really spoiling anything – Butcher had better damn well have the next book on a fast track or he’ll find me sitting on his front porch with a torch and a pitchfork and a haunted look in my eyes. [1]

Given that, as of this writing, the book has just come out, there’s not a lot I can say about it in detail. If you’ve been following the series, you’re going to read it no matter what I have to say, and I don’t want to ruin anything for you. All I can really say is that this isn’t my favorite of the series, at least not upon first reading. It’s a little rushed in parts, and has one too many deus ex machina moments for my liking. The only thing that mitigates that is the knowledge that Butcher wastes nothing in his storytelling, and even the biggest miracles come with a price that will have to be paid. And I expect that the payoff will be something to see. Having said that, though, Changes will probably hold up as one of the most significant of the Dresden Files books once the series is done. In terms of what happens to the characters in this book, it’s really like nothing else that’s come before it.

So brace yourselves, kids. This one’s a bumpy ride. As with all the Dresden Files books, though, it’s well worth it.

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“Harry… I’ve got a bad feeling that…. I’ve got a bad feeling that the wheels are about to come off.”
– Karrin Murphy, Changes
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[1] Yes, yes, I know that, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, the author is not my bitch. Still and all, waiting for the next book to come out will be like trying not to fart in church – interminable, impossible not to think about, and oh so relieving when the opportunity finally arrives.

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Review 74: Starship Troopers


Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

This book is controversial. Says so right there on the cover – “The Controversial Classic of Military Adventure!” A quick look at its Wikipedia page seems to support this, claiming that the book has been criticized for its literary merit, its support of the military, up to and including fascism, racism, utopianism, and gods know what else. What is certainly true is that it’s a book that is guaranteed to make someone, somewhere very angry.

In the unspecified future, humanity has taken to the stars. In our efforts to colonize planets that are hospitable to us, we have spread as far and as wide as possible. Unfortunately, this has brought us into direct contact with alien races who are not entirely keen on sharing land with us, and, as we have always done, we are willing to fight, bleed and die for every inch of it.

Our main enemy is the Bugs, whose proper name we never actually learn, and they are a vicious enemy indeed. They possess a hive mind, made up of Soldiers, Workers and Brains. The Soldiers are, of course, the most dangerous, not least because they have no individual sense of self-preservation. Unlike the human soldiers, who value their comrades and brothers-in-arms highly, the Bugs will never go back for a fallen comrade and never consider the safety of their own when prosecuting a campaign against the humans. In other words, the Bugs truly are alien to us, and therefore need to be eliminated.

The story follows a young man, Juan Rico, in his journey from enlisted grunt in the Mobile Infantry to Officer in the Terran Federation. Through his eyes, we learn about the technological lengths that we have gone to in order to be able to fight the Bugs. First among these is the powered armor that the Mobile Infantry wears – an all-purpose exoskeletal suit that vastly increases its wearer’s speed and strength, in addition to providing him with instant contact with his squadmates and vital information that he needs to fight the enemy. Humanity in the future has made great strides in terms of warfare, all out of need to defeat the Bugs.

You might be forgiven, then, for thinking that this was a grand military adventure. That we would feel the thrill and terror of a young military recruit as he experiences a universe larger and wilder than he ever could have imagined. You would be wrong.

Not entirely wrong, of course. If you read it right, you can infer the newness and strangeness of the circumstances that Juan Rico finds himself in. But this book isn’t about Juan Rico, even though he is the narrator. In fact, we don’t even learn his proper name until nearly two-thirds of the book is finished. Before then he’s just “Johnnie,” which is one of the most generic soldier names out there. Juan Rico is so irrelevant to the story that we don’t even find out that English isn’t his native tongue until three pages before the end of the book. Juan Rico is nothing more than a cipher in this tale, about as important to the content of Starship Troopers as Glaucon is to The Republic.

In the classic tale of Socrates, the philosopher talks about justice and politics and society, with his wisdom inspired by a question-and-answer session with his students. Somehow, the students always manage to ask just the right questions to allow Socrates to expound on his theories, and they’re usually wrong in just the right ways to make Socrates look smart. So it is with Starship Troopers.

Juan Rico is the means by which Robert Heinlein is able to put forth his opinions on war and society, politics, citizenship, crime, child-rearing and, of course, military service. Instead of writing a series of straightforward essays, unfortunately, he decided to make his readers slog through Starship Troopers.

This book is a love letter to the military and all it stands for. Not just war and death and destruction, of course, but also loyalty, sacrifice and devotion to duty. It is an examination into why people become soldiers, why some succeed and others fail, and about the historical importance of the soldier class in human history. It’s about war as a tool of diplomacy, both in its startling effectiveness and its unfortunate inevitability, as well as the importance of the chain of command and proper military discipline. It’s about the comradeship of veterans and the lessons they learn during the service. There’s a good reason why this book is on the reading lists for both the Navy and the Marines.

What it is not about is any of the characters that are actually involved in the story. The only reason Juan Rico is who he is is because he is not someone else. He could have been Buddy St. Germaine or Phil Waxman or Marvin Crumplebottom and the story would have read exactly the same: son of a rich businessman who enlists in the armed forces just to tweak his father, learns a whole host of Valuable Lessons ™ and eventually discovers his calling. There is absolutely nothing about Juan Rico than makes him any more interesting than any other character except that he happens to be the narrator of the story.

If that were all, I might be able to let this book slide as just thinly-veiled military fetishism. But honestly, there’s no veil there at all. The story stops in several places while Heinlein uses his characters as mouthpieces to tell us how he thinks society should be run. Ancillary characters – students, subordinate soldiers – ask just the right questions or are wrong in just the right ways so that Heinlein, much like Plato speaking through Socrates, can make the points he wants to make.

Juan’s professor, retired Lt. Colonel Dubois, and the other lecturers repeatedly point to the 20th century as a model of how not to govern, happily cherry-picking some of the worst results of our system of government and holding them up as the inevitable result of a society that is not run by veterans. For that is how he sees the best of all possible states – one in which only veterans are full citizens and in which only veterans can run the country. The logic being that only someone who has voluntarily enlisted and served in the military is able to truly put the needs of society before his own, and is therefore the best person to run a country. Heinlein, through his fictional avatars, then goes on to show how much more superior the Terran Federation is to its more democratic predecessors and how stupid we were not to see the obvious truth.

The message, then, is that the reader is stupid if he or she does not agree with Heinlein. The ancillary characters who challenge Heinlein’s thesis are written as obvious idiots and are roundly insulted and abused by their superiors, which effectively becomes Heinlein abusing his readers.

In addition, Heinlein sets up so many straw men to knock down that it gets tiresome. Juan’s father, for example, is almost stereotypical as a foil to Dubois. Mr. Rico is rich and aloof and sees the military as nothing more than a bunch of violent thugs who have outlived their usefulness. The first time we see him, he is a snob and a jerk, and Juan’s decision to piss him off by joining is almost inevitable. The next time we see Mr. Rico, of course, he has joined the Mobile Infantry himself, and has seen the error of his ways.

Other members of the cast are overtly written to embody certain themes in Heinlein’s opinion of military rule, both positive and negative. Private Hendrick, for example, is a constant complainer, one who stands up for himself during boot camp and just barely escapes a hanging. He is not disciplined enough to be a soldier, and by extension a citizen, and therefore serves as a warning to others. Sergeant Zim [1], on the other hand, is the consummate soldier – hard on his charges in boot camp, yet as concerned about them as a father would be to his sons. Zim, along with an array of Lieutenants, Captains and other officers, serve as blatant father-substitutes for Juan Rico, with all of the qualities that one would want in a father and absolutely none of the drawbacks. If anything, their only flaws are that they are too concerned about their soldiers.

While reading, I wondered if maybe Heinlein was being sarcastic. If perhaps he was trying to demonstrate the true folly of military fetishism by taking it to its ultimate extreme. I have to admit, I didn’t disagree with all of his ideas. His thoughts on juvenile delinquency, for example, really struck a chord in me – he maintains that treating young offenders as rational adults who can learn from their crimes is foolishness since, like puppies, young people are not inherently rational and have not yet learned the difference between right and wrong. The term “juvenile delinquent,” he maintains, is an oxymoron, since a juvenile has not yet been able to learn of his duty to others, and therefore cannot be delinquent. To treat him as if he were is to fatally misunderstand human nature.

And I think there is a grain of truth to the idea that someone who willingly puts her or his life and body on the line for his or her fellow citizens might indeed have the perspective necessary to govern a country. I would point out, however, that this argument rests on a flawed assumption – that service automatically confers selflessness. There may be correlation, but causation is not yet proven.

But I don’t think he’s being sarcastic. The themes and ideas in this book resonate with those that permeate his other books. What’s more, Dubois sounds like Jubal Harshaw, Lazarus Long and Professor De la Paz – other characters from other books who all served as mouthpieces for the author’s political and social philosophies. And this is what makes Heinlein’s books so special – he is not afraid to stand up for his ideas and put them right there on the page for the reader to see.

It is not so much Heinlein’s ideas that I object to in this book, even if I do disagree with many of them. It is his presentation of those ideas that bothers me. Flawed logical methods presented as irrefutable discourse, transparent characters with no life beyond their purpose as object lessons, and a dissertation on military supremacy that is just barely disguised as a science fiction novel. It is written from the presumption that the writer is right and the reader is, from the first page, completely and utterly wrong.

I think the ideas that Heinlein presents in this book are important, and they are worthy of discussion. I just wish he had held his readers in a little higher esteem when he decided to discuss them.

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“My mother says that violence never settles anything.”
“So? I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that.”
– Student to Mr. Dubois
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[1] As a side note, the entire boot camp sequence is much, much more entertaining if you read Sgt. Zim with the voice of Invader Zim. It exponentially improves the book.

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