Friday, July 29, 2011

The Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein

The Door into Summer
This book by Heinlein definitely ranks right up there in terms of being one of my favorites, and I've certainly re-read it more often than most. Daniel Boone Davis is an inventor, who has created a really useful household gadget, a robotic cleaning lady patented as Hired Girl. He and his partner, Miles, are raking in money hand over fist, but that's not good enough for Miles. With the collusion of Danny's fiancee, Belle, he wrests control of the business away from Danny and boots him out of the company with a severance package. Miles and Belle appear to have become romantically involved while Danny was working hard on the next generation of household robot, and snuck off to Vegas to get married, sealing their unholy alliance.

Miles has a step-daughter named Ricky (Frederica) who adores Danny, and never trusted Belle. Danny has a cat named Pete who also never trusted Belle. Danny realizes that his life is in a shambles, and decides to take the Long Sleep, a cryogenic suspension process that has just become somewhat popular in 1970. After assigning the remainder of his Hired Girl stock to Ricky, and making arrangements for Pete to take the plunge into the future with him, he confronts Belle and Miles one last time. In the ensuing fight, Belle tranquilizes Danny with a truth serum/zombie drug and interrogates him, finding out that he wants to escape into the future 30 years hence, and she uses some of her connections to change the sanctuary where he will sleep the decades away to one that will ask no questions about his drugged state. This new sanctuary, though, doesn't send Pete to the future along with Danny, and he is furious that his cat has been left behind.

Fast-forward to the year 2000, when Danny wakes up. The assets he thought were in trust for him while he slept have been embezzled away, and he must make his way on his own in the new world. Things have changed quite a bit, and Heinlein missed the mark on some things, (writing in 1957). The common cold has been cured, gold is dirt cheap, and dental work has been replaced by tooth regeneration techniques. Would be nice if any of those were true today, eh?

A quote I can relate to:
"I have spent too much of my life opening doors for cats - I once calculated that, since the dawn of civilization, nine hundred and seventy-eight man-centuries have been used up that way."

Another principle that has played out in a number of situations in my life:
"Paymasters come in two sizes: one sort shows you where the book says you can't have what you've got coming to you; the second sort digs through the book until he finds a paragraph that lets you have what you need even if you don't rate it."

There's a great bit, also, where Danny is working on a manufacturing line in an automotive plant in 2000, and he sees that a number of the cars coming off the assembly line are immediately sent to be crushed and recycled. When he asks about it, he's told that the cars are being built as part of a price and job support program funded by the federal government. Cash for clunkers, anyone?

Danny eventually decides that he needs to somehow fix the problems he ran away from in 1970, and through the offices of a defunct secret government project that discovered time travel, he is able to go back and see to it that Belle and Miles get their comeuppance, Pete is not left astray, and Danny and Ricky's financial affairs are left in far better shape.

A somewhat light hearted romp in the Heinlein spirit.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Camelot 30K by Robert L. Forward

I read everything I could get my hands on by Forward back a couple of decades ago. He was one of the hard hard SF writers; at the time he was a Senior Scientist at Hughes Research Center in Malibu, California. He was able to extrapolate some very interesting life forms and their cultures from theoretical physics, chemistry and biology and usually incorporate them into a good story line.

Far in the future, when the space program is nearly dead (shocking how quickly that's happened - this book was written in 1993), Earth scientists discover life on a planetoid near Pluto. They manage to scrape up enough billions of dollars to send out small research team via catapult, and the tale of what they find there is quite interesting. Forward doesn't spend a lot of time on the details of how the research team lives in their shelter, but just enough to keep it real.

However, the interesting thing is how they and we are slowly brought to the understanding of how life can survive and even thrive so far away from Sol. The creatures there are called keracks, and they mostly resemble giant prawns. They live a somewhat primitive existence, in some senses, with a culture that appears feudal. While they are ruled by a Queen and her princesses, with access and control via radio wave hive mind, they are also individually intelligent, and in the midst of their communal ways, show astounding creativity and curiousity about the world around them, especially in the person of Merlene, "wizard o'Camalor". She would be a scientist, if intelligent prawns existed in Earth culture.

The keracks have domesticated animals called heullers, which are also prawn-shaped, with the intelligence and utility of cattle; they are used as beasts of burden and food. A large portion of their male population train as knights, and love to do battle with other kerack cities on their planet, called Ice. They also make use of ice worms, which have the ability to extract all sorts of metals and minerals from the raw materials of Ice, and to deposit them selectively for the uses of the keracks.

Forward's hypothetical ideas about how the keracks are able to create heat and light, art and music, and build their cities, under a different set of physical constants, especially the near zero Kelvin temperatures, makes for fascinating reading. The whole Camelot thing is just peripheral to the tale, he probably just throws in some similarities to the mythical realm of King Arthur for the fun of it, but doesn't take it all too far - just some similarities in names, with Merlene, RexArt (the king), and Mordet, his knight. No Guinevere in this tale - it's tough to get romantic notions about a giant prawn. The only downfall to this novel is that Forward makes his moral point a bit ham-handedly in the end.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Hot Gate by John Ringo

The Hot Gate: Troy Rising IIIThe Hot Gate is the third in the Troy Rising series by John Ringo. The story principally follows the life of one of his previous characters, Dana Parker, through the next set of challenges facing the people of Earth in their war with the Rangora and their allies. Dana starts out with a milk run, shuttling a group of precocious youngsters to the battlestation/asteroid, Troy, a publicity stunt to name the fourth station soon coming online and encouraging Earth's best and brightest to consider careers in space. She crosses paths once more with Tyler Vernon, the most powerful man in the Solar System, and their relationship grows just slightly.

Dana's next assignment is to a portion of the fleet where the South American nations have done most of the staffing, whose state of readiness is far short of ideal. Her assignment is to straighten out some maintenance and morale issues. Typically for her, she bulls ahead where angels (or Anglos) fear to tread, and she makes some powerful enemies on the political side while doing so. The Suds, as they are called, have major cultural issues at the root of the problems, and being told by a woman how to do their jobs doesn't go over very well.

When a problem crops up with one of the AIs, Granadica, that is responsible for "fabbing" many of the parts that go into the Fleet, Vernon gets a brainstorm and attacks the problem himself. He drags Dana into the middle of things, as she has a habit of treating all of the AIs in the Solar System as "just folks" and he has a hunch that she can help him get to the bottom of things. In the midst of resolving that problem, some of Dana's political problems also get resolved, and she and Tyler grow, again, a bit closer. Tyler doesn't have many friends, mostly just sycophants and users, and Dana's natural instinct to treat everyone as "just folks" draws him to her in a special way. Nothing romantic, really...yet.

When the Rangora violate ongoing peace talks with an attack, it will take everything Tyler and Dana, and the rest of Earth's forces can muster to defeat them once more. This novel delivers quite well on the promise of the first two.

One good quote, where I think Ringo and I see eye-to-eye:

Vernon said, "I tried never to talk down to my kids when they were growing up. Treat them as adult as you can and they learn to be treated like adults. It kind of pisses them off when teachers and such don't, but kids adjust remarkably well."

I tried to take that approach rasing my kids. Seems to have worked, they're both fully functional, competent adults.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Methuselah's Children by Robert A. Heinlein

Methuselahs Children Gene Szafran Cover
Again, this is one of my favorite Heinlein novels, possibly because it sets up a later novel, Time Enough for Love. I wonder if he was consciously preparing to write a story about the man who would never die, Lazarus Long, here, or if it was just a chance name selection, or if it had more to do with the idea that Lazarus had "died" as far as the authorities were concerned, several times by the time of the story, in order to conceal his longevity.

The story is about a group of people on Earth called the Howard Families. Ira Howard, a very wealthy man, found himself dying of old age very early, and endowed a foundation to study and encourage human longevity. The directors of the foundation chose to do this by a selective breeding program, taking young adults whose grandparents had lived into their 90s and 100s (a somewhat rare event at the beginning of the 20th century) and giving them financial incentives to marry and bear many children. By the time of the story set in 2125, most of its members are living to be well in excess of a century.

They have kept their existence secret for two centuries, but have decided that mankind has become enlightened enough to accept them and not persecute them for being different. Oops. When a select group of the Families reveal their existence, the public and the government become convinced that they are hiding the secret for nefarious reasons, rather than being merely born with the proper genes, and the administration in power decides to suspend their civil rights and arrest them for interrogation.

Coincidentally? the first colony ship for extrasolar exploration has just been completed, and Lazarus Long, known as The Senior for being the oldest known member of the Families, and his buddies manage to hoodwink and hornswoggle the reiging powers and "borrow" the ship to get all 100,000 or so of the Howards off planet.

They visit a couple of different alien races on the voyage, both so advanced in comparison to humans as to be godlike in their powers. The first attempt to domesticate the humans, and the second merely to assimilate them into their communal mind. Either way, Lazarus - and Heinlein - have other ideas about the true nature and destiny of Man. Fun stuff.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others
I really enjoyed the Ha'Penny series by Walton, and I thought this would be quite good, too. Unfortunately, I only made it about a quarter of the way through before giving up. It's just a little to vague and young adult for my tastes, though others may like it quite well.

The story is about a girl, Morwenna Phelps, who has lost her twin sister in some sort of vague, unspecified magical (she believes) disaster triggered by her mother, and been crippled, herself. She's sent off to live with her father and his sisters, and must accustom herself to her new surroundings, including an English girls school.

It's vaguely reminscent for me (and it's been many many years since I read them) of The Magus by John Fowles, and I Capture the Castle by an author whose name I have forgotten, as well as having some undertones of the whole Narnia thing, without any of its excitement or moral certainty.

Walton does some very good descriptive and evocative stylistic things in this novel, but it never really held my attention, despite the fact that the heroine is a serious science fiction and fantasy reader, and the book is peppered with references to classics of the genre, such as:

(regarding her father) "If he's Lazarus Long to our Laz and Lor, I'd expect to have some sense of recognition."

Alas, despite the Heinlein references, I just couldn't continue.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Council of Shadows by S. M. Stirling

The Council of Shadows: A Novel of the Shadowspawn
This second book in the Shadowspawn series continues, in a somewhat relaxed manner, what was started in the first book, A Taint in the Blood. Ellen and Adrian are finally free of his evil twin sister, Adrienne, and they get married happily ever after? What's the line from the Hertz commercial?

Of course, the Shadowspawn are still around, and the Council is determined that it is time to thin out the human herd. The only question is about which method of inducing mass extinction is best. The "progressives" think it should be done in a manner which leaves all of the modern conveniences which they've grown accustomed to in place, while the "conservatives" don't care for all this modern nonsense, and just want to return to the glory days when their kind ruled the world.

The Brotherhood is sneakily trying to put together a plan to catch all of the Council members at a summit in Tblisi and to nuke them out of existence.

In this installment, most of the graphic sex and violence happens "off-stage", for a change. Evidently after setting the scene in Taint, Stirling feels comfortable knowing that we all understand how depraved the Shadowspawn are, and doesn't belabor the point, but reinforces it more subtly. There's a few good plot twists, as Ellen and Adrian indulge in a bit of intrigue while honeymooning, and there's a new side plot about human detectives looking into some bizaare happenings, that I expect we'll see more fully realized as time goes on.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Magic Strikes by Ilona Andrews

Magic Strikes (Kate Daniels, Book 3)Third in the Kate Daniels series, this one continues in a fine tradition. Someone or something has the ability to slaughter shifters at will, and Kate, as the representative of the Order, is investigating things right up to her eyebrows. Kate's young protege, Derek, comes down with a major crush on a girl who's involved with the bad guys, but who claims to want out. When he tries to secretly meet with her to effect a rescue, he is attacked and left nearly dead. Unlike in most situations where shifters are wounded, Derek is unable to heal, and so Kate adds another mystery to her plate.

In the meantime, Kate's old acquaintance, information broker Saiman, asks her to accompany him to the Midnight Games, a preternatural version of Ultimate Fighting. He's a part-owner in the concession that runs the games, and a new team, the Reapers, is dominating the fights now, which is bad for Saiman and his business, so he needs Kate to find out how they're cheating.

Curran's security chief, Jim, has been quietly investigating the shifter murders, trying to keep Curran from having to get involved, but when Derek goes down, it's inevitable. When Jim and Kate and Saiman decide to form a fighting team of their own to take on the Reapers, he forces his way on to the team - who's gonna stop a pissed-off werelion?

Once again, it turns out some old deities are involved in the caper, and the Reapers are just minions trying to bring them back into power. There's some fun stuff in the byplay between Curran and Kate, and we learn a bit more about who Saiman really is, as well. I still like the fact that Kate has a bit of self-control left where it comes to her romantic inclinations, and that the books have not yet dissolved into paranormal porn.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Late Eclipses by Seanan McGuire

Late Eclipses (October Daye, Book 4)
Late Eclipses is the fourth, and most recent at this point, novel in the October Daye series. October's friend Lily, the Naiad, has fallen ill, and no one knows why, or how she may be cured. Shortly after discovering this, and determining to get to the bottom of the matter, Toby is called to the Queen's court, where she is awarded the title of Countess, with the land of Goldengreen, to boot. Toby knows the Queen despises her, so she is certain this honor is really a trap.

Next, Duke Sylvester's wife, Luna, also falls ill during a ball in Shadowed Hills. Toby catches the scent of an infamous and elusive poisoner named Oleander just before it happens, rushes in to discover Luna as she collapses. Toby suspects poison, but many of Sylvester's subjects suspect Toby, especially his daughter Rayseline, who has hated Toby for many years.

Third, the King of Cats, Tybalt, summons Toby to his domain, where he reveals to her that many of his subjects have been poisoned, and some have already died. She begins to work with one of Lily's subjects, who is a chemistry professor at UC Berkley, to try to analyze the poisons used and to concoct an antidote.

At this point, Rayseline brings accusations of attempted murder against Toby before the Queen, and she subjected to a kangaroo court, then sentenced to die for these crimes as well as the previous crime of killing Blind Michael, one of the fae firstborn. Toby's friends break her out of jail, but not before she suffers greatly from iron poisoning from the cell in which she's been confined, and in order to survive, Toby must confront her mistaken assumptions about her past and be changed in ways she never imagined.

McGuire, in her Toby tales, just keeps getting better. The new book is due out in September, and I look forward to it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Assignment in Eternity by Robert A. Heinlein

Assignment In Eternity
Assignment in Eternity is probably my least favorite, to date, of Heinlein's story collections. Just not his best work.

Gulf is the story of a couple of secret agents working for Earth who are tasked with finding and disarming a nova-creating device, located on the Moon, that threatens all of mankind. The two agents, a man and woman, seem to be the same cardboard cutout types he used all too often, as are the rest of the good guys in the story. Its ending reminds me all to much of The Perfect Storm, a depressing film if ever there was one.

Elsewhen is a parallel universe story which goes nowhere slowly. A professor, somewhat like the characters in L. Sprague DeCamp and Fletcher Pratt's Compleat Enchanter stories, has discovered a way to prepare his students, hypnotically, to travel around the universes, but it doesn't really cover any new or exciting concepts, in my opinion.

Lost Legacy is a bit more interesting. Some college professors experimenting with psychic powers find ways to awaken the abilities that have lain dormant in humans for centuries, such as esp, telekinesis, conscious control of bodily function, and precognition. On a field trip during the summer break, they climb Mount Shasta and discover a community of recluses who have mastered these arts through discovering a cache of ancient wisdom left by the remnants of the empire of Mu, which was destroyed millenia ago. There are also groups of people in the world who also practice these arts for evil purposes, and eventually the group determines that it's time to begin fighting the forces of evil. The interesting concept that comes up here, from a Heinleiniana point of view, is that this is the first appearance of his concept, used later in Stranger in a Strange Land (there's even a preshadowing of the title in the thoughts of one character), that the use of the correct language, with the right structure results in a different, correct manner of thinking, unlocking the mind's powers. The ending, however, trails off indefinitively.

The final story, Jerry was a man, explores the idea of human rights, and how we determine whether someone is human, or not. Asimov does it much better later on with his robot stories.

A must read for the sake of completeness, but not much of any import there, on other fronts.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Outliers by Malcom Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success
I've run across references to Outliers in my reading over the last couple of years, and thought it might be interesting. Then, Lo and Behold! It was on the new book shelf at the public library, and I just had to check it out. I mean, I had to, didn't I?

Outliers examines some of our apocryphal and traditional cultural stories about success in a number of different fields, and tears down a few idols in those areas with the studies it contains. The style is quite clear, not at all like a research paper, and I found it fascinating.

The first thing that Gladwell examines is the odd phenomenon that the great majority of the hockey players who make it to the major leagues in Canada are born in the first three months of the year; January through March. As it turns out, there's a simple explanation for this. The cutoff date for enrolling in youth hockey is January 1. If an adolescent is ten years old on January 2, he will be playing in the same league with boys who don't turn ten until the end of the year, and he has a huge advantage in terms of his size, speed and coordination. The biggest, fastest, most skillful players then get the most attention from the coaches, become far better than the smaller, slower players, and enjoy those advantages, for the most part, for the rest of their hockey careers, up to the time of selection for the professional leagues. It's not all just about developing natural talent, the happy accident of birthdate plays a huge role.

Another principle that applies to success is, perhaps, not so controversial, but is still a bit surprising. In the field of musical talent, we generally assume that those who have some innate musical ability will be successful, and perhaps eventually play professionally. However, in a study done in Berlin, at an elite music academy, they discovered that when students all began playing at around the age of 5, most of them practiced two to three hours a week. Around age 8, the students who would end up being the best began to practice more hours than all the others, six hours a week by age nine, eight hours by age twelve, sixteen hours by fourteen, and upwards until by the time they were twenty they were practicing over thirty hours a week. By the age of twenty, they had put in over ten thousand hours of practice.

The idea that excellence in performing a complex task requires a minimum of ten thousand hours of practice threads through the discussions throughout the rest of the book. Contrary to popular wisdom, Mozart was not a child prodigy. His early compositions were derivative and he was helped by his father. But by the time he was twenty one, he had practiced composing for over ten years, and was thereafter regarded as a genius.

Sociologist Annette Lareau conducted a study which confirmed something I'd observed while raising my own children. She gathered a large cross section of students and their families across race and gender at different economic levels. Eventually, only two distinct parenting styles emerged (you'd think there would be way more than that, The wealthy parents "were heavily involved in their children's free time, shuttling them from one activity to the next, quizzing them about their teachers and coaches and teammates." The poor children's parents considered their children's activities as something they didn't need to be involved with. In one example, "...Mrs. Brindle does not discuss Katie's interest in drama or express regret that she cannot afford to cultivate her daughter's talent...She sees the shows her daughter puts on as 'cute' and as a way for Katie to 'get attention.'"

I saw this happening all the time when my kids were in school. I would run into the same group of parents at soccer practices, football practices, baseball practices, choir, orchestra and band concert.I never really thought of the group as "rich", I've always been just solid working middle class, myself. These parents were all heavily involved in their kids' lives, and eventually I saw that same group of parents at the awards and scholarship ceremony just before graduation (also, we all worked as chaperons at the graduation bash).

Gladwell applies the principles of the "happy accident of birth" in a particular month or era, the crucial opportunity to get ten thousand hours of practice in a skill, and the preparation for the real world done by involved parents, to a number of fields and people's careers. Bill Gates just happened to attend a high school where the mothers in the PTA raised the money to start a computer club for the kids, and he lived near the University of Washington, where his connections got him free computer programming time in a lab there, plus he was born at the right time in history when the personal computer was just coming on the scene, and the operating system he created was desperately needed.

One of the founders of Skadden, Arps, Meagher and Flom was a Jewish law student from the Bronx when all the big law firms in New York were only hiring WASPs, so he and others had to start their own firm. The bottom-feeding firms like them were the only ones who would fight corporate proxy fight and takeover battles, the WASP firms "just didn't do that." So, after thousands of hours of practice, when the laws and regulations and environment changed and the crazy Wall Street merger boom of the eighties took place, they were in the right place at the right time with the right preparation to become giants themselves.

I'm sure you've heard about how Asians are all good at math, right? Gladwell digs into that bit of common knowledge, too. He ties this success into a couple of things - their language, which has much shorter names for the numbers used in counting, and a more logical structure, as well, which makes it easier for Asian children to learn to count. With an early advantage, and an attitude that it's "easy", they make far more rapid progress than Western children. The other thing is that most of the Chinese who have emigrated are from the southern areas of China, where rice cultivation provides both food and a livelihood for millions.

Growing rice is not the same as growing corn, in a number of ways. First, the preparation of the fields is painstaking, the paddies must be constructed perfectly. Then, the level of the water must be kept at exactly the right level throughout the growing season. The amount of fertilizer used must also be exactly measured and applied at the right times. Rice farmers in China work from dawn to dark - 365 days a year! This cultural accustomization to long hours and hard work is instilled in their children, and when you study the study habits of Asians in this country, you find that they put in far more hours than their western counterparts.

On the subject of education, Gladwell talks about how a group of reformers in the early nineteenth century decided that it was harmful to children for them to attend school all year long. They believed that children needed several months off each year in order to "digest" the information they had learned. They thought that "working students too hard would create a 'most pernicious influence upon character and habits...Not infrequently is health itself destroyed by over-stimulating the mind.'"

But what really happens is that children actually "lose ground" over the summer break, forgetting a portion of what they have been taught. This isn't so bad for the rich kids, as their parents have the time and resources and motivation to keep them busy with other educational activities during the summer, but for the poor kids, it means that they fall farther and farther behind every year. A study by sociologist Karl Alexander suggests "the way in which education has been discussed in the United States is backwards. An enormous amount of time is spent talking about reducing class size, rewriting curricula, buying every student a shiny new laptop (they're doing this in Boise right now), and increasing school funding - all of which assumes that there is something fundamentally wrong with the job schools are doing." The study data "shows what happens between September and June. Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren't achieving, is that there isn't enough of it."

There's a ton of great food for thought in Outliers. I highly recommend it - for the thoughtful.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Book Blogger Hop - July 15 to 18

Time for the Hop again, hosted by Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop

This week's question:

How/Where do you get your books? Do you buy them or go to the library? Is there a certain website you use like paperbackswap?

Heh. Where do I not get my books? Many of them I borrow at the public library. The library also has a Friends of the Library bookstore that sells high quality paperbacks cheaply. There are several good used bookstores around town, though not as many as there once were, unfortunately. I'll pick up a few every so often at Barnes & Noble or Hastings. I go online to Amazon and order things that aren't in stock locally, and I buy Nookbooks online, too. Then, too, people often give me books. My mother gave me about six boxes a couple of weeks ago, for example.

Married with Zombies by Jesse Petersen

Married with Zombies (Living with the Dead, Book 1)
Crap. I don't know whether to list Zombie fiction as SF or Fantasy. Ah well. This book just had too hokey of a title for me to read it right away, after my friend Law bought it for the collection. The mood struck the other night, and it turned out I actually rather enjoyed it.

Sarah and David's marriage is on the rocks. They've been seeing a counselor, but making no progress. Just like Brangelina in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, they needed something earth shattering to motivate them to communicate, and they finally get it in the form of a zombie apocalypse. It seems that some researchers at the University of Washington near Seattle have allowed a zombie virus to escape, and it rapidly infects nearly the whole population - contagion by being bitten, of course.

First, they find their therapist busy chewing on the bodies of the couple that had the appointment just ahead of them. After they dispatch her with the weapons at hand, that couple comes to un-life and attacks Dave and Sarah, as well. They have to fight with the zombie security guard on the way out, and a zombie receptionist, too.

One of their neighbors from the apartment complex has gone undead on them, but his girlfriend remains unbitten, so they ally with her and grab all the guns and ammo out of the boyfriend's safe after dispatching him, and set out to find Dave's sister in Longview (hey, I've been there!). Plenty of typical zombie mayhem along the way, and I doubt there's anything new here for Z-afficionados.

However, the really clever thing about this book is that each chapter begins with a heading drawn from a marriage counseling book, such as:

"Balance the workload in your relationship. No one person should be responsible for killing all the zombies."

"Don't discuss your relationship problems with friends. Your zombie problems are another story entirely."

"Never go to bed angry. Terrified is OK."

I really have to post some of these on my fridge.

Fun. Quick. And there's a sequel.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Day After Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein

The day after tomorrow
This novel by Heinlein was one of my favorites, when I was younger. There was a whole genre that sprang up during the cold war about America being invaded by various totalitarian regimes and the fight of the underground against the oppressors. This one had a different twist to it, with the solution being found through superior technology.

The novel opens in a military research station in the Colorado mountains sometime shortly after the U.S. is overrun by PanAsian forces. The PanAsians instituted draconian controls over the populace, and any sign of rebellion is met with horrendous reprisals against civilians (like some of the prisoner camps in WWII). One of the experiments has gone wrong, killing off most of the personnel in the base, and Major Ardmore, from Intelligence, coincidentally arrives on the scene. The military is in shambles, and he has been instructed to tell the scientists at the base that they are to operate independently, using whatever means they've discovered, i.e., secret weapons, to route the PanAsian forces.

What they have been working on is a practical application of a theory that, like the electromagnetic spectrum, there are radiations or emissions in the gravitomagnetic and electrogravitic spectra that will have physical effects. In a practical sense, they come up with a death ray, a transmutation ray, a healing ray, a force field, and a few other things, as well. Unable to operate openly against the invaders for fear of reprisals, they decide to create a religion, the worship of Mota (Atom spelled backwards?). The PanAsians have a policy, based on previous conquests, of not interfering with their subject races' religions, so they allow this new one - they have no idea that it's actually brand, spanking new - to minister to the people.

With the transmutation ray, the priests of the new religion can create all the gold they need to buy supplies to feed the hungry. They're able to cure the sick with the healing ray, and they're able to guard their persons and property against the invaders with the force field. After some tweaking, they find that they can also specifically target the asian race with the death ray, while not affecting caucasians with it, due to genetic differences between the races. I think, given present genetic knowledge, that this is the place where Heinlein's story falls down for modern readers a bit.

We see here also a precursor to later novels, in that religion is used as a ploy to subvert and to teach those who can be reached. I still enjoyed it, after a long time since I last read it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Overton Window by Glenn Beck

The Overton Window
The Overton Window is the story of Noah Gardner, the privileged son of an advertising agency giant, who becomes aware, finally, that there are more momentous things going on in the world around him than his amusements and sexual conquests. One day at work at his father's business, he notices an intern, Molly Ross, posting an announcement about a political meeting held by an organization that is part of the Tea Party movement. Suddenly smitten by her obvious physical charms, he attempts to charm her, and when that doesn't work, decides to attend the meeting, to try and get to know her better, probably for the purpose of seducing her, but it soon turns into more of an obsession than mere lust.

At approximately the same time, Noah attends the first part of a meeting with a group of government agents who are concerned that a secret memo published by their department, planning for a Homeland Security emergency, and which will violate some groups' civil rights, has become public. Noah's father, Arthur, presents them with a plan to discredit the memo, and to further advance a progressive agenda that has been slowly encroaching on civil liberties in the U.S. for decades.

Noah attends the patriots' meeting later that evening, and is present when a group of provocateurs start trouble there, and the New York police immediately break up the meeting and throw most of the participants into jail. Noah's father's lawyer is able to get Noah released, but in an inexplicable streak of altruism, Noah convinces his lawyer that the whole bust was a setup from the beginning and the lawyer manages to get the rest of the detainees released, as well.

The Overton window of the title turns out later on in the story to refer to a method of visualizing the changes introduced over time to the canon of acceptable political dialogue in this country. For example, it would have been inconceivable twenty years ago that people would submit to full body scans and patdowns by TSA agents in order to fly anywhere in this country, but as incremental security measure changes have been slowly added, each necessitated by some perceived threat or crisis, we have now come to accept those practices, for the most part. The same thing applies to no-knock warrants, national security letters, and the propagation of SWAT teams in police departments all over the country.

Beck doesn't definitely attribute all of this to some vast progressive conspiracy, exactly, but fits it into the framework of a progressive agenda worldwide which acts upon the assumption that the elite, whether political or economic, are the only people who are capable of "ruling", and have stealthily taken over our government, through the process of corrupting our elected officials.

In a scenario reminiscent of Rahm Emmanuel's quote, "never let a crisis go to waste", Arthur Gardner and his fellow progressive manipulators have set into motion a plot that will incriminate the Tea Party types in an attack using an atomic bomb on an American City. When it comes to fruition, it will result in the arrest and internment of huge numbers of people deemed subversive by the Department of Homeland Security. The "thriller" portion of the novel is the tale of how some of Molly's friends and Noah discover the plot and attempt to thwart it.

There are vast swaths of this book that are pure Founding Fathers political writings, proclaimed and discussed by Molly and her fellow travelers, and a ton of facts and events ripped from recent headlines that make this novel not as far-fetched as it might seem at first. There's a wealth of references and additional information included in the back of the book, and Beck makes no bones about the fact that he intends this novel to be a wake up call for its readers, and to get them thinking about where this country is headed.

As far as thrillers go, the story wasn't all that tense, but it's certainly a thought-provoking read.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

Starship TroopersStarship Troopers is perhaps one of the best known of Heinlein's novels among the mainstream literary crowd. He took a lot of heat for it, and was accused of being a fascist for some of the things he wrote there. Indeed, he created a society which, on the surface, seemed to be ruled by the military, but in fact, citizenship was granted by performing two years of "federal service", which might have been military, but could include many other types of service, as well. The premise is that the franchise should not be granted to anyone who was not willing to demonstrate by their actions that they were dedicated to the welfare of the commonwealth.

This particular story thread follows Johnny Rico, a young man who comes from an aristocratic background, as he blindly volunteers to serve after graduating from high school, through his training and indoctrination in the Space Force, and his subsequent career fighting the Bugs, an arachnid race with a group mind, who are bent on eradicating humans from the galaxy.

Heinlein was a very clear-eyed realist about human nature. In a History and Moral Philosophy class that young Johnny, like all of his peers, is required to take, the instructor, Mr. Dubois, demolishes a popular argument by one of the students:

"My mother says that violence never settles anything."
"So?" Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly. "I'm sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that."
"...Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms."

Another good quote:

(Sargeant) Zim said almost gently, "You've got it all wrong, son. There's no such thing as a dangerous weapon."
"Huh? Sir?"
"There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men."

He seems almost prescient with this bit:

"There is an old song which asserts that 'the best things in life are free.' Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to beliee that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted...and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears."

And talking about juvenile delinquents:

"Were they scolded? Yes, often scathingly. Were their noses rubbed in it? Rarely. News organs and officials usually kept their names secret - in many places the law so required for criminals under eighteen. Were they spanked? Indeed not! Many had never been spanked even as children; there was a widespread belief that spanking, or any punishment involving pain, did a child permanent psychic damage...pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution which safeguards us by warning when something threatens our survival. Why should society refuse to use such a highly perfected survival mechanism?"

This novel has, nakedly scattered through its pages, probably the most commentary about politics and society of any of Heinlein's works. And yet, it's an engaging read, with an interesting plot, and realistic characters througout. The military organization and tactics described within it bears only a passing resemblance to any force on Earth today, but the underlying philosophy of conflict and honorable behavior shines through clearly.

Quintessential Heinlein.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Mistral's Kiss by Laurell K. Hamilton

Mistral's Kiss (Meredith Gentry, Book 5)
Mistral's Kiss is the fifth in the Merry Gentry series, and continues in the same vein as the last few. Merry is still locked in a competition with her cousin, Cel, to produce the heir to the throne of Faerie. In order to do this, she must indulge in wild sex with lots of gorgeous men, her consorts. True to form, no surprises.

Nor are there any surprises in this book, really. Mistral is the new captain of Queen Andais' Guard, who has defied her and come to Merry's bed. When she has sex with him, the dying gardens of the Faerie are brought back to life, which Andais is forced to admit is more important than the issue of Merry stealing another man from her.

Shortly after that, Merry and her bodyguards are accidentally transported to the bone garden of the Sluagh, where she brings those gardens back to life by having sex with Sholto, king of the Sluagh. The excess of magic triggers the Wild Hunt, unfortunately, and mayhem and chaos ensue. Merry must call  upon her alliance with the Goblins to help her stop the Hunt before innocents are hurt.

Ok, aside from some new powers for the men who get to have sex with Merry, there's not a whole lot of innovation here. The plotting and intrigues move marginally forward, and Merry continues to gain power, herself, perhaps preparing to challenge her Aunt for the throne when the time comes that she is backstabbed or betrayed.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

Red Planet
Red Planet is one of those young adult novels that I remember quite fondly. Upon re-reading, I was not disappointed. The only downside to this novel is that what Heinlein knew about Mars and what we know now have changed things, but as long as one understands the differences, you can relax and enjoy the story.

What's up with Heinlein and boarding schools? Jim Marlowe is a young man on Mars who, as the story begins, finds himself bound for a boarding school where he and other young colonists are educated courtesy of the Company responsible for Mars' development. Jim has adopted a Martian pet whom he named Willis, a basketball-shaped creature that extrudes stubby legs when it needs to walk, eyestalks when it wants to see, and that seems to understand little of the humans' language beyond simple commands and statements, but who has the capability to "record" and "playback" conversations verbatim, often at inappropriate times.

Jim and his buddy, Francis, set off for boarding school together, with a side trip adventure into one of the ruined Martian cities where Willis "introduces" them to a Martian named "Gecko", who befriends them and shares water with them. Here we see the first signs of a very important part of Heinlein's later novel, Stranger in a Strange Land - the water ceremoney.

Shortly after the boys arrive at the school, the likeable headmaster is replaced with a crony of the Colonial Agent (his son, actually), and all sorts of new rules and regulations go into effect. One of the regulations that catches Jim by surprise is the "No Pets" rule, and Willis is confiscated and locked away in the headmaster's office. Jim has finally had enough, and he mounts a late-night expedition to rescue Willis. Willis actually does most of the work in his own rescue, displaying a previously unknown talent to extrude cutting appendages which let him out of his confinement. He also has "recorded" a conversation between the headmaster and the Resident Agent General which describes the Agency's plan to curtail the annual migration of the colonists out of the polar zones to the equatorial region, where they can avoid the severe cold temperatures of Martian winters.

Jim and Francis realize that they need to get this information back to their parents and the rest of the colonists right away, and themselves escape from the school to make the long trek home. For much of their journey, they ice skate on the Martian canals (which we now know don't exist as water-filled features), take refuge in a huge Martian cabbage, and are aided by the Martians, finally, to return home, where their news is the match that sets a revolution ablaze. Along the way, we discover some things about Martians and their culture that come in handy in a few decades when Heinlein recycles the information in Stranger in a Strange Land.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Magic Burns by Ilona Andrews

Magic Burns (Kate Daniels, Book 2)
The second in the Kate Daniels series, this book picks up events shortly after the finish of Magic Bites. A rogue witches coven manages to mess up a ritual and call up the wrong ancient deity, causing mayhem in the city and mixups for Kate. A series of magic flares is also plaguing Atlanta, and the flip-flopping between the dominance of tech and magic keeps Kate on her toes.

While trying to recover some stolen maps for the Pack, Kate ends up rescuing a daughter of one of the coven members, Julie, from some undead water demons. Kate ends up in loco parentis for Julie for the duration of the story, as she investigates the fate of the coven, and battles with the dark forces in play.

Those forces are mainly made up of the Formorians, who are controlled in the same way as vampires by a minion of Morfran - the god summoned when the coven meant to call Morrigan. But Morrigan is hanging around the edges, as well, and her Huntsman leads Kate and the werewolves on a merry chase as he repeatedly steals the maps from them for his mistress.

Eventually things come to a head in a grand battle scene, which doesn't exactly top the epic struggle from the first novel, but at least retains parity.

One of the fun things about the series so far is that Andrews continues to develop the very confusing (to Kate) relationship with Curran, leader of the Pack. Kate is slowly discovering that his interest in her may be a bit more than just wanting to kill her whenever they meet. She also gets to know a couple more supernatural factions in town, the were hyenas and the Oracles of the Covens. It's an interesting transformation that Kate is undergoing, as she moves from being a loner to being surrounded by, if not friends, at least allies.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein

The Puppet Masters (Baen Science Fiction)
I think this book was later made into a movie, which I never got around to seeing. It will probably turn up on a discount rack someday and I'll grab it. The story borrows liberally from H.G. Wells tradition of alien invasion. A flying saucer lands in a small town in Iowa, and three agents of a super secret government agency - even the CIA doesn't know about them - arrive to investigate. When they get there, the media is saying that it was all a hoax perpetrated by some local boys, and those self-same boys are giving "tours" of the obviously cobbled together saucer.

Something doesn't quite smell right about the situation, though, and our protagonist, Sam, his fellow agent Mary, and the head of the agency, known as The Old Man, are determined to get to the bottom of things. They discover that slug-like aliens from Titan have arrived in large numbers, and are able, by attaching themselves to the spinal cords of humans, to direct their actions like puppets. The Old Man manages to eventually convince the President that something is amiss, but Congress proves to be a bit tougher, and by the time the danger is recognized, vast swaths of the country are under control of the masters.

Interesting side note, Heinlein at one point describes a map in the Pentagon showing the areas of alien control, and it sounds eerily similar to the blue state / red state map from our 2008 elections. Hmmm.

Sam is sent into occupied territory to try to obtain a specimen of the slugs for the scientists to study, and is himself taken over for several weeks, participating in recruiting new puppets. He is rescued, eventually, and the master is removed. Sam is debriefed under hypnosis, which reveals a great deal about the aliens' habits and plans, and the scientists are trying to find something that they can use to kill the slugs without killing their hosts.

Predictably, and with the usual Heinlein attitudes about women, Sam and Mary fall in love and get married. Their honeymoon is cut short when the aliens have staked out Sam's mountain cabin retreat, and Mary is briefly possessed by one of the slugs. Rather fortuitously, it turns out that Mary has her own earlier history with the Titans, as her family was part of a colony on Venus that disappeared, and her childhood memories contain the necessary clues to get rid of the aliens once and for all.

Nothing surprising, and nothing really new in this story. It's a pretty quick read, though.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

Of Blood and Honey (Fey and the Fallen)This is another book that was touted on another book blog as being "mind-blowing." I have to say that it wasn't, really. The story is set in the context of the conflict between the IRA and the British Army, mostly in and around Belfast beginning in 1971. William "Liam" Kelly is a young man caught up in that struggle, but he is also a half-breed Fey. His mother had an affair with one of the fair folk, named Bran, when she was younger, though the fact that he's a bastard is concealed by the fiction that she was married to a man who ran off. The secondary struggle that's going on is one between the Fey and the Fallen (angels), and between a militant order of the Catholic Church and the Fey (whom they believe to be the same as the Fallen) and Fallen.

Liam is imprisoned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a riot breaks out, and again later on under the same sort of circumstances. During his stay in the clutches of the British, he is repeatedly brutalized, and after a series of prison rapes by some guards, he manifests one of his supernatural powers; as a puca, he is able to turn into a large dog, like a wolfhound, and he savages one of his attackers in retribution. Liam's Fey father is also keeping tabs on  him while he is in prison, and bad things tend to happen to the people who abuse Liam.

After he is released, he gets married to his sweetheart, Mary Kate, and is recruited by a branch of the IRA. His life remains very depressing, and one bad thing after another happens to him. Eventually, however, the priest who has watched over him at his mother's request for years tells him more about his family history, and Liam is drawn into the larger conflict between the supernatural beings and the Church, while he pursues vengeance for himself, his friends and his family.

Overall, a bit dark, but tightly written and well researched from the historical side of things. It could very well be the start of a series by Leicht.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

Magic Bites (Kate Daniels, Book 1)It took me a long time to track down this series of books. I found the 2nd one in the series first, at the Friends of the Library bookstore, then a couple of months later, in the same place, found the 3rd, so when I was at Hastings last week I broke down and bought a copy of the first one - brand spanking new, so I could get started reading them finally.

This series falls into that rather tired sub-genre of urban fantasy; tough chick beats up on supernatural monsters (as opposed to cynical alpha male beats up on supernatural monsters). Hamilton, I think, started it with her Anita Blake series, followed by a whole host of imitators, of various competencies and calibers. Andrews, however, brings what seems to me to be a little fresher viewpoint to the whole sordid affair.

One positive thing, which may disappoint some folks, is that she manages to avoid the obligatory sado-masochistic orgiastic sex scenes every fifty pages. She also has a little different take on shapeshifters and vampires; the shapeshifters of all varieties in Atlanta band together for support and protection, aside from those who are merely vicious blood-crazed loup garoux (that should be an x for the plural, right?), and the vampires are actually mindless undead automatons, controlled by humans and other beings with necromantic powers. The world Kate Daniels lives in also suffers from waves of magic that sweep through the city at random, causing technology to fail for a time, while magic gains in power, though it is always lurking somewhere in the background, for those who know how to manipulate its energies.

Kate is a mercenary, a bounty hunter for hire to dispose of any magical predators or nuisances. She had formerly apprenticed with the Order, a band of magical knights who are all powerful magic users, but had some problems with authority, and left their tutelage to free lance. One of the members of the Order was her god parent, Greg, and when he is murdered by creatures unknown, she decides she must find the culprit herself. For some unknown reason, the local head of the Order agrees, and gives her their support and endorsement.

One great little bit of conversation between the knight-protector:
"You know anything about investigative work?"
"Sure. Annoy the people involved until the guilty party tries to make you go away."
Sounds just like most of the supernatural PIs I've enjoyed.

And later, when she's talking to the king of the shapeshifters, Curran:
"What happened to the alpha wolf?"
"Legos?" It sounded Greek but I couldn't recall anything mythological with that name. Wasn't it an island?
"He was carrying a load of laundry into the basement and tripped on the old set of LEGOs his kids left on the stairs. Broke two ribs and an ankle."

So, Kate must learn to work with the shapeshifter pack, the vampire navigators, and the knights of the order in order to collar the killer. The whole book works quite nicely as a setup for the series, laying out the major players, Kate's enemies and allies, and setting the scene in the magical version of Atlanta. Fun stuff, and I hope her writing continues at this level for a long time.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Blogger Hop - July 1 to 4

Time for another Hop, sponsored by Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop

This weeks' question:

“What keeps you reading beyond the first few pages of a book, and what makes you want to stop reading a book and put it back on the shelf?“

I think the answer to what keeps me reading beyond the first few pages may vary. It might be an immediately exciting bit of action, or the setup of a puzzle-type "hook", or a particularly poignant bit of descriptive prose, or a strong and novel narrative voice. I can often tell, when none of these are present at the beginning, that it's going to be a long, slow slog through the book. What will definitely cause me to stop reading a book and put it back on the shelf is when I come to the point where I just don't care in the slightest what happens to the people in that book any more. Well, that's not absolutely true, as I have been known to give up at the point when I realize that I hope they all die painful and lonely deaths, as well.

Wolfer by Carter Niemeyer

Wolfer: A MemoirI've lived in my neighborhood for about fifteen years, and have spent plenty of time getting to know my neighbors over the back fence, at weddings and barbecues, but I must say it's quite different getting to know a neighbor by reading their memoir. I've known Carter for a number of years, but his job kept him traveling quite often, and I just got a chance a couple of weeks ago to have a long conversation with him, during the course of which he was kind enough to give me a copy of his book, Wolfer, a winner of the Independent Publishers Book Award, which it richly deserves.

Carter has spent the better part of five decades, since he was shown by his father how to trap gophers when he was nine years old, in the business of Animal Damage Control. He put in many long hours studying the habits of all the creatures he pursued, so as to be more effective catching them, and this book has lots of great tidbits about animal - especially predator - behavior. The Hancock County Courthouse, where he grew up in Iowa, paid a bounty on all gopher feet turned in. He says, "...I dumped the feet onto the counter and a white-haired lady took a pencil from behind her ear and sorted them into groups...Nobody was grossed out and nobody scrubbed off the counter when we were done." Simpler times.

Eventually, he graduated to bigger game, and pretty much financed his bachelor's degree in Wildlife Biology by selling fox furs. He went on to work on a master's degree, working as a lab instructor, taking undergraduates on field trips to "look at habitat features, identify birds and animals in the wild, and recognize their presence from tracks, scats and vocalizations" - all skills with which he was intimately familiar. While trapping skunks for his thesis study on rabies, he started out buying sardines and tuna to bait his traps, but soon lucked onto the Kentucky Fried Chicken dumpster, where he found plenty of material for his 30 traps. When the customers were grossed out by him picking through the trash for food, the manager began meeting him at the back door with boxes of leftovers, instead - which not only baited his traps but often fed him and his assistants.

The list of animals Carter has trapped in his lifetime is rather amazing, including skunks, foxes, coyotes, golden eagles, bobcats, racoons, and many more I've probably already lost track of. Eventually he would move on to the most controversial creatures of all, wolves. Our federal government for many years now has footed the bill for trappers to remove predators that threaten ranchers' livestock, using any means that comes to hand, including traps, poison, shooting from helicopters and small planes.

If you've ever believed your goverment representatives when they've described a program as temporary, or claimed that a tax would expire, I have the following quote from Carter's book for you to consider:
"Most of the rancher who came west to run cattle and sheep supported a heavy-handed predator control program courtesy of the federal government. When the profit margins on sheep plunged and may of those ranchers switched to cattle, they retained their attitudes about predators, insisting that the killing program continue. Coyotes, the predator that does the most damage to the sheep industry, can't do much damage to a calf that isn't small, weak or sick. Full-grown cattle are just too big for them. But the government spends millions of dollars a year killing coyotes anyway because it's what's always been done. It's still true today."

Another quick hit about sheep I liked, "...wolves and coyotes were doing a lot more cleaning up than killing - when it came to cattle, anyway. Sheep were a different story. Everything was waiting to kill one of those." Poor, pitiful, stupid sheep.

Carter worked for a number of years for the government in Montana, dealing with packs of wolves that had migrated over the Canadian border into the area around Glacier National Park, and that were accused (often wrongly) of killing livestock. Most of the time the wolves were trapped and relocated, though sometimes the repeat offenders had to be killed to stop their predations.

In the mid 70s, however, the Endangered Species Act was passed, and change was about to come upon the West. The act mandated that the federal government had to create a plan for restoring species that were endangered in the U.S., such as wolves, to their old habitats. While a small majority of the public had a live-and-let-live attitude about wolves and their reintroduction, the extremists on both sides of the debate raised their voices the loudest. Carter had a unique front row seat throughout the process, and describes events in a wry, understated manner.

I used to live in Northern Idaho, and some of Carter's descriptions of the old ranchers really took me back. He's nailed them - spot on!

If you live in the Northwest, and have only heard what the newspapers were willing to publish about the controversy over wolf reintroduction, you really ought to pick up a copy of this book. The stories contained within its pages are mostly amusing, sometimes disgusting, and occasionally maddening. It's not my usual cup of tea, but I loved it. It may appear in some Christmas stockings this year.