Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein

Ha, I got hold of it!  I actually finished it a week or so ago--I have 5 titles waiting for me to stop being lazy and write them up--and, sad to say, I have still not started Starship Troopers.  But I will.  Probably not before the end of January, though.  Oh, and I did give Stanislaw Lem a try; I started two different books and was not grabbed by either, so I stopped.  Maybe I will like them some other day.  OK, on to the book I did read:

In the future, the Moon is a penal colony; and once you're sentenced there, it's for life, so there are quite a few free descendants, too.  Manuel is an ex-miner and computer technician, caring for the one super-computer in the whole place.  "Mycroft" has been augmented and extended so often that it has now gained sentience, but only Manny knows that.  Manny isn't interested in politics--the Lunar Authority runs the whole place as a colony, with few laws but lots of price-setting in its favor, and who can change that?--but when he finds himself in an alliance with two freedom fighters, and Mike the computer tells him a few things, he joins a long-term plan to get Luna free and independent.

It's a good exciting story.  Manny talks a lot about how to run a revolution, and about Luna's economic and legal environment, so be prepared for that.   Heinlein is playing with ideas about government, dissent, and so on.  He invents about five different kinds of marriage; the Moon has a severe gender imbalance and women are scarce, so Heinlein's scenario gives them a lot of autonomy, but in weird ways. 

The super-computer is so 60s.  Nobody else has a computer, so it's really handy to have Mike for the revolution.  He can do anything!

Manny speaks the whole time in a style that leaves out most of the articles and pronouns.  It's kind of annoying at first, but you get used to it.  He throws in quite a bit of Russian, too.

Interesting read, very heavy on the ideas.

Thanks to the Little Red Reviewer for a very fun Vintage SF event!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Case of Comrade Tulayev

The Case of Comrade Tulayev, by Victor Serge

Here we have a Russian novel, except that it's written in French.  Victor Serge was born Russian, was a young anarchist, joined the Bolshevik Revolution in 1919 and rose fairly high, but joined the Trotskyites and got really critical of Stalin.  He was in and out of prison before being deported and spent the rest of his life in Belgium, France, and Mexico--where he died in 1947.  (This is a very short and cockeyed summary of a very complicated life, so by all means look Serge up properly.)  Comrade Tulayev was written near the end of his life.  Serge remained a Marxist until the end--though I certainly couldn't tell from this novel.

In Moscow in the 1930s, the Terror is well underway.  Comrade Tulayev, an official very high in the government, is shot dead on a quiet street one night and the Soviet machinery swings into action.  Anyone associated with Tulayev is under suspicion, and suspicion means guilt.  One after another, dedicated Party members--chosen almost at random--disappear, and everyone is considered guilty except the real shooter, who isn't considered at all.

Each chapter is a separate story, especially at first; different characters appear and you have to start over and figure out what's going on.  It all comes together more in the last third, but for the most part, expect each chapter to be a new story or complete change of scene.

What this novel amounts to is a meticulous dissection of Stalinist paranoia.  Anyone, no matter how loyal, can come under suspicion.  Doublethink is required.  When everyone stops talking to you, you know you're going to be arrested, and the next thing you know you're being tortured in the Lubyanka.  Stalin himself is never mentioned by name--only as the Leader or some other epithet--but he is everywhere and he even makes an appearance at one point.  It's absurd and surreal, and horrifying.  The victims are loyal Communists, and their loyalty to the system that is murdering them is part of the surreal atmosphere.  They have to tell themselves that their deaths will serve the Revolution somehow.

Serge's writing is pretty great and needs attention.  There's a lot of subtle irony and some bright flashes of humor, but for the most part it's pretty grim.  Seriously, I was surprised to find out that Serge was a Marxist when he wrote this.  Some samples:
Sitting in the stern, suddenly tired, his hands crossed on his knees, the ghosts gone, he thought: Done for.  The launch plowed toward the city through that dark certainty.  Done for like the city, the Revolution, the republic, done for like so many comrades...What could be more natural?  A turn for each, a way for each...How had he managed not to be aware of it until now, how had he lived in the presence of that hidden revelation without divining it, without understanding it, imagining that he was doing things that were important or things that were unimportant, when actually there was nothing left to do?

According to them, the situation was becoming untenable everywhere, but then the next minute they proposed a plan for victory; some advocated a European war; Anarchists insisted upon restoring discipline, establishing the sternest order, provoking foreign intervention; bourgeois Republicans thought the Anarchists too moderate and obliquely accused the Communists of being too conservative...the Communists despised every other party, at the same time treating all the bourgeois parties with the greatest politeness... [this is the Spanish Civil War]

The fact is that he both looked like a schoolmaster who was a champion chess player and resembled the portraits of the Bloody Czar.  Once a schoolboy who had come whizzing along at top speed on a single skate and had crashed into him muttered this odd apology: "Excuse me, Citizen Professor Ivan the Terrible"--and could not understand the strange fit of laughter with which the stern old codger answered him.

And Rublev, erect too, said firmly:
"That I have lived my whole life only for the Party.  Sick and degraded thought it may be, our Party.  That I have neither thought nor conscience outside the Party.  That I am loyal to the Party, whatever it may be, whatever it may do.  That if I must perish, crushed by my Party, I consent...But that I warn the villains who are killing us that they are killing the Party..."
"Goodby, Comrade Rublev."




Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Agnes Grey

Much prettier than my ugly old copy
Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte

I just love Anne Bronte.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is fantastic.  I read Agnes Grey years ago, but I'd forgotten a lot about it, so I thought I would pick it up again.  Lovely!

The story is narrated by Agnes, who is the younger daughter of a middle-class clergyman who loses all his savings in an investment gone wrong.  Agnes decides to contribute her bit by becoming a governess, which is about the only work she can do.  She first goes to a household with younger children and no order or discipline whatsoever.  Her difficult position is vividly described; as a governess she is expected to teach and discipline the children through some sort of magic.  She has no power or authority and at any time the children can run to their parents and get her into trouble while escaping any consequences of their own.  The family looks down on her, but as a gentlewoman she cannot socialize with the servants.  She is alone.

Her next family is very nearly as spoiled, but the children are older and the work is not as physically exhausting.  Here, Agnes can try to exert an improving influence by setting a good example.  Her charges need it too!  They are nice enough girls, but one is too focused on flirting and the other only thinks about horses.  Neither is in the least considerate of others.  Agnes does her best and tries to cope with her loneliness as best she can.  Then she meets the new curate--at last, someone who is her equal.  Agnes is really honest about her feelings and it is both neat to read and also almost hilarious to see a crush so perfectly described--in delicate Victorian terms.

I thought the elder Greys' relationship was really interesting.  Mrs. Grey is held up as a perfect Victorian wife and mother; having originally married below her station for love and been cut off without a shilling, she cheerfully embraces life in the middle class.  When they become downright poor, she again tackles the situation with courage and determination, never complaining or wishing aloud for the lost fortune.  (This reminds me of a moment in By the Shores of Silver Lake, when Ma proudly tells a neighbor that Mary, who has lost her sight, has never once repined.  Digest that for a minute, realize that it constitutes heroism, and then we'll move on.)  Mr. Grey tends to worry about what his wife has given up, and unfortunately he allows it to become something of an obsession that affects his health and ability to deal with their situation.  He makes things harder for himself and his family, but they all still love each other and are written as, mostly, a model family that is affectionate, orderly, and virtuous.

This is an overtly moral novel.  Agnes is didactic and draws a portrait of stark opposites and their just deserts.  Characters who are honest, kind, thrifty, orderly, and devout are opposed to others who are snobbish, proud, uncontrolled, spoiled, and selfish.  Guess who gets a happy family life?  It's didactic, but also (I think) quite true a lot of the time.



The novel specifies no location, but Anne Bronte based the story on her own experiences, which took place in Yorkshire, so that's where it goes.  Yorkshire, it turns out, is huge.  It's gigantic.  I'm wondering if I should count it as three because it's divided into three ridings, which apparently count as counties somehow, but not really.  Well, that's up to o and not my problem. :)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales

The Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales, by Gerald of Wales

This was a really fun medieval travelogue.  Like another of Gerald's works, The History and Topography of Ireland, it would be a good selection for someone interested in dipping their toes into medieval literature.

In 1188, Archbishop Baldwin (of England and Wales) made a tour of Wales to drum up support for an impending Crusade.  Gerald was part of his entourage, and he kept a record of the trip which he turned into The Journey Through Wales.  He details every stop, but relatively little of the text is actually about converting potential crusaders; he really talks a lot about local history and wonders.  Old battles and feuds, miracles, interesting anecdotes, and monuments fill the pages.  It is very fun.  For example:
St. David's cathedral was founded in honour of Saint Andrew the Apostle.  The place where it stands is called the Valley of Roses.  A better name for it would be the Valley of Marble, for it is in no sense rosy or remarkable for roses, whereas there are plenty of rocks all over the place.

In our own days a young man who lived in this neighborhood, and who was lying ill in bed, was persecuted by a plague of toads.  It seemed as if the entire local population of toads had made an agreement to go to visit him.  Vast numbers were killed by his friends...but they grew again like the heads of the Hydra.  Toads came flocking from all directions, more and more of them, until no one could count them.  In the end the young man's friends and the other people who were trying to help were quite worn out.  They chose a tall tree, cut off all its branches and removed all its leaves.  Then they hoisted him up to the top in a bag.  He was still not safe from his venomous assailants.  The toads crawled up the tree looking for him.  They killed him and ate him right up, leaving nothing but his skeleton.
Like all Christian historians of the medieval period, Gerald sees history and his own time as the working out of God's plan on earth--a story that will culminate in the Second Coming of Christ and Judgement Day.  In his opinion, God has an agenda in Wales, and He is quick to punish irreverence and sin, as illustrated by all these anecdotes.  The Crusade is obviously a righteous cause (he quotes one eager young man as saying that the only thing there is to fear is coming home safely and not dying in the cause), and those who don't want to go, or who don't want their friends or relatives to go, are ripe for destruction.  When a wife tries to restrain her husband from going on crusade, you can be sure she is not going to live long.  Personally, my sympathies are all with the wife, who was doubtless wondering how she was to manage the family while her husband went off on a clearly insane mission
to get killed.

Then Gerald writes up his Description of Wales too.   He starts with a description of the landscape and rivers, but quickly moves on to the Welsh national character.  He is partly Welsh himself and is describing his own people, a project he eloquently defends in a preface (his colleagues wondered why he didn't tackle a more prestigious topic, like yet another re-telling of the Aeneid).  First he talks about the good points of the Welsh people, and then about their defects.  Sometimes he gets pretty shocking and then you realize what he's really saying....
Incest is extremely common among the Welsh...they have no hesitation or shame in marrying women related to them in the fourth or fifth degree, and sometimes even third cousins.
He's talking about the degrees of consanguinity prohibited by canon law, which the Welsh disregarded--just as we would today.  Then, in battle:
Their sole idea of tactics is either to pursue their opponents or else to run away from them.  They are lightly armed and they rely more on their agility than on brute strength.

If the Welsh would only adopt the French way of arming themselves, if they would fight in ordered ranks instead of leaping about all over the place, if their princes could come to an agreement and unite to defend their country--or better still, if they had only one prince and he a good one...
Gerald also brings up King Arthur a few times!  He gets some of his material from Geoffrey of Monmouth, for one thing, but he also says:
The Britons maintain that, when Gildas criticized his own people so bitterly, he wrote as he did because he was so infuriated by the fact that King Arthur had killed his own brother, who was a Scottish chieftain.  When he heard of his brother's death, or so the Britons say, he threw into the sea a number of outstanding books which he had written in their praise and about Arthur's achievements.  As a result you will find no book which gives an authentic account of that great prince.
The editor notes dryly, "Apart from the fact that Gildas was born on the south bank of the Clyde, there is no evidence to support any of this."

Gerald is thoroughly medieval in his love of explaining the world and God's plan, and in his careful scholarship and references to important texts mixed with (what we would consider gullibility) delight in the wonders of nature and God.  But he's also a bit of a rebel.  He's stubborn enough to insist on writing about Wales, an obscure corner of the world, instead of about the more standard topics of his day, and he feels that he has to defend himself on the point.  He talks at length about his reasons for writing and his certainty that no one will thank him for the work during his lifetime.   We have reason to be grateful for it, though, because his writing is lively and enjoyable, and gives us a wonderful picture of the daily life of ordinary people--which is not common for a work of medieval scholarship.



One last note--although this book is mostly about Wales, Gerald starts and finishes in Herefordshire, and describes it as part of his work; he considers it part of Wales.  So I'm going to count it as part of the Reading England challenge too.  And it was written in Latin originally, so it's translated!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Prisoners of Power

Prisoners of Power, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

I love these guys.  I'm going to need to find more Strugatsky brothers to read.

Far in the future, Maxim goes exploring.  On this future Earth, if you're a young, reasonably healthy guy with no particular idea of what you want to do yet and a sense of adventure that needs exercising, you open up the catalog, pick an unexplored planet, and head out to take a look at it under the auspices of the Independent Reconnaissance Unit.  Maxim fits that bill, and now he has landed on a planet that is...depressingly grey and flat.  And radioactive.

Maxim arrives in a society controlled by unseen military dictators who use radiation to manipulate the populace.  All the known nations have thrown themselves into a cataclysmic nuclear war that has left everyone and everything nearly destroyed--and they're still at it.  Maxim has the ability to withstand the mind-control radiation, and as he makes friends and finds his way through, he gets to understand how this world works.  He joins the army, then the rebellion, and then he just keeps moving.

The badge, because it's awesome
This is almost entirely SF about a dystopian society, but it does also have some neat wider world-building elements as well.  The properties of the planet's atmosphere have had a large influence on scientific development, for example, which I liked.

I really enjoyed Prisoners of Power, and I read it kind of slowly so it would last a while.  It's just really good.  Every SF reader should try some Strugatsky!

Somebody made a movie a few years back, it looks like.  I would love to see it!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

1177 BC

1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric Cline

Over 3000 years ago, the Bronze Age peoples around and near the Mediterranean had developed a network of wealthy and civilized nations that were connected by trade and royal kinship ties.  But somewhere around 1177 BC, it all went downhill.  Egypt declined, trade routes were ruptured, and a domino effect seems to have toppled one kingdom after another.  The Mycenaeans, the Hittites, the Babylonians and Minoans and others fell into a 'dark age' as technologies and writing systems were lost.  What happened?

We know that one thing that happened was invasions from the Sea Peoples--several groups of murky origin that came in, mauraded, and settled down to intermarry.  (The Philistines in the Bible were part of the Sea Peoples.)  But that's not really enough to explain the collapse.  Some scholars have proposed a massive earthquake for one civilization, or drought for others, but usually they've focused on one civilization at a time.

Cline proposes to examine the Late Bronze Age peoples as an interdependent network rather than as several independent states.   This was a strong and resilient system that could rally after a drought, or from an invasion--but perhaps it couldn't recover from several disasters, coming one after another, weakening the whole network until a systems collapse occurred.  Cline thinks that earthquakes, drought, famines, rebellions, and invasions all combined to break down the trade routes and culminate in the domino effect.

It's a very interesting book, and I think fairly convincing.  We have been able to learn a lot about international trade in the Bronze Age in the last few decades that shows that these kingdoms were far more closely connected than we realized.  Cline gives a nice picture, and as an added bonus, his book isn't an 800 page-long tome that seeks to exhaustively explain everything about each nation.  It's a reasonable size.  Pretty good.

This is part of the "Turning Points in Ancient History" series published by Princeton.  The book cover advertises that quite a bit, but what it doesn't tell you is that this is also the first book in the series and there aren't any more just yet.  I'm going to keep an eye out, though; I'd like to read the next one when it arrives.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Puppet Masters

The Puppet Masters, by Robert Heinlein

Here's my first Heinlein for adult readers rather than young teens.  It's still fine for them as well, actually, but as a category this isn't one of his juvenile titles.  (Some of the material was pretty daring in 1951 but now, not so much.)

"Sam" is an agent for the most secret branch of the US's spy network.  He's called in to investigate a possible alien landing.  He and his partner "Mary" are shown a dummy setup--a hoax--but there's something very wrong somewhere.  There really was a landing, and "puppet masters," parasites that take over the brain, are slowly infiltrating the country.  Sam, Mary, and the rest of their organization first fight to convince the government to believe them, and then to save the world from the masters.

The really neat thing about this story is (this is not much of a spoiler) that Sam becomes a victim.  We see the masters from the point of view of their hosts, and it's great stuff.

Puppet Masters was written in 1951 and was, I should think, probably one of the earlier 'parasite that takes over humans' stories.  My daughter and I both thought it was really well done and had some interesting points that most modern takes on that plot don't have--most notably that the narrator is one of the victims.  Then, the masters stay on the outside of the body, so it is possible to identify them more easily, but they are also very numerous...and tricky.  Chances of defeating them are small.

The one thing I found odd about the characters and story was some of Mary's behavior, but I'm pretty sure that's supposed to be part of her backstory; she's been through some very strange things and it's had an effect.

I liked Puppet Masters a lot; it's definitely going into my list of books to re-read.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Wild Things!

Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature, by Bird, Danielson, and Sieruta

Three people in the children's book world team up to talk about the wilder side of children's literature.  Between them, they've got almost every angle covered: authorship, reviewing, blogging, librarianing, interviewing and critiquing, and they're here to discuss all of it.

There are chapters about:
  • subversive elements in children's books
  • old scandals and mysteries 
  • why grownups love Newberys and kids love pulp (and, often, Newberys and everything else)
  • censorship, banning, general outrage
  • how and when gay characters arrived in books for youth, and just how many of the children's authors and artists you love were gay, only nobody mentioned it at the time
  • children's books by celebrities: plague? not so bad? popularity contest?
  • what Harry Potter did for children's publishing
  • DEATH
  • and the terrible scourge that is the Triumvirate of Mediocrity.
 ("The Triumvirate of Mediocrity" sounds exactly like a chapter in The Phantom Tollbooth.)

It's a fun read, with many interesting revelations, juicy anecdotes, and serious issues to think about.  I must admit that I already knew a lot of the material, because this is the sort of thing I know about anyway, but there was enough good commentary and new information that I enjoyed it all.  I was startled and pleased to see Leila from bookshelves of doom quoted!  Go Leila!

If you're interested in children's literature, it's a must-read.  If you're only sort of interested, take a look and see if you get hooked.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Have Spacesuit--Will Travel

Have Spacesuit--Will Travel, by Robert Heinlein

Here is it, my first Heinlein!  This was a really fun novel and I loved it.  We may see some Heinlein-collecting in my future. 

Kip is your average high-school kid, except that he is extra-attached to his ambition to go to the Moon.  He enters a soap slogan contest, and while he doesn't win the first prize of a Moon trip, he does win a used spacesuit, and he spends a summer fixing it up just right and learning his way around the engineering.  While taking it out for one last walk, he's suddenly kidnapped by space pirates!  His fellow prisoners are Peewee, a pre-teen girl a little too smart for her own good, and the Mother Thing, an alien.  They've got to escape and warn Earth about an imminent invasion, but all they've got to work with is their own brains.

This is a great adventure story for older kids and YA.  Kip and Peewee are both inventive and self-reliant, but they're also kids.  Peewee in particular has that blend of smarts and blind spots that is typical for a child that age, while Kip is not as clever, but has more common sense and experience because he's older.  There are two interesting alien species with differing societies and goals, good stuff.  The whole thing is a three-stage adventure that gets bigger, with more at stake, every time.

Heinlein wrote this in 1958, and so Kip has a slide rule and no electronics.  I didn't feel that the story had really aged, though.  It's nice that he doesn't have an iPhone to rely on for calculations--he has to do them in his head--and he only mentions his "slipstick," left at home, a couple of times in passing.  Really, you'd have to be quite a nitpicker to complain about the age of the story, because it hardly feels dated at all.

My 14-year old read it too and now she wants to read more.  I think we are both going to enjoy our new author.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

January!

Not available in my county.
It's January, a new year with fresh new beginnings!  I, however, am groggy from a late night and feeling kind of under the weather, so I don't feel very peppy.  It's a good day to read a lot though, and I have some fun plans for January.

First off, I look forward to January's annual Vintage Science Fiction Month Not-A-Challenge!  I have two goals for this month. 
  1. First, a confession: I have never read Heinlein.  Not one Heinlein book have I read, and I suppose it's time to fix that, so I am planning to read Have Spacesuit--Will Travel, The Puppet Masters, and Starship Troopers.  I would LIKE to read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but I have searched this county high and low and there is not a library or a used bookstore or a friend with a copy!  Did you know that there is no ebook version for sale either?
  2. Iron Curtain SF: I have Prisoners of Power, by the Strugatsky brothers (whose Roadside Picnic and Tale of the Troika I liked a lot), and I also found a bunch of Slanislaw Lem, so I'm going to give him a try.  I don't know which to start with!
I'm also excited about Fanda's new challenge, which requires me to pick a medieval work to read for January.  As it happens, I've got rather a lot of medieval literature piled up!  I don't want to pick something that's too long to read in one month, so not the History of the Franks or Venerable Bede.  I'm going to go with Gerald of Wales' Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales, which is from 1188 and is about Gerald's missionary trip in his home country.  I enjoyed his History and Topography of Ireland very much, so I've been looking forward to this one.  It's just too bad that it won't count for the Reading England challenge as well....


I also have some great history to read, and I'm looking forward to reading translations and English literature...so much fun, so little time.