Thursday, January 28, 2016

Black Amazon of Mars

Yep, she's good with an axe.
Black Amazon of Mars, by Leigh Brackett


Leigh Brackett was apparently a fairly big name in the pulp SF magazines; in fact she was called the Queen of Space Opera!  She wrote a whole lot of short stories and novellas, plus some screenplays (she helped with Empire Strikes Back just before her death).  One of her planetary-conquest series was about Eric John Stark (formerly N'Chaka of Mercury), a human man who is really something of a barbarian.  I was strongly reminded of Conan or Tarzan, only on Mars.

Stark is traveling with a friend to the fortified border city of Kushat, but the friend dies on the way, entrusting Stark with a relic that is supposed to protect the city.  Stark tries to return it, but first the barbarian hordes capture him!  After an interview with a mysterious masked black-clad warlord and some torture, he escapes and reaches Kushat, warning the city that invasion is imminent.  Lord Ciaran wants the city because it guards the Gates of Death, beyond which lies some mysterious power--and why not use that power to conquer all Mars?

There's a lot of bloodshed and conquest and celebration thereof.  Some elements of the story are lifted from Irish myth; the Talisman of Ban Cruach reminds me of the Eye of Crom Cruach from the Secret of Kells movie!

It was a fun space opera story, total pulp.  I'll have to read more Brackett.

And this post hereby finishes up my vintage SF reading for January.  Thanks to Redhead--it's been fun!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Two Clifford Simak novels

Time and Again, by Clifford D. Simak

This book has been on our SF shelf for I don't even know how long, but I'd never gotten around to reading it, though I like Simak just fine.  It turned out to be quite fun, although I saw the end coming from a mile away.  Simak's books aren't huge or terribly complex; they're more like YA science fiction, relatively short and easy to digest.

6,000 years in the future, mankind is spreading through the galaxy, but very thinly.  The population of humans does not seem large at all.  Instead, they swell their ranks with robots and androids--chemically-grown, human DNA, in all ways identical to human beings except that they are sterile.  Androids do most of the work and fill a lot of bureaucratic offices, but they are slaves.  And now, Asher Sutton has come back, 20 years after he disappeared, to find himself a target for assassination so that he won't produce the book he plans to write.  He is chased through time (and space) with only the androids to help him.

Not bad, though with a massive weak point; at no time does anyone suggest that people simply have children.  And not as good as this next one:


Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak

Redhead reviewed this the other day, and I liked the sound of it so much that I got myself a copy.  I really enjoyed Way Station; it's much better than Time and Again.  Read this one!

In a remote corner of Wisconsin, Enoch Wallace lives what seems a simple life--for 150 years.  He's a Civil War veteran, and now it's something like the 1980s.  His neighbors are willing to live and let live, up to a point anyway, and nobody has bothered him much until somebody decides he needs watching.  In fact, Enoch runs a way station inside his house; aliens arrive and rest on their way to their destinations.  He's met hundreds of life forms, and learned amazing things.  Now things are coming to a crisis.

This is a nice, quiet novel for the first half or so.  It builds slowly and then things get crazy.  It's really good stuff.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Voyage to Arcturus

Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay

It doesn't get much more Vintage SF than this--Lindsay published this weird novel in 1920.  It made a splash at the time; lots of people like Tolkien thought it was great stuff, and it was a large influence on C. S. Lewis, who was inspired to write his Space Trilogy.

Maskull is looking for adventure, and he teams up with two shady characters--Krag and Nightspore--who promise to take him to a different planet.  He ends up alone on Tormance, a planet orbiting the double star of Arcturus.*  He finds that he has grown some new organs on his neck, forehead, and chest, and these change throughout the story.  Maskull travels over Tormance, meeting one or two new people in every area.  Each new land is the expression of a philosophy, such as stoicism or Nietzschean will to power or pacifism.  Maskull disrupts most of these places; despite his intentions to purify himself inspired by the peaceful people he first meets, he kills several people, and others just happen to die.  All the time, Maskull is trying to figure out who made Tormance--really he's trying to find God but there are a few candidates.  Finally, he ascends a tower and sees Reality, which is some sort of Demiurge/Gnostic thing I didn't really get.  It's all very confusing.

Being a spiritual fable in SF form from 1920, it's kind of clunky.  Coherence is not a strong point, and science fiction had not yet developed much at all.  I suspect that it made such an impression because it was so strange, and because it was a new kind of thing.  (Or not; really, it's Pilgrim's Progress for the modernist.)  It's an important book if you're interested in the development of SF as a genre, much like reading Lord Dunsany and The Worm Ouroboros is important if you're interested in the development of the fantasy genre.  But it is not at all suited to modern tastes.




_______________________
*Arcturus is not, in fact, a double star.  But in this story it is.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

My Childhood

My Childhood, by Maxim Gorky

I've always meant to read Gorky's autobiographical trilogy.  I have all three, and I did read My Childhood once years and years ago, but I stopped there and had forgotten all.  So one goal of mine this year is to read all three.

Maxim Gorky's real name was Alexei Maximovich Peshkov.  He called himself Maxim after his father, and gorky means bitter, which he was.  Born in 1868, he had a lifelong concern for the plight of the Russian working class poor.  He got into Marxism, but he also founded a socialist publication that attacked Kerensky and Lenin (while living outside Russia; he spent time in the US and Europe).  Upon returning to Russia in 1928, he became an enthusiastic Soviet, and died in 1936--rumor had it that he was poisoned by political enemies.

My Childhood starts at age 5, at the death of little Alexei's father.  His mother goes home to her parents, but spends less and less time there, until she kind of disappears from the book for a long time.  Alexei is raised by his grandparents, in a tense and hostile household; Grandfather is usually stern and violent, and his sons are constantly demanding money.  There is fighting all the time, and Alexei is often beaten.  His consolation is his loving and saintly grandmother, who tells him stories and takes care of him.

Over the years, the grandparents move around a bit.  Odd characters come and go, and Alexei learns a bit more about the world, though he is hopeless at school.  His mother returns and remarries, which doesn't turn out too well.  Two little brothers are born.  And then, his mother dies, and Grandfather turns Alexei out to fend for himself.  He's maybe twelve, at most.
When I try to recall those vile abominations of that barbarous life in Russia, at times I find myself asking the question: is it worth while recording them? And with ever stronger conviction I find the answer is yes, because that was the real loathsome truth and to this day it is still valid.
It is that truth which must be known down to the very roots, so that by tearing them up it can be completely erased from the memory, from the soul of man, from our whole oppressive and shameful life.  And there is still another, more positive reason which compels me to describe these horrible things....Life is always surprising us--not by its rich, seething layer of bestial refuse--but by the bright, healthy and creative human powers of goodness that are for ever forcing their way up through it.  It is those powers that awaken our indestructible hope that a brighter, better and more humane life will once again be born.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Trigger Warning

I LOVE this cover.  SO awesome.
Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?  by Mick Hume

It's a book on free speech issues, so you know I've got to read it, but this time it's by a British guy!  Mick Hume is the editor of Spiked, writes newspaper columns, and is a Marxist which I don't really get but OK.  The back cover says he "was described as Britain's only libertarian Marxist newspaper columnist" so that makes it really confusing.  And here is his free speech opinion.

It's kind of a screed and definitely a polemic.  Hume is not happy and he's going to let you know it.  It gets a bit repetitive at times.  And, even from my "free speech is pretty much a religious tenet with me" perspective, I think he goes a bit too far.  I agreed with a lot of it, though, and there's some great analysis in there.  It's very worth reading; not as necessary as Kindly Inquisitors (I'd like every citizen to read that by age 19, please), but an important addition to the free speech library.

Hume's British/European perspective is really interesting to read.  He starts off with the Charlie Hebdo murders and dubs people who wish to limit speech "reverse-Voltaires."  There is just generally more about Euro concerns, so it's fascinating.

The boring chapter, to me, was the one about sports.  Largely because I really don't care about sports, and I especially don't care about Manchester football or whatever, but Hume's actual point isn't bad.  Then I just plain disagreed with him when he said that Twitter shouldn't do anything to trolls; we should all just learn to ignore them.  While I do think that trolls are better ignored than fussed over, Twitter is a private company with a perfect right to set rules about what is and is not acceptable, and the fact is that normal people tend to leave online fora when things get more abusive than is comfortable.  Most people can only ignore so much.

But right after that there is a fabulous chapter about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' far-overused line about "there is no right to shout 'Fire' in a crowded theater."  Hume complains about the constant use of this mis-quotation (they always leave out the 'falsely' bit) as if it applies to anything at all--and he also points out that Holmes changed his mind about the case and the ruling was struck down in 1969.
Underneath all the legalese, the fire-in-a-theatre argument has often been an expression of elitist disdain for the masses.  It rests upon the assumption that many people are ignorant and suggestible enough for a word out of place to start a riot, just as being told a theatre was on fire might start a stampede for the exits.
There is also quite a lot about Holocaust denial, which is a much bigger issue in Europe than the US.  Several European countries have made Holocaust denial an actual crime, and not just Germany.  To my mind, this gives more power than necessary to the silly people in the Holocaust denial business.  Hume argues that while the Holocaust is important, it is not dogma; we can discuss and argue about it.  It's a very interesting section on something I don't hear much about.

Hume makes a lot of good points that are worth thinking about and discussing.  Overall I liked Trigger Warning pretty well, and I recommend it.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

I first read this book a few years ago when Ekaterina recommended it on her blog. But the edition I read was the old translation from the 70's, and I wanted to read the newer translation from a couple of years ago. It said it fixed some errors and put in more material, and it also had an afterword explaining the history of the novel's publication in Russia (which is pretty fascinating all on its own).

Red Schuhart is your average schmo. He's a stalker-- he ventures into the Zone to retrieve artifacts. It's a very dangerous occupation; the Zone is an area filled with random alien objects. There are five of them on the earth,  rather as though somebody had thrown some trash out of the car window on their way to somewhere else. The purposes of the different artifacts are unknown, and they are often extremely dangerous. Those who venture into the Zone and survive are somehow changed; their children are not quite human.

Roadside Picnic is a true classic of science fiction; it inspired a movie, a video game series, and a sport. Well, it's not exactly a sport--it's the Russian pastime of sneaking into derelict buildings for exploration.

I was really happy to be able to read the new translation, which is more detailed.  It still has the same feel, but there's a bit more to it.  And it's a great book.



Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Story of Layla and Majnun

The Story of Layla and Majnun, by Nizami


Layla and Majnun is one of the world's great love stories, akin to Romeo and Juliet or...Aeneas and Dido, maybe.  The story dates from around the 7th century AD, and various versions of it were floating around until Nizami, a Persian poet, collected and shaped the material into one long marrative poem in 1188.  After that, the story's popularity spread across a couple of continents and is still influential today.  The introduction in my copy speculates that the lovers may have been real people who became legendary.

Layla and Qays know each other from childhood; both are Bedouin, though belonging to different tribes.  They fall in love as children, but when they grow older and Layla's parents realize that she is already attracting boys, they keep her sequestered in the family tent.  Layla, imprisoned, must act as though all is well.  Qays, however, starts reciting poetry in public and acting like a madman, which earns him the nickname Majnun (madman).  Without his Layla, he cannot care for anything else.  Eventually he runs off into the wilderness, becoming a sort of hermit and forgetting to eat.  He cares only to compose poetry that he hopes the wind will carry to his love.

Majnun with his animals
This all kind of backfires on him, because his father goes to propose a marriage between the two lovers, and Layla's father refuses on the grounds that Majnun goes around acting crazy all the time.  If not for that, it would be fine.

So Layla gets married off to a very nice, very rich princely kind of guy, who then loves her so much that he puts up with her refusal of him.  Majnun goes back to hermiting and gathers wild animals around him, who are tamed by his gentleness and devotion to Love.   Then everybody dies.


I am clearly a grumpy old lady, because I have no patience for Majnun and his antics.  He and Layla could have been fine.  (I also have no patience for Catherine and Heathcliffe, so.)

The part I liked best was where they exchange a couple of letters, and Layla points out that Majnun is free to act however he wants, whereas she, as a woman, is confined to the role she must play.  He gets all the attention, and she mostly gets to suffer in silence.

I guess I'm not good at appreciating great romances.  But now I know the story.


Starship Troopers

the cover of my dopey copy
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein

Here's a Vintage Sci-Fi month title that really took me a while to get around to.  I've had it for a year, but I'm not big on military SF so it was hard to get started.

Starship Troopers turns out to have almost identically the same plot as Space Cadet did, except that it's for an older audience and plays with a different political system. Here, we have Juan Rico, a wealthy young son of industry who decides, almost on a whim, to enlist in the military after graduating from high school. This is a couple hundred years in the future--humanity has spread out to many planets--and only veterans are allowed to vote and be full citizens. Anyone can serve a term in the military; they will find a job for you no matter what your capabilities are, but only a fairly small percentage of the population joins up to serve the two-year term. Juan joins up during peacetime, but humanity soon finds itself in a war for survival with the dreaded Bugs--extremely intelligent hive-mind insects looking for planets to colonize.

Most of the story consists of a detailed explanation of Johnny's military training, from boot camp to officers' school. There is very little actual plot. He's a soldier in the infantry, and it sounds very much like mecha manga, with each soldier in a suit that makes him into a one-man tank. Heinlein plays around with ideas about freedom, government, and war. As far as I can tell, Heinlein was given to toying with different systems just to see what would happen, and this is one of them. I thought it was pretty clear that these were not Heinlein's own ideas; he's just doing a thought experiment. In the middle of the book, the teacher that provides most of the political philosophy gives a little speech that makes it clear that he has no understanding of the ideas in the American Constitution as any modern American would understand it. I don't mean that Heinlein was spouting ideas that he would have considered to be completely wonky, but Starship Troopers is not a clear reflection of his political values, whatever those were.  I wouldn't know.

It was a pretty fun read if you like the occasional foray into military science fiction. Military stuff is not usually my cup of tea, but Starship Troopers is a pretty major classic and I wanted to see what it was about.  Apparently the movie (which I have not seen) uses the title and the bugs, and not much else.




Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Kojiki

The Kojiki: an Account of Ancient Matters, by Ō no Yasumaro

Here we have Japan's earliest chronicle, giving the descent of the Yamato dynasty.  It dates from the 8th century, and was written by a courtier at the request of the Empress Gemmei.  

The chronicle is in three parts, and roughly they are myth, legend, and history.  The first section deals with the creation of the world and with kami--translated here as 'spirits.'  These are the stories that became part of the Shinto religion.  (It's very much like Hesiod's Theogony, being a genealogy of divinities.)  The story of Amaterasu is found here, and the ancient beginnings of the Yamato line.

The second, legendary part sounds a lot like the first, except that we've mostly moved into the world of people by now.  It becomes a kingship chronicle, with interesting legends attached.  These kings, however, are too far back to be able to confirm much about their existence.  And the third part is more historical, though it still has the same style.  There are some neat stories, but also quite a lot of just plain genealogy.  There are also songs, which were written in Old Japanese in a special kind of Chinese writing.  Most of them have an instruction at the end that tells you how to sing it (if you know the rules).

Every royal character, and every kami, has 'mighty' in front of every noun, so that it gets very repetitive indeed.  These mighty ones also never just go anywhere--they make their majestic ways.  Grand epithets are everywhere.  And the end of every section gives the location of that person's mighty barrow.

I had forgotten that ancient Japanese monarchs had barrows!  So I had to go look those up again.  They are called kofun and are distinctively keyhole-shaped (from above), with the burial in the round part.

This translation puts all the names into English as well, translating the meanings of the names.  Indexes in the back list all personal and place names, and their meanings; it's extremely handy.  There is also an extensive glossary of terms.

The Kojiki is not at all difficult to read, and it's less than 200 pages long.  Not all of it makes a lot of sense to a modern American, but hey, that's what the glossaries are for; we're supposed to be learning new stuff here.  So if you're interested in very old Japanese literature, this is a good choice.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Umbrella Man

The Umbrella Man and Other Stories, by Roald Dahl

Thirteen short stories by Roald Dahl--you can't go much wrong with that.  One or two of these were stories that I recognized from having read them many years ago, but most were new to me.  Several were creepy as all get-out, others were funny in that signature Dahl fashion, and one was a memoir piece from the war.  A few have O. Henry style twist endings.  All are great stuff and it's a wonderful collection that made for a happy few evenings.

Cromartie v. the God Shiva...


Cromartie v. the God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India, by Rumer Godden

You might call this a quirky little novel.  It's rather nice and I liked it, but it's pretty odd.  It's inspired by an actual event that occurred in 1988, but the details of the novel are not like the event; just the headline was the inspiration.

An exquisite 11th-century nataraja has gone missing; it was replaced by a modern copy.  The real thing surfaced in Canada, where the antique dealer Mr. Cromartie insists he bought it fair and square.  The government of India is unconvinced, and Cromartie brings a suit to prove his case.  Young Matthew Dean, QC, heads off to India to investigate and act on behalf of the Indian government.  He meets all these different very nice people who love the Shiva statue but do not want him poking around to find out what happened.

A nataraja--dancing Shiva
The ending was very unexpected for me, and the novel was pretty good.  This is the first Godden novel I've read for adults, so I'd quite like to read more.  And my mom gave it to me--thanks, Mom!


Friday, January 15, 2016

Daphnis and Chloe

Daphnis and Chloe, by Longus

Longus was a Greek, living under the Roman Empire sometime in the second or third centuries AD.  Virtually nothing else is known of him, but he might have been from Lesbos, where he sets his story.  This is an early Greek romance, a sentimental little story written for amusement and even as a sort of cheer-up therapy for the melancholy, and the very archetype of a pastoral.

Daphnis is 15 and Chloe 13, and they are island shepherds.  Every day, they care for their flocks, pray to the local nymphs, and play music.  They fall in love, but are too innocent to know what love is, so they are just kind of tormented.  The story is sprinkled with dramatic incidents; Daphnis is captured by pirates (and saved by divine intervention), Chloe is captured by a different set of bad guys and saved, a terrible winter separates the two, and finally the shepherds' wealthy master arrives and it is time for all to be revealed and the happy ending.

It's a sweet little story that I've been meaning to get to for a while. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Book Beginnings III

Rose City Reader hosts the Book Beginnings meme.  Here's my latest book:
At Orșova, there was the Danube again. It was nearly a mile broad now, but immediately west it swirled and boiled through the narrow mountain defile of the Kazan - the Cauldron - which is only 162 yards across. Since I had turned my back on it at Budapest, this insatiable river had gorged itself with the Sava, the Drava, the Tisza, the Maros and the Morava, and a score of lesser-known tributaries. A little way downstream from Orșova, in the middle of the river, the small island of Ada Kaleh divided the current. Plumed with poplars and mulberries, the line of the wooden roofs was suddenly broken by a shallow dome and a minaret.
This is from The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor.  It's the third in his memoir trilogy about his walking tour across Europe in 1933/34.  At this point, he's entering Bulgaria and will spend the book there, in Romania, and in Greece.  The book is unfinished and stops short of his final goal of Istanbul.

It's a wonderful memoir.  I've been saving the books up to read very slowly.  I can't imagine much better than this trip, which has mostly not been possible since a few years after he took it.  I'm not sure if it could be done today.  And much of the world he describes is gone forever.








The Left Hand of Darkness

I know that you, my adoring public, are all wondering how I did on the radio.  I did fine.  The interviewer is amazingly good at what she does, and we had some nice conversation.  I'll post the link when it airs in a couple of weeks, though it turned out to be about librarianing, not blogging.  No matter, it was all about books. :)

And now let us get down to some business!  For Vintage SF Month, I read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin.  I found it sitting on a random bookshelf; I was unaware that I owned it, but obviously at some point I meant to read it.  I never got into LeGuin when I was younger, though just about all my other favorite fantasy/SF writers talked about her a lot.  I've only read one other of her books.  So probably everyone else has read this but me...

Genly Ai is an Envoy, an ambassador to the planet of Gethen from the rest of the galaxy.  The Ekumen, a multi-planet association to encourage trade and ideas, invites new planets to join if they wish, and Mr. Ai's job is to explain and invite.  It's not easy for a single person to convince a skeptical planet.  Genly starts in the chaotic Karhide (ruled
by a mad king!), and eventually travels to the regimented Orgoreyn.  There's a lot of politics, and a massive survival trek too.  Much of the fun lies in cultural exploration and the fact that (possibly due to some long-ago genetic experiment) the Gethenians are mostly unisexual, becoming male and female only at certain times.  Genly spends a good deal of time meditating upon what this means for their cultures, and also feeling very alone.

A neat read.  Also a standard SF classic.


Sunday, January 10, 2016

Homework!

I have six books to write up for you, but instead tonight I am studying my own blog.  I have homework!  I need to prepare, because tomorrow I'm being interviewed for a local radio show about books, and I'm supposed to talk about my reading and my blog.  I am a bit nervous!  Wish me luck.

Friday, January 8, 2016

This Friday's Book Beginning

Let's peek into my current vintage SF title, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic:

 AN EXCERPT FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH DR VALENTINE PILLMAN BY A CORRESPONDENT FROM HARMONT RADIO, AFTER THE FORMER RECEIVED THE NOBEL PRIZE IN PHYSICS.

INTERVIEWER: … I suppose that your first important discovery, Dr Pillman, was the celebrated Pillman radiant?

DR. PILLMAN: I wouldn’t say so. The Pillman radiant wasn’t my first discovery, it wasn’t important, and, strictly speaking, it wasn’t a discovery. It’s not entirely mine either.

Roadside Picnic is a great SF novel, originally published in the Soviet Union in 1972.  It has cult status and inspired a movie, the series of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games, and the slightly foolhardy
Russian pastime of sneaking into abandoned buildings to take pictures.

The story is about Red, an average schmo who works as a stalker--he sneaks into the cordoned-off Zone to retrieve alien artifacts.  The Zone is extremely dangerous, but stuffed full of amazing items that might power your car forever or might kill you instead.   It's a must-read.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Brit-Think, Ameri-Think

Brit-Think, Ameri-Think: A Transatlantic Survival Guide, by Jane Walmsley

Jane Walmsley is an American who moved to the UK in the 70s and married a British person there.  As such, she is well-placed to write this little book that pokes fun at the cultural differences between the US and the UK, and which purports to explain us to each other.  It probably does no such thing, but it's fun to read.

What both sides really fail to understand are the basics--the cultural themes, the habits of mind which determine the way the other guys behave.  In order that I may never again have to explain why Brits form orderly queues, or why Yanks insist that you 'have a nice day' whether you want one or not, I have written Brit-think, Ameri-think.

There are the usual sections on food, TV, children, homes, and so on.  It's all fun and lighthearted, and since my edition dates from 2003, a bit outdated.  The world has changed quickly!

The Symmetry Teacher

The Symmetry Teacher, by Andrei Bitov

I'd been looking forward to this book for some time, but I wanted to save it for December for Fanda's reading challenge.  I just barely finished this in 2015, so it counts, but I failed the challenge anyway. 

Bitov's novel is supposedly his foggy recollection of a book of stories written in a language he didn't really understand too well at the time, but which he translated into a notebook that he then lost.  Here, he recreates the stories, giving them new titles.  The original book was called The Teacher of Symmetry, and the author is forgotten (or may have been one A. Tired-Boffin).  This set-up is what hooked me; I can't resist that kind of thing.

The protagonist is Urbino Vanoski, who might be dead.  The chapters don't necessarily connect up, though sometimes they do.  It's all very surreal and chaotic, and the point is unclear, but the journey is enjoyable.  I'll read it again sometime, and I plan to read Bitov's earlier novel, Pushkin House.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Space Cadet


Space Cadet, by Robert Heinlein

Well, it's about time I started telling you about some of the books I've been reading, because I've been reading quite a bit!  Let's kick off the year with my first vintage SF title for Little Red Reviewer's event.  It's from 1948 and must have thrilled many a kid with dreams of going to space.

Matt (from Des Moines) arrives for the Space Patrol entrance exams.  He wants nothing more than a career in space!  It's 2075 and there are human settlements all over the solar system, so he befriends  boys born on Ganymede and Venus.  Being a cadet is extremely hard work and Matt has difficulty with some of the advanced math courses; he even thinks about leaving.  His friends are stock school-story characters: the troublemaker best friend, the quiet buddy with unsuspected talents, the spoiled brat nemesis.

Halfway through the story, Matt shifts to being a cadet on a working ship.  He helps out with an asteroid field job, and is then called to help answer a distress call from equatorial Venus.  This is the exciting bit, as the commander is injured and the three buddies are stranded in an unmapped area of the planet, very far from any help.  Here is where the quiet friend shines, as he teaches the other two how to contact the native Venerians for help.  They are an amphibian and matriarchal species (the males are never seen), and there's a lot about the complexities
of inter-cultural communication.  The Venerians are highly skilled chemists, but how to communicate about science when neither side comprehends the other's technical processes?  Anyway, it's all pretty fun and of course, the trouble is all caused by the spoiled brat nemesis acting like an idiot.

There is a lot about the practical aspects of working in space.  Matt has to learn to deal with freefall and with pressures up to 7 Gs--and of course, he learns astro-navigation with a slide rule.  Traveling in space turns out to be long and tedious, and every ship travels with a garden to recycle air and produce food on board.  The part on Venus is quite like our more recent hit, The Martian, with its emphasis on working the problem no matter how impossible it seems.

A fun juvenile title from Heinlein.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Book Beginnings on Fridays (late)

Gillion at the Rose City Reader blog (home of the European Reading Challenge, which I enjoyed in
2014) has a weekly event on Fridays where you post the first line of your current book and something
about it.  I figure I'll try to keep up, but notice--I'm already late.

Yesterday I started a book from my TBR pile!  It's Rumer Godden's novel, Cromartie v. the God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India.

"Cromartie versus the God Shiva.  No, thank you," said Sir George.  "Walter, I really don't think I can take this case."
 A priceless 11th century Shiva statue has gone missing and turned up in the hands of an antique dealer, who insists he got it fair and square.  Young Michael Dean, QC, is taking the case on behalf of the Indian government, and that's as far as I've gotten.  It looks to be a nice little novel though, and I'm looking forward to the rest.