Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Key to Getting Your Team to the World Series

Is to hire Edgar Renteria to be your shortstop. The San Francisco Giants are the third different World Series team he's been on since 2003.

Renteria won the Series with the Marlins in 2003, and then went to the St. Louis Cardinals. He grounded sharply back to the pitcher—"Stabbed by Foulke!"—to make the last out of the 2004 World Series against the Red Sox.

He never found his footing here in Boston in 2005. Too bad, because I like him a lot. That summer of 2005, we got a mailing from a local storage locker company promoting a grand opening where he would be signing autographs. Impatient Red Sox fans were already heaping scorn upon him, and the low-rent nature of the event was heartbreakingly pathetic.

I guess he's more of a National League type player.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Book Review: Startide Rising

David Brin
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

Startide Rising takes place in the future. The now regularly space-faring humans have made contact with the Galactics, an inter-galactic federation of alien species.

The Galactics are governed by the laws of “uplift.” Uplift is a process in which a “patron” race of advanced, sentient beings takes on the responsibility for educating, mentoring, and, on occasion, physically modifying “client” races of less advanced, pre-sentient beings. The goal is for the clients to become sentient and space-faring and, in turn, to become patrons for client races of their own.

Uplift is the polar opposite of the Prime Directive. What it means is that as soon as you find a promising pre-sentient race, you need to swoop in and declare them to be your clients before anyone else does.

Every single sentient Galactic species alive was uplifted by another, more advanced species. The chain of patrons and clients extends back millions of years to the revered, semi-mythical “Progenitors,” the first race and the only race to have ever uplifted themselves.

The only race to have uplifted themselves, that is, besides humans.

The apparently “orphan” humans are almost universally hated. They are seen as impudent upstarts. And, just by existing, they call the whole system of uplift into question; how could humans have uplifted themselves when no species more intelligent and sophisticated was able to?

Anyway, once exposed to the idea of uplift, the humans quickly took on two client races of their own – chimpanzees and dolphins.

The plot of Startide centers on the maiden voyage of the Earth spaceship Streaker, which is captained and primarily crewed by dolphins with a small contingent of humans and one chimpanzee.

Streaker’s original mission is to test the fitness of dolphins as a space-faring race. But that quickly changes when they stumble across a derelict ghost fleet abandoned in a remote corner of the universe – a fleet that may actually be related to the Progenitors. And they are able to retrieve a corpse from the wreckage.

As soon as the rest of the universe hears about the ghost fleet, they all rush in to fight the Earthlings and each other over what the Earthlings have found. Streaker is damaged in the conflict but is temporarily able to escape, limping away and crash-landing on a semi-hospitable planet nearby.

The rest of the book takes place on this planet, with the Earthlings trying to repair their ship and get back home with their discoveries before the Galactics finish fighting each other and catch up to them.

The story is basically okay, but it does feel a bit like a contrived vehicle for illustrating the uplift concept rather than a story that arose on its own because it was inherently riveting.

Uplift is an interesting idea, and Brin creates a coherent set of laws supporting it. The other client and patron races in the book are varied and show how different patron species treat their clients very differently; some see clients as servants while others genuinely do try to make them self-sufficient.

But uplift also makes me uncomfortable. For one thing, the genetic manipulation that patron races use to speed the process – altering a dolphin’s blowhole to make human language sounds, for example, or gradually turning fins into hands – seems wrong. It leaves a lot of room for error and evil (as is borne out in the story).

For another thing, I was skeptical of the overpowering awe in which clients hold their patrons. The dolphins and chimps are capable pilots, scientists, and doctors but they humble themselves to even the lowliest human. They drop everything to aid a human in distress, even over another chimp or dolphin or their own safety. If I was a member of a client species, I don’t know if I would be so universally deferential.

This is the second novel of six that Brin set in his Uplift universe. I generally enjoyed this one and the third, The Uplift War (which I read because it was also a Hugo winner), but feel no need to read the other four.

Friday, October 22, 2010

We Are the Centuries

To celebrate having written reviews of exactly half of the Nebula and Hugo Best Novel winners to date, Cthulhu is taking a vacation today.

For those of you who think this means you will get away without your weekly science fiction exposure, think again! I give you this brilliantly depressing passage from A Canticle for Leibowitz.

We are the centuries; the unstoppable advance churning and using up people.

We are the centuries.

We are the chin-choppers and the golly-woppers, and soon we shall discuss the amputation of your head.

We are your singing garbage-men, Sir and Madam, and we march in cadence behind you, chanting rhymes that some think odd.

Hut two threep foa!









Wir, as they say in the old country, marschieren weiter wenn allese in Scherben fällt.

We have your eoliths and your mesothils and your neoliths. We have your Babylons and your Pompeiis, your Caesars and your chromium-plated (vital-ingrediant-impregnated) artifacts.

We have your bloody hatchets and your Hiroshimas. We march in spite of Hell, we do –

Atrophy, Entropy, and Proteus vulgaris,

Telling bawdy jokes about a farm girl name of Eve

And a traveling salesman called Lucifer.

We bury your dead and their reputations. We bury you. We are the centuries.

Be born then, gasp wind, screech at the surgeon’s slap, seek manhood, taste a little of godhood, feel pain, give birth, struggle a little while, succumb:

(Dying, leave quietly by the rear exit, please.)

Generation, regeneration, again, again, as in a ritual, with blood-stained vestments and nail-torn hands, children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. Children, too, of Eve, forever building Edens – and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn’t the same.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Reading List from the 8th Dimension

Cthulhu's excellent book reviews have lately caused me to consider my own reading habits. There are lots and lots of books that someone has mentioned to me or I've seen in an article or review, and mentally put on my list to read someday.

On reflection, it turns out that I have a fairly consistent pattern. I seem to alternate between two types -- "great books" that I both want to read and feel I should read at some point in my life before I kick the bucket, and books that I have a somewhat guilty pleasure about but simply want to read anyway.

Here are some recent favorites from the first bucket:

Don Quixote (Edith Grossman's newish translation, which I loved)
Will Durant's Story of Philosophy
Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain
Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall
Richard Feynman's autobiography
Twain's Life on the Mississippi
Somerset Maugham's collection of stories about the South Seas

The second bucket consists mostly of the sorts of sci-fi books Cthulhu reviews -- though I'm usually kicking it more old school with space opera types.

I still have a bunch more to go on my "great books" list -- I have my great-grandparents' Hawthorne and Tolstoy collections in our living room library and hope to make it through them (or at least a couple of volumes) at some point. But I'm currently taking recommendations -- what should I tackle when I'm done with Balzac's Cousin Bette?

Also, I'm awarding a special prize for anyone who can guess which "great book" I just couldn't make it through. It's only happened once. Here's a hint -- it was written in 1759.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

This book is a great example of one of my favorite sci-fi sub-genres: post-nuclear-war Earth.

The book’s back story is that sometime towards the end of the 20th century, a global nuclear war nearly destroyed all life on Earth. Afterward, bands of survivors turned in fury against anyone who they felt was responsible. At first this included mainly scientists and engineers and physicists but eventually came to include anyone who was merely literate.

The few learned people who escaped being killed by angry mobs fled to the one institution that would protect them – the Catholic Church. There, a former electrician named Leibowitz organized them into “memorizers,” who memorized as many of the old texts as possible (like in Fahrenheit 451), and “bookleggers,” who scavenged for any books that may have survived and brought them to the abbeys to be hidden.

The story is told in three parts, each separated by hundreds of years from the next. All three parts center on the brothers of the Order of Leibowitz, who live in a remote abbey in the desert that used to be the southwestern United States.

The first part of Canticle opens several hundred years into this new Dark Ages. There is no electricity, no industry; the country is divided into loose territories ruled by warlords; people dress in homespun and grow all their own food; travelers are terrorized by bandits. So much time has passed since the war ended that the technical “Memorabilia” that the priests have painstakingly saved, stored, and recopied is inscrutable even to them. They have a vague sense of their own history only through religious stories and parables that they have memorized by rote.

As the years pass, however, priests and scholars study the abbey’s library and gradually piece together the technology of the old world.

One of the best aspects of this book is the writing itself. I’m far from a softie in this area; I usually like what I’m reading to be straightforward and plain. But the religious imagery and the thoughts and conversations that his characters have are beautifully, archaically written and, at the same time, funny, ironic, and interwoven with modern content. It’s like Lord of Light, but Christian. There are entire sections of the narrative that read like poetry.

Our introduction to this world is through the eyes of Brother Francis, an earnest but somewhat addled young novice in the Leibowitzian Order. To Francis, the nuclear war was “the Flame Deluge;” the period where the survivors murdered anyone literate was “the Age of Simplification.” All the remnants of the war around him – the crumbled buildings, the mutant people – are all part of a divine plan. The most basic accomplishments of “the ancients” (us) in the “twilight of the age of enlightenment” (the end of the 20th century) seem like magic.

In the beginning of the book, Brother Francis is out in the desert suffering through his 30-day Lenten vigil when he stumbles across a tremendous find: a long-buried fallout shelter containing technological relics that may well be connected to the Beatus Leibowitz himself. When Francis reads the ancient sign that says it is a Fallout Shelter, however, he is horrified and won’t open the door. After all, the Fallout Shelter may very well contain a Fallout – “a terrifying beast, a fiend of Hell” – and if he opens it, the Fallout could escape and eat him.

To steel his courage, Francis says some of the vesicles from the litany of the Saints:
From the place of ground zero,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the cobalt,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the strontium,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the fall of the cesium,
O Lord, deliver us.

From the curse of the Fallout,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the begetting of monsters,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the curse of the Misborn,
O Lord, deliver us.
A morte perpetua,
Domine, libera nos.
What makes this book great, though, is that not only is it well-written and funny, but it is also depressing and sad.

Throughout the entire book runs a feeling of dread: that humanity may be doomed to an endless cycle of self-destruction. We grow, we learn, we invent, we come to think that we can create Utopia. And then, when we realize that we cannot, we become hopeless and frustrated and angry and crush what we have made.

On the one hand, you feel sorry for the war survivors, fumbling blindly through the world with no electricity or labor-saving devices. You want them to benefit from knowledge, to emerge from the dark. But at the same time you dread the inevitable destruction that knowledge appears to lead to. You know that if they do not recover the science, there will be no danger of another nuclear war. As Miller says:
Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk. Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America – burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again.

Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?
All of this takes on even more weight when you find out that Miller shot himself in 1996 at the age of 74.

At the back of my 2006 paperback edition of Canticle, there is a description of the author. It says that Miller was a tail-gunner in a bomber in World War II, “participating in more than fifty-five combat sorties, among them the controversial destruction of the Benedictine abbey at Monte Casino, the oldest monastery in the Western world.”

Friday, October 08, 2010

Book Review: Forever Peace

Joe Haldeman
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


I really like Joe Haldeman’s writing. And I like the way his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War strongly influence his stories. Forever War, one of his first novels, is a great example of his talents.

Forever Peace (not a sequel) isn’t quite as good as Forever War. But it is similar in that it also deals with the theme of man’s apparently inherent violence towards other men.

I think my main problem with Forever Peace is that it seems like two completely different stories mashed together with hardly any believable link.

The first half of the book – the best half – illustrates Haldeman’s vision of a war fought by remote control. The U.S. and its allies are at war against the Ngumi, a hazy alliance of various Asian, African, and South American countries. The Ngumi, who generally come from poorer nations, use human beings to do their fighting. For us, the war is primarily fought remotely by “soldierboys,” which are giant heavily-armored humanoid robot-type machines. Each soldierboy is controlled by an individual human soldier who is safely reclining on a chair on a U.S. military base and is “jacked in” to his or her soldierboy’s command matrix through a plug at the base of his or her skull.

The soldierboys are used in platoons of ten for rotations of ten days. While platoon members are all jacked in at the same time together, they can see, feel, and think what the others are seeing, feeling, and thinking. This makes for extremely rapid and effective communication but also means there is basically no privacy. It also means a lot of deep trauma when one of them is killed in the line of duty.

The main character, Julian Chase, is a sergeant leading one of these soldierboy platoons in the jungles of Costa Rica. He sees so much carnage and has to do things that affect him so horribly that he has a breakdown and becomes suicidal and therefore useless to his unit.

This is where the first story stops and the second (weaker) story takes over. In addition to being a soldier, Julian also happens to be a physics post-doc at a university in Houston. He’s dating one of his professors, Dr. Amelia Harding, who is working on the Jupiter Project - a project to create the universe’s largest particle accelerator around the planet Jupiter, using that planet’s materials and energy to build it.

After Julian has his breakdown, he joins Amelia in her work and they discover that when it is finally finished and turned on, the Jupiter Project will replicate the Big Bang and thereby destroy the entire universe. The rest of the book becomes a ramped-up race against time in which Julian and Amelia and a small group of their friends battle to get the project stopped in the face of overwhelming sinister and lethal forces who want it to continue.

What happens is that Julian’s friends discover that if you leave people jacked in to each other for two weeks or longer, they become completely empathic and can no longer bring themselves to harm any other human. So the plan is to install jacks in everyone on earth’s head and turn them all into involuntary pacifists, starting with the army, before the Jupiter Project can go live.

The soldierboys do reappear in the second half of the book, as a key part of the plan to stop the Jupiter Project, but, maybe because Julian was dropped quite suddenly into civilian life, they start to seem like big toys rather than terrifying implements of war. Also the plan seems very contrived, and everyone seems a little too eager to jump right in and implement it. I’m not sure I actually would want a world in which everyone on earth was forcibly made into a pacifist.

One thing I particularly liked about Forever Peace was that it presumed the existence of “nanoforges.” Nanoforges are machines that can create anything out of raw materials. You just feed in some ore and minerals and some instructions and it grinds around and returns penicillin or a diamond or a nuclear bomb or whatever you want.

These machines could conceivably bring about a peaceful egalitarian society where all basic needs are taken care of essentially for free and everyone can pursue dreams of education, exploration, and so forth (à la Star Trek). But, instead, Haldeman sets up a world of nanoforge haves and have-nots. This creates a circular situation, like our real world only more so: lack of access to nanoforges means poorer countries are short on food, fuel and medicine; lack of food, fuel, and medicine creates unrest; unrest makes rich countries less likely to want to give the poor countries access to nanoforge technology.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Book Review: Whip Hand

Dick Francis
Awards: Edgar, Gold Dagger
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Yeah! This is exactly what a fast-action, summer-reading kind of mystery novel should be.

As usual with Dick Francis, the story revolves around horse racing. The detective in this book, Sid Halley, is a former jockey who had to quit riding because he lost his left hand (his whip hand) in a racing accident. Sid’s missing hand is a perfect device for making him unique and giving him both physical and mental challenges to overcome.

Sid ends up solving three tricky and somewhat interrelated cases over the course of the book in spite of being threatened and severely beaten and - what turns out to be most difficult of all - having a severe crisis of confidence. I have to admit I don't remember the twists and turns of all of the cases because I was so wrapped up in the plot I just wanted to keep turning the pages to see what would happen next, but the most interesting of the three story lines was a bookmaking scandal in which promising young horses kept developing unexplained heart conditions.

I loved looking into Francis’s hoity-toity and yet also seedy world of English horse racing. I also loved how Francis gave me enough information as the book went along to make me feel like I was solving the case along with Sid; what surprised me surprised him too.

But, at the same time, Francis also held just enough information back to do a very effective call-all-the-characters-into-the-room grand reveal at the end. (Actually, in this book, you get a bonus mini-reveal in addition to the grand reveal, and it comes at just at the right time to make you feel like things just might turn out okay after all the struggle Sid has been through.)
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