Thursday, December 30, 2010

Review 103: The Waste Lands

The Waste Lands by Stephen King

Remember to go to the Listener Survey! If you don't, you have clearly forgotten the face of your father....)

The way this book started really threw me when I first read it. It was too... alive.

The Gunslinger takes place entirely in a desert - featureless, dry, unchanging. The Drawing of the Three takes place on a beach - featureless, slightly less dry, unchanging. With this book, a few months have gone by and Our Heroes are in a rather lush forest, without the privation that they had gone through in the previous books. They weren't desperately racing the clock to try and find food or medicine or water, but rather were going at their own pace, according to what they wanted to do.

It felt weird to me, honestly.

In any event, that is how the book begins - Roland has taken Eddie and Suzannah (formerly Odetta/Detta) under his wing and is training them as apprentice gunslingers. They're learning to shoot, to hunt, and to trust the instincts that they have so long let lie dormant. When they accidentally awaken a gargantuan insane robot bear named Shardik, they discover the path of the Beam, which finally sets them on their way to the Dark Tower.

But all is not well. There is a problem, you see, one having to do with the very nature of the events that have gone before us, and it has to do with young Jake Chambers.

In The Gunslinger, Roland meets Jake, who has been transported to Roland's world after dying in his own. The last thing the boy remembers was being pushed in front of a speeding Cadillac while on his way to school, seeing a strange man in black who claimed to be a priest, and then waking up in the dusty way station in the middle of the desert. Roland befriended the boy, took him along on his journey, and then sacrificed him to gain an audience with his own Man in Black. Without Jake, and Jake's double death, Roland could never have made it to the beach where he pulled Eddie and Suzannah out of their worlds.

But there was a third door, remember? Through that door, Roland learned the true identity of the person who killed Jake - a man named Jack Mort, whose hobby was making people die in accidents. By taking possession of, and eventually killing, Jack, Roland erased Jake's first death. He was never pushed in front of a car, never died, and never came to Roland's world.

Except that he did.

Or rather, he didn't.

But he did.

This paradox is driving both of them insane - Roland in his world and Jake in his. Their minds are trying to reconcile two irreconcilable histories, two versions of events that are both true, even though only one can be said to actually be true. In order to save them both, Roland and his ka-tet need to get Jake to their world, where he belongs. Doing so will take all of them risking their lives against agents of unspeakable power.

That's the first half of the book, and this is another big difference between this book and the two that came before it. If he had wanted to, King probably could have split this book into two smaller ones, and they wouldn't have lost much. Once Jake is rescued, we are granted a moment to breathe, a moment to appreciate the work and energy that went into making sure Jake and Roland came through the event with their sanity intact. Once we take that moment to breathe, which in the book consists of a wonderful dinner with the few residents of a dying town, the group finds themselves in terrible danger again as they enter the dying city of Lud.

All through the series, it is said that "The world has moved on." People talk about the civilization that has just collapsed (of which Roland is a final relic) and the one that came even before them - that of the Great Old Ones. The city of Lud is held up as a prime example of their prowess and their poisoned legacy. Within it dwells the tribal descendants of whose who fought over the ruins of Lud, sacrificing their neighbors at the sound of great drums that echo through the city (which are, oddly enough, the drum track from ZZ Top's song, Velcro Fly), and living like rats in its crumbling walls.

The group is split at this point, with Roland and Oy (a doglike animal whom Jake befriends) trying to rescue Jake from the decaying clutches of a pack of murderers, and Eddie and Suzannah hunting through the city for Blaine the Mono, a monorail train that could be their only way across the horrible irradiated wastelands just outside the city.

It's an exciting book, I'll tell you that much, and let me tell you right now that you're going to hate the ending. At least you would have if you were reading it when it first came out. You see, King admits that The Dark Tower is one long story which, for various practical and financial reasons, has to be split up into multiple books. This means that there isn't always a practical and clean place to break off the story so the readers can wait for the next one. With this in mind, Kind decided to end The Waste Lands with one hell of a cliffhanger - Roland and his ka-tet aboard Blaine the Mono, an insane, sentient computer train that wants nothing more than to end its life. If they can defeat Blaine, they may live. If not, they'll all die when Blaine slams into a wall at the Topeka terminal at 900 miles an hour.

This isn't too troubling today, when you can just turn to your bookshelf after you finish, pick up Wizard and Glass, and keep reading. But put yourself in the shoes of the first readers of this book: they had already waited four years for this book to come out, and it would be another seven before Wizard and Glass was finally published. Even worse, I knew a guy here in Japan who was a huge Dark Tower fan, and he not only had to wait for King to finish writing the book, he also had to wait for it to be translated. My heart went out to him....

But I digress. This book finally sees our heroes on their way - walking on the path of the Beam, as it were. After two and a half books, the journey has finally begun, and if this book is any indication, it's not going to be an easy one.

"Jesus Pumpkin-Pie Christ, don't you get it? You're killing each other over a piece of music that was never even released as a single!"
Eddie Dean, The Waste Lands

The Waste Lands on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
The Waste Lands on

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Review 102: Dave Barry Does Japan

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

Dave Barry Does Japan by Dave Barry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which I believe I mentioned before.

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

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

No city deserves that. Ever.

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

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

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

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

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

Dave Barry on Wikipedia
The Dave Barry Website
Dave Barry Does Japan on

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review 101: World War Z

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

(Two reminders: The new blog is up at, which is where everything will be happening soon, and you should go take the listener survey. You'll have good luck for seven years, I swear!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was moving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad move.

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

Not for them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Don't worry. Everything's going to be all right."
- Dr. Kuei, World War Z

World War Z on Wikipedia
Max Brooks on Wikipedia
World War Z on
World War Z website
Max Brooks' website

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Listener Survey Time!

Hey, kids, you know what's fun? That's right! Filling out listener surveys!!

Seeing as how I'm up to episode 100 on this podcast - and it's really all thanks to you - I thought it would be good to get your opinions on what I'm doing so that I can make it more interesting, informative and fun for everyone.

To that end, please follow this link to my simple, ten question survey. It won't take a lot of time, and it'll be a big help to me.

Also, check out the new home of the Labyrinth Library -!

I'll be moving operations over there permanently in a month or so, giving you plenty of time to change your links and do whatever you need to do for the transition to be smooth. The new place looks a lot nicer - I like it, and I think you will too.

Thanks a lot for listening!


Review 100: Machine of Death

Machine of Death, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !

How would you live if you knew how you would die?

The premise for this collection of short stories was introduced back in 2005, in an installment of Ryan North's popular Dinosaur Comics. In it, he presents the following premise: there is a machine which, with only a small sample of your blood, can tell you how you will die. But there are no dates, no details, no explanations. Just a few words, and that's it. The Machine is never wrong, but it is annoyingly vague and has a decidedly un-machinelike love of irony. So you might get OLD AGE and think you were set, right? Not necessarily. You could be murdered by an octogenarian while trying to steal their TV. Or you might get PLANE CRASH and decide never to fly again. Fine, but that won't stop the single-engine Cessna from plowing into your house one fine spring afternoon. Pulled GUILLOTINE, did you? Hope you know to stay away from heavy metal concerts.

But it doesn't matter. The Machine, while perversely misleading at times, is never wrong, and like most prophets, its predictions often only make sense after the event has already happened.

With that premise, hundreds of writers across the internet set to work. How would this Machine affect people? How would it affect society or business or politics? Would we become slaves to its predictions, or simply shrug it off and live our lives as we did before, knowing that we were going to die someday anyway?

In "Flaming Marshmallow" by Camille Alexa, we see how the existence of the Machine has begun to shape youth culture. Carolyn is about to turn sixteen, the legal age at which one can be tested. A milestone equivalent with getting one's driver's license or being able to vote, kids monitor each other's fates with scrupulous detail. Your eventual manner of death brings you together with those of similar fates, and new cliques begin to form. Kids who are going to die violent deaths sit together in the lunch room, far away from the ones who get OLD AGE. The kids with DRUG OVERDOSE and fates like it all mill about with each other, and nobody talks to the ones who get SUICIDE. By finding out one's manner of death, a teenager gets what teenagers always want: a sense of belonging and inclusion. But will Carolyn's fate bring her closer to her fellow students or just leave her an outsider?

"After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile On Face," by William Grallo, continues that idea out into the adult world. Ricky is dragged out on the town to a nightclub where people flaunt their deaths. They wear fake toe tags with MURDER or HEART ATTACK on them. Or, if they're feeling impish, NEVER, or BOREDOM. But while everyone else is mocking their deaths, Ricky is in the odd position of knowing that he's got a good end to his life. What he doesn't know is what will happen between now and then, or with whom he will share it.

David Malki ! explores the darker side of society's reactions in "Cancer." James is a young man whose father is dying of cancer. It's what the Machine had predicted, and it was all coming true. Despite the Machine's infallibility, however, his father was seeking out a cure, a way out from the fate that had been given to him. And he's not the only one - a new generation of hucksters and faith healers has sprung up, all claiming to be able to defy the predictions of The Machine. It gives James' father hope, but whether that hope is worth the price or not is something James is unsure of.

"Nothing," by Pelotard, is a touching tale of a young woman who discovers a family secret that never would have been revealed before the Machine was invented. "Despair," by K.M. Lawrence, is an examination of how paralyzed people might become by the ambiguity of the predictions, unable to act lest they inadvertently fulfill them. "Improperly Prepared Blowfish" by Gord Sellar is an entertaining moment of secrets and betrayal among a group of yakuza in Japan, and Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw has some fun with the politics of Machine predictions by giving us a politician whose fate is to die from EXHAUSTION FROM HAVING SEX WITH A MINOR.

Some stories are funny, others are touching, but they all center around that most existential of questions: how do we live, knowing that we will die?

Without The Machine, we still know we're going to die. Every one of us has, somewhere in the back of our mind, that constant reminder that our lives are finite, that there is a limit to the amount of time we can spend on this earth. And, for the most part, we choose to ignore it. After all, if you spend your whole life obsessing over your own death, then you can't have much of a life, now can you? But add to that fundamental knowledge of finitude the extra awareness of the manner of your death. If you get CAR CRASH, what can you do with that knowledge? You know it's inevitable, that The Machine is never wrong, but you may still struggle with that fate. You may cut up your driver's license, move out to Amish country and vow never to be within striking distance of a car again. The entire course of your life will shift drastically, based on the two words printed on that card, but the end result will be the same: CAR CRASH. Knowing that, is it better to act on the knowledge you have gained, or to ignore it?

Even worse, sometimes the very act of finding out your fate leads you right to it. In "Suicide" by David Michael Wharton, characters learn about their deaths only moments before experiencing it. Had they not gone to get tested on The Machine - had they not gone to that machine - would they have avoided their fate? The Machine would say no, but you'd have to ask it first. The best expression of this paradox is contained in the book's shortest tale, "HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle" by Brian Quinlan, wherein the very act of discovering your fate causes that fate to happen, whereas you would never have had it if you hadn't gone looking for it. It's kind of a mind trip, if you think about it.

What if you get something fairly straightforward, like CANCER, and you decide to, say, jump out of an airplane without a parachute? Will that even be possible, or will random events conspire to keep you safe until your proscribed end? And if you get SUICIDE, the one form of death you have absolute control over, do you fight against it or give in, knowing that nothing you do will change the outcome?

And what could this tell you about the future for everyone? In "Heat Death of the Universe," by Ramon Perez, teenagers who reach the legal testing age start getting NUCLEAR BOMB as their means of death. The government springs into action, testing, re-testing, and vowing to corral all these kids into one place. But if their deaths are inevitably by NUCLEAR BOMB, what does that mean? It means that whether they're all in one place or dispersed across the country, that is how they will die. Acting on the information doesn't change its outcome, only what the manner of that outcome will be.

Conversely, it might be impossible to predict anything from the predictions The Machine gives out. As was pointed out in the same story, the 3,000 victims of 9/11 probably wouldn't have all had TERRORISM printed on their little cards. They might have had FALLING or FIRE or PLANE CRASH - all true, but none of that would have helped anyone prevent that event. Even something as clear and unambiguous as GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR creates problems, as Cassandra finds out in the story of the same name by T. J. Radcliffe. If you tell people about this future, will they even believe you? Or will the actions they take to prevent it instead be what causes it to happen? There are no easy answers, at least not without electroshock.

It's a fascinating group of stories, illustrated by some of the internet's best artists - Adam Koford, Kevin McShane, Aaron Diaz, Kate Beaton, Christopher Hastings, and too many others to mention. It will do what all really good writing should do - make you think. As seductive as it sounds, knowing the means of your death is information that you really can do without. It is the end to your story, whether you know it or not, but everything until then is still up to you. While you may not have any choice over how you die, you still have plenty of control over how you live. You can live in fear or hope, make plans and take risks and hope for the best.

Just like we do now.

I'll leave you with a joke from Steven Wright, one that was running through my head as I read the book: My girlfriend asked me if I could know how and when I was going to die, would I want to know? I said, "No, not really." She said, "Okay, forget it, then."

Thank you, he'll be here all week.

"What good is knowing the future if you can't do anything with the knowledge?"
Dad, from "Friendly Fire" by Douglas J. Lane

Machine of Death homepage
Machine of Death on

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Review 99: Abraham Lincoln - Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

History is like an exquisite jewel. It has many facets, and it will glitter differently depending on the point of view of the person looking at it. We see it change as we shift, as we shine the light differently upon it, but for the most part, we confine ourselves to a few simple views of history and convince ourselves that what we see is the truth of what the gem is.

But what happens when we remove the jewel from its setting and look at the faces we have never before seen? In that case, a whole new history may emerge, one that we find difficult to understand or even believe.

Take Abraham Lincoln, for example. We all think we know who he was: a hard-working, honest young man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, became President, saved the Union, and was assassinated for his troubles. Perhaps no other President in American history has been as carefully scrutinized and examined as Lincoln. You would think we had nothing left to learn about him.

You would be wrong.

You don't know about the vampires.

From the early days of the United States, the vampires have been there. They were there when the first ships pulled into Virginia, when the nation won its independence from Britain, and when the nation went west. They had their hands in the growth of the nation from day one, playing a long-term game to build a vampire paradise far from Europe, where the people there were wise to their evil and knew how to destroy them. Vampires were something that had always been talked about in the early days of American settlement. Strange tales of people dying mysteriously, sometimes their faces locked in a grim visage of fear. But no one really believed them of course. I mean really - vampires? Please.

The truth was, however, that they were out there. They were lurking in the shadows, waiting and planning and laying the groundwork for the land they would eventually come to rule.And from his youth, Abraham Lincoln was pulled into their nefarious scheme.

Born the son of Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, Abraham suffered from his share of the vicissitudes of 19th-century life. Rural poverty was rampant, and his father was not the most skilled of laborers or diligent of workers. But he loved his children, as did his wife. That made it all the harder when those children started dying of a strange wasting disease. When his wife followed suit, it was tragedy upon tragedy. For Abraham, it was the beginning of a need for vengeance that would drive his entire life.

As he grew up and discovered the existence of vampires, he became a skilled and terrifying vampire hunter. He was so good at his vocation that a dissident group of vampires, led by a man named Henry Sturges, chose him as their instrument against their own kind. With Henry's guidance, Lincoln began to cut a swathe through the vampires in the United States.

But being the chosen one, as Buffy would attest, is not all it is cracked up to be. Plagued with doubts and depression, Lincoln tried many times to cast off the mantle that had been thrust upon him. He married, went into business, and did his best to live the normal life he thought he deserved. But destiny had other plans. The vampires were preparing their endgame - the establishment of a nation built on the backs of slaves, where humans would be cattle to the vampires. In time, they would take the United States and use it as a staging ground to spread their sickness around the world. They had to be stopped, and Henry and his fifth column knew only one man who could stop them.

Abraham Lincoln, the greatest vampire hunter the nation had ever known.

Written by the same author who did Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this book was far more entertaining. Probably because I like Lincoln a whole lot more than I like Jane Austen, but probably because he did a much better job at integrating the Lincoln we know with the Lincoln he had created. He invents a vampire-system that would explain how they could manage to maintain influence over humans, and presents a reasonably plausible explanation for how vampires could be at the root of the Civil War.

More importantly, he keeps his Lincoln true to the character of the real Lincoln - a complex, driven man, beset by tragedy, lifted by hope, and motivated by a duty to a greater good. Perhaps a bit romanticized, of course, but we all romanticize Lincoln. It's hard not to. What's important is that we see a character who tries to fight his destiny, but in the end realizes that there are bigger things at stake than his own happiness. He has a nation to save and evil to defeat, and even if it should cost him his life, he will see that evil eradicated.

The only thing that bothered me was a bit of unfinished business in the book. The conceit of it was that Seth Grahame-Smith had been given the complete set of Lincoln Diaries - the real ones, mind you - by Sturges, so that he could tell the true tale. According to the introduction, this was a project that cost him his job, his marriage, and nearly his life, and after a fairly dramatic and mysterious introduction, we never hear anything from Smith as the author again. I would have liked for him to have explained some of the things he merely alluded to in the introduction - especially the eleven "individuals" he was instructed to talk to over the course of writing the book, but he didn't. It's a little detail, but one I wish he had taken care of.

It's a fun read, good for any vampire/Lincoln lover, or aficionado of alternate history.

"I can see a man's purpose, Abraham. It is my gift. I can see it as clearly as I see you standing before me now. Your purpose is to fight tyranny... and mine is to see that you win."
- Henry Sturges

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter at Wikipedia
Seth Grahame-Smith at Wikipedia
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter on

The Trailer:

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Review 98: The Drawing of the Three

The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King

I have a soft spot in my heart for world-crossing stories. Perhaps it's the remnant of the same childhood fantasy that everyone has - you know the one, "My family is not my family, my hometown is not my hometown - I'm really a lost prince of a strange magical kingdom and one day my true identity will be revealed and I'll be able to go do something more fun than this...."

Escapist fiction of this sort usually does really well, mostly because so many of us are unsatisfied with the way our lives are going right now. Harry Potter blew everyone away for the same reason that, say, Star Wars did - they spoke to that desire that we all have for a destiny, a reason for being in this benighted universe other than to consume, procreate, and die. It's a very powerful dream, that dream that we can lead a life better than the one we're living now, and it's one that very few of us get to realize. So we turn to fiction to realize that dream for us.

Of course, nothing comes without a price. In hopping from world to world, you may have to resist the temptations of a Snow Queen or fight off the forces of Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. You may discover that your father is the greatest force for evil in the universe, or that you've been born into a genetic cohort that scares the hell out of everyone. Crossing from one world to another - whether literally or figuratively - always comes with a price.

For Eddie Dean, Detta Walker, and Odetta Holmes, that price could very well be their lives.

When last we left the Gunslinger, Roland was sitting by a vast and gray sea at the end of the world. He had already sacrificed young Jake Chambers for his quest, and had been shown a vision of the universe that would have blasted the mind of a lesser man. Without any other direction, Roland continues on his journey - but not without some difficulty.

Wounded and ill, Roland has to go through three strange doors and draw out new companions to replace the ones he lost so long ago. If he is successful, he will draw out a new ka-tet - a group bound by the forces of destiny - that will stand with him on the way to the Dark Tower. If he fails, he will face total obliteration, to say nothing of being devoured alive by huge mutant lobsters.

Through door number one, Roland meets The Prisoner - young Eddie Dean, a junkie who has to bring a couple of pounds of cocaine through customs at JFK airport in New York. If he can do that, then the men holding his beloved big brother will let them both go, well-paid and well-loaded with the drugs that they so desperately want. Eddie can't do it without Roland's help, however - help that turns out to make the whole endeavor much more complicated and lethal than it might have been before.

Through door number two, Roland must bring the Lady of Shadows, a woman who is two minds in one body. One of these minds is Odetta Holmes, an upper-class African-American woman (though in her era of the early sixties she would probably prefer to be called a Negro) who has thrown her efforts and her fortune behind the growing civil rights movement. She is cultured and civilized, a little bit snobbish and prudish, but far, far better than her alter ego, Detta Walker.

Detta is the dark half, the evil twin who relishes in her misdeeds and embodies the worst qualities that can be found in a person. She likes to hurt people, to break things - partly out of the sheer enjoyment of hurting and breaking, but also out of a cruel sense of revenge for the ills the world has done to her. For the brick that was dropped on her head when she was a child, for the train that robbed her of her legs when she was an adult. Of all the people Roland has met so far, Detta Walker is the one who poses the most danger to him and his quest. Only by bringing the two women together can he have any chance of making it to the Tower.

Through door number three, Roland must meet death - but not for him - in the form of The Pusher. The aptly-named Jack Mort has a hobby - anonymous murder. Planning and executing the suffering of others is what brings joy to his heart and a stain to his jeans, and he has intersected with Roland's quest even before Roland reached the beach. He was the one who pushed Odetta Holmes under a subway train. He was the one who pushed Jack Chambers in front of a speeding Cadillac. Now, Roland has control of this man's body and will use it to get what he needs from our world so that he can carry on in his. A little poetic justice along the way is just icing on the cake.

If Roland succeeds, he and his new group will push on to find the Dark Tower and do... whatever it is that Roland needs to do there. If he fails, they will all die, and the hopes of Roland's world will die with them.

Like I said, I enjoy tales of crossing worlds, and so this book felt good to me. I liked seeing not only how Roland dealt with the unfamiliar reality of New York in three different decades, but how the stories of Eddie, Odetta/Detta and Jack intersected with each other. At one point in his section, Jack thinks, "Who was to say he had not sculpted the cosmos today, or might not at some future time? God, no wonder he creamed his jeans!" Crude though it may be, Jack is more right than he knows - a few simple pushes altered the destinies of not only the people he pushed, but those of entire worlds. So if you think small actions can't have big consequences, well, look to Jack Mort.

Actually, his section of the book was my favorite. While Roland vs. Eddie was an action-packed shoot-em-up, and Roland vs. Detta was a hostage drama, Roland vs. Jack was almost a dark comedy. Taking over Jack's body and keeping the man's mind at metaphorical gunpoint, Roland carves a swath of confusion through New York City. The mental disconnect people have between Jack Mort's appearance as a well-off CPA and his behavior as a seasoned gunslinger is enough for some moments of gold.

By the end of the book, we're not much closer to the Dark Tower than we were at the beginning, but we are very nearly ready to get started on the journey. Not quite there yet, but Roland now has people he can count on when things turn bad. And they will turn bad, you can set your watch and warrant on it.

"Well, what was behind Door Number One wasn’t so hot, and what was behind Door Number Two was even worse, so now, instead of quitting like sane people, we’re going to go right ahead and check out Door Number Three. The way things have been going, I think it’s likely to be something like Godzilla or Ghidra the Three-Headed Monster, but I’m an optimist. I’m still hoping for the stainless steel cookware."
- Eddie Dean, The Drawing of the Three

The Drawing of the Three on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
The Drawing of the Three on

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Review 97: The Civil War

The Civil War by Bruce Catton

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

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

Predictably, I found them kind of boring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review 96: Ryoma - Life of a Renaissance Samurai

Ryoma - Life of a Renaissance Samurai by Romulus Hillsborough

If he had been born in the US, Sakamoto Ryoma would have been an ideal model of the American Dream. He was born to a poor family that had bought its way into samurai status only a couple of generations before. When he was a kid, people thought he was kind of slow and useless, and never thought he'd amount to anything. He was terrible in school, and so his father enrolled him in a school for sword fighting, where he found his passion.

He was a damn good swordsman, and quickly became qualified to open his own dojo. By this point, it looked like Sakamoto Ryoma would have been simply another famous name in the annals of Japanese swordsmanship.

And then the Americans came, and all hell broke loose.

The shogunate, knowing it was outgunned by the Americans, agreed to let them in, a decision that sent shockwaves around Japan. A political world that had been fairly simple to live in - a hierarchical system in which the Shogun was at the top of one's loyalty chain and the Emperor was someone about whom one did not even think - became so complex that "Byzantine" doesn't even begin to describe it. Webs were spun, and within instants, there were factions who wanted a thousand different things for the future. The simplest of these, and the one that Ryoma and other lower samurai from his home region latched on to at first, was simple: Throw out the foreigners and throw down the Shogun.

Luckily for Japan, Ryoma was not stupid enough to follow that path for too long. He was a bright guy, who quickly saw what needed to be done. With the help of other progressive thinkers, both within and outside the Shogunate, Ryoma decided that the survival of Japan was more important than that of the Shogunate or any individual clan or region. And in order to save Japan, they'd have to let the barbarians in.

His plan was simple, really: learn from the West, build a navy, buy weapons, and form a western-style democracy. Only then, with Japan standing as a strong modern nation, would it be able to deal with the outsiders, to say nothing of avoiding subjugation by them. Ryoma had learned from the lessons of China and India, and knew that infighting within the various factions was a sure road to being invaded and colonized by France or Britain.

A simple plan. The only problem was that no one wanted any part of it. And so it became Ryoma's job to run across the country, cajoling, convincing and reasoning with the country's great powers, all while staying one step ahead of the law - he was a fugitive from his region, an executable offense, and he rose to the top of the Shogun's most wanted with undue haste....

It's a neat story, if really long. Hillsborough has used an interesting style, though, that I'm still not sure I really like. It's a kind of novelized biography. While I'm sure that his facts are solid - countless books have been written about Sakamoto Ryoma and he's considered one of the founding fathers of modern Japan - he tries to make the story more... story-like by dramatizing events. Writing dialogue with action and inflection that he could only have known by being there. Ryoma roars and pounds the floor with his fist a lot. In fact, pre-Meiji Japan seems like a very noisy place, what with all the yelling and roaring and pounding and high officials shouting, "Impertinence!" every time someone set a foot wrong....

Like I said, I'm sure he didn't make up anything important, but it still gives me a lingering feeling of doubt. By turning Ryoma into a character for his novel, Hillsborough displays his bias, and nothing is more deadly to history than bias. He portrays Ryoma as a kind of genius puppetmaster, twitching strings here and there until he got what he wanted, which kind of demeans the contributions of many other people without whom Sakamoto Ryoma would have died years before he was finally assassinated.

He was a very intelligent, very resourceful man, and without him Japan's history would have been drastically different. So if you want to know more about this man, a statesman who should be held up with the great statesmen of the world, check out this book.

"A hero should go his own way!"
- Sakamoto Ryoma

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Review 95: Shinsengumi - The Shogun's Last Samurai Corps

Shinsengumi: The Shogun's Last Samurai Corps by Romulus Hillsborough

A few years ago, Japan's national TV network, NHK, aired a Sunday night drama about the Shinsengumi, a band of samurai who operated in Kyoto at the end of the Edo period. While I didn't watch it, mainly because I was working and even if I had, I wouldn't have understood, my students kept me updated and it sounds like NHK did a nice job of romanticizing the group. Indeed, if the sudden upswing in traffic around Mibu temple is any indication, NHK made them look positively heroic.

Romulus Hillsborough (which, for the record, is an awesome name) takes a different approach to the Shinsengumi story, proving once again that, in history as with so many other things, how you see things depends on where you stand.

The 1860s were a bad decade. Every American schoolchild can tell you that. But it was bad in Japan as well, on a similar level. You see, for the previous 250 years, Japan had pretty much shut itself off from the Western world. There was limited contact with China and Korea, but as for Europe and the Americas? Damn near nothing. Japan wanted nothing to do with the white devils, and did a fantastic job keeping us out.

But the march of progress is inescapable, and by the mid-1800s, word got round to the Shogun that Great Britain had been working its way across Asia, taking out India and China through treaty, deception and conquest. This, naturally, worried the Shogun, who although being the military head of the country, had not fought a significant military battle since Sekigahara in 1600 (well, not the same shogun, but you get what I mean). The Tokugawa family ruled over a peaceful land, the Emperors stayed out of the way in Kyoto, and everything was copacetic.

In other words, ripe for some rampaging foreign power to take over.

Lucky for Japan, the first rampaging foreign power to show up on their doorstep was the United States. Admiral Perry and his Black Ships arrived in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853 with trade agreements and heavy cannon and announced that they would be happy to start trading with the Land of the Rising Sun. And if the Land of the Rising Sun wasn't too keen on that, well, maybe a few well-placed shells would change their minds.

The shogun at the time, Tokugawa Iesada, was no idiot. In 1854, a "Treaty of Peace and Amity" was signed in Kanagawa, opening Japanese ports to western ships for the first time, and basically ending the era of seclusion.

That's when all hell broke loose.

Most of the people living in Japan at the time had never seen a foreign person, and could rely only on rumor and misinformation to know what Westerners were like - pale-skinned, long-nosed blondes, as it turned out. No one knew what to expect from their new neighbors, and frankly, no one wanted to find out. Despite the "Amity" of the treaty, everyone knew that the only reason the American and British and Dutch had been let in was because they had better guns. Everyone, from the Shogun to the Emperor all the way down to the lowest burakumin wanted the foreigners kicked as far out of the country as they could get. With the possible exception of Sakamoto Ryoma, but we'll get to him later.

Two factions opened up. There were the Imperial loyalists, who wanted to overthrow the Tokugawa bakufu and restore the Emperor to power, while kicking out the foreigners. And there were the Tokugawa loyalists, who stood behind their lord and master, and who would fight to the death to keep him in power. While kicking out the foreigners. The famed Samurai, who had really nothing to do for two and a half centuries but collect their stipends and harass commoners, finally had their chance to see some action. Many of them left their homes and became ronin, ready to fight for whomever would give them a chance.

The city of Kyoto was the Imperial city, and if Tokugawa Wosshisname (there were four Tokugawa shoguns between 1853 and 1868) were to keep the imperial loyalists in line, he would have to do it there. So, a man named Matsudaira Katamori - a close personal friend of the shogun's, head of the Matsudaira clan and Lord of Aizu, and came up with an idea for keeping order in Kyoto. With the help of longtime friend and violence enthusiast Kiyokawa Hachiro, they got together the best of the wandering ronin and brought them to the village of Mibu, in Kyoto (where I used to live). They made quite an impact on the community, and were soon given the cute nickname of "Mibu Wolves."

The Mibu Wolves were soon shaped and molded into the Shinsengumi, "The Newly Selected Group." by three iron-willed men: Kondo Isami, Hijikata Toshizo, and Serizawa Kamo. Each of these men left lasting impressions on the Shinsengumi and on Japanese history.

So... what was the impression? Well, the Shinsengumi were a kind of police force for Kyoto, keeping the locals in line and watching for any threats against the shogunate. Unlike a regular police force, however, they had almost limitless power within the city. Their word was enough to arrest, convict and execute someone. There was no slight too small to provoke violence and murder, and no length they would not go to to destroy the enemies of Tokugawa. They fought to the end to keep the Shogun in power, even after Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the fifteenth and final Tokugawa shogun, abdicated control of the country to Emperor Meiji.

You could take the NHK view, that the Shinsengumi were on the wrong side of history, trying to uphold the virtues of their fathers and grandfathers, and that they were trying to keep the nation they loved from falling apart or changing irreparably.

Hillsborough takes the point of view that the Shinsengumi were deluded with the "germ of self-importance." That they couldn't see the broader picture of history unfolding around them and reacted to change the only way they knew how - with their swords. That they were thugs and bullies, relics of an age that should have ended long before it did. Perhaps the Shinsengumi were inevitable, perhaps they were even necessary for the Meiji Restoration to take place. But if even half the stories about them were true, they are not a group of men that I would really want to hang out with.

It's a very informative book, if a little too short. Hillsborough says in the beginning that you're reading a "historical narrative," which should be taken carefully. Given the lack of primary sources, knowing exactly what happened when is difficult. Many texts on the Shinsengumi contradict each other, and for a long time, they were not a polite subject of research. Think about it - from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 through the surrender to the United States in 1945, the Emperor was a living god and a subject of reverence among the people of Japan. Who, then, would have the balls to do research into the group that actively opposed imperial rule?

Still, it's a good read. It's even better when you actually live in Kyoto. I used to be able to see Mibu temple from my balcony. I've walked past the site of the old Ikeda-ya (where the Shinsengumi foiled a plot to burn down Kyoto and kidnap a high-ranking Tokugawa ally) hundreds of times. I could walk to the site where Ito Kashitarou was assassinated for splitting from the group. History becomes much more fun when you're right where it happened....

"For all its worth, however, when the will to power is combined with the germ of self-importance - the conviction that one is of greater worth than his fellow human beings - it tends to transform into the stuff of tragedy, often lethal to the host."
- Romulus Hillsborough, Shinsengumi

The Shinsengumi on Wikipedia
The Shinsengumi: The Shogun's Last Samurai Corps on

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review 94: The Gunslinger

Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

There's really not much more you need to know about this story except what's right up there. That's the essence of the whole thing - a chase. A man in black, who has obviously done something terrible, and a gunslinger, who is obviously going to set things right.

If, by "set right," you mean "kill a whole lot of people," then you're pretty much on target.

This is the beginning of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, a story told in seven volumes that manages to be the lynchpin for all the worlds that he has created. It's a story that was 22 years in the writing, and almost never got finished. It's an epic story, all about the endless quest for the Dark Tower, the center of all reality, the axle upon which the wheels of creation move.

Roland, the gunslinger, is hunting for this tower. He wants it more than anything in the world. He has lost everything in pursuit of this tower - his friends, his family, his world - and yet he pressed on. The man in black has information for him, can set his path towards his goal. If only Roland can catch him.

On his way to the man in black, Roland finds a small town taken over by a mad preacher woman, a sympathetic hermit, and a boy who doesn't look like he's terribly local to this world. All of them help point the way to the man in black, and none of them make it to the end with Roland. Even he is unprepared for the terrifying reality that awaits him when he and the man in black finally have their palaver....

There truly is something magical about this book. Even if there were no other Dark Tower books, it would stand out as a good story, well told. Part of this is its deceptive simplicity - moving from point A to point B, with only a few flashbacks to fill in the backstory. Well, quite a lot of flashbacks, actually, seeing as how King did set this story in a featureless desert with a singular protagonist, and there's only so much you can work with without dipping into the well of the past from time to time.

The glimpses of Roland's past that we get to see are tantalizing - they tell of a rich and cultured world that is nonetheless hard and merciless. The gunslingers are all that stand between civilization and chaos, and there are precious few of them left. Roland and his friends know they may be the last of their kind, but that doesn't deter them from pursuing their guns and growing up to honor their fathers.

The fact that we know from the beginning that they all fail just makes it all the more poignant to watch them try.

It's hard to talk about this book without trying to talk about the rest of the series, and it's even harder to convey the feeling of reading it when the series was still ongoing. My father, a huge Stephen King fan, had these books when I was a kid, and I eventually got into them, and was - like so many others - immeasurably frustrated by the pace at which King was writing them. I finished this book, which does not necessarily have a happy - or easy-to-understand - ending, and I wanted more. I wanted to know what Roland was going to do now that he'd had his palaver with the man in black, and I wanted to know if he would ever find the Dark Tower. Whom would he enlist in his quest, as the oracle had suggested? Whom else would he sacrifice, as he did young Jake?

Speaking of which, the relationship between Roland and Jake is an interesting one, especially as I got older and re-read it. When I first read the book, I was probably around Jake's age - eleven years old [1]. Reading Jake's story of how he came to Roland's world was horrifying enough, but to see how their relationship would eventually end was even worse. The idea that there might be something more important to, say, my parents [2] than I was - well, that was horrifying. To think that a purpose might exist for which they would let me fall to my death.... That's not the kind of thing an eleven year-old boy wants to think about.

From the point of view of an older person, a grown man, I found something uncomfortable about their relationship. The bond that formed between man and boy was instant, and intense, and having grown up in a culture where a strange man being that friendly to a young boy would be automatically colored with the taint of pedophilia, well, I had to work a little harder to stay in Roland's head. The fact that I know that wasn't where King was going with the relationship helps a little, but every reader brings his or her hang-ups along when they read and some of mine are a little more persistent than others. I'm sure any psychologist who needs to put a down payment on a yacht would be happy to help me work on it.

All in all, it's an excellent beginning. What follows is a massive tale, a great quest that spans time and space and reality, culminating in Roland's final understanding of who he is and why he exists. Not all of it is as good as this book, but it's still worth reading, I say ya true.

So put on your good boots, don't forget your hat and horn and donkey. It's a long trip to the end....

"This is not the beginning but the beginning's end. You'd do well to remember that... but you never do."
- The Man in Black

[1] This is another example of the Eleven Year-Old Boy Rule: if you have a major character in your book who is not an adult, chances are that it will be an eleven year-old boy. King is a master of this.

[2] Because if Roland isn't a father-substitute then I don't know who is.

The Gunslinger on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
The Gunslinger on

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review 93: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

I have kind of a weird confession to make. It's not really a confession as such, since you only confess things that you're ashamed of or that you feel you have done wrong. But this is something that I believe people may find a little odd, so I suppose it's the best word under the circumstances.

I don't kill cockroaches.

Fortunately, I live up on the tenth floor in a nice modern apartment building, so they're not really a problem for me. But even in my old place, where they'd turn up from time to time, or walking about in the city, where you're bound to see them, especially after dark, I feel no desire to do what everyone else seems to do - freak out and jump on them with both feet. After all, why should I? They're just being what they are. They're just doing what millions of years of evolution have programmed them to do. They don't act out of malice or with the intention of trying to harm me, so I say live and let live.

Oh, don't get me wrong - I don't let roaches stay. I'll capture them, take them out to the riverbank or somewhere and let them go. I'll put down deterrents to roaches around the house. I may be kindly-disposed towards all living things [1], but I'm not an idiot. My point is, I feel a certain empathy towards those little guys, just trying to make their way in a hostile, anti-cockroach world.

And that's how I know I'm not an android.

When we talk about things like computer intelligence, one of the questions that comes up is how we would tell an artificial intelligence apart from the real thing? For a computer-bound AI, there's the Turing Test - a conversation with a human wherein the human cannot tell that she's talking to a computer. And that's good, as far as that goes. But what if we start putting them into physical bodies? What if we make these AIs in our image? Fleshy, sweaty, hairy robots that look and behave just like humans do? How, then, would we be able to tell the difference between a made being and a natural-born human?

Philip K. Dick's answer is empathy, and it is at the core of this book.

Dick is kind of like science fiction's mad mystic. He explores the hidden inner worlds of the people involved in the story, peeling apart issues of identity and psychology and reality itself, forcing the reader to ask him or herself what's really going on.

In other words, reading his work can be something of a head trip.

This novel introduces us to a near-future America, one which is greatly different from the one we know today. After a devastating nuclear war that wiped out countless species of plants and animals, the planet is being slowly emptied out. Those who are young, healthy and fertile are allowed to emigrate to off-world colonies. With them go the androids as servants, workers and slaves. Some people stay on Earth for reasons of their own. J.R. Isadore, for example, is a "special," one who doesn't make the genetic grade to leave the planet. Rick Deckard, on the other hand, is a bounty hunter, a man whose duty is to hunt down and destroy androids that come to Earth. Deckard has been handed a special assignment - six androids of the latest model, Nexus-6, have landed nearby. They're strong, intelligent, almost indistinguishable from humans, and Deckard has to "retire" them all before they get away.

Like many people, I first encountered this story in the movie Blade Runner, which followed much the same path. And, probably like a lot of people who saw the movie first, I was a bit thrown by the difference between the two. Rick Deckard in the book is not the morose lone wolf that he is in the movie. He has a wife here, and an electric sheep that he keeps on the roof (though he'd never admit to his neighbors that it was electric.) He has an interest in animals - the keeping of which is a mark of true status in a world where so many species have gone extinct. He's a more interesting character, with more depth and inner conflict than we see in the film. On the other hand, Roy Baty, Deckard's adversary, is far less interesting. He's intelligent and cruel, yes, but with so much less visceral power than Rutger Hauer gave him.

The major themes are different as well. In the movie, one of the overriding themes is the desire to live, the instinctive need that humans have to keep surviving even for just one more second. It's what keeps Deckard hanging on the edge of the roof when Roy's already broken his fingers. It's what sends Roy to Tyrell's home in the middle of the night with murder on his mind. The replicants in the film, despite being made beings, want what we want: more life.

The book follows a different path, though. The book looks at the difference between human and android, the Born and the Made, especially where it comes to that elusive quality of empathy. It is a capacity that only humans are supposed to possess, and indeed there is a whole religion founded around it - Mercerism. By using "Empathy Boxes," a person can become one with the iconic Wilbur Mercer, and share the joys and pains of everyone else connected to him at the same time. Life in all its forms becomes utterly sacred, and the destruction of a living thing is one of the greatest sins one can commit.

The androids, on the other hand, know nothing of empathy. They would gladly give up one of their own to die in their place. In one rather vivid scene, the android Pris starts snipping the legs off a spider, an act so monstrous that it drives J.R. Isadore to betray her and the other androids, people he believes are his only friends. The androids can pretend to feel empathy, but a simple test of involuntary physical responses show that they cannot truly feel it.

So, in a world where life has been scythed clean, respect for life is the highest virtue. The androids have no respect for life, and must therefore be kept off the planet, eliminated if they set foot on it. But what happens when they get more complex? What happens when the androids are so good, the humans begin to empathize with them? How can you destroy something when you can imagine its pain as your own? And if you can refrain from killing a lowly cockroach because you have empathy for it, how can you then turn around and kill thinking, self-aware android?

It's the kind of logical and moral conundrum that Dick excels at. The capacity for empathy cannot be what makes one creature worthy of protection and another not. After all, cockroaches don't feel empathy any more than androids do, yet they would be cherished in this world. It must then be the ability to generate empathy in others that is important, and in this book we see the androids cross that line. Deckard realizes that he's beginning to feel for the things he has to kill, and cannot reconcile that feeling with his job.

The theme of Born versus Made is reflected all through the book, especially where animals show up. There are animals that are presented as real, which later turn out to be androids. Others which the characters think are androids, but turn out to be real. Some characters can't even say with certainty whether they are not androids. All throughout the book, people find themselves in the position where they can't tell the difference between biological life and constructed life, which then raises a whole new question - if you can't tell the difference, then is there any difference at all?

It's the kind of question best discussed over a cup of coffee at Denny's with your friends in college.

Even today, people look down on science fiction as being less substantial than "real" fiction. Stories of androids and bounty hunters and off-world colonies, they think, can't compete with tales of single mothers raising kids in the inner cities or soldiers fighting and dying in a pointless war. To those who think there's nothing to grab on to in science fiction, I submit this book. It'll stay in your head, keep you up at night, and make you ask the kinds of questions that you'll never be able to answer.

If that's not quality writing, then I don't know what is.

"You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe."
- Mercer, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

[1] Well, almost all living things. There's still Ann Coulter....

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on Wikipedia
Philip K. Dick on Wikipedia
Philip K. Dick official site
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review 92: The Door Into Summer

The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein

Oh, 1950s science fiction - is there nothing you can't do?

One of the downsides to our modern information age is that we have so much information available to us. If I see a reference on a blog or in a book that I don't know, it's a quick hop over to Google or Wikipedia to find out what it is, and if it's really interesting I can find myself learning about something I never knew before. And so, if I want to know more about cold sleep, robotics or time travel, there's a whole host of ways that I can not only learn about it, but learn why it's just so hard to do. I mean, think about robotics - we've been looking forward to the perfect household robot for decades now. One that can cook and clean and do all those tiresome chores that we would rather not spend our time doing. The problem is that those tiresome chores are actually marvelously complex tasks, involving not only precise physical movements, but some very complicated judgment calls. Every time we figure out how to get a robot to do one of those things, we then have a hundred other things that need to be done to get it even close to human-like competence.

I know this because the internet knows this.

But back in 1957, this stuff was all new and fresh and unknown, so if Robert Heinlein wanted his main character to cobble together the perfect household robot with some off-the-shelf parts and a little bit of magic tech (the Thorsen Memory Tubes), then why not? Assuming we had the technology, what couldn't we build?

Thus is the set-up for The Door into Summer, an adventure in engineering, patent law, and economics, with a little bit of time travel thrown into spice it up. Our hero, Daniel Boone Davis, is an engineer of the purest sort - he got into engineering to solve problems, and that's what he does. He doesn't want to be just one guy working on one cog for a huge corporation; he wants to make things himself that he knows will benefit everyone. He's a real Populist Engineer, too - his creations are made with replaceable parts, specifically so that the owner can quickly deal with any mechanical problems themselves, rather than have to wait for a repair shop to do the work. The parts are all off-the-shelf, too, which not only makes the machines easier to produce, but makes the production cost lower. In other words, he's making machines that will benefit as many people as possible, and the first one is the somewhat misogynistically-named Hired Girl.

This machine (which is a very close approximation of the Roomba, by the way) becomes an instant success, and the company that Dan forms to take care of it is looking to become fantastically wealthy. Unfortunately for Dan, his business partners - Miles and Belle - are far more interested in becoming filthy rich than helping mankind. So when it looks like Dan's newest creation, an all-purpose household robot named Flexible Frank, is going to be a wild success, they manage to freeze him out of the company. Literally. They steal his inventions out from under him and force him to take the Long Sleep - to be frozen cryogenically for thirty years. He wakes up in the year 2000, without money, without a job or prospects, and without his beloved cat, Pete.

A word about the cat angle to this story - if you're a cat person, like me, then the relationship between Dan and Pete will really resonate with you. Its clear that Heinlein himself was a cat person, as he shows a wonderful understanding of the human-cat relationship, including the absolute uncertainty as to which one is in charge at any given time. While the cat is not absolutely necessary to the plot, it's a nice addition to the story. If you're not a cat person, well... you should be.

Anyway, in the wild future of 2000, Dan discovers that something very strange was going on around the time he got frozen, and the more he uncovers, the more it looks like there can be only one explanation - time travel!

This is really classic science fiction at its best. The narrator is a brilliant man who never meets a problem he cannot solve, at least not eventually. He's a certified genius, and were it not for his blind spot for pretty women and his trust in his business partner, he would have had a fantastic life as an inventor. But his love of making stuff gets in the way of how the real world works, and sets him up for a series of thefts and betrayals. But you never really worry about him, because he is a man with no uncertainties. He doesn't wallow in self-loathing and moral dismay when he encounters a problem like being thirty years in the future with no means of supporting himself. No! When he sees a problem, his first thought is, "How do I solve this?"

In other words, he's an engineer.

It's a remarkably optimistic book, too. While the future of 2000 isn't perfect, it's still a whole lot better than 1970. And while 1970 certainly isn't perfect, it's a whole lot better than 1957. The book rests on that wonderful mid-century assumption that while human innovation can't solve every problem (and indeed often succeeds in creating more problems), it is, in the long run, a force for good. For the modern reader this may seem terribly naive, but I found it refreshing.

So while the story is really pretty predictable, it's a fun ride. Even the time travel element isn't quite as risky as Heinlein tries to make it out to be, since the reason Dan opts for time travel is that he's found evidence that he's already done it. Therefore no matter how dangerous it might be, he knows for a fact that he'll be successful. He doesn't mention this, or even seem to notice it, but the sharp-eyed reader should pick it up pretty quickly.

While most of the driving force of the book is what I would normally consider pretty boring - patent law and engineering - there is one element to it that is distinctly Heinlein: the universality of love. Dan is done in by his belief that he loves Belle, who turns out to be a gold-digger of the lowest order. But in the end, Dan knows who he truly loves. The only problem is that she's an eleven year-old girl. Whether in the publication year of 1957, the year Dan starts in, 1970, or the far-flung future of 2000, a grown man marrying a pre-teen is something that is generally frowned upon. They're able to settle this problem with a little time travel/cryogenic jiggery-pokery, but when you stop to think about it, the situation can be somewhat... unconventional. If you stop to really think about their relationship, there's some strange moral ambiguity going on there. Fortunately, the characters don't really care and the book ends without going into the ramifications of what they've done.

The book isn't about moral complexity, though. It's about solving problems and finding happiness, no matter what you have to do to get it. It's about overcoming adversity, betrayal and even time itself to get the life that you know you deserve. It's about finding that door into summer, when all the other doors lead you only into the winter. While we may not be able to solve our problems quite as neatly as Dan Davis did, we can still follow his example.

Except, perhaps, with the romancing eleven year-olds. That's still not cool.

"Despite the crepehangers, romanticists, and anti-intellectuals, the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better. With hands... with tools... with horse sense and science and engineering."
Daniel Boone Davis, The Door into Summer

The Door Into Summer on Wikipedia
Robert Heinlein on Wikipedia
The Door Into Summer on
The Heinlein Society