Thursday, June 24, 2010

Review 76: Changes

Changes by Jim Butcher

"Hell's Bells" count: 20

Well, the title promises changes, and that is certainly what you get in this book. And the first of these comes right on page one: Harry Dresden has a daughter. Surprised? Yeah, well so was he.

The mother is Harry's old lover, Susan Rodriguez, whom he hasn't seen in many years. The reason for their separation is pretty simple, the kind of story you've heard over and over again - boy and girl meet, avoid their obvious attraction to each other for a while, and finally hook up. Boy tells girl all about the world of supernatural horrors in which he lives, girl finds it more intriguing than horrible, and manages to get herself bitten by vampires. Girl is able to resist turning all the way, but knows that she can't be around boy lest her emotions overwhelm her and she devours him whole. Boy and girl have one last night of fun together, girl vanishes into South America to join an underground cabal of vampire hunters.

Boilerplate, really.

No sooner does Harry discover that he has a daughter that she finds out she's been kidnapped, taken as a hostage by the Red Court of vampires for some purpose that is no doubt terrible and nefarious. As much as Susan knows it will hurt Harry to find out she'd been hiding their daughter from him, she also knows that he is the only one with the power and the resources available to get her back.

After all, Harry is a Wizard, a member of the White Council, if not one of their favorite members. He has contacts within the council that could prove useful, as well as resources that reach from Heaven to Hell. A far cry from the lone wolf that we met way back in Storm Front, Harry now has connections and resources that will allow him to take on some of the most powerful beings in the world as they attempt to use his daughter for their own evil ends.

As the title implies, of course, Harry does have to make some very serious choices in this quest; choices about how far he's willing to go in order to save his daughter, to say nothing of whether saving his daughter is even the right choice to make in itself. After all, the Red Court has been at war with the White Council for some time now, and the slightest mistake one way or the other could just make the whole thing worse. The last thing the White Council wants is their least favorite loose cannon (and, not for nothing, the guy who got the whole war started in the first place) complicating matters unnecessarily. The supernatural world is pretty much ready to fly apart as it is, and one mis-step could mean death and destruction on a scale greater than anyone has ever known.

In the end, the choices that Harry has to make in this book will haunt him for the rest of his life, if not longer. I would probably not be wrong in saying that this book marks a major turning point for the series.

If you've been reading this from the beginning, which you really should have, then this is going to be a rough book. I've made mention before of how Butcher likes to play hardball with his characters sometimes, but this book is so much more than that. This book is an all-out attack on everything that Harry holds dear to him, a scouring of his life that puts him into an entirely new situation. What this is in preparation for is anybody's guess, but I can tell you this much without really spoiling anything - Butcher had better damn well have the next book on a fast track or he'll find me sitting on his front porch with a torch and a pitchfork and a haunted look in my eyes. [1]

Given that, as of this writing, the book has just come out, there's not a lot I can say about it in detail. If you've been following the series, you're going to read it no matter what I have to say, and I don't want to ruin anything for you. All I can really say is that this isn't my favorite of the series, at least not upon first reading. It's a little rushed in parts, and has one too many deus ex machina moments for my liking. The only thing that mitigates that is the knowledge that Butcher wastes nothing in his storytelling, and even the biggest miracles come with a price that will have to be paid. And I expect that the payoff will be something to see. Having said that, though, Changes will probably hold up as one of the most significant of the Dresden Files books once the series is done. In terms of what happens to the characters in this book, it's really like nothing else that's come before it.

So brace yourselves, kids. This one's a bumpy ride. As with all the Dresden Files books, though, it's well worth it.

"Harry... I've got a bad feeling that.... I've got a bad feeling that the wheels are about to come off."
- Karrin Murphy, Changes

[1] Yes, yes, I know that, to paraphrase John Scalzi, the author is not my bitch. Still and all, waiting for the next book to come out will be like trying not to fart in church - interminable, impossible not to think about, and oh so relieving when the opportunity finally arrives.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Review 75: The Eyes of the Dragon

The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

Sometimes you are surprised.

Stephen King has long been associated with horror, and deservedly so. His career began with works like Carrie, Christine, Firestarter, The Shining and so on, all designed to scare the everlovin' out of any poor soul who picked up the book - and usually succeeding. What's more, the books often became movies, thereby allowing that segment of the population who doesn't read much to be terrified.

So for years, King has been called one of the scariest authors alive. I've seen cartoons attempting to portray Halloween at his house, bedtime stories for his children, and the horrible, dark confines of his imagination. The mind of King is where the terrors dwell, most think - the monsters, demons and vampires.

And Flagg.

But this book is where King really strayed from the image that had been built for him in popular culture. This story isn't a horror story, no matter what the quotes on the back of the book imply. This is a fantasy story. It has some tense and scary moments, yes, but it's a fantasy through and through, built with some of the most well-worn elements of fantasy storytelling. We have all of the necessary elements before us:

The King - King Roland (no relation to the Roland of the Dark Tower Series, as far as we know), the fairly capable and mostly well-liked king of Delain. He has served his kingdom well, and grown old and, if not wise, then at least experienced. He's not the best king, nor is he the worst. The most that can be said of him is that he tried his best and hoped that his son would do a better job than he had. Of course there is also....

The Queen - Queen Sasha, beloved of Roland. She was the light of his life, and the guiding hand on his shoulder. Many in Delain agree that Roland could have been a despot were it not for his beautiful and kindly wife whose compassion and good sense would eventually save the kingdom. She bore two sons, the first of whom was...

The Prince - Prince Peter, the shining star of the family. Wise beyond his years, strong and fair, everyone loved Peter. He won awards and friends, and was all in all a good son, one that any father would be proud to have. Most people, knowing that Peter would be the next king, felt that the future of Delain was safe. Peter had a brother....

The Second Son - Prince Thomas, forever standing in his brother's shadow. Not only was Peter older and more capable than Thomas in every way, there was an additional burden on his young mind. With the birth of Thomas, his mother, Queen Sasha, had died. And so it was that Thomas grew up the guilty one. He sought the love of his father, who thought the sun rose and set on Peter. And while Peter made every effort to extend the hand of brotherly love, Thomas felt only resentment and jealousy. Little did he know that his destiny had been guided from the beginning by....

The Evil Wizard - Flagg, that undying demon whose black and poisonous presence had been in Delain every time the country fell into ruin, and who intended to do it once again. A master of spells, potions and poisons, to speak his name was to invite horror, pain and death. He stood in Roland's shadow, quietly twisting his mind over the years. His ultimate goal was a millennium of darkness for Delain, and he knew just how to bring it about. The only thing standing in his way is the possibility that Peter could be king.

I'm not sure whose story this is, which makes it all the more interesting. On one hand, it's Flagg's story. In his dark desire to see Delain in chaos, he manipulates the King and his family to bring the kingdom to the brink. A little patient planning, some good preparation, and Flagg manages to frame Peter for the vicious murder of his father, the King.

Suddenly the Golden Boy is a despised murderer, patricide and regicide, and sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life imprisoned at the top of Delain's tallest tower, the Needle.

But, then, maybe it's Peter's story. He is caught, an innocent victim in this web spun by Flagg. But he was well-taught by his father and mother. His father taught him to be strong and kingly, his mother to be kind and human. The combination made him into something that Flagg could not stand - a good person and potentially a good leader.

Even in his lofty prison, Peter isn't willing to give up. With some clear thinking and a lot of patience, he manages to work out a plan to escape. Because he is a good man, he has friends willing to help him, to do favors, who will perhaps help clear his name and end the less-than-spectacular reign of his brother, Thomas.

Then again, maybe it really is Thomas' story. The narrator (the presence of whom gives this story a wonderful fairy tale feeling) takes pains to show us that, while Thomas is a sad, confused, and sometimes cruel man, he's not really bad.

Full of fear and self-loathing, Thomas is the perfect tool for Flagg. Under his dominion, the kingdom starts to slide towards the chaos that Flagg so richly desires. Thomas is a good example of what happens when a weak person, guided by circumstance and cruel greed, takes power. But even Thomas is not irredeemable - despite the mess of his life, he possesses a secret that could ruin everything Flagg has tried so hard to create.

As with so many of King's really good books, we are presented with not only an excellent cast of characters, but also excellent storytelling. In many of his author's notes, he refers to us as Steadfast Reader. He never forgets who has given him his fame and his reputation - the readers. By using a storyteller to present this tale, he acknowledges and speaks to us as though he were telling us the story directly.

Much like it can be a story about many people, it's a story of many messages. It's about hubris and the belief that one cannot possibly fail in one's Evil Plans (happens to me all the time). It's about honor and loyalty and standing by what's right, even when the whole world is against you. It's about being able to redeem yourself, no matter what horrible things you might have done in the past. It's a story about love and hope and faith, one that never gets old no matter how many times you read it.

I'm not sure how many times I've read this book by now, and I fully expect I'll read it again in the future. If you're not a King fan and you're not too keen on reading about family dogs that turn into killing machines, insane telekinetic teenage girls, or possessed Plymouths that steal the souls of their owners, then this is the book you want to read.

"In those years, Thomas discovered two things: guilt and secrets, like murdered bones, never rest easy; but the knowledge of all three can be lived with."
- Stephen King, The Eyes of the Dragon

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review 74: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

This book is controversial. Says so right there on the cover - "The Controversial Classic of Military Adventure!" A quick look at its Wikipedia page seems to support this, claiming that the book has been criticized for its literary merit, its support of the military, up to and including fascism, racism, utopianism, and gods know what else. What is certainly true is that it's a book that is guaranteed to make someone, somewhere very angry.

In the unspecified future, humanity has taken to the stars. In our efforts to colonize planets that are hospitable to us, we have spread as far and as wide as possible. Unfortunately, this has brought us into direct contact with alien races who are not entirely keen on sharing land with us, and, as we have always done, we are willing to fight, bleed and die for every inch of it.

Our main enemy is the Bugs, whose proper name we never actually learn, and they are a vicious enemy indeed. They possess a hive mind, made up of Soldiers, Workers and Brains. The Soldiers are, of course, the most dangerous, not least because they have no individual sense of self-preservation. Unlike the human soldiers, who value their comrades and brothers-in-arms highly, the Bugs will never go back for a fallen comrade and never consider the safety of their own when prosecuting a campaign against the humans. In other words, the Bugs truly are alien to us, and therefore need to be eliminated.

The story follows a young man, Juan Rico, in his journey from enlisted grunt in the Mobile Infantry to Officer in the Terran Federation. Through his eyes, we learn about the technological lengths that we have gone to in order to be able to fight the Bugs. First among these is the powered armor that the Mobile Infantry wears - an all-purpose exoskeletal suit that vastly increases its wearer's speed and strength, in addition to providing him with instant contact with his squadmates and vital information that he needs to fight the enemy. Humanity in the future has made great strides in terms of warfare, all out of need to defeat the Bugs.

You might be forgiven, then, for thinking that this was a grand military adventure. That we would feel the thrill and terror of a young military recruit as he experiences a universe larger and wilder than he ever could have imagined. You would be wrong.

Not entirely wrong, of course. If you read it right, you can infer the newness and strangeness of the circumstances that Juan Rico finds himself in. But this book isn't about Juan Rico, even though he is the narrator. In fact, we don't even learn his proper name until nearly two-thirds of the book is finished. Before then he's just "Johnnie," which is one of the most generic soldier names out there. Juan Rico is so irrelevant to the story that we don't even find out that English isn't his native tongue until three pages before the end of the book. Juan Rico is nothing more than a cipher in this tale, about as important to the content of Starship Troopers as Glaucon is to The Republic.

In the classic tale of Socrates, the philosopher talks about justice and politics and society, with his wisdom inspired by a question-and-answer session with his students. Somehow, the students always manage to ask just the right questions to allow Socrates to expound on his theories, and they're usually wrong in just the right ways to make Socrates look smart. So it is with Starship Troopers.

Juan Rico is the means by which Robert Heinlein is able to put forth his opinions on war and society, politics, citizenship, crime, child-rearing and, of course, military service. Instead of writing a series of straightforward essays, unfortunately, he decided to make his readers slog through Starship Troopers.

This book is a love letter to the military and all it stands for. Not just war and death and destruction, of course, but also loyalty, sacrifice and devotion to duty. It is an examination into why people become soldiers, why some succeed and others fail, and about the historical importance of the soldier class in human history. It's about war as a tool of diplomacy, both in its startling effectiveness and its unfortunate inevitability, as well as the importance of the chain of command and proper military discipline. It's about the comradeship of veterans and the lessons they learn during the service. There's a good reason why this book is on the reading lists for both the Navy and the Marines.

What it is not about is any of the characters that are actually involved in the story. The only reason Juan Rico is who he is is because he is not someone else. He could have been Buddy St. Germaine or Phil Waxman or Marvin Crumplebottom and the story would have read exactly the same: son of a rich businessman who enlists in the armed forces just to tweak his father, learns a whole host of Valuable Lessons (tm) and eventually discovers his calling. There is absolutely nothing about Juan Rico than makes him any more interesting than any other character except that he happens to be the narrator of the story.

If that were all, I might be able to let this book slide as just thinly-veiled military fetishism. But honestly, there's no veil there at all. The story stops in several places while Heinlein uses his characters as mouthpieces to tell us how he thinks society should be run. Ancillary characters - students, subordinate soldiers - ask just the right questions or are wrong in just the right ways so that Heinlein, much like Plato speaking through Socrates, can make the points he wants to make.

Juan's professor, retired Lt. Colonel Dubois, and the other lecturers repeatedly point to the 20th century as a model of how not to govern, happily cherry-picking some of the worst results of our system of government and holding them up as the inevitable result of a society that is not run by veterans. For that is how he sees the best of all possible states - one in which only veterans are full citizens and in which only veterans can run the country. The logic being that only someone who has voluntarily enlisted and served in the military is able to truly put the needs of society before his own, and is therefore the best person to run a country. Heinlein, through his fictional avatars, then goes on to show how much more superior the Terran Federation is to its more democratic predecessors and how stupid we were not to see the obvious truth.

The message, then, is that the reader is stupid if he or she does not agree with Heinlein. The ancillary characters who challenge Heinlein's thesis are written as obvious idiots and are roundly insulted and abused by their superiors, which effectively becomes Heinlein abusing his readers.

In addition, Heinlein sets up so many straw men to knock down that it gets tiresome. Juan's father, for example, is almost stereotypical as a foil to Dubois. Mr. Rico is rich and aloof and sees the military as nothing more than a bunch of violent thugs who have outlived their usefulness. The first time we see him, he is a snob and a jerk, and Juan's decision to piss him off by joining is almost inevitable. The next time we see Mr. Rico, of course, he has joined the Mobile Infantry himself, and has seen the error of his ways.

Other members of the cast are overtly written to embody certain themes in Heinlein's opinion of military rule, both positive and negative. Private Hendrick, for example, is a constant complainer, one who stands up for himself during boot camp and just barely escapes a hanging. He is not disciplined enough to be a soldier, and by extension a citizen, and therefore serves as a warning to others. Sergeant Zim [1], on the other hand, is the consummate soldier - hard on his charges in boot camp, yet as concerned about them as a father would be to his sons. Zim, along with an array of Lieutenants, Captains and other officers, serve as blatant father-substitutes for Juan Rico, with all of the qualities that one would want in a father and absolutely none of the drawbacks. If anything, their only flaws are that they are too concerned about their soldiers.

While reading, I wondered if maybe Heinlein was being sarcastic. If perhaps he was trying to demonstrate the true folly of military fetishism by taking it to its ultimate extreme. I have to admit, I didn't disagree with all of his ideas. His thoughts on juvenile delinquency, for example, really struck a chord in me - he maintains that treating young offenders as rational adults who can learn from their crimes is foolishness since, like puppies, young people are not inherently rational and have not yet learned the difference between right and wrong. The term "juvenile delinquent," he maintains, is an oxymoron, since a juvenile has not yet been able to learn of his duty to others, and therefore cannot be delinquent. To treat him as if he were is to fatally misunderstand human nature.

And I think there is a grain of truth to the idea that someone who willingly puts her or his life and body on the line for his or her fellow citizens might indeed have the perspective necessary to govern a country. I would point out, however, that this argument rests on a flawed assumption - that service automatically confers selflessness. There may be correlation, but causation is not yet proven.

But I don't think he's being sarcastic. The themes and ideas in this book resonate with those that permeate his other books. What's more, Dubois sounds like Jubal Harshaw, Lazarus Long and Professor De la Paz - other characters from other books who all served as mouthpieces for the author's political and social philosophies. And this is what makes Heinlein's books so special - he is not afraid to stand up for his ideas and put them right there on the page for the reader to see.

It is not so much Heinlein's ideas that I object to in this book, even if I do disagree with many of them. It is his presentation of those ideas that bothers me. Flawed logical methods presented as irrefutable discourse, transparent characters with no life beyond their purpose as object lessons, and a dissertation on military supremacy that is just barely disguised as a science fiction novel. It is written from the presumption that the writer is right and the reader is, from the first page, completely and utterly wrong.

I think the ideas that Heinlein presents in this book are important, and they are worthy of discussion. I just wish he had held his readers in a little higher esteem when he decided to discuss them.

“My mother says that violence never settles anything.”
“So? I'm sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that.”
- Student to Mr. Dubois

[1] As a side note, the entire boot camp sequence is much, much more entertaining if you read Sgt. Zim with the voice of Invader Zim. It exponentially improves the book.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Review 73: Old Man's War

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Somewhere in the unspecified future, humanity has reached out beyond the solar system, settling colonies wherever they can find a habitable planet. It's the inevitable expansion of the Human Race, finally freed from its precarious position on Earth. With the new skip drive, capable of taking people vast distances in only a moment, a whole range of new and interesting worlds are open to hardy settlers willing to make new lives for themselves.

Unfortunately, there are many alien races out there with the same idea, who need worlds with similar climates and resources. And very few of them are keen on sharing with us. So, in order to protect the human race against its competitors, the Colonial Defense Force was set up - a space military whose basic mission is to deal with the alien menace by whatever means necessary.

No one on Earth has ever seen a CDF soldier. Nobody knows anything about them - how they fight, where they fight, or even whom they fight. People do know one thing, however - there's always an opportunity to join. Protect and serve.

If you're seventy-five years old, that is.

The CDF isn't interested in hotheaded youths with no experience. While they have traditionally been the main component of the soldiering class, they are erratic at best, cannon fodder at worst. The CDF is looking for an entirely new type of cannon fodder, hopefully one with a better head on its shoulders. Therefore, the CDF recruits from the elderly. The theory is that once you get to be seventy-five years old, you've seen a bit of the world, you know how much you don't know, and you're less likely to be infected with the special brand of insanity that comes along with being in your late teens and early twenties.

So, on your sixty-fifth birthday, you go to the recruitment office for a routine physical and a basic description of what you're in for. Ten years later, if you're still around, you join up for real. There's no turning back, though. Join the CDF and your life on Earth is over. You will be declared legally dead, and there will be no coming back to your home planet, ever.

For many people, this might be a somewhat intimidating proposition. After all, the Earth is the only home we have. But once you're seventy-five and looking your mortality straight in the eyes, it might be a reasonable price to pay.

As for the myriad physical problems that come with being 75, well, there are ways of getting around that.

The book follows John Perry, a widower-turned-soldier as he fights for the safety of people he doesn't know, in a universe he's only beginning to understand. Once he begins his new career as a soldier, he discovers that, to paraphrase Sir Arthur Eddington, the universe is stranger than he can imagine. He is taken to new and interesting worlds to meet new and interesting species of intelligent life and, more often than not, to kill them. Along the way, he has to deal with new takes on the old questions that have plagued philosophers for centuries - what is identity, what is duty, and what is the function of war? Even the nature of reality itself pokes its head in to cause a little trouble. All through this, John Perry is just trying to keep his head down and get through his tour of duty - but you know it can never be that simple.

This was Scalzi's first novel, and as first novels go it was just the kind you want to have. Exciting, funny, nominated for a Hugo and immensely popular. To say nothing of being reminiscent of Heinlein (if Heinlein had had more of a sense of humor). Not only do we have a cracking good military space adventure, but we're introduced to a far wider universe that Scalzi will later expand upon. The "Old Man's War Universe" is vast and exciting, and as of this writing, there have been three more books that take place in it.

With that in mind, this book is mostly exposition. While the adventure parts are adventurous, the vast majority of this book is laying down the important concepts that are necessary to understand the book and those that follow. And so we get a lot of explanation about what the CDF is and how it operates, why it needs its soldiers and how they're prepared for battle. We're introduced to the BrainPal (tm) and SmartBlood (tm) and the MP-35 Rifle, truly one of the most useful weapons ever made by man. We meet a variety of alien species - some disturbingly ugly but gentle, others utterly adorable baby-eaters, and still more who believe that murdering other life forms is an act of religious grace for which the murdered should be thankful.

Lucky for us, Scalzi chooses the most logical way to do all of this exposition - the main character is as clueless as we are. He also needs everything explained, sometimes in vivid and gruesome detail, in order to make sense of the universe in which he now works. By following John Perry through basic training and his first year in the CDF, we start to understand the basics. The rest will come in later books, and our learning curve will be somewhat accelerated.

The book manages to hit all the right notes - it's exciting, it's poignant and it's funny. John Perry has been given a quick and sarcastic sense of humor, which reminds me of a lot of my friends, so I felt an immediate kinship with him. We like the people he likes, we care about the things he cares about, and we understand what it is that keeps him going, even when he's risking his own humanity in the process. In short, John Perry is a character who is at once singularly interesting and at the same time easy to identify with. This, I must say, is a tough feat to pull off.

If you like funny, exciting, universe-scale science fiction, pick this up. If you're interested in how our eventual coexistence with aliens might one day go, give this a read. And by all means, if you're a fan of Robert Heinlein - and you know who you are - definitely get this book.

"If the universe is bigger and stranger than I can imagine, it's best to meet it with an empty bladder "
- John Perry, Old Man's War

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