Archive for the ‘Books I’ve Read’ Category

A Maze of Stars

May 23, 2016

I found A Maze of Stars by John Brunner to be an intriguing and slightly unusual book. The book does not seem to read like a novel with a continuous story from beginning to end, so much as a series of short stories or vignettes. The story takes place in the Arm of Stars, the last section of our galaxy to be colonized by humanity. A vast sentient Ship was built to travel along the Arm of Stars, seeding each habitable planet with the colonists who chose to settle there. After its great mission was complete, the Ship was supposed to stand by and monitor the progress of the colonies and rescue any population that was in danger.

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Such was the plan. Instead the Ship found itself to be cast back and forth through time, compelled to retrace its journey along the Arm of Stars again and again centuries after the settlement of the Arm, observing but not contacting like an interstellar Flying Dutchman. At the end of each journey, the Ship travels through time again, emerging at the first planet it visited at a seemingly random time. In A Maze of Stars, the Ship finds itself at the earliest of its voyages, only 500 years after it seeded the colonies. The Ship travels from planet to planet with some knowledge of each planet’s future history, though there is much that remains hidden from the Ship. Some of the colonies have been successful, with a few even beginning to build star ships of their own. Many more are surviving with difficulty and more than a few are failures, the colonists destroyed by the hostile conditions of the planet they colonised. The Ship can recognise that some apparent successes will falter and fail, while some failures will recover. Occasionally, the Ship is able to exploit a loophole in its programming and take along a passenger on its travels. By the time the Ship reaches the end of its path, it learns why it was built and why it is sentenced to retrace its path again and again.

There is one issue raised by A Maze of Stars that I have not seen anywhere else in science fiction or nonfictional speculations about colonizing extra-terrestrial worlds. No life form on Earth either as an individual or a species exists in isolation. Every type of plant or animal lives in a complex ecosystem, composed of not just the obvious predators and sources of food, but also on a microscopic level with the bacteria than live around us and within us. Every form of life on Earth is to some extent depended on a vast web of interactions that are not always well understood. What would happen if some organisms are removed from that web and transplanted to a world with its own native lifeforms? Would the newcomers compete with the native life. Would alien organisms be toxic to creatures from Earth? What about the ecosystem of bacteria that each of us carries around with us and helps with our digestion? Could we maintain the proper balance in an alien world? Scientists have also recently learned that it is possible for DNA to be transferred between different species by viruses, and that these transfers have helped the process of evolution along. What if human colonists pick up alien DNA? Will they be able to remain human. The attempts of the various colonists to protect themselves against  and adjust to the alien environments they have found themselves in is an important backdrop to the story of each planet the Ship visits and is a major factor in the success or failure of each colony, and the questions raised about the future of human development make the book worth reading.

 

 

The Czars

April 11, 2016

There is a tendency, when writing of the history of a nation, to focus on the actions of rulers of that nation. American history books tend to divide American history by presidents, while British books differentiate the eras of British history by kings and queens, and later prime ministers, Chinese by dynasties, and so on. This approach is understandable since while kings and emperors may not have as much control over the events of the nations they rule as they would like, their reigns do give convenient dividing points between periods and eras. Still, there is often a lot going on that has little to do with the actions of any rulers and a history focused on the ruling class risks overlooking many factors and events in the country’s history.

This approach may be more justified in the case of Russian history, than in the histories of most other nations. For much of its history, Russia has been ruled by a strong, centralised government with political power vested in one man or woman, the Czar. The personality of Russia’s Czar was the most powerful influence on the development of the Russian nation. Russia only became a unified nation when the earliest Czars were able to establish control over the unruly boards and the Orthodox Church, become strong enough to defeat the invading Mongols, Poles and Lithuanians and take the title of Czar. The history of Russia is the history of its Czars.

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The Czars by James P. Duffy and Vincent L. Ricci tells the story of Russia’s czars, from their messy beginnings as the Vikings who raided, traded, and then settled the vast Russian lands to the murder of Nicholas II at the hands of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. It is a fascinating story, well told by the two authors. They give a biography of every Czar, the early and obscure princes of Kiev and Muscovy no less than such titanic rulers as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, giving something of the personalities and lives of each Czar as well as the historical circumstances of their reigns. I found the early history of the unification of Russia to be particularly interesting as this was a period that I didn’t know much about. Most histories of Russia seem to cover this time in the first chapter before quickly moving on to Ivan the Great and his son Ivan the Terrible.

The only fault that I can find with The Czars is the absence of maps. A map of the Ukraine and the European part of Russia would have been very handy, especially if it included all the little principalities and cities that were absorbed by the growing Russian state in its earliest years. I found myself having to consult Google maps to get some idea of where the various regions of European Russia were in relation to each other and where the battles against the Mongols and the Poles took place. A genealogy of the two Russian dynasties, the Ruriks and the Romanovs would also have been useful, especially with the early Ruriks who had not yet established the tradition of handing down power from father to son, and with the more tumultuous times of trouble in which several short-lived and distantly related Czars followed one another in succession. Despite these shortcoming, I still found the Czars to be interesting and informative.

The Rise of Rome

March 3, 2016

If I were to mention the Roman Empire in any sort of word association context, many people might respond with some variation of “decline and fall of”. It seems that every historian or history buff who is at all familiar with the history of the Roman Empire thinks largely in terms of its decline and fall and they all seem to have their favorite theories why the Empire fell; moral decay, economic collapse, climate change, etc. The impression seems to be that Rome was somehow doomed to fail and that the only lessons to learn from Roman history is what great powers ought not to do in order to avoid their own decline and fall.

Yet, Rome was an enormously successful state. For almost six hundred years, 146 BC to AD 410, Rome was uncontested ruler of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, a feat unmatched by any of the many great powers since, and even after the “fall” of the Empire in 476, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, the so-called Byzantine Empire manager to last for another thousand years. No other, more recent, great power has managed such longevity. Perhaps the question we need to ask about the Roman Empire is not how it fell, but how a small, Italian city-state rose to rule the known world, and how they managed to rule for so long.

This is the question which Anthony Everett seeks to answer in “The Rise of Rome”. In his book, Everett traces the history of Rome from its legendary, even mythical, beginnings to the generation before the rise of Caesar. Everett recounts the legends of Rome’s founder, Romulus, and its kings, the overthrow of Tarquin and the establishment of the Republic, and the wars in which the city fought for its life against its neighbors. Everett then considers what truth, if any, may be behind these legends based on the findings of archeology, while noting that the true events are less important than the fact that the Romans themselves believed the legends to be true and were influenced by them.

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The Republic slowly came to dominate Italy, in part because of Rome’s military prowess, Rome was an aggressive, militaristic state, but also because the Romans repeatedly demonstrated a statesmanlike common sense in their relations with defeated enemies and in their own internal politics. Here we begin to have somewhat more reliable historical accounts and we can begin to understand what the Romans were doing right. The Romans did not seek to destroy their enemies once they were defeated, but to have their former enemies join them. Italians could become allies in league with Rome and perhaps even gain Roman citizenship. Rome suffered from the same sort of class conflicts as the Greek city-states, but while the Greek factions usually tried to destroy each other, the Roman ruling class generally managed to find some compromise which kept the city together. More than any thing else, it was the Roman refusal to accept defeat and determination to continue fighting, even when their cause seemed lost, that led to the many Roman victories, as such warlords as Pyrrhus and Hannibal discovered.

The Punic Wars were a turning point in Roman history. For the first time, Rome acquired territories outside of Italy, and by the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC, Rome had come to dominate the Mediterranean. Rome had become a wealthy superpower. This success was not altogether favorable to the development of the character of the Romans. The Republican customs and institutions which suited an Italian city-state did not scale all that well to a mighty empire and the traditional good sense and willingness to compromise that had been displayed by Rome’s ruling class began to falter in the newly affluent society. Everett ends his account of the rise of Rome with the rebellion of Rome’s Italian allies, who, perhaps uniquely in history, did not seek to overthrow Roman leadership, but to be allow to become Roman citizens themselves, and rise and fall of the Roman generals and statesmen, Marius and Sulla, who set the precedents for Caesar’s dictatorship and the end of the Roman Republic.

I can highly recommend “The Rise of Rome” for anyone interested in the history of the Roman Republic, particularly the early centuries that do not get nearly so much attention time of Caesar and the early emperors. Maybe we could learn some lessons in how to manage an empire.

Rise of the Warrior Cop

January 24, 2016

Police officers are not soldiers. Despite a superficial similarity, both soldiers and cops wear uniforms and carry weapons, the skills and attitudes required to be successful in these professions are very different. A soldier is trained to kill the enemy. He often has to shoot first and analyze the situation later if he wants to stay alive. A soldier need not concern himself with the civil rights of his enemies. His job is to destroy them and win the war. A police officer, on the other hand, is trained to keep the peace. For him violence is the very last resort. His job is to protect civilians, not kill enemies. Why, then, are law enforcement personnel increasingly taking on the look and attitudes of soldiers?

A SWAT team is meant to be used in emergency situations, when there is a hostage situation, an rampaging shooter, or a riot. There should be few cases in which a SWAT team is ever used and probably only larger jurisdictions really need one, particularly since small city police forces may not have the resources or personnel or properly train or equip a SWAT team. Why are SWAT teams increasingly found to be necessary by small town police departments and why are they being used to perform what ought to be routine, non-violent duties such as serving warrants or making arrests in drug possession cases or illicit gambling rings? Why are various federal departments using armed agents to enforce administrative regulations?

The fourth amendment to the constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and guarantees that any searches and seizures cannot occur without a warrant issued after a demonstration of probable cause. Generally, this has meant that the police are not to enter a residence without knocking and identifying themselves as law enforcement. Why are no-knock raids complete with flash-bang grenades becoming ever more common and accepted as appropriate procedures? Why are there more and more cases of the police raiding the homes of innocent persons, injuring and perhaps killing people, without a word of apology or accountability?

We are supposed to be a nation of equal justice under the law. How is it that police officers can assault and kill with impunity, can steal under the cover of civil forfeiture, and generally act as if they are above the law they are tasked to enforce? When did the friendly neighborhood policeman become the warrior cop?

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Radley Balko attempts to answer these questions in his book, Rise of the Warrior Cop. Balko traces the history of law enforcement in the United States from the beginning, noting that before the American Revolution and for the first few decades after independence there were no police forces in the United States or, for that matter in Britain. There were country sheriffs, but their role was largely serving court warrants. Law enforcement depended on social pressure in small communities and informal, volunteer town watches and posses. As the population grew and became more urbanized, it became necessary to adopt a more formal approach to law enforcement and the first police departments were organized in the 1830’s. This was controversial, both in America and Britain, as the political cultures of both nations were strongly against having a standing army of soldiers patrolling the streets and care was taken to make a clear distinction between the newly formed police forces and the army.

This distinction began to become somewhat less clear in the twentieth century. Prohibition and later the War against Drugs with fights against well armed gangsters and later drug dealers seems to indicate a need for police officers to be more heavily armed, at least in certain special circumstances. The possibility that incriminating drug evidence could be hurriedly disposed of, seemed to make traditional procedures of knocking and waiting for a suspect to answer a door to be somewhat foolish. The upheavals and riots of the 1960’s showed a need for a heavily armed and specially trained task force, or SWAT agents, to handle extreme circumstances.

Since the 1960’s, tactics meant to be used rarely and under specific conditions have become routine. If one is fighting a war against drugs, than the drug dealers are not simply fellow citizens who have committed a crime, but the enemy who is working to bring down the country. One does not concern oneself too much with the civil rights of the enemy in time of war. After 9/11, terrorism began to take the place of drugs as the enemy and justification for police departments around the country to acquire cool military equipment.

There is much more to be said about this issue, and Radley Balko says it in his book. If you are at all concerned with civil rights, and our country’s slow erosion into a police state, than I highly recommend Rise of the Warrior Cop, though you may be surprised and shocked to learn how widespread and serious the problem of police misconduct has become. Balko lists many, many examples is his book.

Some might accuse Radley Balko of being anti-police. He denies the charge and I believe him. As he notes, the vast majority of police officers are good people. The problem is not really the cops. The problem is that the system we have in place tends to reward the bad cops and to create incentives for even good cops to behave badly, particularly in the sense that often develops in police departments that it is us (the department) against them ( the criminals and increasingly civilians). Balko does make suggestions for reforms at the end of the book, and I hope that someone in a position to do something will heed his warnings.

The Myths Really Happened

December 18, 2015

One of the nice things about reading e-books on a Kindle is that a great many books are available either for free or for a very low price because they are older books whose authors are long dead and the copyrights have expired. These low-priced or free books are some of the greatest classics of literature and naturally I have been interested in reading them, particularly the classical Greek and Roman mythological epic such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. Now I have recently come across a pair of news stories that suggest that the backgrounds of these epic poems may not have come entirely from the minds of the writers, that there may be a kernel of fact behind the fiction.

First, there is this interesting article from the Guardian on some recent research about the mysterious Etruscans who lived and ruled in Italy before the rise of Rome. The Romans themselves were not Etruscans but the Etruscans heavily influenced Roman culture. Unfortunately, the written language of the Etruscans remains undeciphered, so little is known of them, except what the Greeks and Romans have written about them.

They gave us the word “person” and invented a symbol of iron rule later adopted by the fascists. Some even argue it was they who really moulded Roman civilisation.

Yet the Etruscans, whose descendants today live in central Italy, have long been among the great enigmas of antiquity. Their language, which has never properly been deciphered, was unlike any other in classical Italy. Their origins have been hotly debated by scholars for centuries.

Genetic research made public at the weekend appears to put the matter beyond doubt, however. It shows the Etruscans came from the area which is now Turkey – and that the nearest genetic relatives of many of today’s Tuscans and Umbrians are to be found, not in Italy, but around Izmir.

The European Human Genetic Conference in Nice was told on Saturday the results of a study carried out in three parts of Tuscany: the Casentino valley, and two towns, Volterra and Murlo, where important finds have been made of Etruscan remains. In each area, researchers took DNA samples from men with surnames unique to the district and whose families had lived there for at least three generations.

They then compared their Y chromosomes, which are passed from father to son, with those of other groups in Italy, the Balkans, modern-day Turkey and the Greek island of Lemnos, which linguistic evidence suggests could have links to the Etruscans.

The latest findings confirm what was said about the matter almost 2,500 years ago, by the Greek historian Herodotus. The first traces of Etruscan civilisation in Italy date from about 1200 BC.

About seven and a half centuries later, Herodotus wrote that after the Lydians had undergone a period of severe deprivation in western Anatolia, “their king divided the people into two groups, and made them draw lots, so that the one group should remain and the other leave the country; he himself was to be the head of those who drew the lot to remain there, and his son, whose name was Tyrrhenus, of those who departed”.

But the latest conclusions may add weight to a rival, apparently more fanciful, theory that links their name to Troy, the “city of towers” and a part of the Lydian empire. The most likely date for the fall of Troy, as described by Homer, is between 1250 and 1200 BC.

Virgil’s Aeneid tells the story of a Trojan prince named Aeneas who fled with his family when the Greeks destroyed Troy. Aeneas led his followers around the Mediterranean until they settled at last in Italy where after many adventures he established a kingdom. His descendants were Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. Virgil wrote the Aeneid in the hope of creating a national epic for the Romans in the same way that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were for the Greeks, and he consciously inserted what might be considered political propaganda justifying the leadership of Rome over the known world, and also the role of his patron Augustus Caesar as the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. This does not mean that Virgil simply invented the plot of the Aeneid. Instead, it seems that he made use of Roman legends concerning the Trojan origins of the Roman people that had been told for generations by combining them into a more unified and coherent story.

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The Romans were not themselves Etruscans. They were clearly natives of Italy, closely related in language and culture to many other people living in south and central Italy. The Etruscans clearly influenced the development of Roman culture and it is likely that they brought the alphabet to Italy, as well as many other elements of civilization. If the recent findings about the origins of the Etruscans from Lydia in Asia Minor, the actual location of Troy, then it is possible that the legends that Virgil drew upon to create the Aeneid are a distant memory of a real migration from Asia Minor to Italy, perhaps by refugees fleeing war and the destruction of their homeland.

But what about Homer? Unlike Virgil who lived at around the time of Christ and so is well known to history, Homer lived at a time when Greece was emerging from a dark age. Not much is known about Homer, even whether a poet by that name ever really existed. Homer’s Iliad tells the story of an dispute between Achilles and the other leaders of the Greeks during the Trojan War and of Achilles’s personal feud with the Trojan prince Hector. The Odyssey tells the story of the Greek Odysseus’s trials as he sails home after the war. It wouldn’t seem likely that these fanciful tales are based on real, historical persons, yet, there really was a Troy, or at any rate a city at the legendary location of Troy. This city was burned down several times and rebuilt, but it is not clear whether the Greek stories of the Trojan War are a memory of an actual siege of the city. Still, there is this story I read in the Independent.

The Odyssey is one of the great works of ancient Western literature, written eight centuries before the birth of Christ and four centuries after the fall of Troy. Generations of classicists have pored over the many lines of Homer’s epic description of the long journey taken by the hero Odysseus to his home island of Ithaca. Now two scholars have found evidence to support the idea that one line, in the poem’s 20th book, refers to a total solar eclipse that occurred on 16 April 1178 BC – the day when Odysseus returned home to kill his wife’s suitors. If true, this would date the fall of Troy itself to precisely 1188 BC.

The idea that The Odyssey refers to a total solar eclipse, when the Moon blocks out the Sun completely, is not new. It was first suggested by ancient scholars, but it was only in the 1920s that astronomers were able to calculate that such an eclipse over Greece around that time could only have taken place on 16 April 1178 BC.

 

Instead of looking at when a solar eclipse occurred in history, as other astronomers had done, they investigated the timing of a new moon, the simultaneous appearance of two stellar constellations in the evening sky, and appearances of the planets Mercury and Venus. All four phenomena are mentioned in The Odyssey which gave Constantino Baikouzis of the Observatorio Astronomico de La Plata in Argentina, and Professor Marcelo Magnasco, of the Rockefeller University in New York, another way of checking the date when Odysseus is supposed to have returned to his home on Ithaca to kill his wife’s suitors.

They calculated the pattern in which these four events occurred, from the references mentioned in The Odyssey, and compared them against patterns gleaned from 135 years of astronomical data – nearly 5,000 days. The result was they found just one date that could have been the fateful day. It was the same 16 April 1178BC that was known to have been a total solar eclipse. “What are the chances of having two different ways of dating the text and both agreeing on the same date? We calculated the chances of these two dates agreeing by chance alone is something like one in 50,000,” Professor Magnasco said.

“Not only is this corroborative evidence that this date might be something important but, if we take it as a given that the death of the suitors happened on this particular eclipse date, then everything else in The Odyssey happens exactly as is described.”

“Under the very large assumption that there was an Odysseus, there were suitors that got massacred, that it indeed took 10 years for Odysseus to get back … yes, in that case the fall of Troy would have happened 10 years before the death of the suitors, thus in 1188BC. The current dating of the destruction layer of Troy VIIa is around 1190 plus/minus a few years.”

Obviously the more fantastic elements of Homer’s tales such the cyclops or the miraculous involvement of the gods, but it is altogether possible that the legends of the Trojan War are derived from a real war and the Iliad from an actual incident in that war. The Odyssey may be a dim memory of actual troubles faced by men returning from this war to find matters at home not as they might wish. Who can tell?

OK, this part was probably made up.

OK, this part was probably made up.

The Spanish Civil War

November 2, 2015

Like most Americans, I never knew very much about the Spanish Civil War. Outside of Spain, it mostly seems to be seen as a sort of prelude to World War II; the first battle of the epic struggle between Fascism and Democracy. In the movie Casablanca, that Rick fought on the Loyalist side in Spain was a quick way to indicate that he had, at least at one time, been on the side of the good guys.

At first glance, this impression seems to be true. The Spanish Civil War did begin as a military insurrection against the democratically elected left wing government of Spain. The Nationalists under Francisco Franco were backed by Fascist Italy and Germany who saw the civil war as an opportunity to test new weapons and tactics. A closer examination quickly shows that the issues surrounding this war were much more complicated than this simple view. For one thing, since the democracies such as France and Britain were determined to remain neutral in this conflict, the Republican government of Spain had little choice but to turn to the Soviet Union for help. This help came with strings attached, the Soviets hoped to increase the influence of the Communist Party in Spain and ultimately to create a Socialist dictatorship controlled by the Communists. On the other hand, there were never very many Fascists, or Falangists as the Spanish Fascists were named, in Spain until just before the Civil War. There was an increase in membership of the Falangist Party as the conflict began, mostly as a reaction to the apparent attempts by the left wing parties to convert Spain into a Soviet state. Franco himself never had much use for Fascist ideology and by the end of the end he had subordinated the party to his personal rule.

As for democracy, the truth is that neither side really supported the idea. The Right, whether Falangist, monarchist, or conservative, was frankly authoritarian in outlook. They were prepared to play the game of running in elections, but they didn’t much care for the process. The Left seemed to not understand the whole purpose of democracy is too allow the people to choose their rulers. They believed that they were on the side of History and Progress and thought of elections merely as a way to confirm their mandate. When a right-wing coalition won the elections in 1933, the left demanded that the vote be invalidated, not on the grounds of any evidence of fraud or irregularities, but simply because the wrong people had won. When they won the next elections, they began to rig the system to make sure they wouldn’t lose again. This refusal to follow the Spanish constitution, along with a threatened purge of the military caused the military to rise up against the left-wing government, beginning a terrible civil war. Neither side were the good guys, or even altogether the bad guys.

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Stanley G Payne makes this clear in his account of the war, titled, simply enough, The Spanish Civil War. Payne gives a clear and coherent account of the years leading up to the war and is remarkably even-handed in assigning responsibility for the mistakes in policy that caused the war. Payne gives a good chronological account of the military history of the war as well as dealing with the policies each side developed to fight the war and to remake Spain according to their competing ideals. Both sides committed atrocities, and Payne is again even-handed in giving accounts on the inevitable horrors of war, alway worse in a civil war. He also explores why Franco and the Nationalist eventually won control of Spain and the motives of the countries that sought to intervene in the war.

The one thing that most struck me while reading through this book is that the Republicans really should have won this conflict. In 1936, when the fighting actually began, they controlled most of the territory of Spain, including the richest and most productive regions. They were considered the legitimate government of Spain internationally and they held the capital. They also controlled about half the navy, most of the air force, and even much of the army.  The Nationalists began the war as a few disgruntled army officers, mostly stationed in Morocco. How did they end up winning? They did get a lot of support from Germany and Italy and this did make a difference early in the war, but it seems the one advantage the Nationalists had over the Republicans was that they early became unified under a single leader, General Francisco Franco. The Republicans were divided between various factions including liberals who wanted some sort of social democracy, more doctrinaire socialists and communists who wanted to use the existing government to make Spain into a socialist state, and the radical communists and anarchist who wanted a revolution, not to mention nationalist Catalans and Basques. This division made it difficult for the Republican government to develop any sort of coherent strategy for winning the war, and the more extreme left-wing elements of their coalition, especially their anti-religious stance, frightened many Spaniards into supporting Franco as the lesser evil. They were probably correct, Franco was a dictator who crushed dissent after winning the war, but he probably didn’t cause nearly as much misery for the Spanish people as a Soviet backed Communist dictatorship might have, and Franco, at least, had the good sense to keep Spain out of World War II and he was inadvertently responsible for restoring democracy to Spain by arranging for King Juan Carlos to take power after his death. Franco was the least bad option for Spain at the time.

Franco and a young Juan Carlos

Franco and a young Juan Carlos

 

The Martian

September 30, 2015

I have just finished reading the most amazing book, The Martian by Andy Weir. Perhaps you have seen the advertisements for the forth-coming movie starring Matt Damon as the Martian of the title. The movie is not out yet, and it is unlikely that I will watch it before it comes out on DVD, but I did read the book to see what all the hype was about. I d not know how they will adapt this book to the movie, such adaptations are always a chancy business and I am rarely satisfied with the result, but if the movie is at all faithful to the plot of the book, it will be well worth watching.

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The Martian is not, as the title would suggest, a science fiction novel about a person from the planet Mars. Instead it is the story of astronaut Mark Watney who is one of a crew of six astronauts on a mission to explore Mars. A dust storm causes NASA to abort the mission after only six days on the surface of Mars and Watney is seemingly killed while the crew is trying to get to the Mars Ascent Vehicle which is designed to return the crew to their orbiting space craft Hermes which will take them home to Earth. However, Watney is not dead but has been left behind, all alone on Mars with no way to return to Earth or even to communicate with NASA. The rest of the novel is concerned with Mark Watney’s efforts to stay alive on Mars until he can be rescued.

 

In many ways, The Martian is a hearkening back to the great, old days of science fiction, to a more optimistic time when science fiction was about man’s exploration of the universe and nothing seemed impossible with the application of scientific knowledge and reason, rather than the pessimistic post-apocalyptic dystopias and social justice warrior crap that one sees too much of in the genre these days. The plot is well paced and exciting. Although I knew that Watney will make it off of Mars, this isn’t the sort of story that has him die at the last minute, the question of just how he will manage the next crisis kept me, almost literally, at the edge of my seat and made the book almost impossible to put down. Mark Watney himself is an engaging character, something of a twenty-first century Robinson Crusoe, clever and resourceful enough to find ways to survive. Just as Crusoe was able to salvage his wrecked ship to enable himself to survive on his island, Watney is capable of making use of the equipment left behind on Mars. Much of the story is told by way of the audio log he keeps and his often humorous commentary on the conditions and problems he faces helps to make what might be tedious exposition enjoyable to read. There is no Man Friday on Mars for Watney, but scavenging the Pathfinder lander allows him to regain contact with Earth which surely must be just as momentous as Crusoe’s finding a footprint in the sand and realizing that he no longer has to face his troubles alone.

The story is also told from the point of view of Mark Watney’s crew-mates and the engineers and administrators at NASA who are desperately trying to find a way to bring Watney home, or at least send him supplies to last until the next mission to Mars. They are shown to be competent, loyal and determined and in that respect The Martian reminded me of the movie Apollo 13. The science in the Martian is rock solid and this is one of the hardest, on the scale between hard to soft, science fiction books I have ever read. Andy Weir is the son of a scientist and a student of science himself. All of the technology in the book is based on real life technology we have right now and the mission to Mars is based on real plans that NASA might adopt to send astronauts to Mars. Weir’s portrayal of Martian conditions is based on the very latest information from probes. If a man ever did get stranded on Mars, this is a realistic story of how he might survive.

I can highly recommend The Martian to any reader whether science fiction fan or not. There is just one problem. The Martian actually makes the prospect of living on Mars seem desirable. Ever since I finished it, I have had the most intense desire to hop on a spaceship and go to Mars myself. Where do I sign up?

The red hills of Mars

The red hills of Mars

 

Flowers for Algernon

August 27, 2015

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is one of those books which every literate person in America should be familiar with, at least to the extent of knowing the basic plot. It has been taught in schools, and has been challenged for being inappropriate. Flowers for Algernon has won awards and been adapted for the television, radio, and film. There aren’t many science fiction novels which have had the kind of influence that Flowers for Algernon has had.

flowers-for-algernon-book

The plot is straightforward enough. Charlie Gordon is a thirty-two year old retarded man who works in a bakery. All his life, he has desperately wanted to be smart. He gets his chance when he is selected to be the first human subject for an experimental technique for raising intelligence. This new procedure has already proved to be effective on a mouse named Algernon and the scientists have good reason to believe that it will be just as effective on a human being. The procedure is successful and soon Charlie is as far above average in IQ as he was below. Charlie discovers, however, that high intelligence is not without its own problems. He becomes bitter and anti-social when he learns that his “friends” at the bakery only liked him because they laughed at him and took advantage at him. The scientists he believed were geniuses turn out to be knowledgeable only in narrow fields. Charlie is as much as outsider with a genius level IQ as he was when he was retarded and this time he knows it. Worst of all, Charlie’s own research reveals that the success of the procedure is only temporary. He will lose his intelligence as quickly as he gained it. In the end, Charlie is back to the level he was at the start of the book, except perhaps a little wiser than he was even at his height. He can no longer understand the contribution he made to science but he at least regained the humanity he came near to losing, and he understands what it is to be smart a little better.

Daniel Keyes did a wonderful job conveying Charlie Gordon’s growth and decline through the medium of Charlie’s journals or progress reports that he is required to write as part of the experiment. The earliest entries show a naïve and simple Charlie with misspellings and grammatical mistakes. Charlie really doesn’t understand what is going on around him, yet he wants to be liked. People do like him, even his friends who laugh at him, because of his determination to learn as much as he can despite his limited intelligence. As Charlie gains in intelligence, his spelling and punctuation become more correct and he begins to use a more advanced vocabulary. He also begins to be less likable and more arrogant. As Charlie begins to revert to his earlier state, the language he uses in writing the progress reports also deteriorates. This last section of the book is heartbreaking and more than a little terrifying. There are few things that most people dread more than losing their minds. Even death is seen as preferable and fear of death is often really fear of oblivion or mindlessness. Keyes is very good at expressing Charlie’s dread and fear as he sinks back into subnormal intelligence.

Flowers for Algernon, then, is a book well worth rereading, or reading for the first time if you have somehow managed to avoid it all these years. The novel was published in 1966 and was an expansion of a short story Keyes wrote in 1958 so it may be somewhat dated. One hopes that people like Charlie Gordon are somewhat better treated today, though substitution intellectually challenged for retarded is not really an improvement if the people saying intellectually challenged still regard them as subhuman. These dated parts do not detract in the enjoyment of the book and are scarcely noticeable in a book surely to become a classic.

 

The Life and Death of Lenin

August 24, 2015

I am a fan of Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction stories, particularly of his Foundation series. In this series of books, a mathematician named Hari Seldon invents a way to predict the future through the mathematics of probability, which he calls Psychohistory.  It is not possible to predict the future actions of an individual person or even small groups of people. Psychohistory only works which large populations, entire worlds and nations. By using psychohistory Seldon learns  that the Galactic Empire, which has existed for thousands of years, is falling and the galaxy will enter into a dark age lasting for many millennia if nothing is done. It is too late to avert the fall of the Empire, but Seldon hopes to shorten the interregnum between the First and Second Galactic Empires to merely a thousand years by setting up two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy that will preserve the scientific knowledge that would otherwise be lost and to lead the way to the reunification of the galaxy.

Could there really be such a method of calculating the future as Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory? In order for something like that to work, history would have to be determined by great economic and social forces and the choices of individuals, even great generals and kings, would have to be inconsequential. Carlyle’s Great Man Theory would have to give way to Spencer’s theory that even great men are mere products of their environment.

For my part, I do not believe that psychohistory could really be possible. I think that great men, and women, really do alter the course of history. There are just so many ways in which history could have turned out very differently, if the personalities of the persons involved has been different. Imagine the American Revolution without George Washington or Germany after the First World War without a Hitler. Then too, there ware the completely unpredictable workings of nature. Climate change has had a greater effect on the rise and fall of empires than is generally recognized. Diseases like the Black Death can appear due to chance mutations of a virus or bacteria and kill half the population of a continent with little warning.

I could give many examples, but the one that I would like to consider is the life and death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Bolshevik Party and the first leader of the USSR. Before the Russian Revolutions of 1917, there were many socialist factions seeking reform or revolution in Russia, some Marxist, some not. Among all these parties, Lenin’s party, the Bolsheviks were the most radically Marxist and the most given to violence and terrorism. Lenin and his lieutenants had no use for the kind of parliamentary reforms that more moderate groups wanted to bring to Russia, nor did he care for reforms to improve the conditions of the masses. Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted revolution.When the Czar was overthrown in February, 1917 and a republican Provisional  Government set up, the Bolsheviks played almost no role in the great affairs. Lenin was still in exile and wanted his party to have no part in bourgeoisie elections. The party would seize power in a Communist revolution.

It is important to understand that this decision to seize power was entirely Lenin’s. None of the other leading Bolsheviks thought it was a good idea and properly speaking, as good Marxists, the Bolsheviks ought not to have led a revolution at all. Marx has very definite ideas on how Communism was supposed to come about. He believed that every society moved through stages, from the primitive socialism of savages to the great slave states of the ancient world, to feudalism,  capitalism, socialism, and finally communism. Since Russia was still emerging from feudalism into capitalism, Lenin ought to have waited until capitalism was fully developed in Russia before leading the revolution. Lenin, however, realized that the Bolsheviks would never have a better chance for power than while the Russian government and economy were in a state of collapse.

Lenin

Lenin

Lenin’s rule as the first leader of the Soviet Union was a disaster for the Russian people. All of the totalitarian aspects of the communist regime that are usually attributed to Joseph Stalin’s tyranny had their beginnings with Lenin. Lenin was the one who setup the Checka, the secret police and it was Lenin who established the Gulags and the use of terror to subdue the population. Yet, despotic as Lenin was, Stalin was far worse and it was doubly unfortunate for the Russian people that Lenin’s premature death in 1924 led to the assumption of power by Stalin.

joseph-stalin-and-vladimir-lenin

In the year before his death, Lenin was increasingly uneasy over events in the Soviet Union. The great revolution did not seem to be leading to a communist utopia but had exchanged the tyranny of the Czar with the tyranny of the commissar. Lenin began to consider ways of making the Soviet state more representative of the workers it purported to serve. Lenin was also becoming aware that Stalin, while a good man to have around in a revolution, was wholly unsuited to wielding power after the revolution. Lenin decided that Stalin had to be relieved of his powerful position of Party General Secretary. If Lenin had lived a normal lifespan, it is likely that he would have succeeded in unseating Stalin.  It is less likely that he would have made the Soviet regime in any sense democratic. Lenin’s own autocratic personality prevented him from ever really seeing that the cause of the increasingly oppressive regime was his own reluctance to allow anyone outside the Communist Party from gaining any real independence from the rule of the Party. Still, if Lenin had not died, the rule of the Communist Party, while still despotic, would not have reached the insane level of repression as it did under Stalin. The history of the twentieth century might have been very different, depending on whether Lenin lived or died.

Lenin was only 53 when he died following a series of strokes over the previous year which progressively weakened him. After his death, an autopsy showed that he had advanced arteriosclerosis in his brain with some blood vessels completely calcified. The arteriosclerosis was far worse than might be expected in a man of Lenin’s age, especially as he had none of the risk factors that might be associated with the disease. Lenin did not smoke, was moderate in his diet, and exercised regularly. He was under a considerable amount of stress as leader of a nation in a civil war and which had to be rebuilt almost from the ground up. Still, such an advanced case of arteriosclerosis at Lenin’s age is unusual, particularly considering that the worst buildup of plaque was in the blood vessels of his brain. The blood vessels in the rest of Lenin’s body were no more afflicted by the disease than might be expected by a man of his age and habits. Something strange was going on.

Recently, researchers have discovered that a mutation in a single gene can cause a selective buildup of the plaque that causes arteriosclerosis in the legs. Could Lenin have suffered from a similar genetic disorder that caused such a buildup in the brain? Lenin’s father also suffered from cardiovascular disease, dying of heart disease at the age of 54. While it is not yet confirmed that Lenin himself suffered from a genetic defect that specifically targeted the blood vessels of the brain, it is clear that there was some sort of hereditary predisposition for cardiovascular disease.

Getting back to psychohistory, I do not see how any method of predicting the future could account for the life and death of Lenin. It would not be difficult to predict the fall of the Czar many years before it happened. It may not have been too difficult to predict that the most radical faction of the revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of the Czar would end up in control. Other revolutions have seen similar outcomes. But how could anyone predict that a small splinter faction would end up seizing power in a coup? Remember that Lenin was the only Bolshevik who thought such a coup had any chance of success. If Lenin had still been in exile, the October Revolution wouldn’t have happened and either some other Marxist faction would have gained power, or the Provisional Government would have had time to get things settled down enough to establish a more permanent government. Even if it were possible to account for the rise of the Bolsheviks, how could anyone predict in advance that their leader suffered from a genetic defect that would kill him prematurely and pave the way for a psychopath like Stalin to gain power?

I think that it is clear that it is individuals who make history, either by the decisions of the great ones, or the actions of millions of lesser people. The social and economic forces that historians like Spencer believe that drive the course of history are nothing more than the trillions of actions made by billions of people over time with considerable influence brought on by unpredictable natural events. Psychohistory will probably have to stay in the realm of fiction.

The Return of the King

August 6, 2015

By the end of the Return of the King, the quest of the Ring Bearer is completed. The One Ring is destroyed and the Realm of Sauron and all his works are destroyed. The King returns to the Reunited Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor and his rule is established throughout the West of Middle Earth. Good is victorious, yet the victory is bittersweet, for with the passing of Sauron, the end of the Third Age has come and the beginning of the Fourth Age and the dominion of Man. The Eldar, High Elves, have lost all interest in remaining in Middle Earth and will pass back into their home in the West. For a time the Hobbits will prosper in the Shire. The Dwarves will found a new colony in the caverns of Helm’s Deep and perhaps will reconquer their old home, Moria. The lesser wood Elves will remain in Mirkwood and Legolas will bring some of his people to the woods of Ithilien. But it will not last. The Hobbits and Dwarves will diminish in stature and numbers. The Elves will fade away to be forgotten to pass into the West. Even the works of Men may not last. While walking the streets of Minas Tirith, Legolas predicts that the works of men will outlast those of the Elves and Dwarves. To that, Gimli replies that they may come to nothing but might-have-beens. To that, according to Legolas, even the Elves know not the answer, and if the Elves do not know it, presumably no one does.

Elves_leaving_Middle-earth

The Return of the King, then, returns to the theme of loss, found in the first two volumes of the Lord of the Rings. Even in victory, the world will never return to what it was before the coming of Sauron and much that was fair and worthy in Middle Earth must forever pass away. Even the Hobbits are not unmarked by their experiences. Frodo is wounded and will not find healing in Middle Earth. The other Hobbits are not so unfortunate, but they have grown to become worthy of sitting with the mightiest heroes of Middle Earth. They are no longer the light-hearted, carefree Hobbits who set out with Frodo at the beginning of the quest.

Speaking of the Hobbits, once again, Tolkien shows that the small and the humble can do what the proud and the strong cannot. The armies of Rohan and Gondor can do no more than knock on the gates of Mordor while Frodo and Sam can creep through the defenses of Mordor undetected. The Dark Lord’s greatest captain, the Witch-King and Lord of the Nazgul cannot be defeated by the hand of man and even Gandalf feared encountering him, yet he was slain by a Hobbit and a woman who was little more than a girl. The proud Denethor and Saruman dare to look into the palantirs, knowing that Sauron dominates them with the palantir he has captured and Saruman is corrupted into serving Sauron while Denethor is driven mad with despair. Aragorn also dares to look into the palantir. As the heir of Elendil he has the right to use what belonged to Elendil, yet he acknowledges that he barely had the strength to wrest control from Sauron. Aragorn is among the powerful, yet he shows himself to be humble enough to understand his limits. The humble Faramir also understands his limits in a way his proud brother Boromir and his father Denethor do not. Faramir, at least, is not so proud that he imagines he can master the Ring and so he does not fall into the temptation that Boromir fell into.

Don't look into it!

Don’t look into it!

It is the weakest character of all that plays the pivotal role in the quest, through he could hardly be described as humble. He is Smeagol or Gollum. Smeagol is a pathetic figure throughout the Lord of the Rings. Sly, treacherous and murderous, he is completely dominated by the Ring. Smeagol is weak and wretched. He does not have a sword or any weapon but can only attack from behind and attempt to strangle his enemies. He cannot bear the light of the Sun or Moon or anything made by Elves. Yet without Smeagol’s guidance, the quest would have failed as soon as Frodo and Sam left the Fellowship. Smeagol guides them through the Dead Marshes to the Black Gate and then to Ithilen and Cirith Ungol. After he betrays Frodo and Sam, he makes his way through Mordor, following them without supplies. In the end, it is Smeagol who manages to destroy the Ring, albeit unintentionally and at the cost of his own life. In Smeagol, we see a character who intends evil, but ends up doing good.

The hero of the story

The hero of the story

In some ways, the Lord of the Rings is a pessimistic story because of the theme of loss found throughout the plot, especially towards the end. Yet it really isn’t. Certainly some things must be lost but the good is victorious in the end, even though a price must be paid for the victory. One of the greatest lessons of the Lord of the Rings is that we must not lose hope, even against odds that seem insurmountable. The Dark Lord’s victory seems inevitable and many of the men of Minas Tirith are certain that the fall of the city is at hand. For me, one of the most poignant scenes of the Return of the King is when Frodo and Sam are wandering about the fences of Mordor. While Frodo sleeps, Sam looks up into the sky and sees that through the smokes and clouds of Mordor, a single star can be seen. Sam realizes that no matter how powerful the Shadow might seem, in the end it is only small and passing thing. There is light and beauty forever beyond its reach. This is something to remember in our own dark days.


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