Friday, November 28, 2014

Twilight's End

Star Trek: Twilight's End
© 1996 Jerry Oltion
279 pages

Somewhere in space lies a planet that's not spinning, and that just shouldn't be so.  Tidally locked, it poses a great inconvenience to the colonists who occupy the permanent perimeter between frozen wastelands and scorched deserts. Their swelling population of 2 billion has destroyed what fragile biosphere there was, and rather than deciding to stop with the whole being-fruitful-and-multiplying business, they have decided instead to litter the planet with great big engines and then turn them on. The planet doesn't want to spin? Too bad, because they're going to MAKE it spin, and Captain Kirk is going to help.

Twilight's End is a classic Trek adventure in which the Enterprise attempts to come to the aide of a world president/damsel in distress. Smooching with Kirk before he's even gotten his bearings, her plan  for spinning the planet is scoffed at by a full panel of naysayers.  While there exist sensible opposition (attempting to force a planet to spin is rather drastic) and somewhat more suspect opposition (Denialists who contend the poisoning of the atmosphere is perfectly natural and will correct itself eventually),  there are others who are on the crazy violent side, those who believe this is Fate, that mother nature has decided that any race that could break two planets is just begging for extinction. (The colonists fled to this planet after stripping their last planet of all resources, then accidentally rendering it inhabitable when they hijacked an asteroid and directed it their way to mine it.)  The crazy violent ones in due course kidnap a scientist, attempt to blow the Enterprise up, and give all the characters something to do while they are waiting for the planets to align the correct way. The sensible opposition, with McCoy on their side, believe that bioengineering is eminently more practical and less likely to blow the planet up:  simply pore through the major plant species' genomes, find genes that would make the plant hardier, turn them on, and hey presto! An elegant solution to the problem. The plants will correct the toxicity by dumping oxygen into the atmosphere. Can McCoy find a suitable breed of tree before the engines start up? It would be nice if he could do it before, because  between the crazy-violents and class warfare,  this place won't stay peaceable for long.

Written in 1996, the book's tone seems vaguely reminiscent of the then nascent arguments about global warming, though the baddies are less global warming deniers and more ecological nuts, the kind who believe that human beinsgs are a cancer on the body of Earth who need to be eradicated. The leading opponent of the spinning planet is personable enough, and even causes some friction on the Enterprise when Kirk realizes his chief medical officer agrees more with the opposition than the people the Enterprise is helping.   It's a fun novel, sometimes on the silly side; the author is obviously partial to beer, since characters throughout the story comment on their favorite kinds, and Kirk at one point comes up with an escape plan that involves brewing  beer and getting some hostiles good and drunk.  In the end, of course, technology saves the day; this is Star Trek, after all, where technology can do anything. The dialogue produces a few good moments between the core characters, and all told it's a fun bit of light reading.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gates of Fire

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae
© 1998 Steven Pressfield
442 pages

When Xerxes, Ruler of Asia, god-king of men, finally stood over the bodies of the few Greeks who had withstood his hordes drawn from half a world, he could not understand. Hailed as all-knowing,   he could not fathom why a few hundred men would have opposed his army of millions, even after they were offered the greatest seats of influence in the Empire.  Finding a Greek still holding on to life,  the Persians looked for answers; nursing him back to health, they coaxed out this, the story of the Spartans. The story of an orphaned boy who fled to the strength of Sparta after his parents and home were destroyed by the Argives, Gates of Fire is his growing up among them, his quest to become like them, to be the quintessence of strength and valor, unbreakable.

Though not born of Sparta, Xeones lived in awe of them from his youth. So fiercly did he admire them that after war turned him into an orphaned child, wandering the wilderness with a cousin, he left her behind to pursue the Spartan way.  He could never be one of them; criminal violence had robbed him of the strength needed to wield the heavy oaken shield and the lance. He could string a bow, however, and let it fly with accuracy, and so he devoted his life to the service of Sparta.  He is motivated by youthful admiration, but also haunted by the memory of his parents, ashamed of not having been there to defend them,  agonized by knowing he ran away from his conquered city. In the Spartans he looks for the strength and fortitude he missed in himself, and when he takes his stand among them at the last, it is quite personal.  

Through Xeo the reader is introduced first to a harsh world in which children can be reduced to scrounging about the countryside, begging and stealing food, and then to the Spartan soul. The Spartans are different than other Greeks;  even when the Persian hordes threaten to reduce Hellas' cities to ashes, its women and children to slavery, the Spartans sneer and laugh while other cities kneel in the dust in homage. There are fates worse than death for a Spartan.   The proud city is a severe place in which the souls of men are tempered like steel against the vagaries of fate, against pain;  these  cannot be avoided, but they cannot be allowed to rule. Discipline must rule; loyalty to the clan must prevail.  Xeo, like all men of the city, becomes subject to Spartan law, a demanding law that forces greatness of the soul even from the lowly.  Having found a place in the ranks as a squire to one of Sparta's knights, Xeo lastly becomes the narrator of the battle of Thermopylae This is the finale, a last  stand so audacious in courage that its telling has survived through the centuries, wherein 300 Spartans and a few thousand Allied Greeks attempted to stop the Persian millions in their tracks.

Although it lives on in the western imagination like no other battle, Thermopylae was for the Greeks a defeat: the Persians broke through after losing thousands upon thousands every day of combat to a mighty, valiant few heavy infantry, and Xerxes swept across Greece, burning even proud Athens. For those who remain, however, for those who later rose against the Persians, for any number of people who have protected a flicker of hope against the gaping maw of darkness--   the British expeditionary force standing in Belgium against the German invasions of 1914 and 1940, for instance -- Thermopylae was a triumph of the human spirit. Pressfield does a magnificent job of giving it poetic due; perhaps, considering the drama of the situation, an artful rendering of it is unavoidable. Time and again Pressfield ensnares the reader in the glorious action, or awes the soul is descriptions of the great slaughter. This he does without much hyperbole; the Persians are not demonized, nor are the Spartans lionized; the two sides meet repeatedly before the slaughter, emissaries hailing on another as brothers. The Spartans, whom  we grow to know through Xeo,  have a severe discipline, but even though they seem to fight like demigods they are still human, and herein they weep, laugh, and love fiercely Their antidote to the fear of battle is fear of failing one another, of failing to give selflessly to their brothers-in-arms.  It's an extraordinary work, as gripping for the martial telling as for the exposure to a culture whose stoic-like dedication is staggering.

Monday, November 24, 2014


© 1956 Alan Moorehead
416 pages


 As the Great War ensnared powers beyond Middle Europe, it became  in truth a world war,  providing the spark to reignite old tensions in places like the middle east.  In late 1914,  the nations of the Black Sea became party to the conflict, and Turk railed against Russian and Bulgar as in conflicts of yore.  After months of bloody stagnation in Europe,  certain persons in Britain had an idea for altering the dynamics of the war;  invade Turkey, the sick man of Europe,  and encourage the Balkan Powers to rise against it. Not only would that force Turkey to release its pressure on Russia – allowing the tsar to concentrate fully on Germany and Austria – but it would put a handful of allied powers right behind in Austria’s backyard if the Balkans joined in.  The Central Powers would be well and truly surrounded.  The invasion would be so easy – use modern ships to blast a way through the narrow channel leading to Constantinople, using landings to help secure the forts if need be, and stand by and smile as the Turks fled before the might of modern military prowess. By awful luck, problems in command, and the feistiness of the Turks, however,  Gallipoli became a year-long tragedy,  a distraction from the west that never realized its promise.

Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli covers the campaign from its planning through its execution to the end, when the greatest victory of the episode was realized in a bloodless retreat.  Addressing both the naval campaign and the months of trench warfare, and considering both the Turkish and Allied sizes,  Gallipoli impresses with its thoroughness and easy reading despite the grim nature of the work.  He covers the larger maneuvers in full, but during the months of gruesome gridlock breaks way to address the political ramifications of Gallipoli’s floundering, both on the Turkish and Allied sides. The book contains some of the best maps I've seen in a text of this kind, including three-dimensional renderings of the hills that deliver the difficulty of fighting in this terrain much more than a simple topographical map could have.  Gallipoli seems nothing if the difficulties of WW1 warfare concentrated into the narrow stretch of the Hellespont. In some areas of the ANZAC front, the opposing trenches were scarcely ten yards apart from one another, or within a grenade's -- or a tin of jam's - throw. In such confined quarters,  the two sides could not help but realize one another's essential humanity, and this is often a tale of well-meaning men making awful mistakes against one another. Moorehead's Gallipoli is what Churchill's campaign was not: most effective.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Varieties of Scientific Experience

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God
ed. Ann Druyan, © 2006
304 pages

In 1985, Carl Sagan delivered a series of lectures to the University of Glasgow on the general subject of natural theology, or rational bases of religion.  Not being a religious man, Sagan’s own lectures (“A Search for Who We Are”)  probe for the instincts that give rise to religion, compare them to man’s search for knowledge through science, and suggest that in ways religion has been superseded by the scientific enterprise.  This is the record of a naturalist’s examination of religion, and his failure to be convinced. But unlike the works produced by the ‘new atheism’, Sagan’s approach is without bellicosity.. He doesn't savage religion in the manner of Christopher Hitchens, or cold-bloodedly shoot it down in the manner of Richard Dawkins.  He begins by talking about subjects that seem to be unrelated – UFOs, for instance --  before skillfully guiding the chat toward more relevant material; having appealed to the readers’ skepticism regarding prehistorical aliens, for instance,. His conclusions are not pompous accusations and grandiose speeches: they are the gentle question, the urging to follow a thought or an instinct through to its conclusion. It strikes me as a potentially effective way to create room for skeptical thought in a religious mind, but there are limits. Sagan never touches on his own religious experience, but his biographies suggest he grew up in a secularized Jewish home, with no meaningful belief in deity or religious practice. For the religious reader, Sagan's argument may lack some strength  he explains what he imagines religious conviction to be based on, but as an outsider his reach is limited.  Religion has a power beyond the mental distractions Sagan catalogs here, the feelings of warm-fuzziness and wonder. At one point he refers to the Christian sacrament of wine and the native American use of peyote to generate religious hallucinations, but a sip of wine at the Communion table is hardly comparable to mind-altering substances.  Sagan isn't an opponent of religion; he hails it as a potential source of moral order, especially in the dark times of the Cold War.  He thinks it should know its place, however, that faith should cede victory to the scientific method in realms like the acquisition of knowledge.  The deeply religious will find his argument reductionist; is there nothing more to life than that which can be measured and weighed?  Sagan's strength here is arguing for more skepticism in everyday affairs, but I think he misses in his  simplistic appraisal of religion.

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc: A Spiritual Biography
© 1998 Siobhan Nash-Marshall
176 pages

In 1429, France in her darkest hour was startled by the sudden appearance of a shining star -- a teenage girl from a minor village, wielding a standard and claiming that God had ordered her to  lead the nation to victory. The Hundred Years War,  the long struggle between the French and English nobility over Guyenne, Normandy, and the French crown, had left France seemingly nothing but a lost dream.  France had no leader; her last king had gone mad, his queen denounced the heir, and now civil war between the Dukes of Orleans and Valois paved the way for English triumph. But Joan answered the call, raised an army, and within twenty years the war was over. She is one of the most remarkable characters in European history, and this brief biography is a highly complimentary if slightly restrained story of her life.  Though it avoids being too mythical -- the author discounts stories of animals sounding off in happiness at her birth, and does not attempt to make her out to be a poor peasant girl when her father was a fairly well-established landowner --  it avoids being critical as well. The voices and the miracles attributed to Joan -- her foresight in ordering men to move a bit to the left so they wouldn't be stricken by a cannonball, her raising an infant to life long enough to be baptized so its wee soul would be saved, and not linger in limbo -- are repeated here, without either affirmation or skepticism.  [Author]'s focus is on Joan's drive and intelligence,  whpch imparted courage to the French people and struck a blow to build a victory upon. Even when in the custody of her enemies, assailed and jeered at by a hostile court, she maintained  the presence  of mind and the strength of spirit to deliver enigmatic answers that mocked their wrath --  the fury of a band of warriors, priests, and kings focused on a teenage girl.  [Author] provides solid context, however, demonstrating how the Hundred Years War was less an English invasion of France, and more of a French civil war, and an exercise of feudal peculiarities in which the English king was a vassal to the French king, despite legitimately controlling more of France (through inheritance and marriage) than le roi himself.  It's not the strongest of biographies, but delivers a feeling of Joan that is saintly, strong, and sweet.

Joan of Arc: Legend and Reality, Frances Gies

Monday, November 17, 2014

This week: fiction, the writing and reading of

Dear readers:

            The past few weeks have been taken up with National Novel Writing Month, of course. I got off to a roaring start, 20,000  words in the first week, before slowing down to the recommended average of 1667 words per day. Having nearly run out of plot, I was forced to set things on fire.   While I should reach the 50,000 words ahead of schedule, reading-wise I will probably be resorting to lighter fare like the historical fiction that's been seen so far. The approach of winter makes me yearn for outdoors adventures stories, as was the case with my Mt. Everest set last year. My library just acquired a couple of local history titles which I've already started to investigate: No Hill too High for a Stepper and Images of America: Selma, authored by a woman who used to own the local main-street movie theater.  I also recently finished a short work on distributism, called Beyond Capitalism and Socialism.

Its front cover is startling similar to that of Bill Kauffman's Look Homeward, America, and both deal with similar themes. Suffice it to say they're both in the realm of Small is Beautiful and Human Scale;  E.F. Schumacher, and Kirkpatrick Sale provides the foreword.  They don't share publishers, but Beyond identifies its frontspiece as Grant Wood's Spring in Town. Wood also created American Gothic.  

I realized recently that my science reading this year has been rather pathetic, so now I'm halfway into Varieties of Scientific Experience, and my hope is that it will whet my appetite enough to take on Galileo's Finger.  I will knock out that sole item on the TBR list before the end of the year!  

Is anyone else doing NaNo? How are you faring? I can be stalked on the Nano forums as 'smellincoffee', for those who are registered there.  Well, happy reading!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

No Hill Too High for a Stepper

No Hill Too High for a Stepper: Memories of Montevallo, Alabama
© 2014 Mike Mahan
384 pages

No Hill Too High for a Stepper is a work of reminiscence, a country dentist's recollections of growing up in a small Alabama town during the 1930s through to the 1950s. Though listed as a biography. Mike Mahan's intent is not to talk about himself, but to regale the reader with interesting stories from his childhood, stories that are meant to bring to mind the reader's own -- assuming he or she grew up in the era.  The book is part of a fundraiser by a nonprofit, the Cahaba Trace Commission, dedicated to protecting the history of communities along Cahaba River, sharing the lives of people who have lived upon its banks.  My own interest in the book stems, of course, from its chief setting in my adopted hometown of Montevallo, though anyone with an interest in folk history will find it appealing, especially if they're the nostalgic sort who dearly miss the days of mom and pop shops,  train service even in small towns, and entire lives lived without the benefit of beeping, blinking, shrinking gadgets.  Mike Mahan's childhood wasn't as wild as say, Tom Sawyer's, but he made a go of it. Contained therein are stories of boyhood --  killing a snake, then thinking up a system by which pulling a rope would cause the snake's body to suddenly drop down from a tree onto unsuspecting pedestrians -- and tales of adolescence, like  boys anxiously trying to sneak peeks of girls dressing at a coed water hole. Fashions, careers, and diversions come and go, but regardless of the passage of time somet things are  eternal:  boys will forever find trouble, or make some if need be.

Reading stories set in this era have an innate charm, especially set as they are  in a small town; this is the allure of Dickie William's The Other Side of Selma.  The reader is invited in to a life of intimacy; here there are no inhuman institutions; everything is personal. The stories are owned by people who live in them; the politics are local. It's Mayberry life readers made privy to, of  solid, down-to earth citizen yeomen, quirky characters, even the odd scoundrel or two. The multitude of stories has a common cast of characters, Mahan's community, and one story's co-conspirator is another's antagonist.  It is romanticized, no doubt; despite this being the Depression most seem hard at work, and there is in the background the unfortunate racial tension that is the South's great curse.   The University of Montevallo is part of this story, but not its whole; as a Selma boy I was enormously amused to learn that airmen from the base once here used to drive into Montevallo to hunt dates from 'the Angel farm', as the once-girls-only college was then known.   Mahan works his way through the down, street by street,  reflecting on the characters who lives once dominated them. If nothing else No Hill Too High is a visit back to the idealized American hometown of yore, the kind of place that no longer exists in these days of constant suspicion and the devastation of main streets by sprawl.

Images of America: Montevallo,  Clark Hultquist and Carey Heatherly
The Other Side of Selma, R.B. "Dickie" Williams.