Thursday, July 31, 2014

Castles of Steel

Castles of Steel
© 2004 Robert K. Massie
880 pages

Everyone’s recipe for cooking up the First World War is slightly different, but one essential ingredient is that of the arms races between various countries,  especially the Anglo-Germanic quest for naval supremacy.  England’s island status and naval tradition meant possessing the mightiest navy in Europe, if not the world, was a must, but Kaiser Bill’s fondness for boats meant his empire kept  acquiring bigger and faster dreadnaughts. What’s worst, all of them were parked right outside Germany, within staring distance of London – and its own fleet had a global empire to defend.    Castles of Steel picks up where Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnaught left off, detailing how the arms rivalry of the United Kingdom and Germany continued in open war. Castles is a naval history of the great war that focuses almost exclusively on the North Sea,  brimming over with detail and delivered with the enthusiastic of an author who plainly enjoys his subject.

     The twilight years of the 19th century, and the opening of the 20th, were to be the Age of the Battleship, an era of naval warfare marked by thickly armored titans sporting enough guns to bring a city to heel on its own.   Rather than seizing the spotlight during the Great War, however, the fleets of goliaths never have the Battle of the Ages, the gods vs titans duel everyone dreamt about. Instead, action in the north sea is principally one of attritive warfare, of both Germany and England imposing blockades on the other and playing a delicate game of diplomacy so to  not offend too many neutral nations.  There are, of course, minor skirmishes featuring the gunships, and Massie milks them for all they are work, uplifting minor spats into feuds that shake the Earth.  Naval buffs will no doubt find the spellbinding accounts that seem to mention every turn of the rudder in battles of interest.  Massie doesn't limit his history to ships, however; in the interests of thoroughness he devotes chapters to airships and airplanes over the seas as well. Zeppelin warfare seems like fantasy now, but for the people of England it was a real threat for a time. This is also a book of personalities;   men of consequence merit chapter-length biographies in miniature, most notably Admirals Fisher and Beatty.  Churchhill is a heavy player, too, of course,  but so colorful is the cast that he doesn't dominate.  The action sometimes moves away from the North Sea and the Atlantic,  as it does in the beginning to follow running battles through the Mediterranean and the Pacific Ocean.

Castles is impressive, for both exhaustive detail and  a narrative voice that never seems to run out of steam. The size might intimidate, but the storytelling makes it a suitable and informative choice for someone who wants to know more about how the war over the seas was fought.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Rise and Fall of KHAAAAAAAN! Volume II

The Eugenics Wars: the Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, Volume II
© Greg Cox 2001
434 pages

 Having seized power in India and cultivated a network of spies and yes-men who will do his bidding throughout Asia, genetically engineered and predestined ruler of the world Khan Noonien Singh is ready for expansion. Having experienced his first difficulty in politics (people), Khan hopes that joining forces with his fellow augments will expedite his dreams of world domination. Enter sibling rivalry…with biogenic weapons.  The second volume of The Eugenics Wars tries to fit the wars themselves into the geopolitical events of the early 1990s,  rather like stuffing a gorilla into a tuxedo. It doesn’t work out too well, but it’s still entertaining to witness.

As with the first volume, this is a Gary Seven story. Seven,   for whom thwarting Khan has turned into a full-time job,  will be remembered as the Secret Agent Man from Space in “Assignment: Earth”.  Having saved the child Khan from the explosion of his insane mother’s underground base, Seven feels some responsibility for having turned him loose onto the world. Their perennial feud is first marked by professional respect for the others’ skills, but later grows personal when Khan learns that Seven blew up mommy.  Also personal is the grudgemath between Khan and his kin, who really don’t like one another.  None of them are quite powerful enough to  war openly, however, so they resort to terrorist attacks on the people their counterparts wish they were ruling. Two manage to buy submarines and they have a little torpedo tête-à-tête in the east Med, but ‘real’ warfare is nonexistent.

Unfortunately for the plot, there aren’t enough real-world dead people in the small window of time canon allows for the coexistence of the Eugenics Wars with our own history, at least not if the Wars are to be given their “bad-as-WW3” feel experienced in “Space Seed”.   That these events could have happened is believable, but why would Kirk and company be fussed about it several centuries from now?    But explanations can be found;  considering that genetic engineering reared its head several more times, perhaps the historians of Kirk’s time have come to believe a more legendary version of Eugenics history, that Khan’s escape marked the end of the beginning, but not the end altogether. At any rate, the established character-based portions are terrific as usual, as are the little connections and allusions to greater Trek. Even Star Trek Voyager gets a nod, unavoidable given that it had an episode set in the 1990s.  The supermen themselves aren’t an asset to the book, consisting of caricatures (a Marxist revolutionary and a man-hating chieftess with an army of ‘amazons’, for starters) who don’t help general believability.  While the sequel isn’t quite as terrific as the first novel promised it might be,  the third – To Reign in Hell – will – will be freed of having to conform to real world history, so I imagine the series will end on a strong note.


  • From History's Shadow, Dayton Ward. Another impressive and fun  integration of ST canon and real-world history
  • Assignment: Eternity, possibly my first ST novel, and another Gary Seven tale by Greg Cox. 

Top Ten Authors Who Live in my Stacks

This week's top ten topic is an interesting one;  authors we own the most books of.  For the most part there's a gulf between the authors I've read the most of and the books I own. I've read all of Bernard Cornwell's historical fiction, for instance, which must be 30-odd books, but I only own the Arthur trilogy.

1. Isaac Asimov

Since 2007 my favorite author,  I collect the works of the dear doctor; an entire bookcase is devoted to him. This includes the full sweep of the meta-Foundation series, including the Robots and Empire novels. Besides this I have well over a dozen short story collections, several score of essay collections, and a multitude of proper nonfiction, mostly science with a little history sown in. Asimov's historical works are hard to find and always dearly priced. I must have a hundred or so of his works.

2.  K.A. Applegate

Back in middle school I was a devotee of the Animorphs book series, and unlike the other books of my childhood, I've not yet lost these. I've given away a lot of the books to my niece and nephew, but still have 60-odd paperbacks in a wooden trunk.

3. John Grisham

I've read everything Grisham has read, and have owned all of it at one point. I've given a book or two away over the years, since his recent books are hit and miss, but most are still around.

4. Ann M. Martin

Although I've retained my Animorphs books largely by accident (I never think of them),  I hold on to another  series from middle school, California Diaries.  It consists of six California teenagers, friends all, keeping journals about their lives. Each has different issues -- one has divorced parents, another is anorexic, that sort of thing. I probably wouldn't have gotten into the stories if not for the fifth book, the  lone male.

5. J. K. Rowling

It helps that I have some of the books in German, too.

6. Frances and Joseph Gies
Years ago I read Life in a Medieval City and since then the Gies have been historical favorites;  I read most of their works here back in 2007 and 2008, if memory serves, and  unlike a lot of my material I actually purchased some of these after returning my library copies, just so I could read them again.

7.  H.G. Wells
I own a series of Wells' work, but I haven't read most of them despite very good intentions.

8.Christopher L. Bennett
9. David Mack
I group Messrs Bennett and Mack together because they're my favorite Trek authors, and if I have a choice between a Trek book by either of them and another author, I'll invariably choose them. They're quite different, and Gene help me if I ever have to choose between the two.

10. Carl Sagan
I don't own nearly as much of Sagan as I've read, but Sagan's books hold the crown distinction: I  read all of them first from the library,  and then bought them.

I should mention Wendell Berry; while I don't presently own a lot of his work, I aim to.  Like Asimov,  I want to plumb his mind's depths. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

This week: war, war, war

This past week has been a quiet one, as I've been devotedly reading through Castles of Steel, an 800+ page history of the naval war between Britain and Germany during World War I.  I'm just starting Jutland, and after that it's essentially a staring contest, so the end is in sight. After that I'll revisit the American Revolution, since The Men Who Lost America is finally here. Sure, it's late for my July Fourth readings, but to us real Americans, every day is Independence Day.

I jest, of course.  Between the two for leisure I'll enjoy the second volume of The Eugenics War series by Greg Cox.  Khan has just attempted to unite his genetically engineered brethren, only to realize it's like herding saber-toothed cats.  Never invite one superman who is a Marxist revolutionary and another superman who is the leader of an American patriot militia fighting the government to dinner. It's awkward and neither of them appreciates good scotch.

I haven't yet commented on nor reviewed Antifragile nor Good-Natured, so before they get pushed so far on the back burner that they fall off into "Well, I'll re-read  and review them properly later" territory (terra incognita, where there be dragons and from whence few books emerge), lo! Comments.
 Antifragile, which like The Death and Life of Great American Cities shaped my thinking long before I finished it,  examines how certain systems can benefit from stress and unpredictability rather than be undone by them, or even merely survive them.  A quotation I shared the first time I started reading the book demonstrates how there is no field of human experience that its author does not wade in and throttle.  It's a powerful work, a pot of gold mixed with scorpions  -- no reader can stick his hand in without being stung by Taleb's bellicose energy, but the man practices what he preaches. Many of his examples are drawn from the world of business, and some chapters are technical enough that even he tells readers they can leave them alone --but I figured that was a challenge on his part.  His essential point is that surviving lots of little crises is better than preventing them and then being wiped out by a major crisis. Organic systems can be strengthened by stress in the right amount; this is as true of bodybuilders (Taleb's own bulk comes from a routine that consists of him attempting to out-lift himself once a week in a quick sessions, instead of engaging in repetitions) as of economies.  Too big to fail? That's fragile, and a national economy based on them is inviting death.

Two months ago I read Good Natured, which as I feared blended in with the rest of de Waal's books. I've read them too closely together, I think.  The author uses years of observations at an expansive Dutch primate center alongside extended field reports from primatologists like Jane Goodall to examine the biological basis of moral behavior. Much of the book is taken up with de Waal presenting chimpanzees, bonobos, and monkeys of acting with respect to moral norms, and  the basis for these behaviors is that socially-healthy behaviors like morality are more evolutionary beneficial. He also addresses the delicate balance between individual actions and communal advancement, which occurs twice here -- both in behavior and in genes, as mutations always occur in individuals, but they're passed on within populations. Individuals do not evolve, groups so.  It's fascinating, and eye-opening, but I've read so much of de Waal it's like working in a cathedral or a park. The majesty becomes ordinary after too much regular exposure.

Well, off I go to big ships, baffled royals, and a book read in Ricardo Montalban's voice.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Fighting Traffic

Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City
© 2008 Peter Norton
396 pages

Stroll into the middle of any American city today, and provided you are not in Detroit, odds are better than not you will be sent flying by a car. Streets are the province of the constant flow of automobile traffic, and anything else -- bicycles, horses, skateboards, pedestrians -- is most unwelcome. This is a comparatively recent development, however;  for most of human history,  streets were an integral part of the human landscape, the site of markets and ad hoc playgrounds. Fighting Traffic details how streets became instead traffic sewers, moving the most cars as quickly as possible, and does so with impressive heft. Its scope is more massive than its size, as in the course of rendering a social history of the urban fabric, Norton also details the shifting evolution of economic and legal  assumptions that policy became a manifestation of.

The automobile was a novelty in human history,  not just for its speed but for its cheapness.  Although horse-drawn wagons and carriages took up as much space per vehicle as cars, if not more,  horse teams were so expensive that their ownership was not universal. Even so, cities throughout history have had congestion problems and attempted to deal with them through legal means. Mass-produced automobiles, however, became so popular in the early 20th century that even the poor owned them, and  they flooded city streets. As their numbers increased, so to did the fatalities they inflicted, driven at speed by people unaccustomed to such power.  The rising spike in deaths prompted public outcry and attempts to bring the beast to heel -- and so began the war.  At the same time that concerned citizens were attempting to curb the car,  automobile owners and auto manufacturers were mobilizing to expand its horizons.

The battle that emerges throughout the two decades of the 1910s and 1920s has a fascinating cast of players who frequently switched sides on one another. The auto lobby first used citizen-groups like safety councils to begin shifting the responsibility of reducing fatalities to pedestrians. In urging for laws to define the rules of the road, they managed to turn ageless human behavior -- crossing the street -- into a crime called jaywalking.  The safety councils were unreliable allies, however, eventually insisting that the safety of the community was most imperiled not by ambling pedestrians, but the reckless speed of the drivers.  The nascent traffic control movement was then employed with good effect;  in the early days policemen were charged with keeping the roads in good order, but they were soon usurped by engineers. The changing world of the 20th century had come to favor their like; cities were now tied together by massive engineering projects like gas pipelines and water mains.  In the wake of their success, why not treat the streets like a public utility, one run by experts?   The reign of engineers would accomplish much in driving people out of the streets; the implementation of synchronized traffic signals so spurred the rate of traffic that pedestrians were forced by survival instinct to cower at the crosswalk until given sanction to pass by the new machines.  But tasked with making transportation more efficient, the engineers eventually stood their ground against the auto lobby:  cars, after all, are far from the most efficient mode of transportation.  They don't use space terribly well, and they require parking -- acres and acres of parking!    

The continuing and rising popularity of cars, however, made victory seemingly inevitable.  Not that cars had triumphed merely owing to the free market; they were, after all,  given a free hand and their roads public financing whereas the trolleys were stifled by regulation. Once cars took to the road in numbers, they effectively destroyed any room for other choices.  The book leaves off at the start of the 1930s, before traffic masters like Miller McClintock began their dream of "gashing through" the cities with auto-only highways,  but even so their triumph was accomplished in physical fact and in law and culture.  Fighting Traffic's history of the city's initial conquest by the automobile impresses with its thoroughness and organization;  Norton is almost lawyer, building a case point by point and constantly reinforcing it.  His ambition was not merely to deliver a history of the city's driven evolution, but to examine how opposing social groups overcome one another in the political sphere, using modes outside the law -- like the clubs' use of organizations like the Boy Scouts to shame pedestrians for not obeying their new signal masters, and of course the newspapers.  The scholarly bent makes it slightly daunting for lay readers, but it's worth digging into.


Monday, July 21, 2014

This week: Huck Finn and a world at war

Without intending to, this past week I read two science fiction novels that both concerned human genetic engineering, neither featuring it in a positive light. I read The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh after watching "Space Seed",  The Wrath of Khan, and Into Darkness in succession, and realizing I'd never finished the trilogy.  I may start on volume II this week, but my priority will be finishing Huckleberry Finn and starting on my WWI read for July, which will be Castles of Steel.   Earlier in the week I finished the remarkable Antifragile, and this weekend I've been working through Fighting Traffic, with the effect that my to-be-read list is...quite reduced.  That's the good news. It will be some weeks before I completely vanquish my foe, however, as Castles is quite the contender at 800 pages -- not to mention that the final two are both science books, and considerably more technical than what I've been going through.  All in good time, though.

To Be Read Takedown Challenge

Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (7/18/14)
The Vikings, Robert Ferguson (6/7/14)
Power, Inc; David Rothkopf (6/14/14)
An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage (7/8/2014)
Small-Mart Revolution, Michael Shuman (7/12/2014)
The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond (5/29/14)
Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton (7/21/14)
Earth, Richard Fortey
Good Natured, Frans de Waal (6/27/14)
Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Rise and Fall of KHAAAAAAAAAN! Volume I

Star Trek Eugenic Wars: the Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, Volume I
© 2001 Greg Cox
520 pages

Ah, how well I remember the 1990s -- neon colored plastic pants, frizzy hair, and that gang of genetically engineered supermen starting World War III in a bid to gain total command over Earth and institute order out of chaos...  Star Trek's canon ran into a bit of a problem as it aged, as in the 1960s it predicted things that not only never happened, but bear no semblance to what happened. Not only did Earth not send a manned mission to Saturn in the 1990s,  but by the end of the 20th century it had confined space exploration to robotic probes sent to planets. Still, not all the failed predictions were losses for humankind; we gave the civilization-destroying Eugenics Wars a total miss. Or did we? In The Eugenics Wars: the Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh,  veteran Trek author Greg Cox attempted to reconcile the events of "Space Seed" with our own history,  grounding Khan in the real-life events of the 20th century.   Framed by Captain Kirk consulting the historical records in preparation for an encounter with a planet of genetically engineered humans (rather like TNG's 'Masterpiece Society', complete with a domed colony),  the principle characters are of course Khan, and the mysterious Gary Seven.   When Seven realizes there's a group of mad scientists with an underground base in the middle of nowhere hatching a plot to create a tribe of supermen, he decides that such a thing definitely falls under his job description of preventing humanity from destroying itself.  It takes more than a team of cosmic secret agent men to take down Khan, however, and in the end Seven finds more than he bargained for.   Since this first novel primarily concerns Khan growing up and deciding to pursue evil mastermindedness as a career,  the real artwork is yet to come -- however will Cox create a war that kills millions out of the 1990s?  Even so,  the big events of the novel,  like the use of a nuclear power plant contained within the mad scientists' lair, are tied into real-world events smartly.   There's a lot to like about this novel; the dead-on use of Seven and Khan, the subtle connections to the Trek canon (including appearances by Ralph Offenhouse, Grumpy Robber Baron Extraordinaire), and the utterly fun historical shenanigans. Frenzied action scenes take place across the globe, from New York to India and even Lenin's tomb.   For Trek fans, this is a must-read.

Volume II should be quite a treat.

From History's Shadow, Dayton Ward. Another impressive and fun  integration of ST canon and real-world history.