Saturday, July 31, 2010

Captive Queen

Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine
© 2010 Alison Weir
478 pages

My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. Henry Fitz-Empress, first Plantagenet, a king at twenty-one, the ablest soldier of an able time. He led men well, he cared for justice when he could and ruled, for thirty years, a state as great as Charlemagne's. He married out of love, a woman out of legend. Not in Alexandria, or Rome, or Camelot has there been such a queen. (Peter O'Toole as Henry II, The Lion in Winter)

In my youth there were only a handful of English monarchs I could reliably name: George III, the "bad guy" in my elementary history texts; the latter Tudors, chiefly Elizabeth and Henry VIII (who I knew for his many wives); Richard I and John from Robin Hood fame; and  their father, Henry II, whose bitter feud with his captivating wife Eleanor and their children fascinated me early on. 

Although I approached Captive Queen thinking it a biographical novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine, it opens with her spotting young Henry Fitz-Empress for the first time as his father Geoffry pays homage to her husband, French king Louis VII.  The two are immediately swept up by the other, and the rest of the book is their stage:  although Weir's principle character is Eleanor, Henry is by no means a mere supporting character. They are both strong, willful, and wily: they arrange Eleanor to be freed from her marriage from Louis and immediately forge a "marriage of lions". 

Eleanor brings with her the whole of Aquitaine, a substantial portion of France as modern readers know it. Together with the lands from Henry's own Norman legacy and his newly-claimed English throne, these two lions have a domain that rivals any in Europe -- but a mighty nation led by two ferocious partners is not to be, as Eleanor soon discovers. Her heavy-handed, domineering husband rides roughshod over her rights as the Duchess of Aquitaine, and her place at his side in council is lost to the quiet Thomas Becket. Henry's imperiousness lasts his whole life, leading to constant feuds with his children and Eleanor. Their brood of children -- including the aforementioned Richard the Lion-Hearted and John, who is most famous for losing to his barons -- are as willful and self-interested as their parents, and their family feuds lead to war in both England and Europe. 

Captive Queen has drama a-plenty, some of it agonizing. Weir's narrative makes clear that Eleanor and Henry are passionate for one another, wholly captivated by the other in both love and hatred -- but underneath that passion is a long-running, genuine affection for the other so that they both yearn for reconciliation even when sincerely wishing to never see the other again. The relationship between these two dynamic individuals is one of the book's strongest selling points, although it started off a little weak: in the beginning, I thought Weir may have intended this book toward readers who prefer supermarket romances, such was the emphasis on Henry and Eleanor going at each other like rabbits. Happily for me, the book picked up steam with the introduction of Thomas Becket, the troublesome priest who makes Henry's life so difficult when he is promoted from the king's bosom buddy and chancellor to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The resulting drama gives Weir ample opportunity to enthrall readers, and the book remains solid from that point on. It ends neatly, with Eleanor on her deathbed reflecting over the glory and tragedy of her and Henry's combined life together -- and the legacy they leave behind.

Captive Queen lives up to the expectations I had of Weir following The Lady Elizabeth. Though slow to get started Weir provided a romping read through some of England's more interesting years. Her notes at the end of the book explain to the reader how she interpreted or took liberties historical facts, and delighted me by confirming that parts of the novel were inspired by The Lion in Winter and Becket, both of which were continually in my mind while reading this: her approach to Henry and Eleanor reminded me strongly of Lion in Winter's, and she states that she wanted to explore the relationship between these two not just over one explosive winter, but throughout their shared lives.

  • Becket, in which Peter O'Toole gives a hilarious rendition of Henry II despite the fact that the movie is about the bitter demise of a friendship. Eleanor plays no significant role except to knit and chide Henry about his closeness with Becket, but it's one of my favorite movies. 
  • The Lion In Winter, in which O'Toole is again Henry II -- this time, an older, angry, and despairing king anguished by his sons' perpetual treachery. Katherine Hepburn plays Eleanor, and the two bounce off one another splendidly. The intro quote links to one of the more pivotal moments of the scene. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

This Week at the Library (28/7)

This week...

  • Dynasty of Evil, Drew Karpyshyn concludes the Darth Bane trilogy on a short but fitting note, as both Bane and his apprentice prepare for a confrontation that will decide the future course of the Sith while the Dark Lord is hunted by a princess intent on revenge. 
  • The Buried Age by Christopher L. Bennett was a highlight, bridging Michael Jan Friedman's Stargazer series and The Next Generation. Following the loss of his ship Stargazer, Picard pursues a doctorate in archaeology but is soon involved in a historical mystery of galactic proportions. Bennett offers a book robust with Trek references, intense character drama, and a  fascinating sci-fi plot.
  • I finally finished Simon Schama's Citizens, a narrative approach to the French revolution that reconsiders the usual ideas about its origins and development.

Upcoming Reads:

  • Finishing up La Belle France by Alistair Horne
  • The Captive Queen, Alison Weir; biographical novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine. 
  • To the Indies, C.S. Forester. I may or may not prepare to bid farewell to Forester's Hornblower series: this is the only Hornblower novel/collection I've not yet read. 
  • Don't Know Much About Mythology
  • The End of the Beginning, Harry Turtledove


Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution
© 1989 Simon Schama
948 pages

Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons!
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

Mon dieu, this was a read. My first mentor and first college-level history professor recommended this to me back in 2004, although its girth has intimidated me for years. (I've not yet read Gibbon for the same reason.) Out of persistent affection for my instructor and my newfound interest in popular movements and revolts, I braved Citizens and found it an engaging read which not only made good my ignorance of the Revolution, but forced me to reconsider what little I knew of it. Although it has loomed large over my imagination, enjoying it was only a matter of sitting down, opening it up, and reading the first few sentences.

The author purposely returns to a style of historical narrative that hinges on the actions of individuals and the importance of dramatic events, eschewing the more detached and analytical style of Marxist historians who see revolutions of the middle class against feudal orders as historical inevitabilities. I'm fairly comfortable with historical materialism, although not so devout a materialist that Schama's focus on France's individual situation, culture, and the effect of charismatic persons perturbed me. Schama frequently appears in the text as an individual ("I do not mean to say...") when explaining the significant of an event to the reader. While I've been told this is  unprofessional for a historian, it does have the effect of reminding the reader that this is an individual opinion:  opinions can sound like absolute facts when stated  in the objective, authorial voice that is encouraged among historians.

Schama's broad treatment of the Revolution reevaluates traditional accounts of the shakeup that place emphasis on France's economic woes and see the outbreak of violence as unnecessary and tragic. He sees the failure of France's monarchy as virtual suicide, while the opening  moves for reform practically institutionalized violence against the old regime. Schama's most interesting observation for me was that far from being a government mired in the past, Louis XVI's government was obsessed with modernity, and those who desired the government to change had opposing interests even when working together. Relatedly,  Schama's idea that the Parlements found so much power in agitating against the government that even when the king and his ministers attempt to repair the ship of state, they blocked his attempts and forced failure fascinated me. Citizens shows well a nation's descent into chaos, although two-thirds in the emphasis on individuals and particular events made it difficult for me to grasp the general story.

For a student of France and the Revolution, Citizens is a worthy read.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Buried Age

The Buried Age
© 2007 Christopher L. Bennett
439 pages

Captain Jean-Luc Picard's life changed when, in approaching an uncharted star system,  an aggressive alien vessel attacked him in mid-warp, crippling his ship, the USS Stargazer, and dooming it after twenty years under Picard's command. Although he succeeded in defeating his foe, creating the Picard Maneuver to do so, the ship itself had to be abandoned. Following a court-martial and disturbed by the loss of the people and ship he loved so dear, Picard opts to take extended leave from the service and explore the world of academia, pursuing a doctorate in archaeology. Disturbed by his increasingly sedentary lifestyle, his old friend Guinan appears with information that may spread light on a galaxy-wide extinction event several millions years ago -- information that Picard can't help but be intrigued by. Leading a team of civilian scientists, Picard journeys to a planet far beyond Federation borders which holds breath-taking secrets. This is the start of an extraordinary journey, one that will require Picard to work with Starfleet more and more and set him on the path to command the Enterprise-D.

Along the way he will shape the lives of and in return be shaped by several  young lieutenants -- an android whose talents and development are neglected by a Starfleet that doesn't know what to do with him; a bitter young Betazoid whose expertise has heretofore been ignored in favor of her beauty and empathic abilities; and an intelligent and compassionate young woman named Janeway who is at Picard's side when they make their first big discovery: a survivor from those millions of years ago, held in stasis and awaiting to be freed. Their experiences together will change them forever.

The Buried Age is an excellent novel. Although it carries Star Trek in the title, The Buried Age offers an experience beyond a simple "episode in a book".  It functions well as both a science fiction novel and a character drama, allowing Picard and others to explore a grand story involving a benevolent, highly-cultured galaxy-wide civilization that met sudden destruction.  Bennett relies more on science than most Trek authors, and the science in his works is more developed than simple background technobabbles. What makes the book for me is its spellbinding writing and characterization:  I visibly trembled while reading some portions of the novel, so caught up was I in the emotions Bennett forces his characters to endure. It's an especially strong Trek novel, given its abundance of subtle references to the series.  The book's essential function is to bridge Stargazer and the The Next Generation, and he does this well -- not only in telling the story of what happened to Picard after the court-martial but before TNG's first episode, but in focusing on Picard's character as he struggled to figure out where his life should go once he lost the life he matured with. Bennett also explores Data and Troi's early development and sees Picard prepare his first command team aboard the Enterprise-D.

Highly recommended to Star Trek fans, recommended to general sci-fi readers as well.


Teaser Tuesday (27-7)

Teaser Tuesdays aren't quite as bloody as French history, but they are as much fun. From ShouldBeReading.

Poor France: it was roughly a hundred years since the country had been torn apart by the Wars of Religion; two centuries back she was being ravaged by the Hundred Years' War. Only one century ahead she would be approaching the chaos of revolution; two centuries on and Paris would be plunged into the bloody insurrection of 1848; three centuries, and the country would be barely recovering from Occupation and Vichy. Now it was the time of the "Frondes". 

137, La Belle France: a Short History, Alistair Horne.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dynasty of Evil

Darth Bane: Dynasty of Evil
© 2009 Drew Karpyshyn
296 pages

Twenty years ago, a disgruntled miner-turned-revolutionary-turned Sith Lord destroyed the whole of the Brotherhood of Darkness and became the sole Dark Lord of the Sith. Taking the name Darth Bane, he quietly eradicated the remnants of his old life. Taking a young girl named Zannah with him, Bane transformed what it meant to be a Sith, beginning a new order that maintained only two Sith should ever exist -- a Master to embody power and and apprentice to crave it, seek it, and claim the title of Master for herself through a challenge to the death. The weak perish and the strong survive; this is Bane's way of the Sith.

A lifetime of wielding the dark energies of the Force have atrophied Darth Bane, but his apprentice -- an accomplished Sith sorceress whose manipulation of the Force can drive her enemies insane -- has yet to challenge him and claim the title of Dark Lord for herself. Disgusted by her apparent lack of ambition, Bane searches for a way to lengthen his own life so that he might find and train a better apprentice. Dispatching Zannah on a mission to investigate the murder of a Jedi knight -- for anyone who can overcome a skilled Jedi is of interest to Bane -- the Dark Lord himself travels to the galaxy's perilous deep core to look for a planet where a Sith lord once ruled for centuries, relying on arcane knowledge to achieve near-immortality.

Zannah takes opportunity of her liberty to find her own apprentice in preparation for her overthrow of Bane, and she is not alone in seeking a confrontation with him: a woman who witnessed her father tortured at the hands of Bane in The Rule of Two has come into money, and is using it to pay a talented bounty hunter and assassin to track Bane down.  The characters' journeys come together in the depths of a mountain prison, where the five stalk each other -- some looking for salvation, others for revenge and glory.

Although somewhat short -- fontsize is fairly large, making the page count misleading -- Karpyshyn succeeds in giving his central character a fitting resolution, a demanding task considering the amount of tension Karpyshyn has been developing since The Rule of Two. His cast of characters is strong and must be so, for the novel is dominated by character drama: while Bane, Zannah, Princess Serra, and the others all have action-laden jobs to fulfill,  they're only background. Two of the new characters held my attention: Serra, the royal princess whose hatred and desire for revenge against Bane draws her into the dark side, a move contested only by her faithful bodyguard Lucia -- who once idolized Bane during his revolutionary years in the Sith army. The fifth character makes the ending almost unpredictable:  before completing the novel, I could not say with surety which resolution Karpyshyn would choose.

The Darth Bane trilogy has been a pleasure throughout, and its capstone is fitting if a bit light.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

In search of Asimov

I have been aggressively raiding used-book stores recently and wanted to show off some of my victories. Click the image for a preview of some of this year's reading... ;-)

Of the books shown, I've only owned three for some time: I've had Triangle, which collects the three Empire novels, for well over a year. The Roving Mind was purchased a few months back, and Stifffed...I found that at my local library's discard pile/bookstore a year or so ago.

That book on the far right end of the top shelf is that which launched my Asimov reading frenzy back in 2007.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

This Week at the Library (21/7)

Recent reading:

A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins. A disillusioned college student in the early 1970s decides to walk across North America to see if there's anything in his home country worth staying for. The memoir covers the first leg of his journey, from Connecticut to New Orleans, and sees Jenkins rub shoulders with quite a few characters and brave perils both natural and manmade. Enjoyable for me, but I identified with the author as a restless university student, and live in the southern portion of the US where Jenkins spent much of his early walk.

The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton, is a 1960s science fiction story wherein the US military attempts to contain an extraterrestrial virus that they caught for use in biowarfare. The story opens in a desert town occupied only by corpses, a wandering old man, and a crying child, but soon shifts to a military laboratory. Crichton loves details, and incorporates fictional research papers and computer readouts into his text,  something I don't see often .

Stargazer: Three is the third in Michael Jan Friedman's Stargazer series, one which gives two of his officers background  and sees young Picard and his crew attempt to return a misplaced lieutenant from a mirror universe to her proper time, while avoiding a flotilla of hostile starships. While fairly unremarkable, the book has a few moments.

Travels with Charley is John Steinbeck's account of touring the United States in an RV during the sixties with his poodle Charley.  Steinbeck introduces the memoir by fighting a hurricane and musing that American authors should be familiar with the character of the country: his own familiarity is decades-out of date. He sets forth on that note. While he seems to enjoy the trip despite grumbling disappointment with the increasing artificial sameness of American culture, it ends on a low point.

Deep Space Nine: Betrayal, set in the television show's opening seasons, has Commander Sisko, Major Kira, and Constable Odo running circles, attempting to conduct a trade conference in the midst of a terrorist campaign attacking the station, while pugnacious Cardassians posture nearby. The book appears to be a prelude to the season season. Fair A-story, while the B-story concerning a young Cardassian deserter hiding on the station stole most of my attention.

The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir is my first serious read from this author. Weir's biography of the Virgin Queen centers on court life, resulting scandals, and foreign affairs. Enjoyable, justified the reccommendation I received.

Walking Towards Walden is a quasi-travelogue detailing the journey the author and two of his friends took to walk to Concord via the wilderness, avoiding roads during a day-long journey. The book is fantastically rich, as along the way the authors muse on mythology, philosophy, and history, connecting themes to their own struggle.

Hornblower and the Crisis, CS Forester's last work in the Hornblower series. The novel is incomplete, but promising and seems like it would have been excellent. The novel includes Forester's notes on how he intended to develop the book further, along with two short stories set at the beginning and end of Hornblower's career in the Royal Navy.

Pick of the Week: A Walk Across America and Walking Towards Walden.

Upcoming Reads:

  • I'm making steady progress with Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Though its size is formidable, the narrative itself flows once I commit. I may be able to finish it this week.
  • La Belle France is a general history of France. I checked it out last week when I intended to have a "France"-themed week in honor of Bastille Day. The size of Citizens forced me to modify my plans somewhat, but this history looked like a proper survey and I still intend on giving it a go.  I've read its opening chapter and am hooked.
  • Don't Know Much about Mythology or The End of the Beginning, the latter of which is an alt-history by Turtledove beginning with the successful invasion of Hawaii on the part of Imperial Japan.
  • I'll probably also read a Star Trek book. I'm not  sure which just yet, but the most likely contenders are Christopher L. Bennett's The Buried Age featuring a post-Stargazer Picard and Michael Jan Friedman's Saratoga,  an account of Benjamin Sisko's reunion with his shipmates from the titular ship, which was lost at the Battle of Wolf 359 along with Sisko's wife Jennifer.  Bennett wowed me with Greater than the Sum, and Friedman is an old favorite.

Future Potentials:

  • My home library has finally received a copy of the third book in the Darth Bane trilogy, Dynasty of Evil. I'd intended to read it last week, but forgot to check it out. Someone's snatched it up in the meantime. I've shaken my fist in mock anger and will bide my time.
  • Alison Weir's Captive Queen, a biographical novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine checked out three days after the library received it and two days before I visited the library to check it out. I am on a roll. 
  • The Lost World, Michael Crichton. I've never watched the second movie in the Jurassic Park series, so Lost World should be a fresh new story. It was missing when I visited the library today, intent on checking it out.
  • The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War is said to focus on the role Theodore Roosevelt's naval posturing had on American-Japanese relations. I'll look at it when my hands are not quite so full of France. 
  • Crucible: McCoy sees a version of Doctor McCoy stuck in Earth's 20th century where he must live out the rest of his life. The idea of a 24th century doctor, with more enlightened values, experiencing the horrors of the 20th century is intriguing, or was enough to get me to purchase a copy. I'm curious as to whether the author will try to work in the Eugenics Wars.  While in TOS-canon they were related to World War 3, a pair of books released in the past decade or so retconned them to make sense in light of late 20th century history. This book is part of a trilogy, but I went after this one for the "24th century humanist in the 1960s south" story.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hornblower and the Crisis

Hornblower and the Crisis
© 1967 CS Forester
174 pages

Hornblower and the Crisis is the last of CS Forester's Hornblower books, as Forester died in the midst of writing it. This book collects the first 130 pages of the intended novel, adds a portion from Forester's notes establishing how he intended to develop the book further and end it, and then tacks on two short stories. The first, "Hornblower's Temptation", is set during Hornblower's lieutenancy aboard the HMS Renoun, where he makes a potentially lucrative discovery when overseeing the execution of an Irish deserter-turned-insurrectionist. "The Last Encounter" takes place in 1848, where an elderly Hornblower receives a late-night visitor -- a man claiming to be the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

The death of Forester in the middle of the Crisis is truly a loss for his readers, for the book was shaping up to be one of the better additions to the series. Newly-minted Captain Hornblower is returning to England from his blockade duties as a passenger aboard the Princess, a small utility vessel, when the book begins. His former ship, the Hotspur, is still at sea under a new captain, but Hornblower has been ordered to return to Liverpool for new orders.  After a French brig harasses the lowly Princess, Hornblower urges his fellow passengers -- also royal officers -- to ambush Boney's boat. Although they are too few men to take the ship as a prize of war in total, Hornblower fights his way to the brig's command office and steals the French captain's orders. They are fixed with the seal of Emperor Bonaparte, and contain orders from the Corsican himself.  When Hornblower dutifully takes them to the Admiralty, they and he contrive a plan of espionage that will draw the French navy into a decisive battle -- the monumental battle of Trafalgar.

I tend to enjoy Forester's books more when they center on diplomatic intrigue, shore adventures, and espionage, so the plot of this naturally drew me in. Although the notes included are short, they do more than relate the rest of the plot.  The two short stories are both far shorter than those in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, and each was a treat. "The Temptation" shows Hornblower's humane side, one we don't often get to see in a series dominated by war, and "The Last Encounter" is both amusing and almost serves as an afternote to the Hornblower series:  1848 is a year beset by revolution, where rail lines and naval steam engines have brought modernity, supplanting Hornblower's old, familiar world.

Although I read this when I did for its setting (French Revolution and Napoleon), it more than made up for Hornblower and the Hotspur.  While the novel's opening chapters and the short stories are enjoyable in their own rights, I suspect newcomers to the series would enjoy a more complete work. Still, for Hornblower readers this is certainly worthy.

This is not my last Hornblower read: I still have Admiral Hornblower and the West Indies to read, and there's one Hornblower-related book I intend to read following that. It's ah....going to be a bit different.

Teaser Tuesday (20/7)

Tues·day   (tūz'dē, -dā', tyūz'-)
n. (Abbr. Tues. or Tue. or Tu or T)
The third day of the week. Appropriate for submitting teasers, esp. for books.

[Middle English Tuesdai, from Old English Tīwesdæg, Tiu's day : Tīwes, genitive of Tīw, Tiu; see Tiu + dæg, day (translation of Latin diēs Mārtis, Mars' day).]

By tradition, the dark forest is dangerous for innocent pilgrims such as ourselves; we enter at risk. In the myths of Western civilization, the forest represents a place beyond the bounds of the known world, a place where pilgrims and hunters get lost, where you may encounter wild beasts, evil dwarfs, witches, gnomes, and snarling trolls. Magical transformations take place here, bears become princes, fairy courts hold torchlit processions by night, wayward children are captured by witches and become toads, damsels disappear for a hundred years until they are restored to life by the kiss of an adventurous knight.

p. 15, Walking Towards Walden. John Hanson Mitchell.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Walking towards Walden

Walking towards Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place
© 1995 John Hanson Mitchell
301 pages

Just before he set out on his journey to the netherworld, the great pilgrim Dante Alighieri had to pass through a lion-haunted forest where the straight way was lost. Here in twentieth-century America, there is a gloomy forest of hemlocks just below the summit of Prospect Hill in Westford, Massachusetts. As we descend this fertile slope, the great pilgrim Barkley Mason begins quoting from the Inferno. He touches his breast and, with a grand sweep, spreads his right arm toward the dark wood below us. "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai nella selva oscura --'" he declaims.
Kata is used to Barkley's posturing; she interrupts to ask me something about a mutual friend, and in this manner, we three enter the dark forest and enter our journey. (p.11)

While browsing the travel section of my library, I spied Walking Towards Walden, one man's deeply textured account of his pilgrimage trip to Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau once lived and wrote.  Mitchell, accompanied by two close friends, determines to sojourn to Walden through the wilderness: shunning roads and trails, the talkative trio intend to see a glimpse of Massachusets' 17th century wilderness. As this trio of intellectuals and romantics cut their way through brambles, wade across swamps, and wander the courses of streams looking for a crossing, Mitchell muses.

A Walk to Walden tells many stories. From the outset, A Walk is steeped in mythology, both classical and native American: Mitchell likens their quest to find Walden to Campell's "hero's journey", imaginatively interpreting the perils along the way as the hero's challenges a la Don Quixote. As they walk, Mitchell explores inner worlds, pondering the role of nature in mythology and poetry. The trio's pilgrimage to Walden is also historical, for their path intersects with that marched by the Massachusetts militiamen on their way to face British regulars at Lexington and Concord. As the journey develops, Mitchell tells their story, the story of explorers like Ponce de Leon who traveled through the "New World" looking for the fountain of youth,  and the story of the men and women who were displaced and ruined when Europeans began to colonize the Concord area.  At the same time, he also remembers other trips he has taken with his friends -- to the Florida Everglades and Hollywood, with touching and humorous anecdotes.

As the narrative matures, Mitchell compares their journey less to a pilgrimage and more to a quest to find a sense of place, a sense of belonging. He uses a Hopi word, tuwanasaapi, to describe a place where the soul of an individual is "centered":  where they are truly home. James Howard Kunstler decried the lack of "place" in the United States, criticizing the boundless expanses of subdivided homes and commercial strips. Mitchell and his friends are likewise bothered by this lack of community and place in modern America:  traveling to Walden allows them to connect to Thoreau's own decision to live deliberately, to find

From the very moment I started reading the book, I wanted to see Concord. Mitchell's affection for the town and the sense of place and community he derives from it are obvious. The day's journey there from Prospect Hill is lush, rich with detail and stories, abounding in tales of interesting people. Mitchell links all of his various trails of thought together, which would have been distracting were the stories themselves not so thoughtful and enjoyable.  Most curiously, the trio never seem to reach Walden Pond proper: the book ends with their eating a period meal at the Colonial Inn, the only hint that they might have gone to the pond and Thoreau's cabin being "So we saunter to the Holy Land...". (Mitchell periodically paid homage to Thoreau by referencing his "sauntering" walks around Concord.) Walking is one of the most enjoyable books I've yet read, and I heartily recommend it -- especially to those partial to Thoreau.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Life of Elizabeth I

The Life of Elizabeth I
© 1998, 2003 Alison Weir
542 pages

"She certainly is a great queen [...]. Just look how well she governs! She is only a woman, only mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all! " - Pope Sixtus V, p. 399

When I received a bookstore gift card from my place of work as an end-of-the-school-term gift, I put it to use and bought The Life of Elizabeth I.  Weir's biography of Elizabeth was recommended by Elizabeth's Facebook "fans", and Weir's biographical novel of Elizabeth has been one of the year's most enjoyable reads. I've been meaning to read it, but have been otherwise occupied. Six hours spent accompanying someone to the emergency room and an afternoon without electricity in the wake of a severe thunderstorm gave me ample opportunity to visit Weir's treatment.

Weir chooses to focus on Elizabeth in her role as queen in this novel, beginning with her coronation and ending with her death: Elizabeth's early years were covered in The Children of Henry VIII. She places general emphasis on foreign affairs and life at court, which are tangentially related: more than a few members of her court are involved in urging her to marry one European prince or another, and in an age where nations' destinies were decided by members of interrelated royal families, marriage and politics were conjoined. The Spanish and French empires are Elizabeth's most powerful adversaries, and she spends much of her life delicately arranging the protection of one while avoiding the wrath of the other. This is not always possible: her reign reaches its greatest when Spain's "Grand Armada", intending on delivering an invasion fleet, is destroyed. Scandals among Elizabeth's court constitute most of the text dedicated to domestic affairs, with religious strife occupying the rest. Elizabeth has inherited her father's role as governor of the English church, now formally divided from the Catholic church, but not moving too much in the direction of the Protestants. Religion and politics are closely linked in this age:  her cousin Mary Stuart, a rival to the throne, relies on Catholic resentment  to continually scheme to overthrown the Queen,

Weir's treatment is one grand chronologically-arranged narrative, divided into sections but ever moving forward. Thus we gain a picture of Elizabeth maturing from giddy youth to graceful age, supported by an ever-changing court.  Elizabeth's marriage prospects dominate the opening of the book: as she ages and loses childbearing potential, her rivals and foes choose to attempt to bend England to their will through force: religious insurrections become a constant threat, particularly from Catholic quarters. Although Elizabeth is generally well-liked, both Puritans and Catholics give her cause to grief.  Weir occasionally breaks from the constant stream of stories to offer general assessments of Elizabeth as a person: these segments interested me most. I am particularly interested in Elizabeth as a free-spirited intellectual who loved dancing and who resorted to translating classical orders into English to maintain control of her temper.

The recommendation from Elizabeth's fans was warranted. The narrative is easily digestible and Weir offers plenty of background for fully understanding some of the episodes in her life. I look forward to reading more from this author.


Friday, July 16, 2010

DS9 #6: Betrayal

Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Betrayal
© 1994  Lois Tilton
280 pages

I recently acquired a box of thirty-odd Star Trek: Deep Space Nine paperbacks, and after excitedly pawing through them, Betrayal appeared of immediate interest for its cover, which depicted Marc Alaimo as Gul Macet. Alaimo later played Gul Dukat, one of Trek's more developed villains.  Number six of the numbered DS9 novels, Betrayal, places the entire station in jeopardy. While ambassadors from various Federation worlds gather on DS9 for a conference that may open up economic opportunities for both Bajor and worlds throughout the Alpha Quadrant, the station becomes the target of multiple terrorists attacks that imperil the post and its crew as well as scuttling Bajor's hopes for a bright future in the Federation family. Meanwhile, a belligerent and comically-villainous Cardassian gul who demands that Sisko formally cede the station and the newly-discovered Wormhole to the Cardassian Union causes a stir when his troops begin shaking down the merchants of the promenade while looking for a deserter.

As the book takes place early in the DS9 canon, it contains a few anachronistic quirks in violating canon-yet-to-be-written. Quark and Garak are interpreted differently from the show's eventual treatment of them, for instance. Kira, Sisko, and the aforementioned Cardassian deserter are the primary voices in this tale, which proved interesting. While the primary plot tended toward the predictable, it did lead into DS9's second season and overall characterization pursues paths somewhat ignored by the television show until much later. I enjoyed the book most for the deserter's story. I like Cardassians, and his depiction was a welcome relief from the usual "Cardassians = Nazis in Space" treatment.

Nice light reading for a DS9 fan at any rate.

Travels with Charley

Travels with Charley in Search of America
© 1962 John Steinbeck
246 pages

Author John Steinbeck is perhaps most famous for The Grapes of Wrath, the story of the displaced Joad family who travel to California from their home in  Oklahoma in search of work, experiencing the land and its people as they do. In the early sixties, Steinbeck felt that he ought to make a journey of his own -- to truly experience the North American continent and the people of the United States. Since becoming an established author, his travels amounted to air trips between metropolises. Seeking a more familiar perspective, he set out in his camper-truck Rocinante, accompanied by his French bleu poodle Charley, and set forth. Starting in New York, he travels first to Maine, then across the midwest to the Pacific northwest, then down through California, across Texas, and curves upward through the south until he's in New York once more.

Steinbeck writes here with an intentional conversational tone. He often addresses the reader directly, as he does in the beginning when he informs the reader that we should imagine him talking to us while he drives or cooks at night. His reflections about his experiences sometimes take the form of a conversation with his dog, Charley -- and sometimes, Charley talks back.  Steinbeck is gifted at describing the scenery he not only sees, but in the case of wonders like the Redwoods, experiences.  Although he appears to enjoy his conversations with the people he visits,  visiting the South -- in the throes of the Civil Rights movement, where a band of middle-aged women delight in yelling racial slurs at young black children who have won admittance into a whites-only public school --  sours his mood as he returns home.

A recurring theme in Steinbeck's observations is the increasing homogeneity and staleness of American culture. National television and radio outlets have created a standard American language, and he despairs the loss of regional dialects. He has little love for the increasing role of plastic in everyday lives, and what it represents: mass-produced artificiality.

Although the trip ends on a poor note and Steinbeck does not like all of what he sees, he tempers his grumbling with the knowledge that is the nature of people to resist change in their old age. Perhaps America has lost some of its wild vivaciousness, but he doesn't take his complaints as withering criticisms. Travels abounds with humor,  benefiting from Steinbeck's dry wit and some of the conversations he has themselves.  I read this first in 2005, and it has lingered with me since:  this was the first work I ever read that grappled with changing culture in a real way. For its story, Steinbeck's musings, and his humor, I would recommend Travels with Charley.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (13-7)

Patriots and citizens, we are ready for Teaser Tuesday -- to the barricades!

In their own persons, Lafayette and Talleyrand embodied the split personality of the French Revolution. For while it is commonplace to recognize that the Revolution gave birth to a new kind of political world, it is less often understood that that world was the product of two irreconcilable interests -- the creation of a potent state and the creation of a community of free citizens. The fiction of the Revolution was to imagine that one might be served without damaging the other and its history amounts to the realization of that impossibility. 

Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution. p. 15, author Simon Schama.

Discarded Teaser:
"The rat problem became so serious that local residents found their own houses colonized by the raiding parties sent out from the elephant." - p. 4

Monday, July 12, 2010

Stargazer: Three

Stargazer: Three
© 2003 Michael Jan Friedman
247 pages

In addition to beginning the TNG relaunch this year, I also intend to pick up on loose threads in Trek literature that I have either left undone or never examined in the first place.  Encountering Picard's former shipmates from the Stargazer in Death in Winter left me thinking about the Stargazer series by Michael Jan Friedman, telling the stories of Picard's first command as a young 20-something. The first two novels in this series rank among my favorite works of Trek literature, but I've read the series through to completion despite having most of the books. I decided to remdy that, although I did not intend to do so today. I picked up the book at lunch, and...didn't put it down for the duration of the afternoon.

Stargazer: Three is third in the series, if the deceptively dull name is not too big a hint. The title initially disappointed me, but as I progressed deeper into the plot I realized Friedman had more in mind when titling the book than it simply following the second novel, Progenitor. As the story opens, Jean-Luc Picard is young man still in his twenties, commanding the Constellation-class ship Stargazer. Picard is the youngest man in Starfleet history to captain a vessel, an achievement that followed his taking command of the vessel during a crisis that saw the ship's former captain and first officer killed.  Not everyone appreciates Picard's accomplishment, chiefly his commanding officer: Admiral McAteer. McAteer wants to strip the young whippersnapper of his command, but cannot do so without proving him incompetent. In an effort to ruin Picard's name, McAteer routinely gives Picard missions beyond his experience, hoping to see the young man fail. Unfortunately for McAteer, the crew of the Stargazer prove worthy of the challenge time after time.

In Three, the Stargazer is sent to investigate a curious anamoloy on the Federation border with an aggressive, hostile race while its chief weapons officer, Lieutenant Vigo, is attending a security conference unveiling a new disrupter. When the Stargazer draws near the anamoly, a familar but alien face arrives in its transporter -- a woman who appears identical to two of Picard's officers, the Lieutenants Gerda and Idun Asmund. The stranger claims to be a Lieutenant Asmund from a Stargazer in another universe. She has arrived on Picard's Stargazer unexpectedly via a transporter curiosity. Picard must investigate the woman's claims, and find a way to send her back to her proper time while not provoking a nearby alien flotilla which has claimed the anamoly as its own.  Meanwhile, rebels intending to start a revolution on their home planet ambush the Federation conference and attempt to steal the new weapon: aiding them is Lieutenant Vigo's old friend and mentor.

Three develops the backstory for the Asmund lieutenants, who serve as navigator and helm officer respectively. Although biologically human, the two were orphaned as children and rescued by a Klingon captain who took pity on them. He and his wife later adopted the two, and raised them as Klingons -- a story mirrored by one of Picard's officers in the future, Commander Worf -- who is Klingon, but raised on Earth by humans.  The Asmund sisters see themselves as a pair, and Gerda is thrown off her stride by the appearance of this third Asmund, who claims her twin sister died in childbirth. While Idun immediately embraces the third Asmund, Gerda is suspicious and jealous: she does not believe the stranger to be who she says she is.

While providing both action and mystery, Friedman also continues developing his main characters. The crew of the Stargazer had immediate appeal for me when I read the first novel so many years ago, and I appreciate his continuing to spend time on them apart from the main plot. The plot itself isn't quite as interesting as the first novel, but then again it set a high standard for me. There are a few hat-tips made to the Next Generation show, as when Picard -- moving around his cramped ready room -- muses that one day he will have a room big enough for him to display personal items, keep fish, and maybe have a couch for visitors. Trek-lit readers will enjoy this, although newcomers should probably start with the first novel before leaping into this plot.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain
© 1969 Michael Crichton
295 pages

Hours after an American space probe crash-landed in the Nevada desert, the entire populace of a small town nearby deserted their homes to die in the streets, where they were noticed by a US air pilot performing a flyover of the scene. There's something rotten in Piedmont.

The US Army is not entirely surprised to find the city a necropolis. They did, after all, design the probe to gather potential microorganisms in Earth orbit for use in biological warfare. In a way, the outbreak is a success: they've got a genuine killer on their hands. Too bad it's out of their control for the moment -- but that won't be the case for long, Moving swiftly, they isolate the area and quarantine suspected contagions. Agents dressed in hazard suits survey the wasted town, and find two survivors: a crying baby and old man spitting up blood. While most of the victims appeared to have died instantly, others appear to have killed themselves in fits of insanity. The scientists and government officials associated with the "Wildfire" project must discern what agent caused these deaths, from where it originated, and how it might be stopped.

Although I expected a The Stand-type horror novel, Crichton's work is altogether different. It reads as a technical documentary, Crichton employing a framing device that cites official reports and includes graphs. The exposition is extremely detailed, describing the whole of the Wildfire installation -- a hidden, underground base used for isolating and containing bio-warfare specimens -- elaborating on possible sources for the virus, its structure,  and detailing the ways the scientists' and government officials' thinking and plans went wrong.  The narrative voice assures us from the start that things will go to hell, although the reader is left to anticipate to what degree the outbreak will ravage the United States and the world. I can't say I expected the ending: I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it did -- somewhat.

Although the book succeeded in keeping me wondering how the plot would be resolved, what fascinated me most was the origin story for the organism brought down to Earth. The Andromeda Strain  is probably worth your while, especially if you enjoy medical and scientific thrillers.


Friday, July 9, 2010

A Walk Across America

A Walk Across America
© 1979 Peter Jenkins
288 pages

We walked straight west. I had everything I needed in the world resting comfortably on my shoulders, and the entire country waiting to be discovered.  (p.55)

In the late spring of 1973, Peter Jenkins decided to go for a walk. The increasingly jaded college graduate, still recovering from a divorce, was willing to quit America all together. War and government corruption rendered him a cynic about the country's worth and promise, and a growing sense of wanderlust urged him to drop off the grid altogether. Urged by family members to see first-hand the country he was willing to leave on foot, Jenkins and his Alaskan Malamute Cooper set off on a journey to meet the land and people. The whole of the journey is not contained within this book, for he stops in New Orleans to chronicle the first great part of the story. Beginning in Connecticut, Jenkins hikes to D.C, then through the Carolinas and Virginia, across part of Tennessee, down through Alabama, and then west across the Gulf Coast until he stops to rest in New Orleans.

The road between Connecticut and Louisiana connects Jenkins' story with the lives of others -- an old mountain man with a reputation for shooting intruders,  grizzled lumberyard workers, ranchers, hippies, evangelists,  the Alabamian governor, paranoid drunks, and murderous lawmen. He meets friends and foes as he hikes through the mountains and down to the Gulf Coast, braving the Appalachian winter and the Deep South's humid, scorching summers. Although few photographs depict the surroundings, their beauty is made clear through Jenkins' descriptions, and the stories he tells about the characters he meets are almost too hard to believe -- particularly one in which he was literally run out of town by a lynch mob, keen on doing him in for looking like a hippie. Jenkin's stories are set in a different time: when he walks through Selma, Alabama, for instance, the massacre at the town's bridge during the Civil Rights movement is only a few years in the past. Segregationist George Wallace still reigns supreme in Montgomery, and in Tennessee, Stephen Gaskin's "Farm" is growing in size.  Jenkins spends the better part of a year navigating from Connecticut to Orleans, occasionally stopping to work in order to save up money for another leg of the journey. He spends a few weeks at The Farm, noting that its emphasis on simplicity seems contrived next to the simplicity of life he's found on the road: he moves on when the cultish atmosphere spooks him.

Jenkins is an enjoyable writer, communicating the humor, terror, despondency, and hope that his walk stirs in him. I identified with him immediately, being a restless college graduate who also wants to retreat from modern society. His tone made it clear that between starting the journey and writing the novel, he's converted to something: he introduces his Connecticut self in the same way Bill O'Reilly might introduce a guest he despises.  That tone makes him hard to take seriously, but once he hits the road his experiences take first priority. Although many of the stories are hilarious in themselves, he often sets up jokes. In the final section, for instance, he writes that he looked forward to staying at the seminary in New Orleans for a while: there would be no girls, there, no distractions. Naturally he meets his second wife. Sections are headed off by illustrations that overlay scenes from his travels across a map of his route: I particularly enjoyed these illustrations.

A sectional illustration, depicting a revival scene in Mobile (where Jenkins was "saved", one of Mobile's great trees (which he fawned over), a farmhouse he stayed at for a week or so, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a Civil Rights monument. 

A Walk Across America will remain one of the more interesting books I've read, I think. Although I enjoyed reading a book about life on the road -- something I've been looking for for a while now -- Jenkins' story resonated with me not only because of our similar stations in life when he started this walk, but for the places he walked through. While Americans -- and particularly those who live along the eastern and southeastern coasts of America -- will enjoy this most, I would recommend it to  general audiences for the stories alone. Jenkins has written other books, which I will be reading.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

This Week at the Library (7/7)

I never intended to make this last week "Science Fiction Week", but it emerged that way following a series of coincidences. I finished Carl Sagan's Contact a few days later than anticipated: his book, which portrays humanity's first contact with an alien race via radio signals, changed the way I thought about the search for extraterrestrial life.  I found American Nerd, an entertaining if limited "history of nerds", while looking for a science book. My decision to read Jurassic Park owed to my seeing the movie the night before I made my weekly visit to the library,  and after watching the first six Trek movies in marathon form, I was in a mood to read something in Trek literature -- which I did with Greater than the Sum,  an excellent contribution to the TNG relaunch that sets up the big Destiny series. I just so happened to finish Quotable Star Trek this week, as I've been reading it on-and-off at the computer while waiting for programs to load and save. Also, after reading a July Fourth-themed story for the Fourth this Sunday, I just had to finish the collection in which I found it, The Complete Robot.

See? Complete accident.

Selected Quotations:
1. "You know, at times like this, one feels..... well, perhaps extinct animals should be left extinct." - Dr. Ian Malcolm, awaiting to be mauled by a T-rex.  (Jurassic Park)

2.  "Your willingness to participate in this mission is commendable, Lieutenant Chen. Or do you prefer Lieutenant T'Ryssa?"
"Chen, please," said the lieutenant, a slender woman with tomboyish Asian features under slanted brows. With her hair worn over her hears, those eyebrows and the greenish flush to her golden skin were the only clear evidence of her Vulcan ancestry. "Uh, sir. Or Trys. I've been known to answer to 'Hey you'".
[Picard] glared at her. "As you were, Lieutenant." (Greater than the Sum, p. 68. )

3. Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Your... arrogant pretense at being the moral guardians of the universe strikes me as being hollow, Q. I see no evidence that you're guided by a superior moral code or any code whatsoever. You may be nearly omnipotent, and I don't deny that your... parlor tricks are very impressive. But morality? I don't see it. I don't acknowledge it, Q! I would put human morality against the Q's any day. And perhaps that's the reason that we fascinate you so - because our puny behavior shows you a glimmer of the one thing that evades your omnipotence: a moral center. And if so, I can think of no crueler irony than that you should destroy this young woman, whose only crime is that she's too human.

Q: Jean-Luc... Sometimes I think the only reason I come here is to listen to these wonderful speeches of yours.
(Quotable Star Trek, maybe. I'm sure it's in there somewhere. Original source is TNG's "Hide and Q". I like it mostly because the same statement condemns the morality of revered "ancestors" and their deities....gods who claim to be just when their stock in trade is genocide, theft, and murder.)

Upcoming Reads:

  • The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton.  I enjoyed my first Crichton read, and decided to continue exploring the author's work.  This work, which concerns the outbreak of an alien virus on Earth, reminds me of The Stand.
  • I'm going to be starting Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution in honor of Bastille Day, which falls next week. (The holiday, not the Bastille. It fell back in 1789.) My Western Civilization II history professor recommended the book to me a few years ago.
  • I first read Travels with Charley in Search of America back in 2005, which contains John Steinbeck's account of traveling through the United States in the 1960s to see the new, economically booming America. I've been itching to read a book about taking off on the road and exploring, and so decided to revisit this.
  • Right next to Travels with Charley was A Walk Across America, a 1970s memoir about a young college graduate who decided to explore the United States on foot, accompanied by his big husky, Cooper.  If memory serves, Steinbeck's "Charley" was his dog, so I'll be reading two books about people who set off on journeys across America accompanied by their dogs, one old and one young. That'll be interesting. 

Greater than the Sum

Greater than the Sum
© Christopher L. Bennett 2008
368 pages

Fresh from his honeymoon with Dr. Beverly Crusher, Jean-Luc Picard has returned to the Enterprise-E to assemble a new command staff in the wake of recent losses in battle. Finding the right people to meet the demands of the Federation flagship is problematic, but news from the Beta Quadrant will render staffing problems trivial: the Borg are back.

After the events of Death in Winter, a Borg cube launched an attack on the Federation and brutalized it in a way not seen since Wolf 359. They were driven way, but assimilated a Federation science vessel before vanishing completely. That science vessel, the USS Einstein, was reported destroyed, but its attack on the USS Rhea, a Federation starship assigned to investigate a system in the Beta Quadrant proves otherwise. The Borg-controlled Einstein -- known in Starfleet enlisted ranks now as the Frankenstein -- is a threat to the Federation, not for its own armament but for the knowledge it possesses. The Federation's greatest defense against the Borg is the gulf of space between the Federation and the Borg Collective -- but that curious system in the Beta Quadrant may hold the secret to quantum slip-stream warp drives, which would make the Milky Way as transversable as a local star system. The Frankenstein cannot be permitted to return to the Delta Quadrant, lest the Borg gain that knowledge.

Picard is given ultimate discretion in how he chooses to combat the threat, and reluctantly chooses to include the young officer who survived the attack on the Rhea as part of his staff. The excitable, immature officer doesn't appear to be Starfleet material, let alone an officer distinct enough to serve on the bridge of the Federation flagship -- but something about her compels Picard to give her a chance. Together with a ship of ex-drones -- the Liberated, led by Hugh -- Picard must find a way to destroy the ever-adaptive and increasingly aggressive Borg before they are able to adapt slipstream technology to their uses and return to the Collective, where they will share that knowledge and give the Borg a way to dominate the entire Milky Way.

Greater than the Sum is one of the best Trek books I've read. Although the mission is essentially military, Bennet focuses on character development, diplomacy with a new form of life, and scientific investigation. Bennett's pacing worked well for me: ultimate confrontation with the ship is delayed, allowing tension to build. In the meantime, Bennett focuses on Picard and his new officer, Lieutenant Chen. I didn't like Chen at first, thinking her sophomoric: I didn't realize her immature disposition was deliberate until Bennett starting bouncing her personality off of Picard's, at which point hilarity ensued.  While she begins as a hyperactive and childish Ro Laren-type with pointed ears, Chen matures throughout the book and I looked forward to her scenes. Bennett also explores Picard and Crusher's married life, particularly the motives behind Picard's reluctance to start a family. His official explanation is that having children would be irresponsible in light of the Borg threat, but the real motives are more nuanced and draw from various Trek episodes, including The Inner Light.  Although Greater than the Sum continues the story begun in previous TNG Relaunch novels, Bennett's background exposition was sufficient and unintrusive. It's thus a easy recommendation for both fans of Trek literature and of The Next Generation itself.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (7-7)

Once a week you get a peek, although Teaser Tuesdays must be discrete.

Across the table, Worf was still being Worf. "A junior lieutenant with a history of discipline problems walks out of the woods naked and tells us the Borg are coming," the Klingon asked, "and we are supposed to believe her?"

Greater than the Sum, Christopher Bennett. p. 38.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Quotable Star Trek

Quotable Star Trek
© 1999 ed. Jill Sherwin
374 pages
"...good words. That's where ideas begin." - David Marcus, The Wrath of Khan.

With over seven hundred television episodes and eleven movies constituting its 'canon', Star Trek has a lot to say for itself. Although a science fiction action-adventure series in which humanity explores the wonders of the universe, Star Trek has survived and flourished where Lost in Space and others have faded away because at its essence, it is about ideas -- about the human condition, philosophy, ideals, values, and beliefs. Star Trek and the shows that followed not only entertained, they provoked discussion: they challenged people to consider ideas.

As a show with an intellectual or philosophical bent, Star Trek relied upon good writing to give voice to discussion. Within the shows, there are grand speeches, witty retorts, lines drawn in the sand, gentle reassurances, and thoughtful musings aplenty. Those speeches and retorts are here, organized into diverse topics: the human condition, the search for knowledge, good and evil, love, humor, respect, justice, peace and war, politics, prejudice, logic and emotion are just a few. These are followed by a section of quotations wherein the characters refer to themselves, a section of the most memorable lines from the show, and the author's personal favorites. The collection does not draw from the later TNG movies or Enterprise given its publication date, which is a minor loss.

This book gathers together some of my favorite moments in Star Trek. I dearly love the series, chiefly for the way it affirms and celebrate humanity. Whether in fighting for justice or trying to be good friends, the Starfleet personnel in the series do their best to live up to humanity's promise. Quotable Star Trek brings together some of the best lines in Star Trek, neatly organized, and so I can recommend it easily.

A few favorites...

  • "Give me your hand ... your hand! Now feel that: Human flesh against human flesh. We're the same. We share the same history, the same heritage, the same lives. We're tied together beyond any untying. Man or woman, it makes no difference, we're human. We couldn't escape from each other even if we wanted to. That's how you do it, Lieutenant. By remembering who and what you are: a bit of flesh and blood afloat in a universe without end. And the only thing that's truly yours is the rest of humanity. That's where our duty lies. Do you understand me?" - Captain Kirk, "Who Mourns for Adonais?"
  • "Why does God need a starship?" - Captain Kirk, The Final Frontier.
  • "Sometimes, Number One, you just have to bow to the absurd...." - Captain Picard, "Up the Long Ladder". 
  • "You know, there are some words I've known since I was a schoolboy: 'With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.' Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie as wisdom and warning. The first time any man's freedom is trodden on we’re all damaged." - Captain Picard, The Drumhead
  • "Laws change, depending on who's making them, but justice is justice." - Constable Odo, "A Man Alone"
  • "My god, Bones -- what've I done?"
    "What you had to do. What you always do -- turn death into a fighting chance to live." - Kirk and McCoy, watching the Enterprise go to her grave in The Search for Spock
  • "There! Are! FOUR! Lights!" Captain Picard, "Chain of Command". 
  • "I'm no angel; but I try to live every day as the best human being I know how to be." - Miles O'Brien, "Tribunal". 
  • "Second star to the right...and straight on 'til morning." - Captain Kirk, The Undiscovered Country, giving the helm course orders. 

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Complete Robot

The Complete Robot
© 1982 Isaac Asimov
688 pages

A boom in electronic engineering followed World War 2, one that led to consumer televisions, the first computers, and a wide variety of other electricity-using gadgets. As people looked more toward the future, they conceived of mechanical men: these robots often ran amok in the style of Frankenstein's monster. Isaac Asimov thought this silly: robots were tools explicitly designed by intelligent people. It made no sense for them to run amok. He subsequently developed in full the Three Laws of Robotics, and later wrote a host of stories and novels based on them.

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov used his stories to explore how humans might use robots to better the human condition, but he also explored questions of intelligence, creativity, sentience, and prejudice. He coined the phrase robotics and his body of work subsequently left various marks on our culture: the android Lieutenant Commander Data of Star Trek possesses one of Asimov's "positronic brains", for instance. The Complete Robot collects just over thirty of his short stories in this theme, written throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Because other robot stories and essays followed it, its name has not remained accurate: still, the book constitutes the sizable bulk of his robot short fiction, including the Susan Calvin stories and classics like "Robbie".

The stories vary slightly in setting, but cover the latter half of the 20th century and human history throughout the 21st, until the dawn of hyperdrives that allow for interstellar travel. Most of the stories share a same canon: at some point in the late 20th or early 21st century,  the many political entities on Earth unite under a weak confederation. Essential parts of the economic (agriculture, for instance) are planned, and crucial to the planning are large computers. These globe-monitoring computing machines in the style of UNIVAC may be subsidiaries to Multivac -- a massive supercomputer at least the size of a building. Several stories here concern Multivac, the machine that bears all the cares of humanity upon its transistor- and vacuum-tube employing shoulders.

Robots in the style of Commander Data come later: while designed to emulate human beings in essential form and size, they exist chiefly for industrial work or for the amusement of wealthy individuals. The people of Earth later react against the employment of robots in this way, relegating them to maintaining space posts in a dozen or so of the stories here. Three stories follow Mike Donovan and Gregory Powell, two quality-assurance technicians in the employ of US Robots and Mechanical Men, as they observe the latest robot models at work, "manning" the stations that beam intense sunlight to Earth, powering its electric grid. Later on, robots nearly vanish from Earth history altogether: in the Empire age, only humans who have left Earth to colonize other worlds use robots. Little of the Empire age is seen here, though -- only its prelude in a short story about detectives Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, the latter being what we call today an android.

Asimov's stories are as ever simple and charming. They bear the mark of the fifties and sixties, not only in their portrayal of marriage (husband goes to work, wife keeps house), but in the way they grapple with the future. Some predictions seem banal by modern standards, others still far off and bordering on fantastic -- but the optimism and hope are undeniable. Asimov is refreshing and endearing, and the retro-feel has its own appeal to me. The Complete Robot is a solid hit, taking me back to that summer in which I first delighted in Asimov's short stories. I definitely recommend it.


  • "Sally", a favorite of mine about automated cars with personalities.
  • "True Love", in which a computer designed to find its maker the perfect match finds his own.
  • "The Tercentenary Incident", set on 4 July 2076, follows the aftermath of an attempted assassination of the US President. The assassins seemed to have only vaporized the president's android decoy -- but who can know that that puff of atoms following the disintegration blast belonged to an android, and not to an unpopular president?
  • "Reason", in which quality-assurance technicians struggle with the first sentient robot after it establishes a religion based on the worshiping the station which it was designed to serve. 
  • "Mirror Image", an unexpected treat featuring the Robots trilogy team of Elijah Baley and Daneel Olivaw as they attempt to settle a matter of academic fraud.
  • "The Bicentennial Man" follows a robot's quest for humanity. Watching the Robin Williams movie of this prompted me to read The Positronic Man back in high school, my first involvement with Asimov. The link leads to the trailer.

"To those of you who have read some (or, possibly, all) of my robot stories before, I welcome your loyalty and patience. To those of you who have not, I hope this book has given you pleasure -- and I'm pleased to have met you -- and I hope we meet again soon." - p. 683, 'the last word'.

Indeed, Dr. A.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park
© 1990 Michael Crichton
399 pages

To the south, rising above the palm trees, Grant saw a single trunk with no leaves at all, just a big curving stump. Then the stump moved, and twisted around to meet the new arrivals. Grant realized he was not seeing a tree at all. He was looking at the graceful, curving neck of an enormous creature rising fifty feet into the air. He was looking at a dinosaur.  (p. 80)

Professor Alan Grant has spent his life digging in remote desert environs, looking for fossils that offer clues into the lives of dinosaurs. Carefully extracting specimens from the ground, he pieces the puzzles of anatomy and behavior together. His job is made a little easier by enthusiastic supporters like John Hammond, an eccentric old billionaire who finances dinosaur digs all over the world -- although Hammond can be a trifle annoying at times, pestering Grant with questions of what a particular species of dinosaurs might eat, especially as newborns. What possible need could the man have for that sort of information?

When a lawyer in the employ of Hammond visits Grant's latest dig and offers him a substantial fee to visit a resort of Hammond's over the course of a weekend, he reluctantly accepts: that much money will go a long way in maintaining his research. What he, his graduate student, and a quirky mathematician find when they arrive at the resort is beyond belief: a theme park the size of an island, where plants and animals dead for 65 million years live again. Advances in genetic engineering and a novel approach to obtaining dinosaur DNA have allowed Hammond to clone dinosaurs and artificially incubate them. His goal is a worldwide empire of theme parks filled with biological attractions, but his first has yet to see the public. He has all the problems of an amusement park and all the problems of a zoo, the latter particularly difficult in that no one has ever maintained hundreds of dinosaurs in captivity. Hammond responds to his investors' doubt and concerns about the park's delayed opening by inviting his team of consultants -- Grant and company -- to take the first tour.  A palaeontologist's approval will go far in soothing their fears.

As impressive as Jurassic Park may be, a system so complex - being a heavily automated park controlled by central computers maintaining a firm hand on a delicate ecosystem -- is doomed to fail at some point, at least in the opinion of Ian Malcolm, the mathematician and chaos theorist invited to tour the park. Malcolm's cassandra-like warning comes to pass (as such warnings are wont to do) when deliberate sabotage on the park of an employee rendering the park's security network inoperative coincides with a massive storm, imperiling not only the tourists but everyone on the isle. Grant, Malcolm, and the rest must pit human technology and intelligence against the dinosaurs' own brute strength, devastating quickness,  surprising array of biochemical defense mechanisms, and intelligence. The struggle for existence is a brutal one -- even in the artificially created Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park is my first read by Michael Crichton, whom I have ignored in the past out of the impression that his works were too technical for reading comfort. I don't know what gave me that impression, but Jurassic Park was a breeze even while employing more scientific exposition than your usual novel. Although my reading experience was augmented by having watched the movie only a night prior, I enjoyed it to the point that I will be browsing Crichton's other works. The book's introduction gives the text the feel of a warning against the dangers of uncontrolled genetic engineering on the part of companies, perhaps an explicit message on Crichton's part. I've not read any of his other works, so I don't know if he employs his novels as warnings or messages in this manner. We'll see, for I plan on looking at The Andromeda Strain next week.

American Nerd

American Nerd: the Story of my People
© 2008 Benjamin Nugent
224 pages

First in my class here at M.I.T /
Got skills, I'm a champion at D&D
M.C. Escher, that's my favorite  MC
Keep your forty, I'll just have an Earl Grey Tea
My rims never spin, to the contrary
You'll find that they're quite stationary 
All of my action figures are cherry,
Stephen Hawkings' in my library
Look at me, I'm white and nerdy. 
("White and Nerdy", Weird Al)

My local library's web catalogue offered American Nerd as a result when I searched for titles in popular science, and the premise -- a book on nerd culture -- hooked me immediately. Author Benjamin Nugent is an ex-nerd, who as boy grew up "boffing" and playing long rounds of Dungeons and Dragons when he wasn't busy with an NES system.  After opening with an analysis of Wikipedia's definition for nerd, Nugent gives a brief history of nerd-types, beginning with the characters of Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein. The most general characteristic of Nugent's nerds is that they prefer worlds of rationality to physical or sensual stimulation, and that they are out of place in a post-industrial revolution world that increasingly associates reason and rationality with  machinery, not humanity -- humanity being represented by emotion and romanticism. Other elements branch from this, as with a preference for Standard English over language replete with slang.

From there, Nugent devotes chapters to individual elements in the "nerdy" spectrum: the old-fashioned Steve Urkel types, the Renaissance Faire enthusiasts, video gamers, 'hackers', anime buffs,  science fiction or fantasy fiction fans, and those who pretend to be nerds to be seen as controversial and nonconformist.There are also "case studies" in which Nugent focuses on his childhood friends; the most memorable case study was that of a refuge from Mormonism, who saw the rule-governed world of Dungeons and Dragons as a redoubt against his mother's violent and unpredictable religiosity.

It's an interesting book, best received by confused parents and loved ones of nerds who don't particularly understand why their child or friend likes dressing up as a feudal knight, spending hours at a time exploring 'dungeons' on paper occupied by figurines, or animatedly discussing competing operating systems. Nugent's approach strikes me as casual, cavalier -- and sometimes careless. He identifies a passage from a forum as being a prime example of "leet speak", for instance, but the passage in question only contains one word (pwn) associated with "leet speak". The rest is the kind of butchered English associated with twelve-year olds using instant messaging for the first time, more accurately known as "AOLspeak". In another instance, he characterizes The Big Bang Theory as two nerds' quest to win the heart of a girl, isn't.

Fairly entertaining and a little sloppy, but it may be of use to someone who wants to understand the nerds in their midst.


© 1985 Carl Sagan
432 pages

"We could be in the middle of an intergalactic conversation -- and we wouldn't even know." - Michio Kaku, "Our Place in the Universe".

Dr. Eleanor Arroway, known as "Ellie" to her few intimates, is long accustomed to being marginalized. She's a woman in a field dominated by men, and her interest in using radio telescopes to search for intelligence life in space further isolates her. Even those who take note of her brilliance do so only to suggest that perhaps she's wasting her time looking for "little green men".

And then....the signal. Steadily pulsing, it cannot be tracked to a satellite in Earth orbit, nor is the region of space it appears to emanate from a source of pulsars. This signal comes from outside -- and it comes with purpose. The initial signal contains prime numbers, but as Ellie and her coworkers begin to dissect the data, they find a recording of the first signal from Earth to find its way into space -- and then, The Message, a massive transmission of data that unites the world's scientific, political, and economic authorities as they search for the Message's meaning.

While Contact is in part a science fiction tale that depicts humanity's first contact with extraterrestrial life, Sagan also offers a story about the human search for meaning. He does this by bouncing the nonreligious Ellie, who finds meaning in science, off of Christian guru and television personality Palmer Joss,  who sees a transcendental deity and revealed truths as the source of ultimate meaning. Later, Sagan puts Ellie into the position of defending what might be called a religious experience.

To my knowledge, Contact is Carl Sagan's only fictional work.  I first read it in 2005 or 2006, and Sagan's depiction of radio astronomy changed the way I thought about extraterrestrial life. In the years since, my readings in astronomy and physics have convinced me that Sagan's Contact scenario is more likely than say First Contact. Contact is among the more interesting novels I've read, and it's one I can recommend. While the opening premise is interesting by itself, the role of scientific wonder and the advocation of the human spirit make it all the better.

"She had studied the universe all her life, but missed the clearest message: for small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love." - 429


  • Contact, a film adaption of the book that stars Jodie Foster. Although it takes a few liberties with the plot , the visuals are solid and the acting makes even the more despicable characters fun to watch. The intro, in which the camera soars through space, following the advance of Earth's oldest television transmissions, is particularly memorable. 
  • The Symphony of Science videos, all starring Sagan in part. "Our Place in the Cosmos" has a line that neatly refers to the pretext of Contact

Are we all alone, or are there others standing by.
Waiting to see what we will do, how hard we'll try?
It costs a lot to live, even more to fly.
Kindly send a prayer my way while I shoot up in the sky.

We'll send the best from Earth, to find out what it's worth.
We'll send the best from Earth, to find out what it's worth.
- "Others Standing By", Prometheus Music