Friday, August 31, 2012

Dialogues and Essays

Seneca: Dialogues and Essays
© 2007 Oxford World's Classics
 translated by John Davie
263 pages

Care to read the thoughts of a man chosen to tutor an emperor? Seneca the Younger lived in the opening century of the Roman Empire, and was such an accomplished author that even the early Roman Church tried to claim him. I've previously read a collection of his letters (Letters from a Stoic), part of an exchange between Seneca and his friend Lucilius, but Analogs and Essays is far more sharply focused.  The theme of the letters ran toward the general; here, Seneca writes on particular topics, beginning with theodicy and touching on anger, happiness, tranquility of mind, sorrow, and -- oddly -- earthquakes.

This is a magnificent collection. If the translators' rendering in English is representative of the power Seneca imbued his Latin with, little wonder the early Church regarded a 'pagan' author with such admiration. Seneca here is clear, direct, and forcefully dramatic. After I finished the final piece, I re-read several essays over again, just to savor the experience.  Stoicism is the reigning influence, of course: the ideas of Zeno are utterly pervasive. In the opening essay "On Providence", Seneca asserts that the universe is a fundamentally sensible and moral place: nothing happens without good purpose,  and even the harshest of circumstances can prove a boon to the wise man. It matters not what we endure, Seneca writes, but how we endure it. Difficulties are not punishments: they are opportunities.  The worst of luck is in fact a sign of favor of the gods, that they have deemed a man worthy of his character being tested. While I don't particularly agree with the notion that everything that happens is the product of a deity enforcing character training on we poor mortals, I rather like the indomitable attitude, and the idea that can winnowed out from the text -- life is nothing without struggle. We are creatures made to run and strive, not sit idly whining.  

Although Stoicism dominates, Seneca is no puritan: he freely borrows from Epicurus, and not simply to 'know his enemy' as he piously defended himself in the Letters. Seneca sees Epicurus as quite wise, in fact, and not at all deserving the slander heaped upon him because of the abuses of those who call themselves his followers. Epicurus is in Seneca's eyes the soul of virtuous moderation -- and Seneca defends comfort and wealth at several points, perhaps feeling guilty at his own success. But lest we think him a hypocrite, when the time came Seneca followed in the path of his heroes, Cato and Socrates -- accepting death in the manner he advocated several times in this collection. (The final piece on earthquakes isn't quite as odd as it might seem: while Seneca spends most of it musing on how earthquakes might happen, he uses the then-recent destruction of Pompeii to point out that nothing in the material universe is truly reliable: only virtue matters, only it can maintain us against the ravages of fickle fortune.)

I have been sharing excerpts from this book on facebook's Stoics group, and they've found a very will-pleased audience there. This is the stuff of excellence; obviously of interest to those interested in philosophy, mindfulness, and wisdom literature, but a must-read for moderns who find such value in the Stoa as I do. Seneca's essays are elaborations on the potent thoughts of Epictetus' Handbook and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.

This is one to re-read, remember, and recommend.

Forgotten History

Star Trek DTI: Forgotten History
© 2012 Christopher L. Bennett
352 pages

In the ranks of the Department of Temporal Investigations, James T. Kirk is a legend -- a legendary menace. He just couldn't seem to stay properly in the 23rd century; not a year of his mission went by that he wasn't wandering into another epoch of history. His file of temporal violations was the largest on record, so when a starship appeared at the center of a spatial disturbance that seemed to be converging different times and dimensions of reality, gents Lucsly and Dulmur were not altogether surprised to find that its warp engines registered as those of the Enterprise. One problem, though: this ship wasn't the Enterprise. It bore the marking of DTI itself, and the name Timeship-2. But DTI strictly forbade its agents from traveling in time. The story of Timeship-2 is that of forgotten history, the untold tale of the founding of DTI, one which will delight TOS readers (especially those interested in time shenanigans) and cause its agents to reevaluate the proud legacy of their department and the man they hold with such disdain, Kirk.

Forgotten History is largely a novel set in the original series, with 24th century sections used chiefly to frame the story. It's far more straightforward than Watching the Clock:  starting with the incident in "Amok Time" that introduced time travel into the Trek canon and moving forward through the years as Kirk accrues his impressive record as a time traveler and the Federation attempts to come to grips with the very idea. Although they'd known since the time of Johnathan Archer that time travel was possible for other, more advanced civilizations, not until Kirk and the Enterprise had one of their own initiated it. Kirk, for his part, is an unwilling participant in this temporal research, particularly after he sees the chaos that can ensue, but he understands the importance of the research. Bennett draws on not only the original series and the movies, but the 'animated series' as well. Readers may most appreciate the way he weaves together all these little threads into one tightly-focused narrative, ironing out wrinkles along the way and even making "The Omega Glory" seem perfectly sensible* -- but Bennett adds appeal by offering a look at a "what-might-have-been" universe  where the paths of the Klingon, Romulan, Andorian, and Vulcan empires have taken radically different paths from those we're familiar with. The interaction between this timeline and ours allows Spock to encounter a what-might-have-been of his own, meeting a pivotal figure from his past and redeeming an otherwise distasteful character. 

This is in short a very solid hit for Christopher Bennett and his DTI series.  Fans of Mr. Spock  will especially appreciate the way his character is explored. 

* No, really. 

The author's homepage and annotations
Star Trek DTI page on TvTropes

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Wild Life of Our Bodies

The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasides, and Partners that Shape Who We Are Today
© 2011 Rob Dunn
290 pages

You can take the man out of the jungle, but not the jungle out of the man. Such is the lesson of Rob Dunn's brilliantly-written The Wild Life of Our Bodies, which demonstrates to readers the ways in which interactions with other species have shaped human evolution, and the folly of our attempt to sever our ties with the natural world.

I initially thought this book was on the body as an ecosystem, host to millions of other lifeforms; some preying on us, others living in a mutualistic relationship with us, helping us to digest food in return for a roof over their little unicellular heads. That's only the start of Dunn's piece, and even there he turns expectations on our heads. Sure, we need bacteria to help digest our food -- but as it turns out, we need, or at least could use, parasites active in our system to give certain immune responses something to do. Absent of real threats, our immune system will happily turn on us, causing various diseases and disorders. We forget how utterly alien the civilized world is to bodies which evolved in the world, becoming geared to compete and strive and fight, to cope with famine and stress.

No man is an island, nor is any species.  The interactions between species -- as foes, as friends -- drive evolution, giving pronghorns and cheetahs faster legs to outrun the other, and avocado fruits larger volume to attract animals with larger appetites. Humans, in spite of our tendency to view ourselves as separate from the 'animal world', are no different in being shaped by others. Not only have our appearances changed because of relations with other species, but part of our emotional life and even our aesthetic senses have ties to ecology. Take taste, for instance: it's no coincident that fruit bearing seed ready to germinate tastes delightful, while unripe fruits -- those with seeds still readying themselves -- taste bitter. The bitterness is the plant's way of keeping hungry foragers from forcing the seeds into the world before their time. Other species have shaped not only human bodies, but human civilization -- take the lactose-tolerance that prevails in pastoral societies, and the way grasses and cattle have prospered by becoming the staple of many civilizations.

 This is popular science at its best: insightful, with lessons that apply across the whole of human existence, and enterprisingly written to boot. The implications for medicine are especially worth considering, and the book as a whole reminds of the law of unintended consequences.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Book Confessions

This week the Broke and the Bookish are asking for bookish confessions. I think I already confessed to some of my more egregious book-related actions, like ruining my middle-school library's copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls by spilling milk on it -- but I managed to think up five more.

1. For a long while, I wouldn't go near the Left Behind series, because as a kid raised to believed the Rapture was real and inevitable, the thought of actually being left behind terrified me. I'm not exaggerating when I say I didn't go a week in my first twenty years of life without being reminded that the world was doomed to become the province of a psychopath, and my only hope of escaping that fate (to be followed by an eternity in Hell) was church.  After escaping from such beliefs, I later read the first book out of curiosity and found it hilariously awful -- so much so that I read the entire sixteen book series in the month and  a half that followed.

2. Although I'm hostile toward digital readers, I'll probably wind up buying one within the next five years. My rising Luddite tendecies notwithstanding, my job as a reference assistant often entails helping people with computers, and increasingly their own wireless devices. If touch-screen interfaces are the way of the future, I need to learn to navigate them to function out in the world. Of course, at home I can be as tech-free as I want.

3. Like other readers, I tend to avoid "hot" series on the prinicple that they're just too popular. This is snobbish, of course,  but I don't feel bad about it. I just don't myself too seriously on this point, especially since the one time I succumbed to peer pressure and tried a series everyone was nuts about, I found I loved it. I speak, of course, of Harry Potter, which I now re-read once a year.

4. When visiting someone's home, I tend to look for and then investigate their bookcases. Nothing else (aside from a garden, I suppose) would attact my attention.

5.  Although most of the books of my childhood are gone, there are a couple of series from middle school that I absolutely will not give up -- California Diaries and Roswell High. I keep them in the same cabinet as my old journals.

6. Once, in my sophomore year of high school, I found a library book that I'd previously lost...on the day that I'd intended to pay for its replacement cost. I decided to pay for the replacement and keep the book, because I loved that book. It was Albert Marrin's The Airman's War, and I keep it in the bookcase near my bed.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Man on the Moon

A Man on the Moon:  the Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts 
© 1994 Andrew Chaikin
670 pages

Yet a higher goal was calling, and we vowed to reach it soon
So we gave ourselves a decade to put fire on the moon
And Apollo told the world, "We can do it if we try! --"
And there was One Small Step, and a fire in the sky. 
("Fire in the Sky", Prometheus Music)

What is it like to step foot upon the moon? Barring the sudden rise of consumer-friendly lunar tourism, our best hope of finding out is to ask ask the men who have done, the twelve astronauts of the Apollo program's last four missions. Andrew Chaikin did just that, and based on lengthy interviews with not only the astronauts but their wives, various flight control officers, and engineers involved with the program, has produced a stellar history of the Apollo program.

Granted, it would be difficult to write a poor history of the Apollo program; even a staid recitation of the facts could not conceal the drama of the United States committing itself to landing on the moon in under a decade, relying on technology, training, procedures, and knowledge that didn't yet exist -- and then doing it repeatedly while all the world watched. Chaikin focuses only on Apollo, opening with "The Fire" (which killed the crew of Apollo I during a routine test), but the book suffers nothing for this, as information about Mercury and Gemini filters in through the accounts of the lives of the astronauts.  Had Chaikin focused only on the technology and politics of Apollo, he could have written a fine work, but his emphasis on the human aspect of lunar exploration, based on extensive interviews with the astronauts,  makes the account truly shine. He allows the reader to join the men of Apollo -- to  hurl ourselves into the blackness of space for three days, protected only by a paper-thin metal shell, and then step foot on another world where to witness the sum of our prior existence as a blue ball hanging alone in the sky. How did such a profound sight effect them?

Although a long an enthusaist of the space program, this book and the drama based on it have opened my eyes to how little of the story I knew. Apollo 11, which is in the news recently owing to Neil Armstrong passing away, was the culimination of a series of flights that tested the command module that took the astronauts from the Earth to the moon, and of the lunar module that carried them down.  To go from the Earth to the moon, from primitive rockets to sophisticated spacecraft that linked worlds -- if only for a decade --is a marvelous feat,  doubly so given the challenges. Even as humanity looked toward the stars, it waged war against itself:  the United States could have easily been distracted by Vietnam and the increasing furore of the Civil Rights movement. The program itself was checkered with problems: its first mission ended in total failure, the crew engulfed in flames;  the astronauts had embarked on an exploration of terra so incognita it wasn't terrra at all.  How does a company on Earth, its every experience dominated by the gravity of Earth, create a vehicle that could travel through the stars and navigate on the moon? What a triumph to human ingeunity and creativity. And then there were the personal problems. This is a story that is dedicated to all of the men who took part in the adventure of lunar exploration, and it doesn't end with Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Every man has a story to tell, like Alan Shephard. The first man in space, he sat out most of the space program for medical reasons until experimental surgery made him flightworthy again. His return to active status made him the oldest man in space, and he had to prove himself against not only the young bucks who he had been supervising, but the bittersweet legacy of his own accomplishment. Sure, he had been the first American in space -- but he spent fifteen minutes up there, and never even achieved orbit. Or take Harrison Schmitt, a geologist who took part in the last Apollo mission. He was the first scientist on the moon; all who went before him were pilots first and scientists second. And the story doesn't end with the men: the majority of them were married, and Chaikan's account explores the unusual stresses astronaut families had to endure through the years.

This history of Apollo is, in a word, marvelous -- not just for remembering what was done, but reflecting on what it meant to the astronauts, and what it means as a society today. In the epilogue, Chaikan touches base with each of the men involved, and most regard Earth's failure to pursue the possibilities of further human spaceflight with disappointment.

"Instead of letting the moon be the gateway to our future, we have let it become a brief chapter in our history. The irony is that in turning away from space exploration -- whose progress is intimately linked to the future of mankind -- we rob ourselves of the long-term vision we desperately need. Any society, if it is to flourish instead of merely survive, must strive to transcend its own limits. It is still as Kennedy said: Exploration, by virtue of difficulty, causes us to focus our abilities and make them better."

Chaikin, p. 583

Having grown up with the shuttle program, I regarded its demise with sadness. But now, reflecting on the legacy of Apollo, the shuttle seems so utterly pedestrian. We once pushed the envelope and landed on other worlds, and now we're content to make runs around the block?  But I have hope. Earlier this month, just as I was reading this work, NASA experienced another astounding victory by landing the largest rover yet on Mars. Its landing procedures have to been seen to be believed,  and I'm as astonished and excited about that as Chaikan made me about Apollo.  And outside the United States, other nations are more aggressive about venturing into space. Humanity's return to the moon is inevitable -- and when it happens, it will be a testament not only to the scientific and material prosperity of modern nations, but the courage and spirit of the men of Apollo.

They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

They Eat Puppies, Don't They? 
© 2012 Christopher Buckley
335 pages

They Eat Puppies, Don't They? is a satirical novel about the power of the military-industrial congress, its lead character undertaking a mission to pose as a lobbyist to whip up anti-China sentiment among Americans. In the view of the defense contractors, Americans are far too complacent about the old 'Red Menace': they aren't supporting measures like dandy new blow-`em-up drones, or the mysterious Taurus Program. To do this, their agent -- Bird McIntire -- teams up with an Ann Coulter expy, a woman with a distressing enthusiasm for war whose bellicosity is rivaled only by her contempt for those who don't think as she does. To create excitement about China, they opt to spread the humor that the reds are trying to off the Dalai Lama. Conveniently enough, the exiled leader of Tibet is hospitalized. While Americans throw themselves into the national sport of reacting to what the television says, and demanding Immediate, Drastic Action --  the chairman of China's communist party is trying to keep two of his generals from trying to do something crazy, like invading Taiwan. Oddly, this man with a history of happily executing dissidents via firing squad is the book's most sympathetic character.

Although Buckley's story is comedic, the wretchedness of the characters kept the book from being truly enjoyable to me,  at least until the final few chapters when their plans go off the rails. Bird  spends most of the novel being dominated by either his unpleasant wife or  the Ann Coulter stand-in,  seeking relief by drinking whiskey all night and pounding away at a series of cheap thrillers dominated by Manly Men and buxom babes, with all the quality of a Harlequin romance or the Left Behind series.  He does have a household of livelier supporting characters, though, including a brother who is a Civil War reennactor ("living history participant") who walks around sporting a magnificent imitation of George Custer's curly locks and mustache.

I'm left with mixed feelings after reading this: I'm almost sure I would have enjoyed it more were my mood different.  The tenor of American politics recently made the awful attitude of the Coulter character a depressing reminder of the kinds of attitudes that are most prevalent today.I for one read novels in part to escape such disheartening facts, if only for a while.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

This Week at the Library (20 August)

Reviews are pending for A Man on the Moon, by Neil Chaikan as well as The Wild Life of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn. (Pending, as in, "I meant to finish them on Sunday, but some friends invited me to supper and we did a Horatio Hornblower movie marathon. Ahem.")

Last week  a new novel caught my eye: The Family Corleone, by Ed Falco.  A prequel to The Godfather, the famed novel by Mario Puzo, it proved a worthy tribute. The novel begins in 1933, with the Corleone family active and robust,  but not impressive compared to the  increasingly powerful Mariposa family. While Don Coreleone attempts to preserve his organization's future against the ambitions of Mariposa -- a feat not made easy by the fact that someone keeps raiding Mariposa's liquor trucks, and he's sure Corleone knows who it might be --  his oldest son Sonny is increasingly attracted to the darker side of Corleone's business.  A key character is Luca Brasi, who is in his prime here as a  unaffiliated gang leader who is such a loose cannon that even Mariposa has a healthy fear of him. Homages to the original story abound: it ends as The Godfather begins, with a wedding. Even so, it's less romantic than Puzo's world, inhabited by "men of honor": here, the corruption and stupidity of violence are more obvious.  Although Michael can't help but be noticeable, given his future role in the family's affairs, the star here is 17-year old Sonny, whose temper and ambition drive the story. I imagine most fans of The Godfather will enjoy this.

Also, a few weeks ago I read a Diane Carey DS9 novel, Station Rage, in which Chief O'Brian and Constable Odo discover what appears to be a sealed tomb, full of apparently dead Cardassian soldiers in ancient uniforms. Captain Sisko orders the hidden room sealed again while he makes some delicate inquiries as to how they got there, but unbeknownst to him someone decided to bring the dead back to life. Soon, a Alexander the Great-like character from Cardassia's past is waging a private war on the station with his zombie honor guard, and there's a Cardassian ship outside the station with an eye on destroying it. The plot is remarkably similar to that of "Empok Nor", complete with Garak going crazy.  The characterization seems off throughout, with Kira in particular reduced to a vain creature  who is utterly wow-dowed by Sisko's status as an action hero. The setup is utterly creepy, but the execution doen't live up to expectations. This isn't exactly a jewel in the crown of the numbered Trek novels.

Finally, last week I finished reading Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait, which I've been reading in bits and pieces throughout this year. The book is a collection of corrections about astronomical misconceptions. I'll probably just make a few comments on it in next week's weekly review.

For this next week, I'll be finishing The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S. Ramachandran. After that I have Twilight of the Mammoths to look forward to, at which point  I may continue focusing on science reading for a little bit, or switch gears. I'm itching to read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt,

Saturday, August 18, 2012

John Adams

John Adams
© 2001 David McCullough
751 pages

The memory of some American presidents looms over the national mind like their monuments tower above the landscape. But John Adams has no monument on the National Mall: his face does not stare down from Mount Rushmore or any piece of currency. He is, or was, until the publication of this book, largely forgotten – a downright shameful fact given the importance of his accomplishments.

Name an aspect of the American Revolution, and John Adams was there.  In the early years, his voice was among the most ardent scolding Britain for its abuse of colonial legal rights: at the Continental Congress, he began and led the charge for independence, championed George Washington as leader of the Continental Army, and defended the Declaration of Independence as its author Thomas Jefferson sat by idly.  During the revolution, he endured a long separation from his wife while working to effect war-winning alliances and afterwards, established the new nation’s  credit. Upon his return to the new United States, he served as vice president and then president, pursuing a solitary course of action that kept America from being embroiled in the Napoleonic wars, earning him the contempt and hostility of both parties, but the praise of historians to come.  John Adams was constantly making American history despite not being born into power, wealth, or influence – he was there because time and again he inserted himself into history’s way and stubbornly stood for what he viewed as the right course of action.

While John Adams isn’t a hagiography,  McCullough’s appraisal of his subject is mostly complimentary.  Adams’ heroic aura comes not from grand idealism – for Adams was a pragmatist – or dashing military deeds, but in more mundane virtues. He was hardworking, morally upright, faithful to his cause, driven by duty to live up to his potential, and ever-constant.  When compared to his mercurial and petty contemporaries, not to mention the current lot of demagogues masquerading as public officials, Adams seems the embodiment of statesmanship. McCullough’s criticism is limited to acknowledging that Adams could have, at times, a bit of a temper.

Modern readers may find Adams’ comparative conservatism more problematic than any hot-headedness. Although Jefferson might have viewed the Revolution as being a progressive step forward in the history of mankind, Adams saw colonial rights as being a function of British, and then American, law: they were not so much newly proclaimed as redeemed from the recent abuses of the king. He put little faith in the judgment of excitable masses especially the judgment of men who didn't own land enough to make them financially independent:  men beholden to bosses were too easily influenced to build a free republic on. He also believed that aristocracies were inevitable, and should be thus planned for – their influenced acknowledged, and limited and removed from actual power – and that a government functioned best with a powerful executive whose decisions could not be easily over ridden. Given his fondness for English law, little wonder that the pro-French party railed against him as a closet monarchist with British sympathies and that members of his own party distanced themselves from him at best (as did George Washington) or openly reviled him, like Alexander Hamilton. With Jefferson conspiring with the French minister and both political parties acting as though civil war was about to break out and planning extralegal martial action, little wonder that Adams sullied his reputation somewhat with the Alien and Sedition acts. To his credit, he lived to regret signing those acts – something Wilson never did, and something it is doubtful Bush or Obama ever will do.

 John Adams was no idealist, but his actions speak louder than the words of those we cherish as champions of human progress, like Jefferson – who repeated the thought that all men were created equal in his Declaration, but persisted in keeping his own slaves.  Adams reviled the practice and refused so much as to hire someone else’s slaves: he and his family did most of the work  on their farm while Jefferson sat idly in Monticello, singing praises of Napoleon and tinkering with his gadgets. And for all his conservatism, Adams looked to the future and prepared the United States for it. While Jefferson dreamt of a pastoral republic filled with gentleman farmers (and their slaves, one assumes), Adams saw the future of the nation writ in industry, and commerce. One wonders – had the Erie Canal been proposed in a second Adams administration, instead of Jefferson’s first, would it have found presidential support instead of being a project of New York State alone?

 John Adams is an extraordinarily rich biography. McCullough’s reputation as an historian speaks for itself: this is as engrossing as a novel, and filled with details about Adams as a husband, father,  farmer, public official, statesman, and friend. Of the three McCullough works I've read, this was the most outstanding, in part because of its subject. I've found in him much to admire. 


Friday, August 17, 2012

Q Squared

Star Trek the Next Generation: Q Squared
©  1994 Peter David
434 pages

On Stardate 2124.5, Captain Kirk and the Enterprise had a memorable experience with an impish creature named Trelane, a being of extraordinary power but the maturity of a child. Now Trelane is back, this time to play with Captain Picard and a different Enterprise....and right behind him is his godfather Q, beginning him to behave. Trelane, as it turns out, is a member of the Q Continuum, and Q has the task of grooming him to be a responsible adult. Naturally, the universe is doomed. After a tongue-lashing from the good captain, Trelane runs away and returns having discovered how to harness the power of universal chaos to give everyone on the Enterprise a really bad collapsing three parallel universes into one another. Such is how Peter David starts off another fantastic Q novel.

In "Q-in-Law", the fun came from bouncing lively characters like Q and Lwaxana Troi off of one another. Here, David explores various what-if scenarios: what if  Worf was rising star in the Klingon empire, and not a disgraced orphan? What if William Riker hadn't been rescued by Nervala IV, but captured by Romulans? What if Jack Crusher hadn't died? And what if Picard and Beverly Crusher had acted on their attraction...?  When Trelane begins forcing the universes together, chaos ensues, and a thrilling story unfolds as the characters navigate their way though an increasingly insane and ever-changing reality.

Although a novel that touches base with metaphysical notions like multiverses can confusing, especially when temporal shenanigans are thrown in, Q Squared manages to grow busy with action without ever losing the reader, and it's wonderfully funny  despite how serious things get. The action is frantic, and as Picard and the others lose control, astonished laughter is sometimes the only response to what they're enduring.

Q Squared is an excellent bit of Trek literature, supremely entertaining on its own merits   and doubly so for knitting together various temporal elements of TOS and TNG together. I understand David did the same with his pre-Destiny TNG Relaunch novel, Q&A. If so, I might have to read it....even if it DOES have the Borg destroying Pluto.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Coup d'Etat

The War that Came Early: Coup d'Etat
© 2012 Harry Turtledove
416 pages

Coup d'Etat is the fourth book in Turtledove's War that Came Early series, in which World War 2 begins at the 1938 Munich Conference when the Allies call Hitler's bluff. Soon joined in his invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Polish,  Germany found itself engrossed in a two-front war after Russia rushed to the tiny republic's defense. But in 1940, Hitler pulled off a diplomatic coup, convincing Britain and France to join him in a war against Stalinism by offering to withdraw the Wehrmacht from the low countries.  Considering that the Soviets were also under attack by the Japanese empire, the Big Switch was making World War 2 out to be a general dogpile against the the Russians -- but in Coup de'Etat, the alliance between Hitler and the west breaks down after an "extralegal" change of government in Britain, and what was shaping up to be a vastly different war is now simmering down to an only marginally interesting conflict.

Like Supervolcano: Explosion, Coup d'Etat succeeds initially purely on premise alone. The Big Switch completely recovered this slow-to-start series for me, and the new set course of events it initiated carry the novel: with the Allies and Germany both pouring resources into Russia, it's as if we're seeing the Cold War served hot and early.  Will Russia collapse? What will Europe look like with Stalin gone, but with Hitler still reigning? Unfortunately,  that question becomes moot by novel's end.  Not only are we back to the same basic World War 2 we know -- complete with Italy invading British Africa, being turned back, and then aided by the Germans -- but the dramatic event that restores the status quo isn't even dramatic. One minute a character is being interrogated by British intelligence for planning to take over the government, the next minute he's free because his cohorts have done it. Whoopee.  How did they do it? The reader isn't shown.  The ramifications of a military coup of Britain aren't explored, either: the new powers-that-be simply inform us that they have to be very discrete to avoid popular sentiment turning against them.  The war in the Pacific isn't any more interesting,  perhaps because the American war engine is only starting to rev up. With Hitler at war with Britain, France, and Russia, and about to waste his resources in Africa, and the Japanese already weak after also taking on Russia,  the end-game seems as though it will be inevitably similar to our own. And if that's the case, what's the point of a writing an alternate history novel?

Monday, August 6, 2012

This Week at the Library (6 August)

Aside from special occasions like Independence Day, I don’t plan my reading. I tend to follow whatever ensnares my interest, though this tends to result in my gorging  on a particular topic, sometimes to the point that I get sick of it. Thus, my tentative plans to do some science reading have been temporarily sidetracked by a continuing obsession with John Adams, who began to fascinate me in Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis, and who has remained in my mind ever since. So for the past week I’ve been reading John Adams by David McCullough, which was most impressive.  Between  First Family and John Adams, though, I started watching a documentary series on DVD called From the Earth to the Moon, and now space exploration  is the thing. It’s not a new interest of mine –  my bed still has the NASA sticker I slapped on it back in middle school --  but I’ve never actually delved into the history of the space program. The series was absolutely astonishing, and since space exploration complements science reading rather nicely, don’t be surprised if it becomes a recurring theme this autumn.  In addition to memoirs like A Man on the Moon and Deke!, there’s Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Space Chronicles to consider, which examines both the history and future of the United States’ space program.

All of these are from John Adams, by David McCullough, and from Adams' own pen.

"The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved."

"Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

"We may please ourselves with the prospect of free and popular government. But there is great danger that those governments will not make us happy. [...] I fear that in any assembly, members will obtain an influence by noise, not sense. By meanness, not greatness. By ignorance, not learning. By contracted hearts, not large souls. There is one thing, my dear sir, that must be attempted and most sacredly observed or we are all done. There must be decency and respect."

"Government is nothing more than the combined of society, or the united power of the multitude, for the peace, order, safety, good, and happiness of the people. ...There is no king or queen bee distinguished from all others, by size or beauty and variety of colors, in the human hive. No man yet produced any revelation from heaven in his favor, any divine communication to govern his fellow men. Nature throws us into the world equal and alike."

"Ambition is one of the more ungovernable passions of the human heart. The love of power is insatiable and uncontrollable..."

Friday, August 3, 2012

Lost Moon

Lost Moon: the Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13
© 1994 Jim Lovell, Jeffrey Kluger
368 pages

No one wants to hear ominous noises coming from their car in the middle of a road trip, especially if they're in the middle of nowhere. But it could be worse -- you could break down two hundred thousand miles from Earth, surrounded by the void of space and trapped in a small spacecraft whose every life support system  is failing rapidly.  Such was the case for the Apollo 13 crew: when a loud, ominous bang followed some routine tests, their mission to land in the hills of the Moon became a four-day struggle against the void of space and a dying machine just to stay alive.

Death and disaster had happened before to the astronaut corps: several had died in aircraft crashes, and the Apollo program began in tragedy when flames  consumed the interior of the command module of Apollo I during training, claiming the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee -- but those accidents took place too quickly for anyone at Mission Control to intervene. Now, for the first time,  the lives of NASA astronauts were imperiled in the course of a mission, and far from home. If NASA couldn't find a way to keep those men alive and bring them home safely,  they would face the prospect of having to talk these men through their final hours.  On the ground in Mission Control, and in the void of space, men called upon all their resources -- their training, their intelligence, their creativity -- to overcome problem after problem, overcoming the odds and achieving a triumphant return four days later. It is the story of those four days that Jim Lovell (commander of Apollo 13) and Jeffrey Kluger tell here.

Although Lovell participated in these events which he's helping to retell, the book isn't written from his perspective, nor is it limited to the four days of the mission itself. The authors begin retelling the story of Apollo 13 fairly quickly -- and it's one that keeps the reader tense, even knowing the outcome -- but they also weave in reminiscences on NASA's and the astronauts' history. These diversions don't just give the reader a break from the tense situation unfolding around the moon and the technical chatter between the craft and mission control: they add context, demonstrating how the catastrophe of Apollo 1 shaped NASA's approach to disasters, or how various events in Lovell's life prepared him for the duties of the space program and the extraordinary challenge of Apollo 13.  Lost Moon almost doubles as a history of NASA from the perspective of an astronaut, and between Lovell and Kluger even explanations of mechanistic failures have an energetic drama about them.

Definitely a book of interest to those interested in humanity's space endeavors.