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Posts tagged “book review

On the Bookshelf: Influx by Daniel Suarez

Daniel Suarez is one of those authors that in a few more years (or after one of his novels reaches the big screen) is going to be talked about as one of the top authors of contemporary science fiction. His latest book, Influx, while I wouldn’t say is his best novel (that honor in my mind goes to Daemon) it is probably his most cinematic.

The plot is based around a “what if” scenario. What if humanity was in reality far more technologically advanced than we thought we were? What if we had already perfected fusion power, created true nano tech, found the cure for cancer, created Artificial Intelligence, vastly expanded human longevity and physical and mental limitations, and made huge advances in materials science? What if the human race had all these things but they had all been hidden from us by an organization that hides them from us for our own good because the consequences of their discovery would do more harm than good?

When you put it like that it sounds noble. However, as the main character of the novel, Jon Grady, finds out it is far from anything of the sort. Jon is a thinker with a unique mind and discovers a technology that could represent one of the greatest technological shifts in human history; the Gravity Mirror, a device that can harness the most powerful force in the universe. That’s when the BTC, the Bureau of Technology Control, arrives and destroys his lab before any news of his accomplishment can spread.

You see, while the BTC may be protecting us from rampant change it has also been taking all of this revolutionary technology and hoarding it for itself, abducting those who created it and attempting to turn them to its own research agenda. Those scientists who decline their offer are imprisoned and tortured. Jon is one of these Resistors.

Influx is a roller coaster read with a wide-ranging scope and well thought out premise. A summer blockbuster waiting to happen.  I think I killed the book in about two days because it is one of those page turners that you don’t want to put down. I only have a few quibbles. 1) While most of the book has dead-on pacing the finale seemed a little rushed, but that may only mean it will translate even better to the big screen (including the epilogue that I think could have tied up some loose ends with just a few more words . 2) One of the characters is improbably able to acquire and adapt the BTC’s advanced technology and provide it at the most opportune moment. 3) One simple answer invalidates every single disaster model the BTC produces: Space Colonization. The last scene is good and I like the feeling behind it, but all I need is an orbital elevator or space launch to make me feel better.


On the Bookshelf: Scorch City by Toby Ball

 Scorch City

by Toby Ball

Over the summer (The Summer of the Re-read 2010) I got an e-mail right here in the Red Herrings inbox offering me an advance copy Scorch City, a book I had really been looking forward to reading. However, because I was taking the summer off from blogging to re-read all those books I missed that email!

Dammit, I could have read this book months ago!

Ok, starting with  the cover. If you remember, the reason I picked up the first book by Toby Ball, The Vaults, was the cover (if you can’t remember, here is the review so you can refresh yourself). That cover was cool, but this cover is not only cool but seems to embody all of the essential elements of the book as well. The cover shows the four main characters of the book, yes in spite of having only one person in the picture, four. In Novels of The City (you can still use that if you want) The City is a character all on its own, an industrial northern city that dominates the region and the towns around it. In this novel The City is joined by a utopian black shantytown on its outskirts known as the Uhuru Community. The cover, to my mind, shows that Community being crushed, sundered or plowed-under by The City. The third character on the cover could be any of the viewpoint characters of the novel but my bet is Lieutenant Piet Westermann, who is caught in the middle of racial, political and religious forces while he tries to solve the murder of an emaciated young prostitute. Throughout the book he is constantly pulled in various directions by forces and ideologies that he may or may not believe in, yet have the power to affect him deeply. He is a man alone in a crowd just as he is alone among the chaos of the shantytown on the cover yet moving with purpose. The fourth character on the cover may be just my imagination but it seems there is a shadowy hand reaching out from the lower right side of the picture toward the lone figure. There are spooky and shadowy forces at work in the novel but what seals it as symbolic in my mind as a shadowy hand and not an artifact of the terrain is that the light is coming from the figure’s left meaning the shadow is reaching out against the light.

All kinds of symbolism there. Who needs to review a book when all you have to do is talk about the cover!

The novel itself is just as well constructed and thoughtfully laid out as the cover is. The events of Scorch City occur fifteen years after those of The Vaults. It is now 1950. There has been another world war. The threat of Communism has taken a McCarthyesque turn in The City and has become the major issue in a contentious mayoral race while anti-communist vigilantes roam the streets. The setting is still very noir but the heat, the paranoia, the no-win feeling of helplessness, give it a desperate dystopian edge. Everything seems morally ambiguous and you are never quite sure who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, much less who is a murderer.

I enjoyed Scorch City just as much as The Vaults, but for different reasons. Ball has come a long way as a writer in a very short time. In The Vaults my only complaint was that while the settings were vivid and gripping, the character cast seemed too large and unfocused. In Scorch City the characters are much more clear, each serving a vital role and holding a piece of the story that is their own. The plot was just as compelling and even more tightly written and composed.

Keep them coming Mr. Ball, I want more City.


On the Bookshelf: Theories of International Politics and Zombies by Daniel W. Drezner

Theories of International Politics and Zombies

by Daniel W. Drezner

There are three sorts of people who are going to read this book. The first are the kind of people who see the title and aren’t able to resist finding out what zombies have to do with international politics. These may, or may not be very interested but they might actually learn a few things about how the world works. The second type of people are those who already have an interest in international politics, possibly recognize Daniel Drezner’s name, and pick up the book to find out in what context zombies could possibly apply to international politics. They might be mildly amused but depending upon how seriously they take themselves may not get past the first chapter or two. That’s their loss. The third sort of person has an interest in zombies as well as international politics. They probably have been awaiting the opportunity, or have already started, to explore this most interesting of black-swan scenarios and it is likely that they will chuckle their way through the book.

I happen to fall into the third category.

No, this isn’t really the kind of book for a thinker who takes themself too seriously, but it is a pretty short and amusing read for someone who likes to think seriously about the unknown unknowns that can crop up from time to time. Honestly, I didn’t agree with some of the characterizations of the approaches of certain kinds of  thinkers that Drezner presents (The neo-cons in particular, though I think that one was more than a little tongue-in-cheek) but I do think he gets way more right than he gets wrong. Actually I really only have one major quibble with anything that Drezner presented, probably because I went against the crowd and I personally think I had good reason for doing so.

Drezner presents two questions that he asked during his research. I remember answering both of them.

You face the following choice:

Option A)  The certain destruction of 500 zombies.

Option B)  A 50 percent chance of destroying 1,000 zombies and a 50 percent chance of destroying 100 zombies.

According to Drezner’s research 61% of respondents chose option ‘A’.

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You face the following choice:

Option A)  A certain increase of 500 zombies.

Option B)  A 50 percent chance of creating only 100 new zombies and a 50 percent chance of creating 1,000 new zombies.

The survey showed that 57% chose option ‘B’

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Dezner uses these questions to illustrate prospect theory where the tendency is to be risk-averse (and go for the “sure-thing” in the first question) when you think you are winning, but risk-seeking (or take the gamble of question 2) when you think you are losing. By my recollection I voted opposite the majority in both questions because I viewed the scenarios in the opposite way than Drezner because the zombie apocalypse is pretty zero-sum when it comes to survival. In fact, I think the questions better illustrate the offensive (playing to win) and the defensive (playing not to lose).

In the first question I chose option ‘B’ not because I was risk-averse and afraid of losing, but rather that I am on the offensive against zombies and I am looking to win. Even 100 fewer ghouls walking around is better than none and getting 1,000 of them out of the way is even better. On the offensive against the shambling undead, a risk-seeking attitude is a good thing. Be methodical, yes, but seek every opportunity to remove potential zombie opponents.

The second question is one of those hard choice questions that I think really needed more information to be clear. I would like to know if Drezner had in mind the total number of people the decision-maker was responsible for. It doesn’t change my answer but it would be more important to know, to me, from a game-theory point of view. Regardless, I chose ‘A’ for the reason that it implies that I am on the defensive and I know at least 500 of my group would survive when survival, not losing completely, is the goal. There is no other rational choice especially if the risk of creating 1,000 new zombies means that the entire group is zombified. On the defensive against the undead the group is the asset that must be preserved, but in a triage-like manner. If there is a sacrifice that preserves the group, even if it severly diminishes the group, then it is a sacrifice that must be taken. Of course, I wouldn’t want to be potentially one of the 500 any more than anybody else but I definitely wouldn’t want to be in the 1,000.

 I wish this was out when I was in high-school or college. It would have made a really fun textbook.


On the Bookshelf: The New Cool by Neal Bascomb

The New Cool

A Visionary Teacher. His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts.

by Neal Bascomb

I am not quite sure how exactly I would describe The New Cool. On one hand it is a book that explores the potential future of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education. On the other hand, it is a story about a high-school sports team that, even though they are relative underdogs, manage to come through and triumph in the face of adversity.

 I guess the best I can say is “Welcome to the world of competitive high school robotics.”

The New Cool follows Team 1717 of the engineering academy at Dos Pueblos High School, a.k.a. the D’Penguineers, during the 2009 FIRST Robotics competition from the unveiling of the game their robot would have to play that season, through the development and building process, to the FIRST robotics competitions that pit robot against robot.

The 2009 FIRST game, Lunacy, is pretty intriguing and was probably a lot of fun to play. The first video is an animated description of the game. The second is a bit of the flavor of the competition from the Team 1717 point of view.

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At the risk of an editorial digression I would have to say that there are points of this book that I really liked and other points where I felt it was very much lacking.

Likes:

As a story about what could, and should, be the model for education in today’s modern world The New Cool is a fantastic read. This is what education should be about, more than just trying to stuff as many facts and figures into a kid’s head so they can take some sort of standardized test, but real and practical learning that lets students develop skills that are important in life and in a career. The New Cool demonstrates that these kids are involved and excited about this competition and really invest in the work that makes it possible. More importantly they have a teacher and mentors that provide real, practical, applications for learning. Nobody is standing over the teacher’s shoulder to judge if the students are learning enough according to an arbitrary standard. That the kids are learning is evident by their failures and their successes. Yes, you learn from both.

The New Cool is a story about vision in education. It is a story about the dedication of a good teacher. Most of all it is a powerful story about kids who want to do something to learn.

Dislikes:

Ok, as far as the story itself went The New Cool lacks an engagement with the characters. There are so many players doing so many different things that there really isn’t room to really get into the trials and tribulations that the students have to overcome. Even those the story follows most closely come off pretty flat. Underscoring this is that these are pretty privileged kids. For the most part, these are kids who have smart parents who are encouraging and involved with their children’s education. If there is a lesson missed in The New Cool it is that the involvement and encouragement of parents goes just as far as that of a teachers, perhaps farther. One chapter in The New Cool does follow a kid from a bad neighborhood, with little encouragement who does make the effort to participate In FIRST with a team called 2Train, but we never really hear back from him. Granted, unlike Team 1717, 2Train is a FIRST Team without a lot of resources that probably didn’t make it very far in the competition, but really, to participate at all and learn by trying, doing, failing and/or succeeding is just as much a victory as going to the robotics championship and that is something that deserves to be highlighted.

Dislikes aside The New Cool is certainly a book worth picking up for its forward-looking story about vision in education.

Ok, a brief editorial digression:

I wish that this really was the trend in education, but I fear it is very much against the tide of the tyranny of standardized tests and the blaming of teachers for kids who aren’t learning. A teacher can teach, but they can’t make a student learn if the kid isn’t at all engaged or interested in the material. FIRST is great for STEM education, but programs just as innovative as FIRST need to be developed for other subjects outside of STEM.

That’s the kind of vision needed in education.


On the Bookshelf: Operation Dark Heart by Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer

Operation Dark Heart

Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontlines of Afghanistan

and the Path to Victory

by Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer

Operation Dark Heart is the now infamous spy memoir that was held up on the eve of its distribution to booksellers by the Department of Defense. The explanation for this halt was that the author, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, was about to reveal important secrets about sources and methods of the organizations he was working for and with. The Pentagon bought the entire first printing and burned them

To get the book on the shelf, Lt. Col. Shaffer sat back down with his publisher and the government and re-edited the book. In what can only be a form of protest over the delay and expense not only was Operation Dark Heart re-edited, it was re-printed as if it had been attacked by a wide-tipped Sharpie marker.

In other words, many of the almost 300 pages went from this:

  to something like this: 

( h/t Propublica )

Aside from making it beastly hard to read , my ever imaginative brain kept trying to insert things into the black spaces. When it seemed Lt. Col. Shaffer was referencing a U.S. spy agency I apparently don’t have the clearance to know about, the NSA got inserted into the text. When taking about a nefarious Pakistani group that doesn’t have the U.S.’s best interests at heart, typically the ISI popped up in my mind. A method that had been blacked out was naturally imagined to be some sort of drone observation or signal intercept. Sadly, from the (un)redacted side-by-sides at the Propublica link above, it looks like my imagination might have been right more often than not in that regard.

Makes you wonder why they really bothered. Even if the gaps were fairly easy to fill back in, copies of the unredacted book were already circulating as advance reader copies (ARCs). Besides, in the digital age can you really suppress information? Heck, Wikileaks even says they have a copy.

Oh well, controversy aside here is my take on the book itself:

I really enjoyed Operation Dark Heart. Like many of the memoirs and dirt-level accounts of warfare in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan (Horse Soldiers, War, The Wrong War to name a few) it is gritty and vivid with an interesting window on the clandestine segment of the war, a unique portrait of a modern American expeditionary warrior in a land that has been largely frozen in time for centuries. Operation Dark Heart is filled with unbelievable-if-it-wasn’t-true, stories of spies and special-ops. Some are humorous. Some are pretty depressing. All are interesting. You take away from this book, and from the others mentioned, that victory isn’t out of reach. We just have to get out of our own way to make it happen. Our people are talented. Our people know how to get a job done and a victory won when we let them do what it is that they do best, in the way that they do it best. It is only when we restrain or restrict, usually in the interest of political C.Y.A., risk-aversion, or failure of imagination and/or trust in our own force’s capabilities, that we lose the initiative and let progress slip from our grasp. Lt. Col. Shaffer’s prescription for fixing what we are doing wrong in Afghanistan even echoes the sage advice of Bing West in his latest publication The Wrong War (my review here).

Good reading… if you can get past the black marker absurdity redactions.


On the Bookshelf: The Wrong War by Bing West

The Wrong War

Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan

by Bing West

As always, Bing West is insightful, informative and on-point. In The Wrong War Bing West tackles the conflict in Afghanistan, combining the dirt-level accounts of soldiers on the front lines, with high-minded analysis of the strategy that drives the doctrines that those soldiers are using. It is this synthesis that makes books by Bing West required reading.

Most of the The Wrong War deals with detailed accounts of operations and campaigns fought by in the rugged terrain of the valleys and passes of  the Afghanistan / Pakistan border region. Bing West uses these accounts to illustrate the various interactions between the Afghan people, the Afghan government, the geography and the Western military forces; and how there is a fundamental disconnect between the situation on the ground, and the strategy that guides Western action in the country. His bottom line is that what we are fighting “the wrong war.”

Counterinsurgency doctrine, or rather the current flavor of counterinsurgency doctrine being used in Iraq and Afghanistan known as COIN, focuses on engaging the people and building their trust through development and security in order to convince them to reject insurgent forces and deny them the safe-havens they require in order to operate effectively. This “nation-building” strategy puts a premium on the COIN theory that “dollars are bullets” and that actual bullets should be rarely used in order to avoid civilian casualties that create political resistance and “accidental guerillas” among the Afghans and poor public relations back in the Western world.

To West this as a horrible strategy. As he sees it, what we have created in Afghanistan is not a nation that can stand on its own against the Taliban, but rather that we have propped up an exceedingly weak, corrupt, kleptocratic, government that enriches itself on Western developmental funds, and a people who see that development as an entitlement they can depend upon and don’t need to work to attain. Worse, through lack of oversight, control and poor policy, we have raised up this innately corrupt government as the preferred alternative to the Taliban. With that in mind, it is no wonder that the Afghan people are reluctant to buy what we are selling.

To West, the “Way Out” advertised in the subtitle of the book isn’t a literal exit from the conflict but rather a prescription for a re-think and realignment of policy and strategy. West argues the main reason we are receiving no real support from the Afghan people is that, despite all of the hand-outs and developmental projects, we aren’t showing them that we are ultimately going to be the winning side of the conflict. West points out that in Iraq the Sunni’s came to our side because they recognized we were The Strongest Tribe and he doesn’t expect the Afghan people to step up until they are convinced of the same eventuality of victory against the Taliban. Until that occurs they will continue to be noncommittal and hedge their bets. However, West also argues that the flaw in U.S. involvement is that we are physically and politically incapable of committing the forces and funding to make that sort of victory a reality, that we have handcuffed ourselves so severely in regards to Pakistan, the Afghan government and rules of engagement, that such a result isn’t possible. In other words, our policy in this conflict won’t let us be the strongest tribe. What then to do? West’s answer is to focus our energies on building up the Afghan security forces and partnering our Special Forces with them so that they can fulfill that role.

Highly Recommended!


On the Bookshelf: Search by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Search

A Novel of Forbidden History

by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

 

Many people, without even being aware of it, have been exposed to the work of Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, especially if they are fans of the Star Trek universe and its franchises of television and print offerings. Many of the Star Trek novels with the name of a classic Star Trek actor on the cover have a lot of the Reeves-Stevens’ words on the inside making them look good.

I myself have never read any of the Star Trek novels, but I did read two of the other Reeves-Stevens stand-alone novels, Icefirea Chinese-engineered, nuclear fueled tsunami, disaster story, and Quicksilver, where a female naval cadet and an brilliant but unconventional scientist defend the Pentagon, and the world, from a hijacked orbital superweapon. Both of these books are jam-packed with action, derring-do and great storytelling. Both are great summer-time reads and both can, and should, eventually end up as blockbuster motion pictures.

Search: A Novel of Forbidden History, also fits smoothly into the action-movie-in-the-making genre, fueled by a millenium spanning conspiracy, an eccentric multi-billionaire intent to prove that aliens exist, hidden history, and a 26-year-old scientist for a protagonist who must discover why his genes aren’t human because everyone else he has found with his genetic anomaly has died by the age of 27. Throw in some espionage, a ruthless killer, and exotic locations from tropical paradises to castles to glaciers, and you have a heck of a good read.

I love roller coasters, and Search is the literary equivalent of a really good roller coaster with plenty of loops, twists and whirls. Like Quicksilver and Icefire, Search is a perfect book when all you want to do is take a vacation from reality, and vicariously live on the knife-edge plot of a thrilling action adventure.