Distractions, Diversions, Books, Wines, Whiskeys and Other Stuff To Think About When You Should Be Doing Something Else.

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.

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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.


On the 5GW Bookshelf: Sleights of Mind by Macknik and Martinez-Conde with Blakeslee

Sleights of Mind

What the Neuroscience of Magic

Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions.

by Stephen L Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde

with Sandra Blakeslee

For a very long time I have had an intuition closely linking the principles of Fifth Gradient Warfare with the principles of magic. I have been intrigued by the World War Two exploits of magician Jasper Maskelyne and his Magic Gang. I have explored the fascinating 5GW aspects of Derren Brown’s chessboard mentalism (to this day I feel this is one of my best 5GW posts and possibly the finest example of 5GW on the tactical, operational and strategic levels). I have studied books that teach illusion techniques. All of these focus on how the magic is performed. None of them explores why magic and illusion fool us.

Sleights of Mind explores the why.

The authors of the book are Dr. Stephen L. Macknik; Director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. Dr. Susana Martinez-Conde; Director of the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience at BNI (and, incidentally, married to Dr. Macknik), and Sandra Blakeslee who is a regular contributor to the “Science Times” at The New York Times and author of The Body has a Mind of Its Own.

At the outset the authors invoke Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”; Niven’s converse of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”; and a paraphrase of Niven’s Law by Agatha Heterodyne (“Girl Genius”): “Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!” From there they go on to explain, through neuroscience, how magicians manipulate attention and assumption in order to manipulate us, to make us perceive the impossible. Sleights of Mind contains dozens of examples of magic tricks, the technical secrets behind their performance, and the neuroscientific basis that explains why it is that we can’t help but to be fooled. Included are in-depth conversations with dozens of master magicians (including my personal favorites Penn and Teller). It is especially interesting to see the back-and-forth between the magicians and the scientists, the former revealing the ways and traditions of illusionists that have been learned through trial and error, the latter explaining the unconscious mechanisms of the mind that make illusions possible.

“Magic tricks work because humans have a hardwired process of attention and awareness that is hackable. By understanding how magicians hack our brains, we can better understand how the same cognitive tricks are at work in advertising strategy, business negotiations, and all varieties of interpersonal relations. When we understand how magic works in the mind of the spectator, we will have unveiled the neural bases of consciousness itself.”

Sleights of Mind is as fascinating as it is informative, easily extending onto cognition, economics, memory, art and the things in our head that make us think we have conscious control of many of our choices. Anyone who has an interest in 5GW, and / or John Boyd and his Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) Loop should immediately add Sleights of Mind to their must-read list.

More information about the book and the authors, including some very interesting videos of neuroscience and magic in action, can be found at the Sleights of Mind website.


On the Bookshelf: The Vaults by Toby Ball

The Vaults

by Toby Ball

I am well aware that if I let myself I’ll do nothing but keep going back to the books and the authors that I already know and love. I am lucky I have enough favorite authors, books, and topics that I would rarely, if ever, be bored in my familiar worlds. On the other hand, if I don’t switch things up and try something new, I’ll never discover the worlds and ideas that help me grow in knowledge and imagination.

The Vaults came to my bookshelf by having a really cool looking cover and an intriguing title. I randomly pulled it from the shelf at my local public library and decided to take it home without reading the synopsis. I had never heard of Toby Ball (which makes sense because this is his first novel) and I wanted to read the book with as few expectations as possible. I should do that much more often. I had a really good time doing it.

The Vaults is a noir-ish crime thriller that, while set in the 1930’s, has a timeless quality that comes from a well crafted setting and a story built with characters whose motives and actions weave together into a solid plot. The players are drawn from the best of noir tropes. In addition to a corrupt, former prize-fighting, mayor and the old-school gangsters, there is the newspaper reporter whose insights earn him accolades and enemies and who could be even better except for his drug habit. There is a private detective who makes his living mainly working for the poor and occasionally treading on the wrong side of the law to victimize the rich. My personal favorite character is the archivist at the eponymous Vaults. He is a man of singular intelligence and insight who would be a fearsome detective if not for his personal reticence. He is the overseer and guardian of the Vaults, the repository for all of the evidence and documents chronicling all of the crime collected in the history of the City. Oh yes, the most interesting character of all, the City. It is unnamed and unmapped and embodies the Gotham-like foggy, rainy, mystery of any good noir story. It has elements of New York and Chicago, with a strong immigrant heritage and neighborhood enclaves, but it seems grittier and more industrial, like a Pittsburgh or a Detroit The City is big enough to be a broad canvas, isolated into its own little world, but small enough that the personalities of its inhabitants can have big impacts on the events in and around it.

The Vaults was a good read and I really enjoyed it. Toby Ball, as an author, has great potential. My only complaint with The Vaults, and not even much of one as I will explain, is that some of the characters could have been combined, the reporter and the detective, the archivist and the retired transcriber, as well as the mayor’s two thugs. However, it appears that The Vaults will be the first book in a series, or at least the first book set in a world that will include other stories involving the City and its characters. If The Vaults had been a stand-alone novel it would have benefitted from the focus of a smaller cast of viewpoint characters, but as a series, the potential of more diverse viewpoints means the world can go in many more directions.

The next Novel of the City (I don’t know if anyone has created an official title for the series, but that one feels right to me. Feel free to put it on the cover!) by Toby Ball will be called Scorch City, and according to the author’s website will be available at the end of August. He also mentions a third book he has just started with the working title of Invisible Streets. I’m looking forward to both of them!


On the Bookshelf: Griftopia by Matt Taibbi

Griftopia

Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids

and the Long Con That is Breaking America

by Matt Taibbi

I am afraid. What am I afraid of, you ask? I am afraid that our country is out of control economically and politically. I am afraid that our leaders (and by that I mean anyone who holds a position of any sort of influence) are so short-sighted and uncaring about the larger picture and the long-term destination that is the focus of vision, that they can’t grasp this fact. I am afraid that even if they knew, they really wouldn’t care anyway because their ultimate goal is to take care of themselves, first and foremost, and everyone else is a very distant second if at all deserving of any consideration. In short, I am afraid that what Matt Taibbi writes about in Griftopia is true.

On the bailouts:

“We paid for this instead of a generation of health insurance, or an alternative energy grid, or a brand-new system of roads and highways. With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single sub-prime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country — and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.

But we didn’t do that, and we didn’t spend the money on anything else useful, either. Why? For a very good reason. Because we’re no good anymore at building bridges and highways or coming up with brilliant innovations in energy or medicine. We’re shit now at finishing massive public works projects or launching brilliant fairy-tale public policy ventures like the moon landing.

What are we good at? Robbing what’s left. When it comes to that, we Americans have no peer. And when it came time to design the bailouts, a monster collective project spanning two presidential administrations that was every bit as vast and far-reaching (not only in the future but in the past) as Kennedy’s trip to the moon, we showed it.”

(page 123)

Griftopia is the story of the 2008 financial collapse as well as other financial absurdity as practiced by our modern-day Wall Street geniuses and local, state and national politicians. While all of it is thought-provoking and, at times, downright unbelievable, what makes it so impactful is the style in which it is told. In reading this book it would be easy to imagine sitting next to Taibbi in a dimly lit bar slowly working your way through a bottle of whiskey while he pulls back the curtain a bit on the financial industry revealing its underlying flaws and dirty little secrets. It also has the truthful ring of real journalism. While the facts themselves may be taken from certain points of view and may contain other possible biases of perspective, access and memory, you can tell that the author did his homework while researching this fiasco.

While Griftopia is great at describing the problems with our financial world what this book does not contain is a solution to the problem, and the problem still very much exists. The same people who nearly sent this country into depression are still in their jobs, still earning fat paychecks and collecting fatter bonuses. The politicians who enabled them are still accepting checks from the lobbyists. The laws still allow the deranged deals that created the mess. The taxpayers are on the hook for this disaster and, with precedent firmly in place, are potentially on the hook for the next, and they likely don’t even know it. I am generally optimistic when it comes to the innovative spirit of America, but it makes me pessimistic to realize that the wealth those innovations can and should create is likely to be sucked up by an unscrupulous financial industry who manipulates laws and puts regulators in their pockets. I am even more pessimistic that it won’t change, can’t change, without more pain and irreversible damage than the business of the country could possibly endure.


On the Bookshelf: Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood

Dead or Alive

by Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood

 I was unsure if I really wanted to write a review of this doorstop of a novel (950 pages that with smaller type and narrower margins could have saved a couple of hundred pages). I would assume that with an author like Tom Clancy on the cover there will be plenty of reviews out there anyway and, like it or hate it, the novel is likely to sell about a bazillion copies on that alone. So, like it or hate it? Well, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it either, at least not as much as previous novels written by Clancy, assuming Clancy did the writing. I’m not sure about bringing Grant Blackwood on board. I guess Mr. Clancy is very busy with his multi-media empire, and I can understand franchising his name for “Tom Clancy’s” spinoffs, but the Jack Ryan novels are his bread-and-butter. Those characters and his writing are why I read them. Admittedly, Blackwood’s writing is a far cry from fan fiction as he is a published author in his own right, and I’m sure Clancy had the opportunity for plenty of input, but in the seven or so years between novels couldn’t Clancy manage to sit down long enough to write the book on his own?

Anyway, the plot. The private spy agency (and yes, it is a private spy agency that specializes in “wet-work” with no congressional oversight) known as The Campus is out to get The Emir. The Emir is the Clancyverse analog to Osama bin Laden and leader of the terrorist network that essentially combines al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Clancy apparently didn’t think it was plausible for Jack Ryan Jr. and his cousins to track down the world’s most wanted terrorist on their own, so he recruited John Clark and his trusty sidekick Ding Chavez to The Campus to help. There is also some stuff about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, Jack Ryan Sr. deciding if he wants to run for president again and a murder investigation into a U.S. Army Ranger who killed several terrorists in their sleep during a special-ops mission to try to catch The Emir.

Ok, enough about the plot, if you really want to know how it goes down you’ll read the book.

An editorial digression:

Not to put too much significance into a novel (though it is ideas in things like novels that have an effect on popular attitudes) I would like to make a few points about the series and where it is headed, which is, I think, in something of a dangerous direction. Much is made in military theory circles about the loss of the State’s monopoly on violence. Interstate terrorism is a prime example of this. What Clancy is essentially doing in Dead or Alive, is creating an organization in The Campus, that is exactly the same as the terrorists it is hunting and I think this is a problem. It is believed that terrorist activity is financed, at least in part, by money that comes from the drug trade in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Campus, which wears the public face of an investment brokerage house, unapologetically finances itself through illegal insider trading. Terrorists believe that their causes allow them to justify torture and to murder those who do not believe as they do in order to make a point. Look at any beheading video for an example of this activity. The Campus also feels justified in torture and murder in order to fight their personal fight. They are doing it for all the right reasons in their mind, but their actions are just as subversive to the foundations of law and justice as those of the terrorists. It makes me feel no better that The Campus has a stack of blank presidential pardons for anyone at The Campus caught breaking the laws of the United States signed by Jack Ryan. To me, that perverts the law even more blatantly.

The sub-plot about the Army Ranger being investigated for murder serves to underscore this disconnect. It is as if Clancy is further justifying and advocating the vigilantism of The Campus because politicians won’t get out of the way of the trigger-pullers and let them beat the terrorists.


On the Bookshelf: Citadel by John Ringo

Citadel

Troy Rising: Book 2

by John Ringo

Sometimes you just need some hard-core science fiction. Nothing quite scratches that action itch like plucky space marines killing lizard-like or squid-like aliens in droves.

As is pretty typical for humanity in science fiction stories, we Earthlings were discovered by aliens that treated us very badly. Our capitols were bombed from orbit. A vicious virus was released among the population. Humanity eventually fought back, harnessing the power of our sun to throw off the yoke of our overlord race, the Horvath. But that didn’t happen in this book, it happened in the previous novel in the series, Live Free or Die, which I highly recommend reading.

This novel is Citadel, the second novel of the series. The eponymous citadel is the Troy, a space station guarding the hypergate entrance to the Earth system. The Troy is an asteroid that was melted and then expanded like a giant metal balloon to become an orbital fortress with nickel/iron walls a kilometer and a half thick and the capability of simultaneously launching more missiles than an invasion fleet can carry, as well as holding a small fleet inside its walls and being the targeting focus for the solar mining system that measures its power in the hundreds of petawatts (that’s 10 with 15 zeros behind it).

Can you say Death Star?

 As fearsome as it appears the Troy is the first, and only, line of defense for the Earth, and the enemy is at the gates. That enemy is the Rangora and they are poised to launch an invasion of the Glatun, the only alien race that has been friendly to the Earth. The Glatun are an old and very advanced race that historically has helped the races around them, including the Horvath and Rangora, rise and prosper so that they may become better trading partners. Now their civilization is on the decline and though they have a capable navy, the Rangora have the most powerful military in the region, and securing the Earth system will undoubtedly be part of their attack plan. The partially completed Troy and its new sibling station the Thermopylae must stand against fleets of the most powerful warships ever created, Rangora Assault Vectors.

As I’ve said before, science fiction like this is pure brain candy. Too much of it will rot your mind but it sure does taste good. Just call John Ringo the candy man (if admittedly a dark and kind of twisted sort of candy man). Hopefully, Citadel will tide me over until the next installment of the Troy Rising series, The Hot Gates.


On the Bookshelf: The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card

The Lost Gate

Book 1 of the Mithermages Trilogy

by Orson Scott Card

The way you can tell when you are reading a book by a real, master, storyteller is when the story seems to effortlessly unfold with every word. Those are the kinds of books that you can’t put down, the kind of books that you will open back up, even for a sentence or two, even when you know you will just have to put it right back down again. Books by true storytellers aren’t necessarily technically perfect, far from it. But in spite of their holes and other imperfections you just don’t care because you are caught up in the story, the pacing, the vision.

In The Lost Gate Orson Scott Card has created such a book.

I honestly can’t judge this book on its technical merits because I was too into the story to care enough to pay attention to them. First, I’m a sucker for fantasy books set in the modern world. Second, I have always loved mythology and the very idea of the truth behind the myth being revealed is a kind of magic in its own right. Third, if any author is going to write about a teenager in a way that isn’t going to be a knockoff of Harry Potter or Twilight, it is Orson Scott Card, the author of the best book about a kid that doesn’t read like a book about a kid; Ender’s Game.

The Lost Gate is the story of ancient gods made real. The main character, Danny North, is a member of the magical family that gave rise to the ancient gods of the Norse. Odin and Thor still walk the earth, though in very different ways from ancient times. They along with members of other families descended from the various pantheons of gods still constantly war among themselves, but their powers have faded and no longer do ordinary humans worship them as gods and join them as their proxies. These magical families have lost the Gate to their home and source of power, Westil, a gate stolen more than a thousand years ago by a gatemage of the North family, Loki. After Loki stole the gates, all of the families agreed that should any gatemage appear among the families, they would be killed, for they would be far too dangerous. Danny North discovers he is a gatemage and now must flee for his life as he learns to control a power lost in legend that nobody can teach him from experience to control.

Gee, another trilogy to add to my never-shorter antilibrary of books that haven’t even been published yet.

(Authors Note: In linking to Orson Scott Card’s personal website I learned that he suffered a mild stroke on the first of the year. My thoughts are with you and I wish you a speedy recovery sir.)


On the Bookshelf: Echo by Jack McDevitt

Echo

by Jack McDevitt

I have been a fan of Jack McDevitt’s books for a long time (and the eye-catching covers of his books by artist John Harris). I think the main reason would be that while Mr. McDevitt’s books would largely be described as Science Fiction, they are first and foremost stories. In other words, though the novels include superluminal starships, A.I.’s, and a host of other futuristic concepts, those elements that would define it as Science Fiction serve only as the setting for the story, not the story itself.

Echo is a great example. The novel is essentially a treasure hunt mystery with an interplanetary scale, sparked by a stone tablet carved with strange, unidentifiable symbols once owned by an explorer who spent his life unsuccessfully searching for non-human intelligent life among the stars. What starts out as a curiosity soon becomes deadly serious. In the tradition of Doyle, antiquities dealer Alex Benedict is the Sherlock Holmes of the story with his friend / assistant / interstellar pilot Chase Kolpath serving in the role of Watson as the narrator for the events of the book.

I really enjoyed Echo. The story itself is fairly typical of other Alex Benedict novels but it still contains that undefinable element that makes the reader eager to turn the pages that McDevitt always seems to have in spades. Lately, some of the books on my shelf have been uninteresting, stale, or personally disagreeable and have left me unmotivated to read (those who know me well would find that hard to believe but it is nonetheless true). Echo is just the sort of story I needed to re-motivate me to dive into the next novel or text in the pile.