Category Archives: book review

Old Man’s War

About three months ago I read John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. It was brought to my attention by numerous references over at Instapundit, and after hearing enough positive things about it I decided to read it. I actually purchased a hardcover copy off of Amazon. I’m finding that blogs have enormous persuasive power with me when it comes to music, movies, and books. If a blog I read and respect has positive comments about something, I almost always make an effort to at least check it out online.

Old Man’s War is Scalzi’s first foray into science-fiction, and he makes a pretty good showing for himself. The main premise behind the story is in the future the human species has expanded far beyond Earth but is locked in unending mortal combat with alien species, grabbing as many star systems as possible. In this future, the soldiers are not the youth but the old. Through a variety of high-tech bodily upgrades and enhancements each person is transformed into a super-human soldier equipped with stronger muscles, a brain computer, and ramped up sensory perception. Of course, the soldiers are then trained to be the ultimate killing machine so that they might, just might, have a chance to survive when fighting aliens. And the aliens in Old Man’s War are vicious and merciless. The reader follows the hero of the book from the time he first enlists at 75, through training, numerous battles, and finally to the last epic battle to capture a devastating piece of alien technology.

As a nerd, I really enjoyed reading this book, which was proven by the fact that I read it in 8 hours and on top of my school readings. The technology described in the book has a lot of wow factor. Many times I felt the way I did when I read the first chapter of Starship Troopers. There are some really cool toys in future, and I want them. For me, the universe of the book is the best part about it. Everything from the technology to the aliens to the environments were fun to read about. And that’s what science-fiction is about right? Fun? I think so. I just want a gripping plot that propels me from Point A to Point B. As long as it does that I can overlook other short comings in the story.

Scalzi’s writing style isn’t anything to write home about, but I don’t read science-fiction for the superb writing. But I have a soft spot for Scalzi anyway. He blogs, has an iMac, and gave free electronic copies of Old Man’s War to the troops. This guy is cool and his books are cool too. I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel to Old Man’s War.

Brave New World

I just got a comment that reminded me I hadn’t posted a quick review of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I read this in one day over Thanksgiving weekend.

Of all the dystopia, future-state books and movies I’ve consumed (numerous, to be sure), this is the only one that does not present a clear picture that the Big Brother is evil. The citizens of the World State live in a world where people are bred to fulfill certain roles in life, have access to a sedative drug that produces a euphoric high with no side-effects, and go about their lives in blissful ignorance of what a freer life would be like. Things unravel slightly when a Savage is brought in from a Reservation. The Savage has read Shakespeare, thus breeding in him a desire for passions, properness, and, most of all, a true choice between happiness and misery.

The first half of the book laid the groundwork so the reader knows what the World State is like for those who are happy with it and for those few people who feel that something is not right. The human growing and socializing aspects are interesting from a science-fiction perspective, but it is the last twenty pages of the book where the book gains its worth. There is a discussion between the governor of the World State and the Savage that is thought provoking. I was almost persuaded that the happily peaceful but mediocre existence of the populace was a good thing. The possibility is definitely tempting.

The one thing I hate about writing book reviews is that I invariably get my verb tenses messed up. It’s late, I have class early tomorrow; so instead of proofing it I’ll just apologize for my screw ups. Where’s my soma!?

Shorts by Faulkner

A couple of Saturdays ago I finished my collection of shorts by William Faulkner. I was most interested in reading the story “Two Soldiers.” A short film based on the story won an Oscar this year.

I’m rather jealous of Faulkner’s name. Not that there is anything wrong with Barnett, but Faulkner just has a nice ring to it. Notice:
“So what are you reading these days?”
“I’m reading Faulkner.”
“Ooooo.”
See? It just sounds cool to say you’re reading Faulkner.

Faulkner’s writing style and subject matter are both interesting. His novel use of adjectives is at times perplexing. For example, he once described silence as “infinitesimal .” What is that suppose to mean exactly? I think I have a general idea, but the concept is vague at best and meaningless at worst. I also was frustrated with his liberal use of pronouns. There were some moments I could only determine the antecedents by finishing the paragraph and then picking out what was most logical. Some times identifying which “he” he was referring to was a total crapshoot. Finally, it seemed many of the thirteen stories in this collection had no climax and unresolved conclusions. The narrative just meandered along, building up some tension, never releasing it, and then ending.

As far as subject matter, most of the stories took place somewhere down South and usually somewhere between the Civil War and the First World War. Relationships between underprivilged blacks and whites were common plots. “Dry September” is about a black man who is accused of raping a white woman and is lynched for it. His guilt is an open question at the end of the story. The dialogue and sometimes the narrative is written in the abbreviated, idiomatic speaking mannerisms of country folk of the time. Sometimes this was annoying, but over all it added more to the atmosphere of the stories than it detracted from my enjoyment of the stories.

I think I’d recommend at least borrowing this book from a friend or a library. I wouldn’t say this is a must for any Well Stocked Library. If you do borrow it, I’d recommend these stories, skipping the rest: “Two Soldiers,” “Lo!,” “Turnabout,” “Honor,” and “Race at Morning.” “Two Soldiers” and “Turnabout” are definitely the best.

A Few Quick Ones

P.G. Wodehouse’s A Few Quick Ones (1959) is a collection of ten short stories. None of the stories are directly related, though some have the same characters. The plots range from a pimply millionaire attempting to score big with wrestlers to men wooing women into engagement to golfing tournaments to a fat uncle competition. I found the plots to be rather entertaining, full of humorous coincidence and cleverly concocted catastrophes.

Where Wodehouse really shines is in his writing style. If I had to describe it with one word, I’d say it is “delightful.” If I could use one more word, I’d say “simply delightful.” His novel similies often brought a smile to my lips along with a quiet chuckle. And, see, that’s the thing. It is very rare that a book actually makes me laugh. Wodehouse made me laugh at least a dozen times. His light-heartedness and outlandishness lend a comic flair to just about every character, event, description, or opinion. Here is a fine example:

In these disturbed days in which we live, it has probably occurred to all thinking men that something drastic ought to be done about aunts. Speaking for myself, I have long felt that stones should be turned and avenues explored with a view to putting a stopper on the relatives in question. If someone were to come to me and say, “Wooster, would you be interested in joining a society I am starting whose aim will be the suppression of aunts or at least will see to it that they are kept on a short chain and not permitted to roam hither and thither at will, scattering desolation on all sides?” I would reply, “Wilbraham,” if his name was Wilbraham, “I am with you heart and soul. Put me down as a foundation member.”

I wanted a thoroughly happy book to read, and I got one. I’d highly recommend this book to anybody who wants a light, entertaining read. What other book has character names such as “Mabel Murgatroyd”?

Night

This morning I read Night by Elie Wiesel, a winner Nobel Peace Prize (read his speech). Night is Wiesel’s memoir of his experience with the Holocaust.

Wiesel and his family were in Hungary, so they weren’t exiled to the concentration camps until 1944, when rumors of Germany’s defeat were already whispering the question of “when?” and not “if?”. However, the Nazis were too thorough and efficient to let the Jews in Sighet to go without suffering. First, there were just soldiers moving into the city, then there were curfews, then they were forbidden to worship at the synogogues, then they were forced into ghettos, and then finally they were deported to Auschwitz.

The next year and a half of Wiesel’s life was a story of horror, desperation, and suffering. There is no reason to go into detail. Fortunately for Wiesel, he spent most of his time in the relative “paradise” of a sub-camp of Auschwitz, called Buna, and he had not been separated from his father. But as the Eastern front approached Buna, they were evacuated, and Wiesel was forced on a truly horrific migration in the dead of winter, where 100 bodies would enter a cattlecar but only a dozen would stumble out. By the end, sons had turned against fathers, sometimes beating them just to steal a scrap a bread, and the faith of many men had been shattered.

Wiesel writes:

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

He was only fifteen.

A Grief Observed

The first day of spring! How better to spend the early afternoon than to sit outside a coffee shop, sipping blackberry sage tea, and reading a book about grief? Well, I’ll have you know there isn’t a better way, and I, in my relentless pursuit of the best, did just that.

I believe Lewis remains consistent with his earlier work The Problem of Pain, and for some reason this surprises me. I guess it shouldn’t, but I thought he would back off from his rather utilitarian view of pain. Lewis’ reflection on the death of his wife is in some ways similar to Wolterstorff’s thoughts about the loss of his son. Both are also written in the same style: a journal of unstructured thoughts, essentially a stream of consciousness. Lewis, like Wolterstorff, finds little comfort in the platitudes of sympathetic others. Indeed, Lewis debunks most of them, showing them to be irrational or hollow.

Lewis viewed the death of his wife at least partly as a divine tool used to blow down his house of cards he had constructed. The pain, the suffering, the utter ache he was cast into was the method God used to tear down the weak structure of his happiness so that a stronger one could be erected. In this, he is thoroughly consistant with The Problem of Pain.

After reading this book, I once again wish I had at least a small fraction of Lewis’ ability to develop deep, accurate metaphors. If I did, I would immediately give up all other aspirations and be a writer.
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Currently listening to “Piano Concerto No 4 (03 Rondo Vivace)” by Beethoven

I, Robot

I just finished reading Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. It is a small book that is a collection of loosely tied together short stories that were printed in science-fiction magazines between the years of 1941 and 1950. It’s interesting to read science-fiction in which the future of the book is my present time, and it is slightly humorous to see the writer date himself by referring to objects that are now fossils of the past (e.g. sliderules). However, despite these very slight shortcomings, the book is a fascinating read. In most of the stories, Asimov sets up a seemingly intractable problem involving a robot which is behaving undesirably or appears to be malfunctioning, and then the human characters must figure out how to get the robot back on track. Usually this involves somehow manipulating the logic and rules that are essential for the robot to function.

One of the more interesting stories has a robot called Cutie who, upon activation, becomes something akin to a stereotypical Fundamentalist Protestant. It rejects the facts that its two engineers are trying to convince it to believe, assumes its own superiority to the humans, establishes there is a Master, and then becomes the prophet of the Master. It is easy to say that Asimov was just parodying the Fundamentalist rejection of modern science, but I do think it’s interesting that Cutie came to its belief in a Master strictly by pure reason. Ultimately, the two engineers can’t get Cutie to abandon its “faith” but discover that it operates perfectly otherwise, so they just leave it be.

I’d recommend I, Robot. It’s a light, quick read that touches on some interesting issues of ethics, humanity, and government.

By the way, there is going to be an I, Robot movie this summer with Will Smith. It’s probably a real good bet that it won’t be anything like the book, but it will probably be entertaining enough. You can see the preview here.
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Currently listening to “The Greatest Fall (Of All Time)” from the album Stories & Alibis by Matchbook Romance