Monthly Archives: April 2016

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

Published 2015. 861 pages.

SPECULATIVE FICTION is a wonderful thing! I loved this book! I liked it even better than the author’s Anathem, which I wrote about just after I began this blog (see June 27, 2013).

Science fiction is one way to describe this book, but it could also be called “social science” fiction. In particular, “anthropology fiction”. Emergence of new cultures! The clash of world views and values! And the anthropologist’s dream, contact with long isolated human groups.

Plot wise, this is fiction about disaster and survival. The plot astonished me several times. Stephenson plays around with all manner of archetypes and myths, including the Fall of Eve.

I love to read a book that makes me feel the author really enjoyed writing it. Stephenson has a goofy sense of humor. How else do you explain a character named Sonar Taxlaw? (It does make sense in the context.) He goes ahead and parodies contemporary public figures. POTUS Julia Bliss Flaherty = Hilary Clinton. Probably many other characters would be recognizable to readers more sophisticated than I.

In some ways, two thirds of the book is the set-up. If so inclined, Stephenson could have stretched this out longer than Game of Thrones.

There’s lots of biology in Seveneves, some of it fairly improbable. For example, some humans are capable of “epigenetic shifts”, that is, a change in which of their genes are expressed. Breeding humans that can swim long distances undersea and humans with intentionally “neanderthal” characteristics also seem unlikely. But it’s fiction, so why not go wild.

Stephenson invented (but did not develop) an entirely new social science called “Amistics”. It’s the study of how societies decide whether or not to adopt available new technology – honoring our plain living neighbors in Pennsylvania.

When an author creates so many characters, I have to wonder if there’s one with which he identifies. I’m betting on Tyuratum Lake, the canny bartender who sees and knows ALL.

A friend raised the issue of whether this type of literature is socially unhealthy because it leads people to believe we can irresponsibly trash the earth and then leave for space. This argument has been around for decades – nothing new. We all need to be responsible about how we choose to live. And we all need some escape literature! So why dump this guilt trip on Neal Stephenson in particular?

I enjoyed this book so much I burned through it in a week. I recommend it to anyone with a taste for Sci Fi or fantasy.

Advertisements

“The Color of Water” and “Kill ‘Em and Leave” by James McBride

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother was published in 1996. (I don’t remember when I first read it.) As the struggle for racial justice continues, this book deserves to make a comeback. If you missed it, read it now! First person writing at its best.

I just came face to face with Mr. McBride in the pages of the New York Times. His picture is self effacing, and I nearly missed him. The occasion of his appearance in the Times is publication (April 5!) of his latest book, Kill ‘Em and Leave, subtitled Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.

According to NYT reviewer John Williams, McBride found writing about musician James Brown, aka the “Godfather of Soul”, excruciatingly difficult. Not only was his life riddled with mysteries and contradiction, but after his death, his heirs clashed over distribution of his estate in a grim and wasteful debacle.

Between these two books, McBride wrote three books that sound like fictionalized history (not to be confused with historical fiction), drawing his inspiration from figures like Harriet Tubman and John Brown. His journalism careers includes writing for major newspapers (like The Boston Globe) and magazines including Rolling Stone. Also a musician, he plays tenor saxophone and works as a composer.

I hope McBride keeps working in all these media. He has a powerful voice and deserves to be heard.

“The Tempest” by Shakespeare

Every once in a while, I just need a dose of Shakespeare. It wakes up my brain and tickles my fancy, like a tonic. So I was very happy to attend a performance of The Tempest at Stockton University this week. This was a production by students, University staff and community members.

The Tempest is a comedy (nobody dies), but it deals with serious themes. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, has lost his office to his perfidious brother and suffered 12 years of exile on a desolate island. (Bermuda?!) A scholarly man, he has passed his time studying the magical arts, and is ready to retake his realm and take his young daughter back to her birthplace.

The crux of the play is the question of revenge. Prospero, an accomplished sorcerer, gains power over this enemies, power enough to kill them if he chooses. But he grants forgiveness.

The audience is reminded throughout the play that Shakespeare lived at the end of the age of magic. (Is it past? Do you encounter magical thinking? Indulge in it?) The supernatural elements (spells and sprites) are a large part of the play’s charm.

This Stockton production was highly successful. I was swept away by the poetry, music and plot. The acting, especially Rodger Jackson as Prospero, was first class. I loved Ryan Gorman as poor, bad Caliban and Erica Delbury as Prospero’s daughter Miranda. The entire cast deserves commendation.

So… South Jersey residents don’t need to leave home to enjoy good theater. And this probably applies to anyone who lives within striking distance of a college or university with a drama department. Support your local thespians! And remember the Bard.

“The Voyage of the Narwhal – A Novel” by Andrea Barrett

Published in 1998, 394 pages, Norton paperback edition.

I can’t believe how much I liked this book! It’s one of the best novels I read since Cold Mountain.

(Digression… Why was I predisposed to read this book? My Father’s World War II military service included spending two winters in Point Barrow. Alaska, prospecting for north slope oil. Barrow was a tiny, isolated community and the Navy (Construction Battalion) unit was left more or less on its own for the cold, dark months. Dad came home with an interest in the arctic exploration, and read everything our public library provided about the polar explorers and their journeys. If Dad was alive, I would send him a copy of this wonderful story!

The other thing that hooked me was theword  “narwhal” in the title. The narwahl is a beautiful creature, much less studied than the whale or dolphin. It’s single tusk may be the source of the unicorn legends…)

The plot exceeded my expectations, which were of a standard adventure/survival tale. The 1850s was a period of exploration and public excitement about distant places. An expedition leaves from Philadelphia, hoping to find a missing explorer and fill in some blank places on the emerging map of the far North.

What makes this book work so well? The characters are well conceived and idiosyncratic. The author does not give too much away. I suppose I knew there had to be a “bad guy”, but who it was and what acts he would commit were not signaled in advance. The plot surprised me (more than once), and there was a subtle arc of retribution that I barely caught on my first reading.

Yesterday I glanced at the New York Times (April 1, 2016) and found a review of another novel about the far North, with emphasis on whaling rather than exploration. The North Water by Ian McGuire sounds too gory for me, and possibly too laden with literary references. But I realize this is only one reviewer’s opinion, so I may grab this if I find it on the “new arrivals” shelf at the library.

Meanwhile, I plan to read more by Andrea Barrett.

“The Vietnam War – Lessons Learned and Not Learned” a lecture by William Daniel Ehrhart at Stockton University, March 30, 2016.

I heard Ehrhart speak last week. He is a Vietnam veteran who became an author and poet, and participated extensively as part of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (WWAV). His description of the late sixties and early seventies matches what I remember – the impact of the military draft, the horrors of “pacification”, the trauma experienced by soldiers.

Ehrhart challenges the “rewriting” of history that took place since them, leading President Obama to declare that military service in Vietnam was “honorable” and the US was “right” to have invaded Southeast Asia.

One inaccuracy Ehrhart challenges is a historical timeline that says the Vietnam War “began” in the mid sixties, dismissing the French colonization and other outrages which sowed the seeds of calamity.

During the Q/A time, Ehrhart was challenged by a very recent veteran who disagreed with him about whether our current military exploits are truly different now than in Vietnam. Time did not allow them to continue their discussion.

I considered asking about “moral damage”, a framework now used to understand one aspect of the psychological damage brought home by combat veterans. I think Ehrhart would agree that he suffered that injury. His description of self-destructive behavior during his years of readjustment makes me grateful that he survived. That he has shared his experiences and reflections is a wonderful, if sobering, gift to us all.

“The Ghost Army of World War II – How One TOP SECRET Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sounds Effects and Other Audacious Fakery” by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles

This book was an interesting antidote to Harry Turtledove’s eccentric fantasy fiction version of World War II. (See my blog entry dated March 24, 2016.) Beyer and Sayles wrote about the real World War II, and about DECEPTION as a tactic. These soldiers were officially known as the US Army 23rd Special Troops.

The trickery fell into various categories. First was camouflage. No surprise. But it was pursued at a very sophisticated level, and led to the assembly of a group of soldiers with exceptional artistic talent. Camouflage was needed both in the US (where it was assumed that Nazi spy planes might fly overhead), and in Europe, where troop movements needed to be disguised. Camouflage became less important as the War in Europe progressed, because Allied air power countered German spy missions.

The remaining measures were intended to confuse the enemy about the location of key military divisions, and to make the Allied forces look much more numerous and formidable than they were.

The techniques used were visual deception, sonic deception and radio deception, plus some “play acting”.

Visual deception meant setting up “dummies” or fake equipment, mostly tanks and guns. Inflatable rubber tanks and arms were used to create the impression of battle ready troops where none were available. (Inflatable people never worked out.) This could not have been believable without the addition of “sonic” deception. Any army on the move is noisy! Carefully prepared, highly realistic recordings were blasted through truck mounted speakers. But the whole performance had to be supported through radio deception. The enemy was always listening. Carefully scripted transmissions would continue long after a fighting division had left an area and been replaced by a deception team. Deceptive Morse code transmissions were also broadcast.

And a final layer of trickery was added. The soldiers of the deception team would change their uniforms and the markings on their vehicles, and sometimes impersonate a specific high officer to convince the enemy of the location of a particular unit. Some “disinformation” was planted.

All of which added up to very dangerous work. The deception teams worked close to the enemy and were not heavily armed. Secrecy was essential. They were supposed to draw fire without getting killed.

Did it work? Information about the “ghost army” was classified for decades after the War, but the overall consensus was that their actions saved many lives, and may have been pivotal in the Battle of the Bulge. Had the enemy known of Patton’s weakness, perhaps he would have been overrun. (This oversimplifies a very complex situation.)

The deception teams included many artists. Although notes and journals were prohibited by security regulations, the artists were never separated from their sketchbooks. These books and their letters home constituted an amazing visual archive of World War II.

This book was preceded by a documentary film and a exhibition catalog. This may explain its slightly awkward style. But it is well worth reading!