Saturday, February 24, 2007

14. Cloud Warrior, Book 1 of the Amtrak Wars by Patrick Tilley

Cloud Warrior cover picture

Oh, I am in such turmoil! Our Post-apocalyptic lit expert at the Mount Benson Report recommended this book to me as being well respected in the PA community. It's part of a trilogy (which at this point seem inevitable if I am going to continue reading sci-fi). But I just went to the author's website and found it there are actually two trilogies! Oh, the reading ahead of me.

Anyways, this book rocked. Most of the PA I have read is sort of near-future disasters, things that could happen in our time (No Blade of Grass, Fugue for a Darkening Island, I Am Legend) or in a very near future (most of the Ballard books). The Amtrak Wars is big future PA, taking place 900 years after the fall, with tribes of mutants ("Mutes") on the surface and a growing community of militaristic pures living underground in a super disciplined society. The underground society is built around controlling myths and restricted information. The Mutes are blamed for the wars that destroyed the world and the whole society is geared around slowly expanding their territory on the surface, killing the Mutes (and sometimes enslaving them) as they go. The Federation (as the underground society is known) drives these giant wagon trains of super high tech battle buses and fly sorties from their roof, shooting down Mutes and dropping napalm on their fields.

The Mutes, at least the ones we see, have their own myths, which are much more spiritual. Though they suffer from physical (mainly deformities) and mental mutations (most have no memory), they have a rich tribal life, are powerful warriors and some of them have special "magical" abilities. Their spiritual leader is called a Wordsmith, because he is someone with a memory. It is the Wordsmith's job to remember the 900 years of their history and to pass this on to the next Wordsmith. There are also Seers, who can see the future in some objects, and Summoners, who can control shit with their minds.

The structure of the story is divided between Steve, a hotshot rookie pilot for the federation and Cadillac, a junior Wordsmith. Their two stories are told separately, until they come together.

I am totally into the setting. There is also tons of great action (with some pretty gruesome violence). The whole thing is really well thought out, with the mores of the tribe gradually revealed and the complexities of the Federation life as well. There is tons of mystery and I really want to find out more about what is going on behind this world. Finally, the whole thing has a mellow attitude at its core. The Mutes smoke weed and do mushrooms. You know they are the good guys.

I'm totally following this series.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

13. A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945

Grossman cover picture

Edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova

I got this book for xmas. It is the journals of Vasily Grossman, who was one of the major Russian war correspondents in the Russian front during WWII. He wrote a couple of novels, including one about Stalingrad. Riding with the russian army as it entered Poland and Germany, he was also one of the first to see the concentration camps and his writings on that were a significant part of the evidence used at the Nuremburg trials.

Antony Beevor is a well-regarded military historian and his Stalingrad was another book that I really enjoyed. He puts the journals excerpts into context, framing each one with information about the progress of the war, the political context and backgrounds of individuals mentioned. It's just the right amount. The footnotes, especially, are sparse and appropriate. I really hate histories with excessive footnoting. I feel compelled to read them, but they distract from the main narrative. Beevor gets it right here.

The story is just incredible. Stalingrad is an amazing piece of history, but the subsequent German retreat is even more crazy, as captured villages are freed, and the peasants come out from hiding in the forest or households taken over by the nazis tell their stories. When the Russians finally get into Germany, they pick up speed and their revenge is famously fierce. There are roads so deep with german bodies that the tanks just drive on top of them. Grossman was present for all of this and his journals capture more than what he was allowed to write in the official newspapers. He has the perspective of the civilian who has deep respect for the soldier. Because he has lived side by side with them, he also gains their respect and they open up to him more than they normally would.

This book really impacted me for many reasons. It was a reminder of the scale of the Second World War. I know the history, but when you delve back into the details, it is just mind-blowing. It reminds me again of how soft we have become. How minor something like 9/11 is in the world scale of war (obviously not minor to the people directly affected, but no violence is). Just for one example, before the war Warsaw had 1,310,000 people. When the Russians arrived, there were 162,000 living there. 380,000 of the inhabitants were Jews who first held in the Lodz ghetto and then sent to their deaths.

The second thing that blew my mind was Grossman's incredibly detailed and specific recounting of how the extermination worked at Treblinka. I had read his original essay in college "The Hell Called Treblinka" but had forgotten how incredibly powerful it is. I wish this was in the public domain, because I think it should be mandatory reading for all human beings. It goes a long way towards demolishing that myth that humans have some kind of innate moral superiority. The combination of mechanistic efficiency and terror are profoundly frightening. Stayed with me for days.

Finally, the history of that period is so fascinating. It is completely against my nature, but I am growing more and more attracted to Russian stuff, the history, the writers, the culture. Those pretentious kids that decided to be all interested in Russia used to annoy the shit out of me in college, but sort of accidently, through the few Russian books I read and some Russian friends, I am seeing the appeal. Their phlegmatic and tough character is pretty cool and the way it weaves its way through their propaganda, history and politics makes for interesting times.

This was a great book. I strongly recommend it. It reads quickly, is never boring, educational and is a great example of truth being stranger than fiction.

One note, that I had forgotten, and I found very applicable to today, was how the concentration of power made for inept military strategy. Both Stalin and Hitler made absolutely retarded decisions in 1942. Stalin refused to believe the Nazis were actually capable of approaching Russia, despite the warnings of all his top commanders in the field. People were demoted and later sent to gulags for telling him the truth and because he ignored them, the Germans had a much easier time moving on southern Russia. In his turn, Hitler got totally bogged down in Stalingrad, a city that was no longer strategically significant, because he was obsessed with catching it as a prize. The resistance the german soldiers met there (and their unpreparedness for the winter) ultimately caused the turning point in the war, many historians argue. If it wasn't so depressing, it would be funny, how, despite so much historical evidence to the contrary, we still allow our militaries to be directed by our civilian leaders.

Okay, one more thing. Another really amazing moment in this book is when the red army finally arrives in Germany, they are totally blown away by the pristine beauty and wealth of the german villages. The rich, organized farms, the lovely chalets, the stocked larders. Why, if they had all this, did they come to Russia? they constantly ask. A good question.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

12. The Sweet Forever by George P. Pelecanos

The Sweet Forever cover pictureThe Sweet Forever is the third in the Washington Quartet (though seeing his other books, many of which take place in D.C., I'm not quite sure of the solidity of that label). It takes place ten years after the events in King Suckerman. The funk and chaos of the 70s have morphed into something more serious, something emptier. Everybody is doing blow and making money. The ghetto and the criminals have gotten harder and colder. Dmitri Karras and Marcus Clay are still the main protagonists. Marcus' record stores (of which there was just the one in King Suckerman) are succesful. Dmitri is a manager there and addicted to cocaine.

Whereas King Suckerman, the crime and danger element came in sort of randomly (a bunch of psychos on a crime spree), here it has become an indelible part of the landscape, a constant threat that inevitably pushes itself into the lives of anyone who stays in the city. A car crashes into a telephone pole outside the record store in the rough part of town (Marcus Clay is trying to revitalize the economy; his other stores are in the college areas or hip, white parts of town). A guy waiting for his girl to pick up some coke from Dmitri sees it happen and steals a pillowcase full of dope money from the wreck before the cops show up. The hunt is on. There are many characters, most of them broken or on their way to being damaged: street children recruited by the gangs, corrupt cops, rednecks, mothers trying to hold it down.

It's a quick and entertaining read, but I wasn't so sure about this one. It was much more moralistic than the first two, and yet it didn't go anywhere that new. It lacked the random chaos of King Suckerman and the rich, social depth of the Big Blowdown. It also never really punched. Marcus Clay is an ex-vietnam vet and he does some cool stuff, but not enough to get you really jazzed. This would be fine except that the way the ending develops, you think there is going to be another big violent clash where the old school guys show up the new ghetto young bucks. It doesn't really happen.

You do see the oncoming threat of crack and the insane corruption and incompetence in the political leaders. But there is more lamenting and moralizing than depth of place and character and it left the book a bit thin. It's cool the way he has populated a universe. From blurbs of his other books, I can see several characters that popped up in The Sweet Forever have their own intriguing stories. I'm going to give some time before reading the fourth and final book in the quartet. Hopefully it will walk the line between genre thriller and social consciousness book more adroitly.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

11. King Suckerman by George P. Pelecanos

King Suckerman cover pictureKing Suckerman is the second in what is known as The Washington Quartet, the series of books, starting with the Big Blowdown, that take place in Washington, D.C. over the years. King Suckerman takes place in 1976 and is about two friends who, through their own tangential connection to the drug world and impetuousness, get involved with some total psycho criminals. One of the characters is Dmitri Karras, a young, good-looking guy just living the easy life, getting high, playing basketball, chasing women and just dealing a little weed on the side. He is the son of the main character from The Big Blowdown. His friend, Marcus Clay, is a black guy who runs his own record store and though likes to party and ball, has got his life shit together. He also was in some kind of badass outfit in 'Nam (that always helps).

If I hadn't read The Big Blowdown first, I would have come away from King Suckerman with a very different view of the author. This book is fast and tough, not bothering to spend a lot of time on the kind of character depth and culture texture its predecessor did. It reminded me a lot of Charles Willeford, crazy people on a criminal roll and things just happening. There is certainly a lot of emphasis placed on the period, music, clothes and cars are carefully detailed. And in passing the reader is shown what became of the immigrant neighbourhoods of the 40s. But it doesn't capture a time and place so totally.

That's not a criticism, though, because the lack of depth of place is not reallly an omission. I suspect it might have even been done on purpose, maybe Pelecano's way of trying to capture that fast and loose feeling of the 70s. The story moves, the characters are cool and there is a lot of pretty rough action. It gets dark at parts, too. A bit nasty, even.

It's neat the way Pelecanos has stretched his characters across such a long time span. I'm quite psyched to start the third book in the series to see where he takes it in the 80s.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

10. Startide Rising by David Brin

Startide Rising cover pictureDavid Brin is very well respected and recommended. His Uplift series is well-known in the geekosphere. I read Sundiver and found it wanting a bit. I was not motivated to continue the series, especially with so much more sci-fi in front of me that I haven't read yet. However, two new friends I have met, whose taste in other things so far seems quite solid, strongly recommended that I give the series a second chance. They both agreed that Sundiver was the weakest of the first trilogy. That information clinched it for me and I kept an eye out for a cheap used copy, which I eventually found at Half-Price books in berkeley. Actually, not a tough find at all. There are so many used copies available that it is more of a challenge to find it as cheap as possible. I got it for a buck seventy-five, autographed as well ("Hello, Mike! —David Brin").

The Uplift universe is made up of a hierarchy of alien species. The dominant paradigm is that it is not possible for a species to reach sentience and space travel on their own. Rather, a patron race must lift them up through genetic manipulation. The uplifted species is then indentured to the patron species for 10,000 years. This worldview believes in an ancient race, called the Progenitors, who uplifted the current patron races and then left. Humans are an anomaly, a "wofling" race that raised itself up to space travel and are thus beholden to no patron race. Though puny and young, the humans' very existence causes a significant rift in the complex politics of the universe. Many believe they were secretly uplifted and not told. It's much more complicated than that. All the various races are constantly fighting for power. And they are all different species, so they have different worldviews, physiologies, cultures, etc. Some are helpful to the humans; others hostile.

A powerful tool in this mythos is the Library, a vast, ancient and inscrutable collection of knowledge, pieces of which are handed down parsimoniously by the patron races. Most species learn their tech through the library. The humans have access to the Library, but in a very limited and convoluted way and they pride themselves on developing their own tech, though it is significantly primitive in relation to what the library can offer. Humans have uplifted chimpanzees and dolphins, who by the law of the universe are thus indebted to them. But humans try to maintain an equal relationship with their client species, another violation of the uplift laws.

Startide Rising takes place on a distant planet, covered in metallic-water and small, metal islands. The human ship The Streaker accidently discovered a vast, derelict fleet. A communication about it back to earth is intercepted. The derelict fleet could have information of the Progenitors. All the patron races rush to catch the streaker, which has the fleet's coordinates and a corpse taken from one of the ships. The human ship hunkers down underwater, while the competing fleets battle in the skies above them.

It took me a while to get into Startide Rising. I was held back trying to get all the details of the setting and by my own hesitancy. Furthermore, the relationships between dolphins, humans and the one scientist chimp on board are equally complicated and take a while to absorb. But once I did, the narrative really too off. The characters are interesting and compelling. The antagonists are infuriating and you really want them to get theirs. The story and the science and the idea that humans are kind of cool renegades among a bunch of super-powerful but super-dogmatic alien races all blend together to create a really exciting read. I tore through the second half and am definitely going to read the next one.

Finally, there is a strong ecological theme hiding under the surface. Humans still carry the shame of their history towards other mammals and it colours their relationships with their client species. It is also an interesting form of extreme colonialism. Technologically superior species don't just come and exploit the natives, they genetically manipulate them into forms that are pleasing to them and use them as servants/slaves.

Good stuff, strongly recommended.

Startide Rising big picture