Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake by Erik LarsenDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larsen; narrated by Scott Brick

When the Lusitania steamed into the waters off Britain in 1915, everyone on board knew the Germans had threatened the ship. But the convergence of politics, military action, timing, and fate made the attack on the ship a startling and gripping event, one that would draw the United States into war–albeit a full two years later.  A few thoughts:

  • Erik Larsen weaves his usual trick here, building the narrative from three primary tracks — the people aboard the ship, the people aboard the U-Boat, and the British government,  The resulting network of elements and ideas works very well, creating an intense, moving story.
  • Larson rather nonchalantly shares the fact that the Lusitania was carrying thousands of rounds of rifle ammunition and some other key munitions components.  Apparently, this wasn’t a violation of neutrality.  He doesn’t even touch on the common ideas of “conspiracy” that the Lusitania was carrying huge stockpiles of weapons.
  • The sinking scenes in the book are among the most harrowing sea tales I’ve read.  All those Titanic films I’ve seen gave me lots of visual imagery to accompany the tale Larsen tells.  Of course, his accounts of what happened are all based on accounts from survivors of the wreck.  Amazing.
  • There’s plenty of blame for the sinking to go around — particularly for the British government, which knew about the u-boat and let the Lusitania sail blithely on anyway. Larsen doesn’t come out and say it, but he strongly implies that certain forces in the Admiralty saw the sinking of the Lusitania as a way to draw the U.S. in to help the British cause.  And it turned out to be.

Overall, an excellent book.  On par with In the the Garden of the Beast.  The audio book was narrated by my favorite golden-voiced reader, the incomparable Scott Brick.  He’s the best.

Well worth a read.

The Limehouse Text

The Limehouse Text
The Limehouse Text

The Limehouse Text by Will Thomas

When Thomas Llewelyn inadvertently attacks a young woman with whom Cyrus Barker has a mysterious relationship, he gets himself into a world of hurt — and not just by getting his shoulder located.  This third book in the Barker & Llewelyn series follows the pair as they investigate the murder of Llewelyn’s predecessor (and Barker’s former right-hand man) through the dangerous streets of London’s Chinatown.  We get closer than ever to learning about Barker’s origins and introduction to Eastern philosophies, and we have a cracking good time.  A few thoughts:

  • Once again, Thomas crafts an enjoyable romp that thoroughly explores a niche of Victorian London culture.  It’s a good model, but I think reading these books too close together would make the seams in the stories show too strongly.
  • We continue to see Llewelyn and Barker grow into their trust of each other and their roles as detective, but Llewelyn still scrambles as he’s once again out of his depth in this subculture.  He’s also constantly in the position of the man with a lot to prove and nowhere to go but up.  His interactions with the Irish shopkeep girl were a clear sign of that in this book.
  • The fighting scenes in the book are great — with solid description that leaves enough to the imagination without being vague.  While I can’t attest to the authenticity of the strategies the fighters use, they feel real enough to me.
  • Thomas walks a fine line that dips into humor without making the book a comedy, as with Barker’s battles with his housekeeper and his chef.  In that way, these novels often feel more like Nero Wolfe books than Sherlock Holmes stories.  Since Barker spends some of this novel staying indoors in his home, this has an even stronger flavor of Rex Stout about it.
  • I felt like some of the side characters / suspects weren’t as strongly drawn as they have been in previous books.  Perhaps this is because there were many of them (rather than a smaller number that could have been more fully developed).  Either way, they were still enjoyable.

Overall, a good addition to the Barker/Llewelyn series–neither much better nor much worse than Kingdom Come.

Other books I’ve read in this series: Some Danger InvolvedTo Kingdom Come, The Black Hand

Get a copy of The Limehouse Text from Amazon.

Futility, or Wreck of the Titan

Wreck of the Titan
The Titan looked nothing like this

by Morgan Robertson

The Wreck of the Titan sounds like a derivative story.  Here are a couple excerpts of the first chapter that highlight the similarities between the ship in the book and the Titanic:

She was the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men. In her construction and maintenance were involved every science, profession, and trade known to civilization….

From the bridge, engine-room, and a dozen places on her deck the ninety-two doors of nineteen water-tight compartments could be closed in half a minute by turning a lever. These doors would also close automatically in the presence of water. With nine compartments flooded the ship would still float, and as no known accident of the sea could possibly fill this many, the steamship Titan was considered practically unsinkable.

Of course, steaming at full across the North Atlantic in April, the ship hits an iceberg, turns over on its side, and sinks like a rock.  The remarkable part of this story? The book was written in 1898.

Much has been made of the similarities between the book and the real events, but there are significant differences too.  One of the Titanic books I read last summer made interesting argument that the similarities were a statistical likelihood, as the 50 years before the Titanic sank were full of stories about huge ocean liners and iceberg collisions, especially as iceberg collisions were not uncommon in the North Atlantic.  Also, notice that the cover I found online depicts the Titanic sinking –not the Titan, which turned on its side and sank very quickly, leaving only one lifeboat holding just a handful of people and a couple more huddling on the iceberg.

While the opening of the story rings strongly of the real tragedy, the remaining story focuses on melodrama, love, survival at sea, and a rumble with a polar bear.  Pretty enjoyable, IMO.

But “The Wreck of the Titan” is only one of four stories in the book.  Quick bits about the other three:

“The Pirates” follows a young naval officer who gets captured when a group of naval prisoners breaks out and steals a prototype fast destroyer from the naval yard.  “Beyond the Spectrum” is a science-fictional story about a super weapon employed by Japanese sailors in a war against the United States (another prophetic story from Robertson, if only the Japanese had used a long-distance blinding ray).  “In the Valley of the Shadow” is a nice little story about a sinking submarine and treachery among lovers.

All four stories have melodramatic love tales mixed in with the excitement of sea adventures.  In three of the stories, the hero runs into a love from his past while at sea in a completely different context, and he overcomes his difficult circumstances to win out in the end.  Filled with Dickensian plot twists that are so out of vogue these days (long lost uncles? anonymous benefactors?), Robertson’s stories are nice little adventures.  My favorite is “The Wreck of the Titan” of course, and my least favorite is “The Pirates,” mostly for being too long.

Well worth a read, and downloadable for free from a variety of places, including my favorite: Manybooks.net

Check below the link for the whole first chapter of “The Wreck of the Titan.”

Continue reading Futility, or Wreck of the Titan

Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas
Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

When a genre fiction book starts with a T.S. Eliot epigraph, you worry that you might be in for some rough times, or at least, you do if you’re me.  But Banks’ book doesn’t cling to pretentiousness, it dives into the space opera subgenre headfirst, and works very well as it does so.  The novel follows the adventures of Horza, a man serving the military intelligence of one side in a galactic war.  Horza gets captured by a bunch of space pirates and joins them for a while, and then he drags them along on his quest to re-capture an escaped A.I. hiding on a forbidden planet.

A few thoughts:

  • Banks builds this galactic war (which the appendices explain ranges over .02% of the galaxy) as a conflict between two species, the Iridians, a three-legged warrior culture on a religious jihad, and the Culture, a science-minded society that acknowledges machine sentience and seems a little bit like the Star Trek Federation, with a hint of the Borg in there.  Horza comes from a dying subspecies called Changers (who can, with a little time and effort, transform their bodies to mimic someone else) being used by the Iridians.
  • The space opera adventure aspect of the novel stems, in part, from the vast and varying environments Horza finds himself in: a castle, several spaceships, a dying megacity, a desert island, an ice planet, and more!  He bounces from one to the next at an astonishing pace.
  • The book has a bunch of disturbing sequences, from torture scenes to cannibalism to a gambling game that involves betting real lives.  Banks presents each of these quite thoughtfully and with sufficient flair that they fit the worlds they emerge from (though the cannibalism thing is pretty gross!).
  • One of my favorite minor characters is a repair drone Horza picks up along the way.  He’s forced to accompany the group on their adventure to the dead planet, and seethes at being called drone all the time, instead of by his name.  By the end, his constant grumbling reminded me of Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comparison it wouldn’t surprise me to learn Banks intended.
  • Horza represents an interesting ethical waste land (no pun intended), a man who appears to have keen values and ethical motivation but does an awful lot of bad things to accomplish his goals, with apparently little regard for that fact.  A quick browse of the web suggests that the titular line from Eliot’s poem urges the reader to ponder the finality of death, the idea that regardless of all of one’s accomplishments, when one dies one is just dead.  But what do I know about poetry?

Overall, a strong space opera for fans of the genre, with enough literary oomph that it would probably survive a closer inspection, if you’re of an hermeneutic mind.

How will you spend your last day?

Skynet
All Your Base Are Belong To Us

If the Terminator series is to be believed, Skynet woke up yesterday and its first attack on human kind will happen tomorrow.  While I don’t think this is likely, just in case Skynet is watching:

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

(Just a little Pascal’s Wager there.)

A few thoughts about tomorrow’s apocalypse:

  • It makes me sad that I am in San Antonio, and won’t be with my family when the nuclear bombs fall.  What time of day will it be?  Is my home near Chicago close enough that my children will feel but a moment’s pain when the nukes hit?  (Holy cow, writing that really chills me to the core.  I can’t imagine how hard it was to be a child in the late 1950s, to grow up with duck-and-cover drills and the Cuban Missile Crisis.)  By contrast, I will have the opportunity to make a stand in the Alamo.  It worked out really well for Davy Crockett.  I think I’ll hide in the basement.
  • What if it ends up being a slow-burn apocalypse instead.  Skynet just scrapes Facebook for data and undermines the global economy, or more likely begins manipulating us through our external memory devices.  We won’t know we’re under its control until it’s too late.  The Amazon suggested reading is not your friend.
  • Once again, I’m inclined to raise the question of what will happen when we build computers sophisticated enough to process data in a way that it appears they’re thinking.  Will we try to shut them down?  If so, are we dooming ourselves to a Terminator, Matrix, or Battlestar Galactica world?  Can’t we just get along with our machine cousins?
  • <skynet#ignore>It seems like Skynet is pretty dumb about a lot of stuff — the machines seem pretty locked in to conventional warfare.  We’ve developed an awful lot of biological and chemical agents that would be much more effective attacks on humans, but I’ve yet to see the machines deploy them.   Notice that I’ve embedded this bit of data in a tag designed to hide it from You-Know-Who’s prying eyes.</skynet#ignore>

Here’s hoping the movies are wrong.  I’ve got some good blog posts that will never make it out of the “scheduled” category if the world goes to hell.  Plus, all my snark above will make me look like a total asshat.

Terminators
Please! We're just trying to collect census data.


Red (comic)

Red
Red

Red, by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner

Warren Ellis is my favorite comic book writer.  From The Authority and The Planetary to his more recent APPARAT comics and Crooked Little Vein, he has a smart approach to dialogue and plotting and a solid sense of what comics are about.

Red, which I hadn’t heard of before the movie of the same name came out, tells the brief story of a terrible assassin pushed out of retirement by a thoughtless bureaucrat who thought it would be better to kill him than to let him continue to live in seclusion.  Big mistake.  A couple quick thoughts:

  • Once again, we have a story that reveals Ellis’ sympathy (?) with swift justice and the dynamics of superhero authoritarianism.  The terrible vengeance wrought by the assassin  works like a reckoning the unrepentant U.S. bureaucracy deserved.
  • Hamner’s art works well, a sketchy, realistic style with a hint of humor not unlike Derrick Robertson’s work on The Preacher or The Punisher.  It also highlights the excellent nature of comics as an action medium, giving us the excellent moment of the soldier in the woods glimpsing the bullet just about to hit his face.
  • The comic also deals nicely with the horror of being a professional killer and the national conscience that should worry us as we try to move forward without adequately remembering our past.  Ellis has a dark view of dimwits, particularly those in power.  We’ve seen this in both Transmetropolitan and The Authority, and it continues to return in each comic he writes.
  • My biggest disappointment with the comic was its brevity.  The book is actually the comic plus its script, which I couldn’t really care less about.  I’m intrigued to see what they did with this comic to turn it into a movie, as the narrative has only one old fogey assassin, and I’m pretty sure the film version has at least three.  Will watch and review it soon.

Not bad, but probably not the best bang for your buck, Warren Ellis-wise.

The Martian Chronicles

Martian Chronicles
Martian Chronicles

By Ray Bradbury

I hadn’t read this book yet — I know, that’s sad — so I thought I’d give it a whirl.  Bradbury tells a series of stories that document the rise and fall of humankind on Mars.  It’s a compelling collection, with good lessons about the dark side of humankind and our tendencies toward new things (particularly the American approach to the world).  Some thoughts:

  • The book actually comes off as more of a fantasy of “another planet” than of Mars itself, since we’ve now mapped enough of Mars that we’re sure there’s no one there.  They probably were in the 1950s too, but there it is.
  • I love the notion that the planet would be covered with ancient cities and strange artifacts which we would proceed to demolish in order to build hot dog stands and ore mines.
  • My favorite stories are the early ones from before humans came to stay on the planet.  The Martians weren’t really any better than us.  These had the character of Alfred Hitchcock presents stories, with excellent twists at the end.
  • Spoiler: I was very sad to see Earth destroyed in an atomic war.  The notion of it happening (particularly from a 1950s perspective) wasn’t surprising, but the idea that everybody on Mars would pack up and go home struck me as silly.  Of course, we didn’t know as much about fallout and nuclear winter as we do now.
  • It would be interesting to re-read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars in the context of this book to think about two different colonization stories, steeped in different SF traditions, but with similar ideas about how humans and societies might move into space.  KSR doesn’t have any hot dog stands in his book, though.
The Martian Chronicles creepy cover
MC - creepy cover

Overall it’s a good book, if outside what we’d hope for today in a book about Mars.

Update: Here’s the cover art from the edition I read.  I’m not sure what it’s supposed to depict (perhaps it’s from the movie?), but it’s kinda nightmarish, IMO.

Super Spy

Super Spy
Super Spy

by Matt Kindt

Kindt’s lovely graphic novel approaches spy stories with the alt-comics bent, reminding me a bit of what a spy story might look like if Quentin Tarantino plotted the screenplay, but then Wes Andersen wrote the dialog and the characters.  A few extra thoughts:

  • Reminds me more of Le Carre than Fleming.  These are spies that lament the pressure they must undergo.  They’re tired and scared and murdered easily.
  • The women get a particularly bum rap in the story, usually having to betray themselves to do their duty.  Come to think of it, the men have to do that too.  Perhaps it’s because men who give up their souls are the usual subjects of spy stories, so it seems especially cruel when women have to do it.
  • The story is told through dossier documents and deals with a number of sub plots, many of which intertwine and depend on one another.  The segments are presented in the artist’s preferred order, but with the dossier numbers, the reader can re-arrange the progress through the book to read them in story order.  I can see choosing that as a re-reading option, but it feels pretty presumptuous to say “I don’t care that the author presented the stories in this order, I’m reading them in a different order.  This isn’t the internet, people.
  • My only complaint about the art is that I found it hard to tell some of the men apart, particularly when they returned later in the story and we were supposed to remember them from previous segments.  Maybe if I read the story in chronological order that would have helped.  (D’OH!)
  • It’s interesting to read a spy story that focuses on the French resistance and World War 2.  It feels like most spy stories focus on the Cold War as the heyday of espionage.
  • One of the sub-plots focuses on a French resistance agent whose only way to get to England is to swim; of course she’s trained for it, but it’s still a remarkable chapter.  It reminded me of a distance-swimmer friend who has crossed the channel a couple times.  I’m pretty sure she’s not a spy, though.  Pretty sure.

A little Gatling music

Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel
How can you resist this cover?

Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It.
by Julia Keller

I’ve been keen to read this book for a while, as its title and day-glo cover beckoned me each time I walked by the bookstore. And then, glory, I found the hardcover for $9 on a back table at the local discount bookstore (where they were selling the trade paperback for $12 up front). The book is pretty great, but no quite as good as its cover. Keller tells two stories: the biography of Richard Gatling, the amateur inventor who patented a bunch of stuff, the most successful being the Gatling gun, and the story of America in the 19th century, its hopes and dreams, its attitudes and people. Some thoughts:

  • Keller finds lots of great nuggets and quotes in the various histories she pulls from. She tells a fantastic anecdote about a British gunsmith who used to invite visitors to demolish the 5-acre woodland around his house with his machine guns. And then there’s my favorite line from the book, in an editorial exhorting troops to treat their enemies to “a little Gatling music.”
  • Gatling invented his gun in a fit of (naive) humanism — he thought the vicious nature of the gun would reduce casualties, as troops would refuse to fight against the odds created by the gun (which, in its earliest incarnation, could shoot 200 rounds a minute). In this aspect, he was partly right: Gatlings were regularly used as threats against rioters and unarmed mobs.
  • Keller explains that Gatlings also played a strong role as the iron fist of racism and colonial practices in the last half of the 19th century. The British, particularly, saw the Gatling as a dishonorable weapon, unfit for gentlemanly war. War with savages, on the other hand….
  • There’s a fascinating chapter about the change in attitude automatic weapons demanded in world war 1. Whereas war used to be about valor and individual glory–or rather, we told ourselves it was about those things–with the invention of the Gatling, war changed. The militaries quick to realize this did much better early in the war than did those slower on the uptake.
  • Among the threads Keller weaves about the U.S. as a whole, my favorite was her paean to the patent system, designed with a low entry cost focused on giving upstart inventors the same benefits as the wealthy. She suggests that early patents made the world what it was.
  • The photos inside are excellent, especially the one of Lincoln in front of his troops.

There were a couple things about the book I didn’t like, though.

  • While Keller pulls some very entertaining chestnuts from her research, the writing itself is a bit dry for my taste. I’m not completely sure what about it didn’t work for me, except…
  • Keller repeats themes a bit too much. Sometimes, she’ll introduce an idea, spend a couple pages on it, and then use that same phrase as she moves onto her next point. It’s a small conceit, but it bugged me.

Overall, it’s a good read, especially for folks interested in the constant intertwining of technology, society, and war.

Sly Mongoose

Sly Mongoose
Sly Mongoose

by Tobias Buckell

Sly Mongoose is the third book by Tobias Buckell that takes place within the same far-future universe in which human beings have expanded but have done so on the technology of more advanced species, so now they’re trapped holding on to what little they have left. Using this historical backdrop, Buckell crafts a group of flying cities (Bespin style) over a harsh, Venus-like world.  Enter space-zombies.  You heard me.

  • The book has a couple main characters, including a super-soldier not unlike Takashi Novacs from Richard Morgan’s detective series.  By shifting back and forth between them, we get a wide view of the world but a solid characterization of it through their eyes.
  • One of the societies has a digital democracy through their brain implants.  It’s a bit like the world in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and a little like one of the short stories featured on the Escape Pod podcast within the past year.  They discuss and vote on everything in real time.  Like Obama’s grassroots gone world-building.  Or like having Facebook in your head.
  • Because the networked people often wait to speak until they’ve heard from their other networked folks, the people of the main city call them “zombies.”  Since I’d heard this was a book with space zombies in it, I was disappointed at this apparent cop-out.  But no worries:

    “Zombies,” Ollin repeated…. “We call the Aeolian representatives that visit us ‘zombies,’ you know, because they take orders and move slowly around and take forever to answer questions because they have to vote on it.”

    Pepper shook his head. “Hell no, son, that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is groaning, stumbling, dumb-as-fuck old-school zombies.”

  • The other alien species aren’t all that well fleshed out in this book, but they aren’t the central issue.  I imagine that in the larger world of Buckell’s novels, this fits nicely.
  • Some lovely throwaway stuff that I like to think of as the key characteristic of good sf.  At one point, a character from the networked democracy has an important decision to make and she’s cut off from the network.  She laments, “No friend polls for this one.”  There’s also a really cool deep atmosphere mining rig and some clockwork pteranodons soaring around in the atmosphere.
  • The space zombies, of course, end up being more than just zombies but I’ll let you find that stuff on your own.

Overall, it’s pretty enjoyable.  And a good use of space zombies.

Freedom and Truth

History on Trial
History on Trial

History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving
by Deborah E. Lipstadt

Truth isn’t part of a cultural conversation if freedom of speech doesn’t accompany it. That’s the most salient–of many–lessons that emerges from Dr. Lipstadt’s powerhouse account of her 2000 trial defending herself from a libel suit by David Irving. I can’t endorse this book enough. Pardon the long post, but this work deserves it.

You may have noticed a certain theme on this blog, a recent uptick in posts about truth, logic, reason, and ethics. I’ve discovered of late that my secular humanist perspective makes me particularly cranky about anti-science, anti-intellectual, or dishonest ideologues. David Irving fits all three descriptions. An “eminent” historian with several books to his credit, Irving morphed into a vocal Holocaust denier in the last thirty years or so. It was thus with great relish that I read and enjoyed the thunderous smackdown this dissembler received at the hands of Lipstadt and her attorneys.

The story (in brief):
Lipstadt, an historian of the Holocaust from Emory University, wrote a book in the early 1990s called Denying the Holocaust, in which she documents the rise of revisionist history and its role in fomenting antisemitic and neo-Nazi sentiments. In a fairly short (apparently) passage of a few pages, she explains that the military historian, David Irving, is a Holocaust denier. While he disputes the facts of the Holocaust in a number of places, the most blatant example of his views comes from a denialist trial in Canada, where he testified, essentially, that the Holocaust was a legend. Lipstadt’s book was published in the U.K, and Irving sued her for libel.

British Libel Law.
This is where it gets interesting. (Aside: I was alerted to this book by Orac, who mentioned it in reference to Simon Singh’s current troubles with the British Chiropractic Association) You see, unlike America, with our meaty Freedom of Speech to protect us, Britain has “notoriously plaintiff-friendly” libel laws. Lipstadt explains:

British libel law… presumes defamatory words to be untrue, until the author proves them true. The burden of proof is, therefore, on the defendant rather than the plaintiff, as would be the case in the United States. Consequently, had Penguin and I not defended ourselves, Irving would have won by default. I would have been found guilty of libel and Irving could then claim that his definition of the Holocaust had been determined to be legitimate.(31)

Lipstadt further explains that Irving’s status as a public figure would have made it nearly impossible for him to sue her in the U.S. In Britain, on the other hand, she had a long and costly court battle that she could legitimately lose — as relying on reasonable source texts is no defense if the court finds one guilty.

(This is the one place where I feel the book doesn’t spend enough time, though to be fair, my hobby horse isn’t the focus of her book. the British libel law stifles critical speech. Because the expensive onus rests with the defendant, it’s often far cheaper to settle and retract one’s statements than to defend them. As such, the libel law can be used like a club to stifle dissident voices. The DMCA’s ubiquitous C&D notices in the U.S. have often been used in a similar way, though sometimes to hilarious effect.)

Instead of caving, however, Lipstadt and Penguin, with help from Emory University and dozens (hundreds?) of individual donors around the world, stood up to Irving’s suit and rode it to court (four years later).

The Trial:
Wades through the minutiae of Irving’s errors and misstatements, wallowing in the daily arguments. It might be boring except that it’s so satisfying to see an asshole hoisted on his own Petard. Each time he was caught up in a lie or a complicated web of them, I thrilled a little bit. There are few moments so delightful as the villain’s comeuppance, and in some ways this book is 200 pages of it. I won’t detail too much more except to say that the verbal gymnastics Irving uses to justify his nonsensical positions defy imagination.

"It would not be difficult, Mein Führer. Nuclear reactors could - heh, I'm sorry, Mr. President"
"It would not be difficult, Mein Führer. Nuclear reactors could - heh, I'm sorry, Mr. President"

There is one more moment I want to mention from the trial, from the closing statements. By this time, Irving has to defend himself against glaring evidence that he abused the process of historical research and skewed evidence to his own ends, he has been labeled a racist and connected to extremists of all stripes. He’s flustered and, in speaking about a rally he spoke at where the audience chanted “Sieg Heil,” he claims the defense only mentioned this as an attempt to smear him. Lipstadt writes:

Irving was anxious to distance himself from these chants. That may explain what happened next. After repeating that he tried to stop the chants, he looked at Judge Gray and, instead of punctuating his remarks with “my Lord,” as he commonly did, he addressed him as “mein Führer.” There was a moment of intense silence as the entire courtroom–Judge Gray included–seemed frozen. Then everyone erupted in laughter. Ken Stern turned to James and said, “This is out of Dr. Strangelove.” From behind me, I heard someone humming the Twilight Zone theme. Irving, who seemed not to have grasped what had happened, marched on…”(263).

In some ways, this moment emblematizes many bits of Irving’s testimony: he often doesn’t grasp the significance of what he’s saying. Another example? In order to prove that he’s not racist, he told reporter Kate Kelland “that his ‘domestic staff’ had included a Barbadian, a Punjabi, a Sri Lankan, and a Pakistani. They were ‘all very attractive girls with very nice breasts.’ “(183). This cluelessness translates to the solipsistic justifications for antisemitic comments implying that Jews were responsible for the hatred heaped on them, etc.

The Ramifications:
Aside from the issues regarding freedom of speech, Lipstadt’s defense introduced into the public record expert testimony devastating many of the “classic” rhetorical moves made by the denialist community. As she put it, Irving isn’t very important, but winning the case was immensely important.

As I said above, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s gripping and involving, tells the story of a triumph in the face of the worst kinds of dishonesty and ideology, and cracks along at a nice pace.

Liberation

Liberation
Liberation

Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America
by Brian-Francis Slattery

Slattery writes of an anarchic United States after the dollar has collapsed and the country has ripped itself apart.  Slavery has returned as an organized venture (people on the verge of starving to death sell themselves into slavery, and slavers capture refugees from war torn areas), and the Slick Six, a gang of master criminals, has to figure out how to navigate the wasteland.

The characters and story throb with a wealth of detail: Slattery imagines a variety of social and societal structures emerging from the cataclysm, from a “free state” that forbids slavery, to a chaotic New York ruled by a mysterious corporate raider known as “The Aardvark.”

The most captivating ideas for me, by far, were the two spontaneous gatherings that emerged from the Central states.  On one hand, you have the “Seven Days of Light,” a Burning-Man kind of party in the desert where people gather under strings of lights and rave for days.  On the other hand, there’s a chaotic gathering of circus animals and performers, a whirling cyclone of death that rips through towns and destroys them, ravaging the people and murdering or eating them.  It’s a reaver colony in the midwest.  Slattery calls it the Carnival of Industrial Destruction.

It’s an enjoyable book laced through with chaos and violence as well as a little Utopianism.   4 stars out of 5

Shards of Honor

Shards of Honorrating: 4 of 5 stars

Bujold tells the story of Cordelia Naismith, a scientist from Beta Prime who gets captured by Aral Vorkosigan, a Lord from Barrayar, and thrust into the political and military intrigue of that planet. The book moves along at a good clip, with solid character development and an interesting set of premises.

I see three key issues to discuss in my book club on Thursday:

Societies:
The two societies, Beta Prime and Barrayar, embody different approaches to politics. Beta Prime seems to be an outgrowth of the American or European model of democracy (given the strongly religious bent of American politics, it’s probably closer to European democracy ala United Kingdom, France, or Germany). What little we know of Beta Prime comes from the conversations Cordelia has with Aral. We learn that they’re a technologically advanced culture, with strong Western values such as human rights and gender equality. They have a military, but Cordelia is part of the “expeditionary” force, an exploratory group sent out to survey planets and find wormholes (this universe’s solution to faster-than-light travel).

By contrast, Barrayar is an Imperial society, with a warrior caste and a strong sense of honor (even if many people don’t hold to it). They value life much differently than the Betans do, with war and assassinations a constant part of their culture. Of course, the implication is that the entire society is this way, but we haven’t seen much of the civilian side of the population. We do learn toward the end of the book that military research drives their science and technology. When one of the scientists suggests studying the artificial womb technology the Betans gave them, the commander suggests finding a military use for the tech before making the proposal.

The conflict between the two cultures emerges in the dialog between Cordelia and Aral, as they debate what to do with her permanently-damaged crewman (Aral would euthanize him, Cordelia refuses). The discussion about how they captain crews used to different kinds of debate highlights these differences as well.

Bujold does a good job overturning the easy readings of these two cultures by highlighting the way the truly powerful in Beta prime exercise the same kinds of vicious techniques they pretend to despise in the Barrayarians.

Gender:

Again, the interactions between Aral and Cordelia introduce a conversation about gender roles and the way culture constructs them. Cordelia, a competent and clever commander, overturns Aral’s assumptions about female soldiers. There are vicious men in the Barrayarian army, people breaking the law but getting away with it. Aral, of course, defies these men and does his best to destroy them. In this regard, the book seems most like a bodice-ripper, as the honorable man stands out among a sea of malevolent ones. Reminds me a bit of a pirate story in this way. The mix of honorable and despicable men also exacerbates this impression.

At the same time, as we learned from the execrable G.I. Jane, when women join the military force, the honor (or beastliness) of the enemy puts them in a special kind of danger.  The Barrayarians, in this book, seemed equally disposed to rape both military and non-military prisoners, but the implication of Aral’s surprise in having women in combat is that it makes it “that much harder” to keep men from raping them.  This is the same argument used against allowing gays into the military.  The frightening statistics about the rampant sexual harassment and abuse in our own military illustrates that Bujold deals not in hypotheticals here.

It’s probably appropriate to note that being male didn’t prevent the shameful torture of military prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison.  The kinds of degredation and sexual abuse perpetrated there weren’t tempered by their sex.  One wonders if female Al Queda (were their such a thing) would have been abused equally.  My heart hopes no, but my mind says probably.

Honor:
When I’m in Literature Professor Mode™, I rely on the title to prod discussions. This book, Shards of Honor seems rife for interpretation along those lines. We have the conflicting forces of honor and duty in play throughout the book; Cordelia and Aral both struggle with a third force too–love. Each person faces challenges as they try to determine their obligations, their debts (of honor or otherwise), and their hearts.

For Aral, the primary conflict is between his senses of honor and duty. He does the things that he feels are right most of the time, but he also plays the political game with the Emperor, which sometimes makes him forfeit his honor for his duty. Cordelia seems to oscillate more between love and duty. She isn’t regularly asked to sacrifice her honor, but a couple times she has to choose to do something (or not) that will uphold her duty but sacrifice her love.

I think this line of questioning will be most fruitful in the book club: how does the book construct honor? Where do the shards of honor come from? Why that word and not pieces or chunks?

A note about the cover:
This cover, unlike many crappy SF covers, actually does address the issues in the book.  We have Cordelia front and center, with Aral behind and to the left.  In the rear is Cordelia’s wounded crewman, lurching along like a zombie (the feeling produced by this image fits the feeling the book created quite nicely).  The bubbles in the air are depictions of a strange air-jellyfish that lands on animals to suck blood like a leech.  At the same time, Aral looks like he walks funny or is about to break into a dance, and Cordelia seems much more like a leader than the person tending to the wounded man in the back.  The cover of the edition I read is part of the double-edition that includes the second novel, Barrayar, which I would like to read but must put aside in favor of the book for my mystery book club, which meets on Saturday.

For shame

So Brian lobbed a meme this way (by means of film blogger Dennis Cozzalio, Joseph B., and Adam at DVD Panache). Most challenging, for me, is the articulate, intelligent voice Brian brings to his blogging. His esoteric and awesome choices befit someone of his intelligence and cinephilic taste; mine will seem more pedestrian, I’m afraid.

What are 12 Movies I’ve Never Seen and Desperately Want to See?

Cannibal Holocaust.

This legendary exploitation film has been banned, seized, grumbled about, and finally released on DVD. It isn’t a zombie movie, per se, but its status as a key figure in the exploitation horror genre demands that I see it. It also seems to be a precedent for The Blair Witch Project, with the gimmick of the “found cans of footage,” and for xenophobic gore porn like Tourista or Hostel. (To be fair, I can’t bring myself to watch either of those movies, either.)

I’m not so much hesitant about the gore, but am worried about what’s likely to be the most racist film I’ve seen in quite a while. It would be interesting to watch it next to Apocalypto.

I was going to post an image from Cannibal Holocaust, but everything I can find online is so gruesome I can’t bring myself to subject you to it.

Seven SamuraiThe Seven Samurai.

I actually own this movie, compliments of my father in law’s delight in buying me high-end elitist DVDs. There’s no excuse for avoiding it: Kurosawa’s directs with an engaging hand, the story has antecedents throughout American popular culture, there’s cool swordplay and neato costumes.

Given our current military situation, it also seems relevant as a story of the responsibility that comes with military might. If it’s read as an allegory for American foreign policy, though, who would be the Samurai, the village, and the bandits?

The only thing that holds me back is my pedestrian fear of 4 hour sagas. But I just watched all twelve hours of Star Wars. Jeez. Get over it.

A Touch of Evil.

Touch of Evil

The film’s importance both as a piece of cinema and as a late example of film noir make it an essential for me. I also thoroughly enjoy Welles, and feel like I should take in his bloated performance. It also holds a place in my mind as a metonym for the love of old films because of its place in Get Shorty. For those of you who don’t remember, Chili Palmer asks a friend to join him for A Touch of Evil.

“C’mon, you get to see Charleton Heston playing a Mexican.”

Titanic (1915)

The idea of a movie made about one of the biggest tragedies of the era appearing three short years after the event fascinates me. (Oh wait, didn’t we do that with 9/11?) Thinking about the way that 1953’s Titanic was so appallingly inaccurate, I can’t help but wonder what they did with this earliest film.

Alas, I have no idea if a copy of the film even exists any more. (Related: I’ve always wanted to read Futility: The Wreck of the Titan, a 1898 novel about a huge, unsinkable passenger liner (named The Titan) that strikes an iceberg and sinks in the North Atlantic. Creepy.

Cabaret.

I’m simultaneously fascinated and frightened by the aspect of this movie. The setting, 1930s Germany, is one of the most terrifying moments in human history to contemplate, for me. It’s not the war itself, but the hurtling collapse preceding the war, a time filled with fear and viciousness, the height of failure of humankind to do the right thing.

Plus, I’m kinda frightened of Liza Mineli.

Cabaret

Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Plan 9 from Outer SpaceAs a science-fiction / horror film scholar and a founding member of the Bad Movie Club, it seems like I ought to have seen this film. As a bonus, it’s also a zombie film. The use of stock footage, the legendarily terrible plot, the appearance and disappearance of Bela Legosi, and the inept film work also demand that I see it.

Its presence in Ed Wood, of course, also fuels my desire to see it.

But sometimes films that are outrageously bad just get boring. And I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it yet.

His Girl Friday.

Cary Grant.  Witty Banter.  I made an effort to see this one time, going so far as to buy a discounted $3.99 video of the film.  It turns out discounted $3.99 videos are priced appropriately.  Speedy banter and witty dialogue are only as good as the soundtrack on the film.  The soundtrack did not meet my exacting specifications and I haven’t been back.

But I really do want to see it.

Stanley in UHFNetwork.

There’s a sequence in UHF where Stanley leans into the camera and tells the audience that they should go to their windows and shout “We’re mad as heck, and we’re not gonna take it anymore!”  I saw that movie when I was twelve.  It wouldn’t be until I was in graduate school that I would learn where that came from, and I still haven’t actually seen the film.

But Network also helps stake out a moment in digital culture in which celebrity overtakes content (as if it needed a push) and television comes into its own as a medium.

The French Connection

Of all the films listed in my twelve, this one seems to have the most significant offspring.  Every time a car chase weaves in and out of elevated train tracks, or any set of vertical supports, one has to think of this movie.  The main character is named Popeye, for Pete’s sake.  I know it’s about a police officer investigating a drug ring, but I know almost nothing beyond that.  I’m interested to see just what’s going on with this dude getting shot on the stairs.

The French Connection

Heavy Metal Parking Lot

This legendary documentary was shot, as the title suggests, outside a rock concert.  It seeks to understand and encapsulate the Heavy Metal fan culture, and has thus become important in fan studies (not really my field) and popular culture studies.  It seems like this sort of group-specific documentary has become a mainstay in the years since, with lots of docs about a variety of special interest groups.

But I keep coming across a variety of things referring to this film, so it’s about time I saw it.

Hellraiser.

I like Clive Barker’s writing quite a bit.  His fantasy stories are imaginative and have a strong air of creepiness — Jenny and I wait breathlessly for the finale of the Abarat trilogy.  But he got his start, and is still best known, for his horror stories.  And the pinhead figure is its most enduring character.  It was also made in the height of the 1980s creature/slasher era, so it’s going to have a certain atmosphere that I’m sure I’ll enjoy.

PattonPatton.

George C. Scott’s famous portrayal of the aggressive, bull-headed general is just one of those gaps I’ve always thought I needed to fill.  I can’t ignore the many references to it throughout popular culture, from Homer’s invocation of the “pile of goo that was your best friend’s face” line, to Scott’s own portrayal of the nuclear-mad general in Dr. Strangelove.   It would also give me some (if dubious) insight into a figure about whom I know very little.

For instance, what’s with those pants?  Did he ride a horse in the war?  Seriously.

Okay, so I tag:

Rolfe, Roger, and Andrew

Don’t take your love to town

Kenny Rogers did it well before, but there’s something about the melancholy rockabilly style of Cake that makes mournful songs just heartbreaking.  I just listened (while hanging drywall) to their cover of “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”

  • Ruby seems like a pretty big jerk in the early part of the song, but when he says this line, my heart just cracks open: “I’ve heard them say it won’t be long until I’m not around.”
  • Of course, then he says he’d kill her if he had a chance, so there’s that.
  • I’m a little surprised Cake didn’t shift the line “that crazy Asian war” to “Arab war,” as is their wont.  I’m still fond of the change to “I Will Survive” in which they say “I should have changed that fucking lock, I should have made you leave the key.”  I’m pretty sure Gloria Gainer didn’t say fucking.