Monday, March 31, 2008

A book put down

Although I felt guilty about it, I put down Special Topics in Calamity Physics and ended up giving my copy to my uncle, ensuring I would not finish it. It felt like endless exposition stuffed with metaphor and a desire to put creativity ahead of story. I actually liked the way she wrote, but I think I got all I wanted out of the first 100 pages. Finishing it seemed like a poor use of time, when I had Chandler's Farewell My Lovely and Chris Moriarty's Spin State on hand. For whatever reason, I still feel bad when I turn down a literary novel in favor of a genre book. I need to shake this mentality.

My heart is human, my blood is boiling, my brain I.B.M.

Jeanette Winterson's latest novel, the Stone Gods, is a dark mix of 1984, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and the Cloud Atlas. Despite the fact that her characters state they don't like science fiction and she herself says she hates it in this interview, the book is very much a science fiction novel. It is fixed on ideas, but would be comfortably shelved in either the literature or the science fiction sections of the bookstore.

The book's principal idea is that human society is pre-disposed to destroy itself and the resources at its disposal. Given a chance, it wouldn't learn from the mistakes, but simply repeat them. While the focus is on the Western, globalized society, Winterson doesn't let the rest of the world off the book either. The book suffers a bit in the end by too directly criticizing the Bush Administration. As Ross Douthot notes in this post about the paranoid movie style, making too close a criticism of the real world diminishes a work of art and Stone Gods falls a bit flat in places because of it.

Despite a Tolkeinesque longing for the pastoral and hatred for the mechanistic that pervades the book, one of the most interesting characters is Spike, a robot that is very nearly human, but designed to be purely rational. Spike's designers hoped that her lack of emotions would make her better able to make crucial decisions, but she quickly evolves into an emotional being.

The relationship of Spike and Billie, the main character is the only element of hope in an otherwise bleak story about human self-destruction. As the relationship moves from teacher-pupil to something more intimate, there is a sense that there are things for which it is worth living, despite the hell that might surround you.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Turn and face the strange

In her book Lust in Translation, Pamela Druckerman writes about a topic that has served as a central plot device for countless novels, adultery. This is neither a guide to becoming a back door man nor is it a guide to recovery. Rather it is a fascinating study of how different cultures experience and conduct adultery.

Druckerman introduces two key concepts to help explain the differences in reaction and approaches to adultery. She notes that every country has (often multiple) sexual cultures. These cultures determine where, how and the of importance sexual relationships. This is complicated in the United States by the presence of the marriage-industrial complex, the accretion of money making schemes that lead to emotional arms races in relationships from dating to marriage to adultery to divorce.

In the U.S., interviewing people about the topic should be about as easy as getting people to talk honestly about lying or theft, given the social stigma, but in many countries Druckerman finds people much more open than in America. The French, the Russians and others are all too happy to talk about how they manage to conduct or deal with their partner's affairs.

In the course of her studies, she learns a number of surprising things, including the fact that the supposedly chaste Americans and the profane French stray at about the same rates. The Russians cheat like crazy, but they have nothing on the Africans, for whom the prevalence of HIV makes cheating potentially deadly. As you might guess, the would be wayward Hasidim have it pretty rough.

The non-judgmental tone may put off some readers, and voyeurs looking for lurid detail will also be disappointed. Readers who want to take a step back and examine ones own viewpoints, or look at some very different viewpoints, will enjoy the book.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


While not the best popular science book you will ever read, the Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt is a worthwhile story about dinosaurs lost and found. The book follows two storylines. In the first which lasts from 1910 to the early 1950s Ernst Stromer, a German paleontologist travels to Egypt and discovers a number of new dinosaurs. The two world wars then throw a monkey wrench into his career, eventually leading to the loss of the specimins he found.

The second story is less interesting and a bit bloated. It covers a group of American and Egyptian paleontologist who return to the area that Stromer explored and end up finding a new dinosaur of their own. The problem is that this story is padded with extra detail about the desert and geology that seems to be there to make the book longer. The story in itself just isn't as interesting as the complicated and tragic turns of fate that Stromer faced.

The book does emphasize the luck, determination and skill required to be a paleontologist, which was interesting to read.

Monday, March 24, 2008


While it is likely to be perceived as a military history, David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter* is really a political story that will appeal to those who do not read military history. Halberstam examines the domestic political scene, the mistakes and the personal conflicts that led to what was an unnecessarily large loss of American (as well as Korean and Chinese) lives.

The story centers around General Douglas MacArthur, who despite a flash of brilliance (or luck), nearly brought terrible defeat to the United States. His sycophantic court almost never provided meaningful intelligence, which led to a complete misunderstanding of the likelihood of Chinese intervention. Racist views about Asians led to a false understanding about Korean and then Chinese fighting capabilities. Strongly held political views placed far too much importance on Taiwan and the failed Chiang Kai Shek regime. His flagrant disrespect to the President and the Joint Chiefs should have seen him retired faster than it did.

The only thing that MacArthur got right was the Inchon landing, which is likely the only thing that Americans today remember about the war. Halberstam shows the serious of terrible mistakes that make up the rest of the story. Of course, had the rest of the government played its role as it should, MacArthur would have been reined in much earlier. Congressional Republicans come out poorly, but they are not the only ones.

Halberstam was not out to write a comprehensive story of the war and it battles. He actually points the reader to Clay Blair's The Forgotten War for that. Instead, he focuses on key turning points of the war including the defense of the Nakdong River, the Inchon landing, the Chinese attacks at Unsan, Chosin and the rest of the north and finally Chipyong-ni where the battered US 8th Army figured out how to fight the Chinese.

In each battle, Halberstam focuses on the experiences of soldiers and officers caught in battles they often should not have to fight. It is amazing how little was given to the forces defending the Nakdong and how unprepared the Army was in the far north. These battles were every bit as difficult as those fought in the Second World War but they remain almost completely unknown outside of the military.

The book is a warning and a sad reminder that what happens on the battlefield, as in Vietnam and Iraq, is very often the outcome of debates and conflicts in Washington DC.

*Powell's is bundling the book with its Out of the Book Film about the book. The trailer of which is below.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Funny and scary

Cynthia Crossen's Readback column in the WSJ discusses the polarizing comedy of A Confederacy of Dunces. Count me in the group that could not finish the book. I found it leaden and boring, but I know at least two people with whom I share other tastes in books who love this one. Crossen argues that comedy itself is polarizing. I think this may be true more in written than film form, but that is not based on any deep thinking.

Horror is another genre that polarizes and one book that draws both raves and rants is Scott Smith's The Ruins (soon to be a movie). I for one quite liked it, but the almost even split of pro and con reviews on Amazon reveal the range of disagreement.

One possible reason for this is that horror and comedy and almost purely emotional and therefore the reactions are more heated and potentially diverse. With most nonfiction, the author has a thesis and most readers can agree on how successfully the author argues it. Literary fiction is concerned, at some level, with ideas and again readers can rationally argue for why the book works or does.

I would argue that mysteries, which either successfully befuddle the reader's intellect or present social criticism are less emotionally driven by horror or comedy. Science fiction also has a strong rational component. It depicts potential futures and is also quite often a means of commenting on social or political issues.

Because of the need to connect emotionally, it is probably more difficult to write a funny or a scary book. What's more it is harder to determine, based on reviews or even recommendations, whether a comedic or scary book is right for you. I find the lavish praise of Full Moon Over Babylon baffling, but that is because I wasn't in the least bit scared at any point in the book. Others clearly did. And unfortunately, despite whatever other virtues a book might have, if a book fails in its prime mission, you are probably not going to like it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Banks is being re-published

Orion Books is republishing Consider Phlebas, my favorite of the Iain M Banks Culture novels. All of the Culture books are excellent reads and should be on the reading list of every sci-fi fan, but I think Consider Phlebas is Banks at his most interesting. Banks is one of the greatest of the world creators and his creativity goes to 11 in this book.

The Culture is Banks' liberal socialist paradise. It is an economy without scarcity and a political system with near total freedom. This makes for a rather boring place for stories, so most of his stories take place on the fringes of the Culture. Despite his admiration for the Culture, Banks is skeptical of power and the powerful Culture is happy to meddle in other societies in hopes of making them more like the Culture. Consider Phlebas is told from the side of the religious Idrians which finds the Culture anathema and fights it in a titanic struggle.

You can read the book as an great story or you can read it as meditation on politics. Either way, this is a must read and it is wonderful that is will be widely available again.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


The last of the science fiction elders, Sir Arthur C Clarke has died. Here is an essay Gregory Benford, another science fiction writer wrote about Clarke. As Benford notes, Clarke was in many ways the father of hard science fiction, the science fiction that, as much as possible adheres to our understanding of the laws of the universe. He also occasionally displayed a wry take on humanity, as evidenced by his first short story Rescue Party, which has one of the best final lines of all of science fiction (or fiction for that matter.) Read the story here.

A substantial gap in my science fiction reading is Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, the book against which all first contact stories are compared. I better read it soon, as David Fincher has a film in the works.

Tony Horwitz

Tony Horwitz writes humorous, thoughtful travel/history books that feature his interaction with everyday people. His books focus on an unifying theme that allows him a wide-ranging (geographically and topically) narrative.

In Baghdad Without a Map, he travelled the Arab world just before the first Gulf War. In Confederates in the Attic, one of my favorite books, he traveled the US seeking to understand the continuing fascination and fixation on the US Civil War. Blue Latitudes finds Horwitz following the wake of Captain Cook and assessing the impact on Polynesia.

His newest book, of which I have a review copy, is A Voyage Long and Strange. In this one Horwitz takes a look at the early explorers of America. Noting that Americans, including himself, know (a very little) about the Pilgrims and Columbus and still less about the many other explorers, Horwitz sets out to explore the areas that explorers went and to see what they impact they have today.

While I haven't finished the book, I can say that it is as funny and informative as the prior books. I love his visit to L'Anse Aux Meadows, which is a kind of Viking Colonial Williamsburg, featuring pretend Vikings who talk the talk and walk the walk. It's a barren place, as revealed in this video. Before I read the book, I had a vague sense that historians believed the Vikings had in fact colonized Newfoundland, but I was unaware archaeology had proved it. More on this as I read further.

The Ayatollah of Rock N Rolla

There are days when I wish I still live in the Bay Area. Today is one as I read about Road Warrior re-enactments on the highways. For those that cannot take to the California streets, here is the speech of Lord Humungus.

Monday, March 17, 2008

I know you're out there

I confess that when go see a show, I want something more than good music. I want banter, I want crazy guest appearances and of course the well-chosen cover. Kevin Drew and Broken Social Scene deliver on the more-than-just-a-show idea as shown in the video below. For one, they buy a shot for everyone in the audience and then they invite Tom Cochrane (Lunatic Fringe, Life is a Highway) onto the stage. I hope they went on to cover on of Cochrane's tunes.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Coldest Winter

I am in the middle of a number of very good books at the moment and one of them is the late David Halberstam's Coldest Winter. This, his final book, was finished shortly before he died in a car accident. His prologue starts mid-story in October 1950, where the US Army having come perilously close to defeat, went on to triumphant victory and then suffered one of the worst defeats in American military history at the hands of the Chinese Army.

I believe Halberstam chose this point to emphasize that MacArthur's command is what got the Army into the pickle in which it found itself. While a good portion of the book is spent on the various battles, equal time is given to the American political scene and to the various political and military leaders of the era.

What I like about the book and what I like about history in general is how interconnected the stories are and how reading about one issue deepens our understanding of other issues. The leaders in Korea brought their experience and baggage from WW2 to Korea. As Halberstam points out, in MacArthur's command, if your World War 2 experience was European you were immediately suspect. The younger leaders in Korea took their experiences to Vietnam. The New Deal and communism were major issues stretching back in the 30s and ahead to the Great Society debates of the 1960s.

More on this later, but suffice for now to say that this a rich discussion of the era.

On the subject of the war, the video below is of questionable taste, but many will enjoy it. It is depiction of wars from WW2 to today told entirely through food. I'm sure the kimchi will give away Korea.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Books on YouTube

I am not sure why I never looked, but there is a lot of book content on YouTube. Here is William Boyd talking about Restless, his recent foray into spy genre fiction. There are minor spoilers, so beware.

Here we have Charlie Huston talking about his latest the Shotgun Rule. It's a good introduction to the book, but suffers from the annoyingly frequent use of shotgun sounds. It is doubly annoying when the title refers to the rule of calling shotgun and not the weapons itself.

Here we have a two part conversation between Richard Morgan and Ian McDonald. Very fun, if like me, you like science fiction, but also some interesting bits about publishing in the US vs. the UK and the transition from book to film.

Below I have linked an interesting interview with Neil Gaiman. In it he talks about HP Lovecraft, what makes him great and why his followers have been less successful. It's taken from this documentary.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The kids aren't alright

No crime writer today excites me like Charlie Huston. Caught Stealing, the first book of the Hank Thompson trilogy, is a brutal wrong place at the wrong time story that moves at an incredible pace. His Joe Pitt trilogy, starting with Already Dead, should be ridiculous. Joe is a PI in New York, and he is a vampire. That right there was enough to make me think thrice. Huston creates a vampire society in NYC that mirrors the mortal society and creates classically cynical noir tales with fast paced and crazy turns in plot that having vampires and zombies allows you to do.

His writing is tight and effective and it is has gotten better in his latest, the Shotgun Rule. This is his most serious and dark book to date. The violence in his prior books was never glamorized, but it was over the top enough to be a little less shocking. Here with a set of protagonists that are mostly teenagers, the violence and threat of violence is horrifying.

The book is set in early 80s, in what appears to be a small, poor Central Valley town near the Bay Area. The protagonists are four teen delinquents who, in a fit of revenge, steal half a kilo of crystal meth from the local hoods. Things go awry and families are pulled into a rising tide of violence.

Huston doesn't glamorize these kids. They do drugs and drink as often as they go to school. They steal from the elderly and they jump at the chance to commit more crimes. Despite this, he reveals their conflicted, scared humanity which brings them great sympathy when their plans begin to go wrong.

Because of the complex nature of the characters, the starkness of the violence and the realistic dialogue of the teens, this book is not for everyone. You can probably tell where you stand. If you might like it, get it. I stayed up far later than I should reading this one as I had to know how it ended.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

And there stands NPR

NPR is live-casting from SXSW including REM, Vampire Weekend and My Morning Jacket. If I heard correctly, it will be archived as well, so you can catch Dead Confederate, like REM, a band from Athens. The emphasis is definitely on REM, but there is plenty of rock to go around here.

Funny books

Lovers of humor writing should take a look at the works of Anthony Winkler, who currently lives in the US, but is a native of Jamaica. His most recent novel, the Duppy, is set in Jamaica and is a humorous book about death, or the after-life. For those unfamiliar with Jamaican slang, a duppy is a ghost and the main character finds himself a duppy as he dies on the first page. He then works his way to heaven where he gets caught up with an atheist and hangs out with God. There is lots of earthy humor, and will have particular appeal for those that collect dirty slang.

This book got me thinking about funny books of literature and why there are so few. When I was collecting some funny books for an ill friend, I pulled together some Robertson Davies, a Richard Russo and a John Hodgman book. I then ran out of ideas. While of course there are more, the number of funny books of literature or even funny genre books is strangely small.

Is this a demand or supply issue? Do people want their funny in the Dave Barry bathroom book variety and keep it at that, or do they prefer to read of more serious matters when they pick up a book? I myself don't know.

Human Smoke

Because it is one of favorite topics, I suppose I have to read Human Smoke. From the adulatory LA Times review and the condemnatory NY Times review, it appears this myth-busting book suffers from engaging in its own myths. As I mentioned before, focusing on Churchill and Roosevelt without giving equal time to Stalin makes no sense.

Like World War One before it, World War Two was about Germany reacting to its strategic position through aggressive invasion with a focus on a fear of Russia. The strategy in World War One was to knock out France and then turn the energy to Russia. As it happened, Germany got bogged down in France but defeated Russia. In World War Two, they tried it again, this time defeating France but being defeated by Russia. The war was primarily fought by two collectivist horrors, one right wing and one left wing, but both disastrous for their subject peoples. The Allied role, except in the Pacific, was primarily a side-show.

Are people, who read history books, really unaware that the war was, in fact, bad? Studs Terkel wrote the ironically titled The Good War back in the 80s and it sold rather well. Cultural critic and veteran Paul Fussell's Boy's Crusade is a searing account of the hellish experience of American soldier in Europe and labels it a waste. With the Old Breed presents the view of the foot soldier in the Pacific in all its terror. Antony Beevor's Fall of Berlin revealed the terrors visited upon the German populace by the Red Army and Allied bombers. Anyone who has done any reading in the field should be well aware that this war is the worst thing that has ever happened.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Atomic Times

I suppose I am bit leery of mentioning a memoir, especially one published this century about events in the 1950s. Given the peculiar subject matter, I think it is worth mentioning, even with the possibility that there an element of embellishment. The Atomic Times takes it name from the newspaper for the newspaper of the Army unit stationed on the thermonuclear test base on Eniwetok. The author, Michael Harris, served as an enlisted man on the island for one year and the book is a mix of Catch-22 and nuclear terror.

Despite the title, most of the book focuses on the absurdities of daily life in the conscript military. After writing negative film reviews in the paper, the author is ordered to write only positive ones. For morale of course. He focuses on the humor of the situation, but also the downside, where the misfits are picked on and abused, while those who might stop it look away. Those promoting the idea of national service should read stories like these to see how not to restart a service program.

You can't have a book about serving on a nuclear test site without nuclear explosions. The horror of the experience comes in the details. The bomber that dropped the bomb in the wrong place blinding soldiers. The assurances that no radioactive fallout would ever occur, although at times soldiers were not allowed to leave buildings "for health reasons." The explosions that are much bigger than anticipated. The dreadfully sick sailors who come to the bar with bleeding gums and glowing fingernails.

Some of that may be exaggerated, but the book serves as a reminder, that whatever the war-preventing benefits of nuclear weapons, the world does not need to return to the times of nuclear weapons development.

Monday, March 10, 2008

New books

This manuscript review of the upcoming Richard Morgan fantasy novel (!) the Steel Remains is a bit over the top in its praise, but it does look like Morgan is taking a new tack, which is good news. And it is Richard Morgan, so it will be worth reading.

Scott Bakker, he of the bleak Prince of Nothing trilogy, has decided to write a bleak thriller called Neuropath. It involves a serial criminal who kidnaps people and re-architects their brains so they become different people.

After all that heaviness, it is nice to read something with a sunnier side. In Jim the Boy, Tony Earley wrote a coming of age tale that didn't involve incest, adultery, exploratory straight sex, exploratory gay sex, alcoholism, drug use, accidental death, or any other form of transgression. Rather it showed a young man coming to learn about death in the way that most people do, when a grandparent dies. Scott Turow reviews the sequel in the NYT.

One I didn't like

For quite some time I was looking for a reasonably priced copy of the out of print Full Moon Over Babylon. The novel gets high praise from the Amazon reviewers and a lot of love on GoodReads as well. I'm glad I only paid four bucks for my copy since I thought it was a rather run of the mill story, with turgid prose and nothing scary about it.

The narrative structure is a stand out. A down on its luck Southern family sees its members die one by one. You'd have to not pay attention to know who the bad guy is as soon as you meet him. I think that the author was going for a Jim Thompson sort of villain, but there is little insight, just irrational behavior from our baddie.

The scares come from ghosts, which I don't find scary (devils yes, ghosts no) and the threat to the family. There is some social criticism of how the powerful can manipulate their world to their liking. Oh well.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Ooooo, Scary

Horror has to have one of the lowest quality to junk ratios in all of genre fiction. While mysteries writers manage to nod to their pulp origins while remaining intelligent, horror writers tend to wallow in excess in escalating attempts to overwhelm jaded readers. So when you find someone like Joe Schreiber who writes horror novels well, it is worth getting excited.

His first novel, Chasing the Dead, was a solid horror/suspense hybrid that set Schrieber up to be one of the leading lights in genuinely scary horror writing. His second novel, Eat the Dark, fulfills the promise of the first.

The set-up is a tad pedestrian. Frank Snow, a jailed serial killer so vile that characters shudder upon hearing his name, needs a MRI and is being brought into a hospital due to close the next day. As it is understaffed, only a few police medical personnel and their families , including MRI tech Mike Hughes, are there that night. No prizes for guessing what happens.

Schrieber gets away with this because his plot is well constructed, his characters are realistically flawed and he provides just the right amount of information. Most horror (or even mystery, thriller and scifi) plots hide a major secret and then hit the reader with a big reveal, which is often a let down. Schrieber slowly (Ok, as slow as you can in a 200 page novel) ladles out developments, with enough information to keep the suspense building. Frank Snow treats his victims in a peculiar way, hunting some and testing others.

The tested people are confronted with many of their secrets. Like characters in a Stephen King novel, these characters cheat on their spouses, drink too much and are happy to do bad to make a buck or two. While these make the story seem more real, like Lost, the backgrounds tie back into the story.

Finally and this is perhaps most important, Schrieber provides just enough information to either scare or intrigues the reader. We never really learn what Snow did to his victims, Mike just recalls "grainy newspaper photos of a remote barn with black stained ropes and chains on the floor, notes, piles of clothes and sneakers in corner." There is a reference of sorts to Blair Witch, another movie that is parsimonious with the detail. Later, as the story becomes increasingly strange, Schrieber also evokes dread by balancing what he says and doesn't say.

I'm looking forward to what he does next and I hope other writers are paying attention.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

There is a future in Scalzi's dreaming

One thing fantasy writers need to pick up from science fiction writers is universe creation. Fantasy writers are great world creators, but they tend to focus on a single over-arching story line before moving to an entirely different world.

Science fiction writers have a long tradition, an early example of which is Heinlein's Future History, of creating a universe in which to set many sometimes related, sometimes unrelated stories. Iain M Banks has been writing Culture novels for decades, and just published a new one, called Matter. The insanely prolific CJ Cherryh developed a fascinating future history in her Alliance- Union books. Alastair Reynolds, Neal Asher and others continue to develop interesting future universes in their books.

At the end of the Last Colony, John Scalzi appeared to be putting aside his fascinating Colonial Union universe. In this universe, the galactic arm is jam packed with species competing for a handful of planets. Humanity has a number of tricks up its sleeve including taking bored retired people and turning them into bad-asses, hence the first book's title, Old Man's War. Like its two predecessors, Last Colony is excellent Heinleinesque fun that leaves you wanting to learn more about this universe.

In an afterword to Last Colony, Scalzi said he was putting the universe aside. Apparently he changed his mind, as he has another book called Zoe's tale coming this summer. He writes extensively about the book here. I hope he writes more.

I'll swallow your soul, I'll swallow your soul

I've been in a B-movie sort of mood lately and Netflix and Multnomah County library have delivered.

After reading Marvel Zombies vs. the Army of Darkness, I felt a bit underwhelmed. This reaction led me to question my decades old affection for Evil Dead 2, which like Army of Darkness, is a movie about Ash fighting Deadites. I am pleased to report that Evil Dead 2 holds up quite well thanks to some bizarre dialogue, over-the-top effects, and Bruce Campbell's perfect B-movie acting. There is lots of blood in this movie, but not in a make you vomit Eli Roth kind of way. Rather it plays more like a comedic veiled satire of horror movies.

Razor, a Battlestar Galactica stand-alone movie, will appeal to fans of the current show. It fills in some gaps, provides some context for later events, but it also tells the story of (spoiler) the Pegasus. Don't watch this if you haven't seen the show before, as some experience with the show will make it much more entertaining.

Superbad is a great teen movie, although some may be put off by the wall of vulgarity. If you are not, you are in for a very funny movie, which well captures the 18-y/o male experience. The movie centers on the desperate attempt to get alcohol, which will hopefully facilitate the getting of action. While the story has been done many times, the movie brings quite a bit of originality to the subject.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

I've got the Dungeon Master's Guide

Ur-nerd Gary Gygax, creator Dungeons and Dragons has passed. Nerd World links to an excellent Believer article on Gygax and the D&D phenomenon. While Star Trek and Star Wars are obviously critical in the growth of mass nerd culture, Gygax is their equal in importance. Because his influence took place behind closed doors and not on the big screen, he won't get the same recognition, which is too bad.

The article wonders whether D&D will become a passing thing in the coming years. I doubt that is the case, with over $1B in sales in recent years. And one of our female friends is making up for being excluded by the boys by serving as the Dungeon Master for her son.

Arsenals of Folly

Richard Rhodes's Arsenals of Folly is his third book about nuclear weapons. The Making of the Atomic Bomb detailed the successful development of fission weapons. Dark Sun described the successful creation of hydrogen or fusion weapons. Arsenals of Folly focuses on a failure; the attempt by Gorbachev and Reagan to abolish nuclear weapons.

Rhodes's book is selective and this makes sense in supporting his main thesis, which is to explain how the US and USSR came nearly to abolish the weapons and what held them back. The book runs into trouble with some of his asides and side arguments, in which his selectivity shows more bias.

The principal stumbling block to a final agreement was SDI, or Star Wars. Rhodes aligns this program with a series of defense programs built not so much for defensive purposes as for tools in bureaucratic wars, means to starve domestic programs and potential tools for rollback.

Rhodes nicely summarizes the numerous factors that drove the wild increase and innovation in nuclear weapons development. The desire for the Air Force, through SAC, to dominate the budget and the Navy and Army's attempts to defend their share by introducing more platforms certainly boosted spending and created the notion of a triad (missile, bomber, submarine missile) which guaranteed massive spending.

He cheats a bit, and even admits it, by not discussing Khrushchev's foreign policy, which depending on your analysis, created the basis or the cover for much of the eventual defense spending. I think he should have been more critical of Kennedy, who upon learning that the "missile gap"he talked about in the campaign wasn't real, continued to support weapons development despite a massive American lead.

Gorbachev is the hero of the book, as the person who saw that the only way to rescue his country was to turn off the Cold War. Rhodes explores two key historical events that underlie his decision making. The first is the Stalinist terror, which created the seeds of doubt in the application if not the philosophy of Soviet communism. The second is the Chernobyl accident which highlighted the danger of nuclear war. Reagan is given credit for recognizing what Gorbachev was doing and reacting appropriately, but Gorbachev is the hero.

The great villain is Richard Perle, who is presented as nearly Satanic, with a silvery convincing voice and a heart of darkness. His nickname is the Prince of Darkness, so there is probably something to what Rhodes says. Throughout the Reagan years, Perle works to prevent arms control agreements as well as to develop new weapons systems.

The main problem with the book is how Rhodes occasionally ignores complexity where it might slow down his argument. The best example is the concept of deterrence, which Rhodes never explains and for which he makes contradictory statements. Early on, he seems to promote the idea of minimal or even existential deterrence, while later calling into question whether nuclear deterrence works at all. He then cites one article that questions the value of nuclear deterrence, without citing the many more that support it. A deeper discussion of the debates over how and if deterrence works would in the end have made the US arms build up more understandable, which would have tempered, but not contradicted, some of his arguments.

This book does not reach the same standards as the Making of the Atomic Bomb, but it remains an excellent and informative read, as well as a good starting point for thinking of abolition again.

Monday, March 03, 2008

A few laughs

Check out this woman do 21 accents. Yes, not all are great, but on average they are excellent.

In the funny because it hurts, take a look at Nine Depressing True Life Adult Counterparts of Beloved Children's Books.

Garfield minus Garfield takes a worthless comic and, by cutting out the cat, turns it into a existentialist nightmare.

Thank god for the mall ninja.


About halfway through Steven Erikson's Bonehunters, I wondered if the Malazan saga was superior to Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. In the end I decided Martin wins over all with superior characters, writing, editing and emotion. Erikson is ahead of Marting on world creation, over the top plotting and action sequences, but he really needs to shorten these books.

The first 200 pages of this book elicited a number of "huh?"s and "what?s" as I tried to recall the backgrounds of the characters being referenced and the meaning of their various actions. Once the book clicked, it was excellent, but that was a really long ramp. (spoilers ahead)

This book makes clear that which was hinted in prior books. The conflicts among the human nations are really the manipulations of the gods as the pantheon is threatened by an enemy. The gods (and the elder races) begin to take sides and there is carnage aplenty. It is to Erikson's credit that he can keep this key development under wraps until after the half-way point in the series. I wish Erikson would provide some graphical representation of the relationships between the various factions as it becomes quite hard to follow just why so and so is sent on a mission to kill this other person.

Erikson also begins to answer the questions of which of his many badasses is the biggest badass. It would appear that Apsalar is actually the superior to Kalam in assassination. Icarium is looking like he may be the tops, although Karsa Orlong is certainly a contender. And what of Amonander Rake? These questions have raised debates in the fantasy fan world.