Wrap-up; The End is (almost definitely) Nigh

The end is nigh. Or at least, the end for my enforced presence on this blog. For those of you not aware, this blog was created for my Composition II class. I was assigned to post reviews of books that I had read for the class, post updates on my life and reading, and to make comments on the blogs of other students and users.

Overall the my blogging experience this semester has been mediocre. That said, I also think that this has been one of the better ways of handling assigned reading for a class, and it is certainly more organic than taking a test on a book. These advantages notwithstanding, the necessities of using this as a piece of classwork got in the way of organic enjoyment and interaction. For example, having to comment on specific blogs was unpleasant, especially for someone like myself, who tends to be a “lurker” in online communities. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except for the requirement to comment on specific blogs. Without this, I would have wandered from blog to blog until I found a post that struck my fancy. But as stands, I had to make something to say for blogs that I really didn’t have anything to say about. Buuuuuut I do realize that having required groups is essential to making this premise work.

I don’t expect to continue using this blog. As of right now, there is nothing here on wordpress that makes me want to switch from Tumblr, where I already have a writing related blog (albeit a very underdeveloped one, focusing more on amateur essays than book reviews). That said, I don’t plan to delete this blog. It seems unlikely that this blog will be of future interest to anyone, but that’s what Anne Frank thought, and look at her diary now. If nothing else, I don’t see any reason to destroy this bit of information. If you know me in person and want the name of my Tumblr blog where I may continue writing, I will happily give it to you, but I don’t feel like linking it here for all the world. If you come across this blog in the future, you are welcome to ask for my Tumblr, but I make no promises.

So to summarize, if you are some visitor from the far-off future, this blog is probably dead, and if I am still writing it is probably on a Tumblr blog somewhere. And no, they don’t have the same names. There is (I think, I hope) no connection between the two blogs.

So with that, farewell!

(434 words)

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At All Costs; a Galaxy Expanding

“Dying gloriously sounds good in bad historical novels. Speaking for myself, I think doing it in real life when you don’t have to is fucking stupid, and it irritates the hell out of me that we don’t appear to have any choice.” (Page 244)

Woot! Last mandatory review! Woooot! It’s about a book I really like that I was already reading! Good stuff.

For my final book review I chose to read David Weber‘s 782 page book At All Costs, which I was already in the process of reading, having started going through the series again midway through this semester. This is book number 11 in the mainline series, so I will not be able to discuss anything remotely detailed without giving substantial spoilers for earlier books. As such, I intend to keep my discussion as abstract as possible, so you shouldn’t need to worry about spoilers. That said, on to the book!

For those of you who have not read my IMWAYR on this book (which can be found here), At All Costs is a part of David Weber’s Honorverse, a relatively hard military science fiction series. As the series has evolved since the release of it’s first entry (On Basilisk Station) it’s scope has grown tremendously. What started as the relatively compact tale of a naval officer in the space-fairing navy of a relatively small (if economically powerful) Star Kingdom of Manticore has expanded to be about the entirety of humanity. The book before At All Costs had a tighter focus, being more (though certainly not exclusively) concerned with the issues of internal Manticoran politics, and those of the, to use the term loosely,  “neighboring” (space is big) Republic of Haven . At All Costs pulls the focus out with abandon, focusing on the growing conflicts between the titans of this universe, including some which the universe as a whole has been unaware of. This proves to be something of a double edged sword.

This broader focus makes for more interesting reading if interstellar politics are your thing. Additionally, in conjunction with the rise of politics is a rise in things happening in the plot. If those sorts of politics aren’t something you like, you might not enjoy this entry (or the one before it) so much. But if you can’t enjoy, or at least tolerate, these sorts of politics and lengthy details, then it is unlikely you will have read this far into the series to begin with. Another way that the expansion of scope cuts both ways is in background. Honorverse is a vast universe, with a great deal of additional writings which were not part of the main story. But around At All Costs, or potentially the book before it, War of Honor, these sides stories become extremely important, and it becomes necessary to read a staggering amount of background material. Several of the short stories from the Worlds of Honor anthologies become useful background for the Crown of Slaves subseries, which contains 3 additional lengthy books. This alone is about 2000 pages of additional reading, which is important to understanding the changing focus of the main line series.

To make things worse, further entries in the subseries have been published since At All Costs, meaning that if you are not careful, it is possible to read too far ahead, though Crown of Slaves  is mostly self-contained in its plot. And that doesn’t even count the Saganami Island subseries, which is equally important to understanding the current focus of the main series, and adds an additional 2500+ pages of reading. On the upsides, the most recent book in the series synchronized all of the disparate timelines, so henceforth this should not be an issue. I realize that this assessment of the background reading may be discouraging, but it shouldn’t be. It only becomes relevant at this late stage in the series. If you make it this far, there is a decent chance that you will be delighted at the additional 4500+ pages of Honorverse to read. Either way, I encourage you to try the series without worrying about it’s length or background.

Returning to the topic of the book itself, it is more action heavy than many of the previous books. In earlier entries, the majority of the book is build-up to a substantial naval battle at the end. However, At All Costs has it’s naval battles sprinkled throughout the book, and caps it all with one immense battle at the end. And as with many of the previous Honorverse books, it sometimes puts us in the heads of some very frustrating characters, who make some extremely poor choices. This is balanced by also putting us in the heads of some very sympathetic characters, with the result that the lines between  “Bad Guys” and “Good Guys” become much weaker, or at the very least shift to divide different people. This is one of the things that Weber does very well in his series, starting in book number 2.

Overall, I like At All Costs. I like it quite a bit, though I would not say it is my favorite in the series. For it’s niche, it is a good book, but for those outside its niece it is likely to be a frustrating read.

Also, I feel a need to air my pet peevees about the cover. So if you are only interested in the review of the book itself, you don’t need to read this part.

  1. All of the starships pictured have ridiculously tight intervals. Most of them are probably under ten kilometers apart, which is stupidly, ridiculously close together for Honorverse.
  2. None of the starships have impeller wedges. In Honorverse, an impeller wedges are “a pair of stressed gravity bands above and below a ship”. They are used primarily for propulsion, but they also represent an impenetrable shield above and below a warship. This means that ships have their wedges activated almost any time they are moving, and certainly whenever they are in actual combat.
  3. Because the ships are so close together, it would be impossible for them to use their impeller wedges. The wedges measure hundred of kilometers on a side, and it is lethal for a starship to make contact with one, either directly, or through their own wedges.
  4. All of the missiles appear to be contact weapons. In Honorverse, the majority of missiles have stand off ranges of above 20,000 Kilometers. While contact missiles do exist, they are notoriously hard to generate hits with.
  5. None of the people on the bridge are in skinsuits, and none of them have their shock frames engaged. This is a bad thing. When humans go into space without a skinsuit, bad things happen. Hull breaches during combat are routine. This means that if the bridge, as depicted, where to suffer even a brief pressure loss, it is likely that everyone on the bridge would die. That is also a bad thing.

That’s about all I have to say on this book. I like it; I recognize that it’s not for everyone.

IMWAYR 3/27/17: Reading consolidation

“‘Close’ only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and tactical nuclear weapons (At All Costs, pg 486)

Oh my gosh. I get to read my favorite Science Fiction series AND yell about it. FOR SCHOOL. YES!

This is not the first time that David Webers Honorverse novels have been mentioned on my blog. I have been rapidly moving through the series all semester, and due to a recent change in my English reading assignment, I can now actually be productive while reading them! YEEEES. No longer do I have to try to balance my school reading and my personal reading. Good stuff.

At All Costs is the 11th book in David Weber‘s primary Honorverse storyline. It is 782 pages long, of which I have read 539 pagesAt All Costs is the second book in the Honorverse’s consolidation. It ties characters who have been central to the Honorverse’s anthologies and side stories into the main story’s spotlight, and firmly moves the focus of the series from the relatively isolated tale of a war between two star nations, to a galaxy wide tale of conspiracy and conflict between extremely powerful interests. It also spreads its major naval conflicts out throughout the book, instead of being primarily build up to aforementioned battles. I like it. Now to talk about the rest of the series.

The Honorverse is a massive military science fiction series, which currently has 34 published entries, with more coming. It is distinct in that it places a great deal of emphasis on internal “scientific” and tactical consistency, with a certain amount of realism. For example, in Star Trek, most weapons seem to have a maximum effective range of 100,000 kilometers. I say seem because it is rarely discussed, and the ranges are bent frequently for cinematic reasons. In Honorverse, under a million kilometers is short, and the exact range of various weapons is of immense importance, especially in later books, as potential engagement ranges burgeon from ~7 million kilometers to 50+ (disregard the cover which appears to show ships within 20 kilometers of eachother). Acceleration is also extremely important, and any star nation which wishes to remain militarily competitive should put a great deal of effort into developing technology to allow their starships to accelerate faster. However, the issue is not acceleration per-say. Starships can accelerate to near light speed instantaneously. The issue is combating the fact that such acceleration would completely destroy the ship. Acceleration is not determined by ability to start going faster, but by ability to compensate for that acceleration’s effect on crews and equipment.  Acceleration to significant speeds takes time, and battles are usually fought over a period of many hours.

The series is definitely not for everyone. But if you like the sound of over-explained space battles and technology, internal and external politics, and a very, very large universe with a great deal to read, this might be worth a try. The best place to start is probably the first book, On Basilisk Station. While the many side stories and anthologies (some of which take place chronologically before On Basilisk Station) are ultimately important, they do not become vital until around book 9 or 10.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; My Favorite of the Series

“Don’t talk to me.”
“Why not?”
“Because I want to fix that in my memory for ever. Draco Malfoy, the amazing bouncing ferret…” (223)

In a nutshell, Joanne Rowling‘s 755 page book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a Good Book. That’s the important part of the review, out the way already. GoF represents the series’ full transition into a darker series, and marks the beginning of the series’ primary plot concerning (spoiler) the second rise of Lord Voldemort (end spoiler). While the first three books lead up to this point, they are primarily self contained, both on the level of the individual chapter, and the books as a whole. Moreover, they mainly focus on their titular theme; Philosophers stone focuses on the philosopher’s stone, the Chamber of Secrets on the chamber and its monster, and the Prisoner of Azkaban on the escape of Sirius Black. However, GoF expands its horizons, including not only the international triwizard tournament, but also the slow disordering of the wizarding world and the ominous hints of worse things yet to come. While the first three books are three, mostly separate stories, the entire series from GoF on can be thought of one story, split into four darker parts.

This lack of self containment benefits the book. When I reread the series from the beginning, I was struck by just how compartmentalized the Philosophers Stone is, and it definitely hurt the experience for me. But GoF does not suffer from this issue, and tells a well crafted and exciting story. The structure of the Triwizard Tournament makes the book quite exciting, and the tournament is used well to drive the plot forward, even if the exact use is a bit unrealistic and overly complicated.

I also appreciate the look that GoF gives into the lives of witches and wizards in other counties. The entire story of Harry Potter is almost exclusively focused on the lives of British magic users, so it is nice to be reminded that so many other magic using cultures exist.

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The Fellowship of the Ring; I like.

Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. (Tolkien 114)

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Like most people who read J.R.R. Tolkien’s 527 page book The Fellowship of the Ring, I went in anything but blind. I had previously seen the big-screen adaptation of Fellowship’, and I had listened to an unfortunately abridged audio reading of the entire series. I have also attempted to read the Fellowship‘ in the past, but have never gotten past the council of Elrond. Finally, I have read Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which takes place some 60 years before Fellowship‘, several times, and enjoyed it very much. But it has been many years since I last picked up Fellowship’, so I thought I would try again.

One of the most immediately striking things about the book is it’s writing; both the quality of the moment-to-moment writing, and structure of the book. The book opens with a prologue, which is not itself unusual. Usually, prologues are used to set the stage for the rest of the book, and to drum up the interest of someone who is casually browsing the book. For this reason, they tend to be self-contained, and written so as to give an exciting taste of the rest of the book. And example of this is Christopher Paolini’s fantasy bestseller Eragon. Putting aside the controversial nature of the book as a whole, its prologue, “Shadow of Fear”, is a perfect example of these traits. At 4 pages, it is short enough that you can comfortably read it while standing in a bookstore. It reveals many of the important aspects of the world of Eragon, such as elves, magic, and other fantasy creatures, and it introduces a potential villain. It is action-packed, and it sets up the single plot point necessary for the rest of the book to progress.

In contrast, the prologue to Fellowship‘ is nearly 20 pages long. It begins by discussing the most important events of The Hobbit, but then diverges into such diverse topics as hobbit genealogy and ethnicities, the history of hobbits and their home-lands, the nature of hobbits, their system of dates, and their preferred type of pipe-weed. From the outset, Fellowship‘ makes itself clear that it is not so much the start of a story as it is a moment of time in a vast world, which has existed and will continue to exist. This style of writing, which prioritizes the world as a whole over the plot, continues throughout the book. It’s a very hit-or-miss style, but for me personally, it’s a big hit.

Putting aside the writing, Fellowship‘ is a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in the high-fantasy genre, or even fantasy as a whole. Tolkien’s interpretations of fantasy tropes where frequently new at the time, but have since become the norm. For example, different mythologies have involved elves for centuries, with radically different interpretation of personality and physical characteristics. However, Tolkien’s interpretation of the elf has now become the elf, and with the possible exception of Christmas elves, no other type maintains popular recognition. Indeed, Tolkien style elves have now become one of the most common fantasy tropes of all times.

Even excluding issues of influence, I simply enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring. It was an enjoyable read which went surprisingly fast, and I appreciate the depth that Tolkien put into every detail of his world. I would definitely recommend it.

(567 words)

 

IMWAYR (2/20/17) I Hope I Never Have to Learn Polish

This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history. (Tolkien 19)

Image result for the fellowship of the ring cover book

The thing that fascinates me about the idea of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is how they came to be, and the position their events occupy in J.R.R Tolkien’s world as a whole. Tolkien was, to put it mildly, a complete and total language nerd, and his constructed languages form the basis for all of his writing. In order to fill in the history of his languages, he started to write pieces of the middle earth. The Lord of the Rings trilogy that most of us are familiar with is a relatively trivial part of his world as a whole, which is itself an excuse for how he designed his languages. To me, this is a whole new level of awesome. If you want to see a brief example of the depth that Tolkien has written into his world, here is a clip of two of Stephen Colbert’s TV segments, in which the subject of Tolkien lore came up.

So far I am 30 pages into J.R.R. Tolkien‘s book The Fellowship of the Ring. And so far, the book has consisted solely of exposition on the history of Hobbits. This includes how they came to inhabit their current home in and around the Shire, their disposition, some information of the most prominent families, and their political system, as well as a summary of the major Hobbit ethnic groups. It isn’t the most riveting read so far, but it is still interesting.

I am still kind-of sort-of reading IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation by Edwin Black, but I have not made very much progress on it, so I am at page 195. More of my recent reading time has been devoted to a re-read of David Weber‘s Honorverse series. I am currently on page 81 of the second book in the series, The Honor of the QueenHonorverse is one of my favorite book franchises. It is a relatively “hard” military science fiction series, which has grown to encompass a massive scale, with thirteen books in its main series, at least six anthologies of short stories, and four side series, which themselves encompass an additional fifteen books. The series is long enough that by the time I finish reading it, I’m ready to start all over again.

One of the interesting things that Weber does in this series is how he characterizes different planets. In this universe, most planets are populated by immigrants from one country or region of earth, and the results are wonderful. For example, there exists an empire which has a substantial German and Chinese population, with the result that most people have both a traditional Chinese based name, and a German name. Another, slightly more frustrating example, is a world of primarily Polish extract, which has taught me that Polish names are even harder to pronounce and remember than Russian names. I love the idea, but neither my tongue nor my mind are limber enough to wrap themselves around terms like “Komisja Wolnoś ci i Sprawiedliwości Społecznej”. I had enough trouble trying to remember the names in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I don’t need this as well. Fortunately, the book where these Polish-inspired words appear (Shadow of Victory, a much later book in Weber’s series) is kind enough to provide a glossary these words, though the fact that a glossary was necessary at all is somewhat disturbing.

(558 Word)

 

The Catcher in the Rye; why?

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, an what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it”(1)

Going in, I knew that J.D. Salinger‘s 214 page classic story the Catcher in the Rye is a controversial book. It seems that most people either deeply connect with this book and it’s unstable but sympathetic protagonist, Holden Caulfield, or they hate the book, and loathe the it’s inexcusably obnoxious, self important main character. I am more in the second camp.

I’ll start with the positives. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5the Catcher in the Rye effectively communicates a sense of profound isolation. Holden’s mental commentary on the people and events around him alternate between the two extremes of being basically sympathetic, and willing to understand his peers’ flaws, and cutting, deriding nearly everyone else as a disgusting phony. He really does feel like a teen struggling to understand why he is the way he is, and why the people around him are the way they are. This is reinforced by the excellent job that Salinger did in giving Holden a distinct mental voice. The writing is unmistakable, and evidently accurately captures the slang and mannerisms of the time. It also reads as being distinctly teen, even if the slang and cultural details are now far out of date. But this life-like representation of the main character is where my problems with the book came into play.

For me, Holden is fundamentally unlikable. He lashes out at those around him, often physically, in spite of the fact that he goes from hating these people to liking, or at least tolerating, them in a space of minutes, and vice versa. He is extremely self important, and views himself as being far nobler and more true than those around him. Admittedly, having to deal with this perception being shaken is a part of his developmental journey, but the result is that he spends most of the book being a self-superior jerk. The block quote above felt like a low-hanging fruit to me, seeing as it is the first sentence in the book. But it really does give an accurate feeling for how insufferable Holden is for most of the book.

All that said, I expect that this book is just not for me. Maybe I just haven’t yet gone through the fundamental uncertainty that may be necessary to connect with the book. But from where I stand now, it was a miserable read full of miserable people, and it offered no benefit to me except being able to say “yeah, I’ve read that book”. And if I’m going to read a miserable book full of miserable people, I’d rather read something about a more personally interesting topic, or at least a topic that I don’t find so dubious as a concept.

In spite of my low opinion of the book, I would recommend that most people read it. Your take on it will vary radically with the sort of childhood you had, your relationship with your parents, your worldview, how you’ve changed as you’ve grown, and all the other things that tend dominate teenage life. To summarize, for others, I recommend it. For myself, I hope never to see the book again. Perhaps for my next book I’ll choose something happier.

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