August 2005

Barks, Carl. Back to the Klondike. Prescott, AZ: Gladstone, [1953] 1987. ISBN 0-944599-02-8.
When this comic was originally published in 1953, the editors considered Barks's rendition of the barroom fight and Scrooge McDuck's argument with his old flame Glittering Goldie a bit too violent for the intended audience and cut those panels from the first edition. They are restored here, except for four lost panels which have been replaced by a half-page pencil drawing of the fight scene by Barks, inked and coloured in his style for this edition. Ironically, this is one of the first Scrooge comics which shows the heart of gold (hey, he can afford it!) inside the prickly skinflint.

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York, Byron. The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy. New York: Crown Forum, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-8238-2.
The 2004 presidential election in the United States was heralded as the coming of age of “new media”: Internet-based activism such as MoveOn, targeted voter contact like America Coming Together, political Weblogs, the Air America talk radio network, and politically-motivated films such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Robert Greenwald's Uncovered and Outfoxed. Yet, in the end, despite impressive (in fact unprecedented) fund-raising, membership numbers, and audience figures, the thoroughly conventional Bush campaign won the election, performing better in essentially every way compared to the 2000 results. This book explores what went wrong with the “new politics” revolution, and contains lessons that go well beyond the domain of politics and the borders of the United States.

The many-to-many mass medium which is the Internet provides a means for those with common interests to find one another, organise, and communicate unconstrained by time and distance. MoveOn, for example, managed so sign up 2.5 million members, and this huge number and giddy rate of growth persuaded those involved that they had tapped into a majority which could be mobilised to not only win, but as one of the MoveOn founders said not long before the election, “Yeah, we're going to win by a landslide” (p. 45). But while 2.5 million members is an impressive number, it is quite small compared to the approximately 120 million people who voted in the presidential election. That electorate is made up of about 15 million hard-core liberals and about the same number of uncompromising conservatives. The remaining 90 million are about evenly divided in leaning one direction or another, but are open to persuasion.

The Internet and the other new media appear to have provided a way for committed believers to connect with one another, ending up in an echo chamber where they came to believe that everybody shared their views. The approximately USD 200 million that went into these efforts was spent, in effect, preaching to the choir—reaching people whose minds were already made up. Outreach to swing voters was ineffective because if you're in a community which believes that anybody who disagrees is insane or brainwashed, it's difficult to persuade the undecided. Also, the closed communication loop of believers pushes rhetoric to the extremes, which alienates those in the middle.

Although the innovations in the 2004 campaign had negligible electoral success, they did shift the political landscape away from traditional party organisations to an auxiliary media-savvy network funded by wealthy donors. The consequences of this will doubtless influence U.S. politics in the future. The author, White House correspondent for National Review, writes from a conservative standpoint but had excellent access to the organisations about which he writes in the run-up to the election and provides an inside view of the new politics in the making. You have to take the author's research on faith, however, as there is not a single source citation in the book. The book's title was inspired by a 2001 Slate article, “Wanted: A Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy”; there is no suggestion of the existence of a conspiracy in a legal sense.

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Rucker, Rudy. Mathematicians in Love. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-765-31584-X.
I read this book in manuscript form; the manuscript was dated 2005-07-28. Now that Tor have issued a hardcover edition, I've added its ISBN to this item. Notes and reviews are available on Rudy's Weblog.

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Smith, L. Neil. The Lando Calrissian Adventures. New York: Del Rey, [1983] 1994. ISBN 0-345-39110-1.
This volume collects together the three Lando Calrissian short novels: Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu, Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon, and Lando Calrissian and the StarCave of ThonBoka, originally published separately in 1983 and now out of print (but readily available second-hand). All three novels together are just 409 mass market paperback pages. I wouldn't usually bother with an item of Star Wars merchandising, but as these yarns were written by one of my favourite science fiction authors, exalted cosmic libertarian L. Neil Smith, I was curious to see what he'd make of a character created by the Lucas organisation. It's pretty good, especially as a gentle introduction for younger readers who might be more inclined to read a story with a Star Wars hook than the more purely libertarian (although no more difficult to read) The Probability Broach (now available in a comic book edition!) or Pallas.

The three novels, which form a continuous story arc and are best read in order, are set in the period after Lando has won the Millennium Falcon in a card game but before he encounters Han Solo and loses the ship to him the same way. Lando is the only character in the Star Wars canon who appears here; if the name of the protagonist and ship were changed, one would scarcely guess the setting was the Star Wars universe, although parts of the “back-story” are filled in here and there, such as how a self-described interstellar gambler and con artiste came to be an expert starship pilot, why the steerable quad-guns on the Falcon “recoil” when they fire like World War II ack-ack guns, and how Lando laid his hands on enough money to “buy an entire city” (p. 408).

Lando's companion in all the adventures is the droid Vuffi Raa, also won in a card game, who is a full-fledged character and far more intriguing than any of the droids in the Star Wars movies. Unlike the stilted and mechanical robots of the films, Vuffi Raa is a highly dextrous starfish-like creature, whose five fractal-branching tentacles can detach and work independently, and who has human-level intelligence, a mysterious past (uncovered as the story progresses), and ethical conflicts between his built-in pacifism and moral obligation to his friends when they are threatened. (The cover art is hideous; Vuffi Raa, an elegant and lithe creature in the story, is shown as something like a squared-off R2-D2 with steel dreadlocks.) Now that computer graphics permits bringing to film any character the mind can imagine, Vuffi Raa would make a marvelous addition to a movie: for once, a robot fully as capable as a human without being even remotely humanoid.

The first novel is more or less straightforward storytelling, while the second and third put somewhat more of a libertarian edge on things. StarCave of ThonBoka does an excellent job of demonstrating how a large organisation built on fear and coercion, regardless how formidably armed, is vulnerable to those who think and act for themselves. This is a theme which fits perfectly with the Star Wars movies which occur in this era, but cannot be more than hinted at within the constraints of a screenplay.

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Smith, Edward E. Gray Lensman. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1939-1940, 1951] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-12-3.
This is the fourth volume of the Lensman series, following Triplanetary (June 2004), First Lensman (February 2005), and Galactic Patrol (March 2005). Gray Lensman ran in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction from October 1939 through January 1940. This book is a facsimile of the illustrated 1951 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised somewhat from the original magazine serial.

Gray Lensman is one of the most glittering nuggets of the Golden Age of science fiction. In this story, Doc Smith completely redefined the standard for thinking big and created an arena for the conflict between civilisation and chaos that's larger than a galaxy. This single novel has more leaps of the imagination than some other authors content themselves with in their entire careers. Here we encounter the “primary projector”: a weapon which can only be used when no enemy can possibly survive or others observe because the mere knowledge that it exists may compromise its secret (this, in a story written more that a decade before the first hydrogen bomb); the “negasphere”: an object which, while described as based on antimatter, is remarkably similar to a black hole (first described by J.R. Oppenheimer and H. Snyder in 1939, the same year the serial began to run in Astounding); the hyper-spatial tube (like a traversable wormhole); the Grand Fleet (composed of one million combat units); the Z9M9Z Directrix command ship, with its “tank” display 700 feet wide by 80 feet thick able to show the tactical situation in an entire galaxy at once; directed planetary impact weapons; a multi-galactic crime syndicate; insects and worms as allies of the good guys; organ regeneration; and more. Once you've experienced the Doc Smith universe, the Star Wars Empire may feel small and antiquated.

This edition contains two Forewords: the author's original, intended to bring readers who haven't read the earlier books up to speed, and a snarky postmodern excretion by John Clute which is best skipped. If you're reading the Lensman series for the first time (this is my fourth), it's best to start either at the beginning with Triplanetary, or with Galactic Patrol, which was written first and stands on its own, not depending on any of the material introduced in the first two “prequel” volumes.

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Jordan, Bill [William Henry]. No Second Place Winner. Concord, NH: Police Bookshelf, [1965] 1989. ISBN 0-936279-09-5.
This thin (114 page) book is one of the all-time classics of gunfighting, written by a man whose long career in the U.S. Border Patrol in an era when the U.S. actually defended its southern border schooled him in the essentials of bringing armed hostilities to an end as quickly and effectively as possible while minimising risk to the lawman. Although there are few pages and many pictures, in a way that's part of the message: there's nothing particularly complicated about winning a gunfight; it's a matter of skill acquired by patient practice until one can perform reliably under the enormous stress of a life-or-death situation. All of the refinements and complexity of “combat shooting” competitions are a fine game, the author argues, but have little to do with real-world situations where a peace officer has no alternative to employing deadly force.

The author stresses repeatedly that one shouldn't attempt to learn the fast draw or double action hip shooting techniques he teaches before having completely mastered single action aimed fire at bullseye targets, and advocates extensive dry-fire practice and training with wax or plastic primer-only practice loads before attempting the fast draw with live ammunition, “unless you wish to develop the three-toed limp of the typical Hollywood ‘gunslinger’” (p. 61). Jordan considers the double action revolver the only suitable weapon for a law officer, but remember that this book was written forty years ago, before the advent of today's light and reliable semiautomatics with effective factory combat loads. Still, the focus is on delivering the first shot to the malefactor's centre of gravity before he pulls the trigger, so magazine capacity and speedy reloading aren't as high priorities as they may be with today's increasingly militarised police.

This book is out of print, but used copies are readily available.

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