Fantasy

Drosnin, Michael. The Bible Code 2. New York: Penguin Books, [2002] 2003. ISBN 0-14-200350-6.
What can you say about a book, published by Viking and Penguin as non-fiction, which claims the Hebrew Bible contains coded references to events in the present and future, put there by space aliens whose spacecraft remains buried under a peninsula on the Jordan side of the Dead Sea? Well, actually a number of adjectives come to mind, most of them rather pithy. The astonishing and somewhat disturbing thing, if the author is to believed, is that he has managed to pitch this theory and the apocalyptic near-term prophecies he derives from it to major players on the world stage including Shimon Peres, Yasir Arafat, Clinton's chief of staff John Podesta in a White House meeting in 2000, and in a 2003 briefing at the Pentagon, to the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and other senior figures at the invitation of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. If this is the kind of input that's informing decisions about the Middle East, it's difficult to be optimistic about the future. When predicting an “atomic holocaust” for 2006 in The Bible Code 2, Drosnin neglects to mention that in chapter 6 of his original 1997 The Bible Code, he predicted it for either 2000 or 2006, but I suppose that's standard operating procedure in the prophecy biz.

January 2004 Permalink

Ferri, Jean-Yves and Didier Conrad. Astérix: Le Papyrus de César. Vanves, France: Editions Albert René, 2015. ISBN 978-2-86497-271-6.
The publication of Julius Cæsar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War) (August 2007) made a sensation in Rome and amplified the already exalted reputation of Cæsar. Unknown before now, the original manuscript included a chapter which candidly recounted the Roman army's failure to conquer the Gauls of Armorique, home of the fierce warrior Astérix, his inseparable companion Obélix, and the rest of the villagers whose adventures have been chronicled in the thirty-five volumes preceding this one. On the advice of his editor, Bonus Promoplus, Cæsar agrees to remove the chapter chronicling his one reverse from the document which has come down the centuries to us.

Unfortunately for Promoplus, one of his scribes, Bigdata, flees with a copy of the suppressed chapter and delivers it to Doublepolémix, notorious Gallic activist and colporteur sans frontières, who makes the journey to the village of the irréductibles in Armorique.

The Roman Empire, always eager to exploit new technology, has moved beyond the slow diffusion of news by scrolls to newsmongers like Rézowifix, embracing wireless communication. A network of Urgent Delivery Pigeons, operated by pigeon masters like Antivirus, is able to quickly transmit short messages anywhere in the Empire. Unfortunately, like the Internet protocol, messages do not always arrive at the destination nor in the sequence sent….

When news of the missing manuscript reaches Rome, Prompolus mounts an expedition to Gaul to recover it before it can damage the reputation of Cæsar and his own career. With battle imminent, the Gauls resort to Druid technology to back up the manuscript. The story unfolds with the actions, twists, and turns one expects from Astérix, and a satisfying conclusion.

This album is, at this writing, the number one best-selling book at Amazon.fr.

December 2015 Permalink

Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Astérix chez les Helvètes. Paris: Hachette, [1970] 2004. ISBN 2-01-210016-3.

April 2005 Permalink

Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Le ciel lui tombe sur la tête. Paris: Albert René, 2005. ISBN 2-86497-170-4.
Credit me with some restraint—I waited ten whole days after volume 33 of the Astérix saga appeared before devouring it in one sitting. If it isn't sufficiently obvious from the author's remark at the end of the album, note that planet “Tadsylwien” is an anagram of “Walt Disney”. The diffuse reflection of the countryside in the spherical spaceship on p. 8 is magnificently done.

October 2005 Permalink

Lebeau, Caroline. Les nouvelles preuves sur l'assassinat de J. F. Kennedy. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2003. ISBN 2-268-04915-9.
If you don't live in Europe, you may not be fully aware just how deranged the Looney Left can be in their hatred of Western civilisation, individual liberty, and the United States in particular. This book, from the same publisher who included a weasel-word disclaimer in each copy of Oriana Fallaci's La Force de la Raison (December 2004), bears, on its cover, in 42 point white type on a red background, the subtitle «Le clan Bush est-il coupable?»—“Is the Bush clan guilty?” This book was prominently displayed in French language bookstores in 2004. The rambling narrative and tangled illogic finally pile up to give an impression reminiscent of the JFK assassination headline in The Onion's Our Dumb Century: “Kennedy Slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, Teamsters, Freemasons”. Lebeau declines to implicate the Masons, but fleshes out the list, adding multinational corporations, defence contractors, the Pentagon, Khrushchev, anti-Casto Cuban exiles, a cabal within the Italian army (I'm not making this up—see pp. 167–168), H.L. Hunt, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, the mayor of Dallas … and the Bush family, inter alia. George W. Bush, who was 17 years old at the time, is not accused of being a part of the «énorme complot», but his father is, based essentially on the deduction: “Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Dallas is in Texas. George H. W. Bush lived in Texas at the time—guilty, guilty, guilty!

“Independent investigative journalist” Lebeau is so meticulous in her “investigations” that she confuses JFK's older brother's first and middle names, misspells Nixon's middle name, calls the Warren Report the product of a Republican administration, confuses electoral votes with Senate seats, consistently misspells “grassy knoll”, thinks a “dum-dum” bullet is explosive, that Gerald Ford was an ex-FBI agent, and confuses H. L. Hunt and E. Howard Hunt on the authority of “journalist” Mumia Abu-Jamal, not noting that he is a convicted cop killer. Her studies in economics permit her to calculate (p. 175) that out of a total cost of 80 billion dollars, the Vietnam war yielded total profits to the military-industrial complex and bankers of 220 trillion dollars, which is about two centuries worth of the U.S. gross national product as of 1970. Some of the illustrations in the book appear to have been photographed off a television screen, and many of the original documents reproduced are partially or entirely illegible.

March 2005 Permalink

[Audiobook] Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audiobooks, [1942, 1959, 1961] 2006. ISBN 978-0-7861-7279-5.
If you're looking for devilishly ironic satire, why not go right to the source? C. S. Lewis's classic is in the form of a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior demon in the “lowerarchy” of Hell, to his nephew Wormwood, a novice tempter on his first assignment on Earth: charged with securing the soul of an ordinary Englishman in the early days of World War II. Not only are the letters wryly funny, there is a great deal of wisdom and insight into the human condition and how the little irritations of life can present a greater temptation to flawed humans than extravagant sins. Also included in this audiobook is the 1959 essay “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, which is quite different in nature: Lewis directly attacks egalitarianism, dumbing-down of education, and destruction of the middle class by the welfare state as making the tempter's task much easier (the original letters were almost entirely apolitical), plus the preface Lewis wrote for a new edition of Screwtape in 1961, in which he says the book almost wrote itself, but that he found the process of getting into Screwtape's head very unpleasant indeed.

The book is read by Ralph Cosham, who adopts a dry, largely uninflected tone which is appropriate for the ironic nature of the text. This audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 3 hours and 36 minutes. Audio CD and print editions are also available.

January 2008 Permalink

Meyssan, Thierry. L'effroyable imposture. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2002. ISBN 2-912362-44-X.
An English translation of this book was published in August 2002.

July 2002 Permalink

Meyssan, Thierry ed. Le Pentagate. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2002. ISBN 2-912362-77-6.
This book is available online in both Web and PDF editions from the book's Web site. An English translation is available, but only in a print edition, not online.

June 2004 Permalink

Niven, Larry and Jerry Pournelle. Escape from Hell. New York: Tor Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-765-31632-5.
Every now and then you read a novel where you're absolutely certain as you turn the pages that the author(s) had an absolute blast writing it, and when that's the case the result is usually superbly entertaining. That is certainly true here. How could two past masters of science fiction and fantasy not delight in a scenario in which they can darn to heck anybody they wish, choosing the particular torment for each and every sinner?

In this sequel to the authors' 1976 novel Inferno, the protagonist of the original novel, science fiction writer Allen Carpenter, makes a second progress through Hell. This time, after an unfortunate incident on the Ice in the Tenth Circle, he starts out back in the Vestibule, resolved that this time he will escape from Hell himself and, as he progresses ever downward toward the exit described by Dante, to determine if it is possible for any damned soul to escape and to aid those willing to follow him.

Hell is for eternity, but that doesn't mean things don't change there. In the decades since Carpenter's first traverse, there have been many modifications in the landscape of the underworld. We meet many newly-damned souls as well as revisiting those encountered before. Carpenter recounts his story to Sylvia Plath, who as a suicide, has been damned as a tree in the Wood of the Suicides in the Seventh Circle and who, rescued by him, accompanies him downward to the exit. The ice cream stand in the Fiery Desert is a refreshing interlude from justice without mercy! The treatment of one particular traitor in the Ice is sure to prove controversial; the authors explain their reasoning for his being there in the Notes at the end. A theme which runs throughout is how Hell is a kind of Heaven to many of those who belong there and, having found their niche in Eternity, aren't willing to gamble it for the chance of salvation. I've had jobs like that—got better.

I'll not spoil the ending, but will close by observing that the authors have provided a teaser for a possible Paradiso somewhere down the road. Should that come to pass, I'll look forward to devouring it as I did this thoroughly rewarding yarn. I'll wager that if that work comes to pass, Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy will be found to apply as Below, so Above.

March 2009 Permalink

O'Brien, Flann [Brian O'Nolan]. The Third Policeman. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, [1967] 1999. ISBN 1-56478-214-X.
This novel, one of the most frequently recommended books by visitors to this page, was completed in 1940 but not published until 1967, a year after the author's death. Perhaps the world was insufficiently weird before the High Sixties! This is one strange book; in some ways it anticipates surreal new wave science fiction such as John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar and The Jagged Orbit, but O'Brien is doing something quite different here which I'll refrain from giving away. Don't read the (excellent) Introduction before you read the novel—there is one big, ugly spoiler therein.

January 2004 Permalink

O'Brien, Flann [Brian O'Nolan]. The Dalkey Archive. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, [1964] 1993. ISBN 1-56478-172-0.
What a fine book to be reading on Saint Patrick's Day! Flann O'Brien (a nom de plume of Brian O'Nolan, who also wrote under the name Myles na gCopaleen, among others) is considered one of the greatest Irish authors of humor and satire in the twentieth century; James Joyce called him “A real writer, with the true comic spirit.” In addition to his novels, he wrote short stories, plays, and a multitude of newspaper columns in both the Irish and English languages. The Dalkey Archive is a story of mind-bending fantasy and linguistic acrobatics yet so accessible it sucks the reader into its alternative reality almost unsuspecting. A substantial part of the material is recycled from The Third Policeman (January 2004) which, although completed in 1940, the author despaired of ever seeing published (it was eventually published posthumously in 1967). Both novels are works of surreal fantasy, but The Dalkey Archive is more conventionally structured and easier to get into, much as John Brunner's The Jagged Orbit stands in relation to his own earlier and more experimental Stand on Zanzibar.

The mad scientist De Selby, who appears offstage and in extensive and highly eccentric footnotes in The Third Policeman, is a key character here, joined by Saint Augustine and James Joyce. The master of malaprop, Sergeant Fottrell and his curious “mollycule” theory about people and bicycles is here as well, providing a stolid counterpoint to De Selby's relativistic pneumatic theology and diabolical designs. It takes a special kind of genius to pack this much weirdness into only two hundred pages. If you're interested in O'Brien's curious career, this biography is an excellent starting point which contains no spoilers for any of his fiction.

March 2006 Permalink

Orsenna, Erik. La grammaire est une chanson douce. Paris: Poche, 2001. ISBN 2-253-14910-1.
Ten year old Jeanne and her insufferable fourteen year old brother survive a shipwreck and find themselves on an enchanted island where words come alive and grammar escapes the rationalistic prison of Madame Jargonos and her Cartesian colleagues in the black helicopters (nice touch, that) to emerge as the intuitive music of thought and expression. As Jeanne recovers her ability to speak, we discover the joy of forging phrases from the raw material of living words with the tools of grammar. The result of Jeanne's day in the factory on page 129 is a pure delight. The author is a member of l'Académie française.

January 2005 Permalink

Orsenna, Erik. Les Chevaliers du Subjonctif. Paris: Stock, 2004. ISBN 2-234-05698-5.
Two years have passed since Jeanne and her brother Thomas were marooned on the enchanted island of words in La grammaire est une chanson douce (January 2005). In this sequel, Jeanne takes to the air in a glider with a diminutive cartographer to map the Archipelago of Conjugation and search for her brother who has vanished. Jeanne's luck with voyages hasn't changed—the glider crashes on the Island of the Subjunctives, where Jeanne encounters its strange inhabitants, guardians of the verbs which speak of what may be, or may not—the mode of dreams and love (for what is love if not hope and doubt?), the domain of the subjunctive. To employ a subjunctive survival from old French, oft-spoken but rarely thought of as such, « Vive le subjonctif ! ».

The author has been a member of the French Conseil d'État since 1985, has written more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, is an accomplished sailor and president of the Centre de la mer, and was elected to l'Académie française in 1998. For additional information, visit his beautiful and creatively designed Web site, where you will find a map of the Archipelago of Conjugation and the first chapter of the book in both text and audio editions.

Can you spot the perspective error made by the artist on the front cover? (Hint: the same goof occurs in the opening title sequence of Star Trek: Voyager.)

April 2005 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. Sweeter than Wine. Rockville, MD: Phoenix Pick, 2011. ISBN 978-1-60450-483-5.
A couple of weeks after D-Day, Second Lieutenant J Gifford found himself separated from his unit and alone in a small French village which, minutes later, was overrun by Germans. Not wishing to spend the rest of the war as a POW, he took refuge in an abandoned house, hiding out in the wine cellar to escape capture until the Allies took the village. There, in the dark, dank cellar, he encounters Surica, a young woman also hiding from the Germans—and the most attractive woman he has ever seen. Nature takes its course, repeatedly.

By the time the Germans are driven out by the Allied advance, Gifford has begun to notice changes in himself. He can see in the dark. His hearing is preternaturally sensitive. His canine teeth are growing. He cannot tolerate sunlight. And he has a thirst for blood.

By the second decade of the twenty-first century, Gifford has established himself as a private investigator in the town of New Prospect, Colorado, near Denver. He is talented in his profession, considered rigorously ethical, and has a good working relationship with the local police. Apart from the whole business about not going out in daytime without extensive precautions, being a vampire has its advantages in the gumshoe game: he never falls ill, recovers quickly even from severe injuries, doesn't age, has extraordinary vision and hearing, and has a Jedi-like power of suggestion over the minds of people which extends to causing them to selectively forget things.

But how can a vampire, who requires human blood to survive, be ethical? That is the conundrum Gifford has had to face ever since that day in the wine cellar in France and, given the prospect of immortality, will have to cope with for all eternity. As the novel develops, we learn how he has met this challenge.

Meanwhile, Gifford's friends and business associates, some of whom know or suspect his nature, have been receiving queries which seem to indicate someone is on to him and trying to dig up evidence against him. At the same time, a series of vicious murders, all seemingly unrelated except for their victims having all been drained of blood, are being committed, starting in Charleston, South Carolina and proceeding westward across the U.S. These threads converge into a tense conflict pitting Gifford's ethics against the amoral ferocity of an Old One (and you will learn just how Old in chapter 26, in one of the scariest lines I've encountered in any vampire tale).

I'm not usually much interested in vampire or zombie stories because they are just so implausible, except as a metaphor for something else. Here, however, the author develops a believable explanation of the vampire phenomenon which invokes nothing supernatural. Sure, there aren't really vampires, but if there were this is probably how it would work. As with all of the author's fiction, there are many funny passages and turns of phrase. For a novel about a vampire detective and a serial killer, the tone is light and the characters engaging, with a romance interwoven with the mystery and action. L. Neil Smith wrote this book in one month: November, 2009, as part of the National Novel Writing Month, but other than being relatively short (150 pages), there's nothing about it which seems rushed; the plotting is intricate, the characters well-developed, and detail is abundant.

October 2015 Permalink

Suprynowicz, Vin. The Black Arrow. Las Vegas: Mountain Media, 2005. ISBN 0-9762516-0-4.
For more than a decade, Vin Suprynowicz's columns in the Las Vegas Review-Journal (collected in Send In The Waco Killers and The Ballad of Carl Drega) have chronicled the closing circle of individual freedom in the United States. You may find these books difficult to finish, not due to any fault in the writing, which is superb, but because reading of the treatment of citizens at the hands of a government as ignorant as it is imperious makes your blood boil. Here, however, in his first venture into fiction, the author has written a book which is difficult to put down.

The year is 2030, and every complacent person who asked rhetorically, “How much worse can it get?” has seen the question answered beyond their worst nightmares. What's left of the United States is fighting to put down the secessionist mountain states of New Columbia, and in the cities of the East, people are subject to random searches by jackbooted Lightning Squads, when they aren't shooting up clandestine nursery schools operated by anarchist parents who refuse to deliver their children into government indoctrination. This is the kind of situation which cries out for a superhero and, lo and behold, onto the stage steps The Black Arrow and his deadly serious but fun-loving band to set things right through the time-tested strategy of killing the bastards. The Black Arrow has a lot in common with Batman—actually maybe a tad too much. Like Batman, he's a rich and resourceful man with a mission (but no super powers), he operates in New York City, which is called “Gotham” in the novel, and he has a secret lair in a cavern deep beneath the city.

There is a modicum of libertarian background and philosophy, but it never gets in the way of the story. There is enough explicit violence and copulation for an R rated movie—kids and those with fragile sensibilities should give this one a miss. Some of the verbal imagery in the story is so vivid you can almost see it erupting from the page—this would make a tremendous comic book adaptation or screenplay for an alternative universe Hollywood where stories of liberty were welcome.

May 2005 Permalink