Sunday, April 27, 2014
Reading List: Children's Crusade
- Cawdron, Peter. Children's Crusade. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2014. ASIN B00JFHIMQI.
- This novella, around 80 pages print equivalent and available only for the Kindle, is set in the world of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. The publisher has licensed the rights for fiction using characters and circumstances created by Vonnegut, and this is a part of “The World of Kurt Vonnegut” series. If you haven't read Slaughterhouse-Five you will miss a great deal about this story. Here we encounter Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack in their alien zoo on Tralfamadore. Their zookeeper, a Tralfamadorian Montana nicknamed Stained, due to what looked like a birthmark on the face, has taken to visiting the humans when the zoo is closed, communicating with them telepathically as Tralfs do. Perceiving time as a true fourth dimension they can browse at will, Tralfs are fascinated with humans who, apart from Billy, live sequential lives and cannot jump around to explore events in their history. Stained, like most Tralfs, believes that most momentous events in history are the work not of great leaders but of “little people” who accomplish great things when confronted with extraordinary circumstances. He (pronouns get complicated when there are five sexes, so I'll just pick one) sends Montana and Billy on telepathic journeys into human history, one at the dawn of human civilisation and another when a great civilisation veered into savagery, to show how a courageous individual with a sense of what is right can make all the difference. Finally they voyage together to a scene in human history which will bring tears to your eyes. This narrative is artfully intercut with scenes of Vonnegut discovering the realities of life as a hard-boiled reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago. This story is written in the spirit of Vonnegut and with some of the same stylistic flourishes, but I didn't get the sense the author went overboard in adopting Vonnegut's voice. The result worked superbly for this reader. I read a pre-publication manuscript which the author kindly shared with me.
Thursday, April 24, 2014
Reading List: Lord of the World
- Benson, Robert Hugh. Lord of the World. Seattle: CreateSpace,  2013. ISBN 978-1-4841-2706-3.
- In the early years of the 21st century, humanism and secularism are ascendant in Europe. Many churches exist only as monuments to the past, and mainstream religions are hæmorrhaging adherents—only the Roman Catholic church remains moored to its traditions, and its influence is largely confined to Rome and Ireland. A European Parliament is asserting its power over formerly sovereign nations, and people seem resigned to losing their national identity. Old-age pensions and the extension of welfare benefits to those displaced from jobs in occupations which have become obsolete create a voting bloc guaranteed to support those who pay these benefits. The loss of belief in an eternal soul has cheapened human life, and euthanasia has become accepted, both for the gravely ill and injured, but also for those just weary of life. This novel was published in 1907. G. K. Chesterton is reputed to have said “When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” I say “reputed” because there is no evidence whatsoever he actually said this, although he said a number of other things which might be conflated into a similar statement. This dystopian novel illustrates how a society which has “moved on” from God toward a celebration of Humanity as deity is vulnerable to a charismatic figure who bears the eschaton in his hands. It is simply stunning how the author, without any knowledge of the great convulsions which were to ensue in the 20th century, so precisely forecast the humanistic spiritual desert of the 21st. This is a novel of the coming of the Antichrist and the battle between the remnant of believers and coercive secularism reinforced by an emerging pagan cult satisfying our human thirst for transcendence. What is masterful about it is that while religious themes deeply underly it, if you simply ignore all of them, it is a thriller with deep philosophical roots. We live today in a time when religion is under unprecedented assault by humanism, and the threat to the sanctity of life has gone far beyond the imagination of the author. This novel was written more than a century ago, but is set in our times and could not be more relevant to our present circumstances. How often has a work of dystopian science fiction been cited by the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church? Contemporary readers may find some of the untranslated citations from the Latin Mass obscure: that's what your search engine exists to illumine. This work is in the public domain, and a number of print and electronic editions are available. I read this Kindle edition because it was (and is, at this writing) free. The formatting is less than perfect, but it is perfectly readable. A free electronic edition in a variety of formats can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg.
Monday, April 21, 2014
Reading List: John Glenn: America's Astronaut
- Chaikin, Andrew. John Glenn: America's Astronaut. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-58834-486-1.
- This short book (around 126 pages print equivalent), available only for the Kindle as a “Kindle single” at a modest price, chronicles the life and space missions of the first American to orbit the Earth. John Glenn grew up in a small Ohio town, the son of a plumber, and matured during the first great depression. His course in life was set when, in 1929, his father took his eight year old son on a joy ride offered by a pilot at local airfield in a Waco biplane. After that, Glenn filled up his room with model airplanes, intently followed news of air racers and pioneers of exploration by air, and in 1938 attended the Cleveland Air Races. There seemed little hope of his achieving his dream of becoming an airman himself: pilot training was expensive, and his family, while making ends meet during the depression, couldn't afford such a luxury. With the war in Europe underway and the U.S. beginning to rearm and prepare for possible hostilities, Glenn heard of a government program, the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which would pay for his flying lessons and give him college credit for taking them. He entered the program immediately and received his pilot's license in May 1942. By then, the world was a very different place. Glenn dropped out of college in his junior year and applied for the Army Air Corps. When they dawdled accepting him, he volunteered for the Navy, which immediately sent him to flight school. After completing advanced flight training, he transferred to the Marine Corps, which was seeking aviators. Sent to the South Pacific theatre, he flew 59 combat missions, mostly in close air support of ground troops in which Marine pilots specialise. With the end of the war, he decided to make the Marines his career and rotated through a number of stateside posts. After the outbreak of the Korean War, he hoped to see action in the jet combat emerging there and in 1953 arrived in country, again flying close air support. But an exchange program with the Air Force finally allowed him to achieve his ambition of engaging in air to air combat at ten miles a minute. He completed 90 combat missions in Korea, and emerged as one of the Marine Corps' most distinguished pilots. Glenn parlayed his combat record into a test pilot position, which allowed him to fly the newest and hottest aircraft of the Navy and Marines. When NASA went looking for pilots for its Mercury manned spaceflight program, Glenn was naturally near the top of the list, and was among the 110 military test pilots invited to the top secret briefing about the project. Despite not meeting all of the formal selection criteria (he lacked a college degree), he performed superbly in all of the harrowing tests to which candidates were subjected, made cut after cut, and was among the seven selected to be the first astronauts. This book, with copious illustrations and two embedded videos, chronicles Glenn's career, his harrowing first flight into space, his 1998 return to space on Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-95, and his 24 year stint in the U.S. Senate. I found the picture of Glenn after his pioneering flight somewhat airbrushed. It is said that while in the Senate, “He was known as one of NASA's strongest supporters on Capitol Hill…”, and yet in fact, while not one of the rabid Democrats who tried to kill NASA like Walter Mondale, he did not speak out as an advocate for a more aggressive space program aimed at expanding the human presence in space. His return to space is presented as the result of his assiduously promoting the benefits of space research for gerontology rather than a political junket by a senator which would generate publicity for NASA at a time when many people had tuned out its routine missions. (And if there was so much to be learned by flying elderly people in space, why was it never done again?) John Glenn was a quintessential product of the old, tough America. A hero in two wars, test pilot when that was one of the most risky of occupations, and first to ride the thin-skinned pressure-stabilised Atlas rocket into orbit, his place in history is assured. His subsequent career as a politician was not particularly distinguished: he initiated few pieces of significant legislation and never became a figure on the national stage. His campaign for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination went nowhere, and he was implicated in the “Keating Five” scandal. John Glenn accomplished enough in the first forty-five years of his life to earn him a secure place in American history. This book does an excellent job of recounting those events and placing them in the context of the time. If it goes a bit too far in lionising his subsequent career, that's understandable: a biographer shouldn't always succumb to balance when dealing with a hero.
Monday, April 14, 2014
Reading List: The Crusade Years
- Hoover, Herbert. The Crusade Years. Edited by George H. Nash. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-8179-1674-9.
In the modern era, most former U.S. presidents have largely
retired from the public arena, lending their names to
charitable endeavours and acting as elder statesmen rather
than active partisans. One striking counter-example to this
rule was Herbert Hoover who, from the time of his defeat by
Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election until
shortly before his death in 1964, remained in the arena,
giving hundreds of speeches, many broadcast nationwide on
radio, writing multiple volumes of memoirs and analyses of
policy, collecting and archiving a multitude of documents
regarding World War I and its aftermath which became the core
of what is now the Hoover Institution collection at Stanford University,
working in famine relief during and after World War II, and
raising funds and promoting benevolent organisations such
as the Boys' Clubs. His strenuous work to keep the U.S. out
of World War II is chronicled in his
Freedom Betrayed (June 2012),
which presents his revisionist view of U.S. entry into and
conduct of the war, and the tragedy which ensued after victory
had been won. Freedom Betrayed was largely completed
at the time of Hoover's death, but for reasons difficult to
determine at this remove, was not published until 2011.
The present volume was intended by Hoover to be a companion to
Freedom Betrayed, focussing on domestic policy
in his post-presidential career. Over the years, he envisioned
publishing the work in various forms, but by the early 1950s he
had given the book its present title and accumulated 564
pages of typeset page proofs. Due to other duties, and Hoover's
decision to concentrate his efforts on Freedom Betrayed,
little was done on the manuscript after he set it aside in 1955.
It is only through the scholarship of the editor, drawing upon
Hoover's draft, but also documents from the Hoover Institution
and the Hoover Presidential Library, that this work has been
assembled in its present form. The editor has also collected a
variety of relevant documents, some of which Hoover cited or
incorporated in earlier versions of the work, into a
comprehensive appendix. There are extensive source citations and
notes about discrepancies between Hoover's quotation of documents
and speeches and other published versions of them.
Of all the crusades chronicled here, the bulk of the work is devoted
to “The Crusade Against Collectivism in American Life”,
and Hoover's words on the topic are so pithy and relevant to the
present state of affairs in the United States that one suspects that
a brave, ambitious, but less than original politician who simply
cut and pasted Hoover's words into his own speeches would rapidly
become the darling of liberty-minded members of the Republican
party. I cannot think of any present-day Republican, even
darlings of the Tea Party, who drew the contrast between the
American tradition of individual liberty and enterprise and
the grey uniformity of collectivism as Hoover does here. And
Hoover does it with a firm intellectual grounding in the history
of America and the world, personal knowledge from having lived and
worked in countries around the world, and an engineer's pragmatism
about doing what works, not what sounds good in a speech or makes
people feel good about themselves.
This is somewhat of a surprise. Hoover was, in many ways, a
progressive—Calvin Coolidge called him “wonder boy”.
He was an enthusiastic believer in trust-busting and regulation
as a counterpoise to concentration of economic power. He was
a protectionist who supported the tariff to protect farmers and
industry from foreign competition. He supported income and inheritance
taxes “to regulate over-accumulations of wealth.”
He was no libertarian, nor even a “light hand on the tiller”
executive like Coolidge.
And yet he totally grasped the threat to liberty which the
intrusive regulatory and administrative state represented. It's
difficult to start quoting Hoover without retyping the entire
book, as there is line after line, paragraph after paragraph,
and page after page which are not only completely applicable to
the current predicament of the U.S., but guaranteed applause lines
were they uttered before a crowd of freedom loving citizens of
that country. Please indulge me in a few (comments in italics
are my own).
(On his electoral defeat) Democracy is not a polite employer.
We cannot extend the mastery of government over the daily life of a people without somewhere making it master of people's souls and thoughts.
(On JournoList, vintage 1934) I soon learned that the reviewers of the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Saturday Review and of other journals of review in New York kept in touch to determine in what manner they should destroy books which were not to their liking.
Who then pays? It is the same economic middle class and the poor. That would still be true if the rich were taxed to the whole amount of their fortunes….
Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt….
Regulation should be by specific law, that all who run may read.
It would be far better that the party go down to defeat with the banner of principle flying than to win by pussyfooting.
The seizure by the government of the communications of persons not charged with wrong-doing justifies the immoral conduct of every snooper.
Sunday, April 6, 2014
Reading List: Kill Decision
- Suarez, Daniel. Kill Decision. New York: Signet, 2012. ISBN 978-0-451-41770-1.
- A drone strike on a crowd of pilgrims at one of the holiest shrines of Shia Islam in Iraq inflames the world against the U.S., which denies its involvement. (“But who else is flying drones in Iraq?”, is the universal response.) Meanwhile, the U.S. is rocked by a series of mysterious bombings, killing businessmen on a golf course, computer vision specialists meeting in Silicon Valley, military contractors in a building near the Pentagon—all seemingly unrelated. A campaign is building to develop and deploy autonomous armed drones to “protect the homeland”. Prof. Linda McKinney, doing research on weaver ants in Tanzania, seems far away from all this until she is saved from an explosion which destroys her camp by a mysterious group of special forces led by a man known only as “Odin”. She learns that her computer model of weaver ant colony behaviour has been stolen from her university's computer network by persons unknown who may be connected with the attacks, including the one she just escaped. The fear is that her ant model could be used as the basis for “swarm intelligence” drones which could cooperate to be a formidable weapon. With each individual drone having only rudimentary capabilities, like an isolated ant, they could be mass-produced and shift the military balance of power in favour of whoever possessed the technology. McKinney soon finds herself entangled in a black world where nothing is certain and she isn't even sure which side she's working for. Shocking discoveries indicate that the worst case she feared may be playing out, and she must decide where to place her allegiance. This novel is a masterful addition to the very sparse genre of robot ant science fiction thrillers, and this time I'm not the villain! Suarez has that rare talent, as had Michael Crichton, of writing action scenes which just beg to be put on the big screen and stories where the screenplay just writes itself. Should Hollywood turn this into a film and not botch it, the result should be a treat. You will learn some things about ants which you probably didn't know (all correct, as far as I can determine), visit a locale in the U.S. which sounds like something out of a Bond film but actually exists, and meet two of the most curious members of a special operations team in all of fiction.