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Currently reading

Edward the Confessor
Frank Barlow
Progress: 118/375 pages
For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States from 1607 to 2012
William B. Feis, Peter Maslowski, Allan R. Millett
Progress: 181/736 pages
James Madison: A Biography
Ralph Louis Ketcham
Progress: 337/753 pages
Tales in Time: The Man Who Walked Home and Other Stories
Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Lewis Padgett, Garry Douglas Kilworth, Peter Crowther, James Tiptree Jr., Charles de Lint, Spider Robinson, Jack Finney, L. Sprague de Camp, Brian W. Aldiss, H.G. Wells

Star Wars storytelling done right

Heir to the Empire  - Timothy Zahn

I first read Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy when it was originally published in the early 1990s, and while I retained positive memories of the books I was content with leaving them as a positive reading experience in my memory. The release of Episode IX in the film series, however, led me to revisit what was once the “official” sequels to Lucas’ movies, to see how they measured up to my recollections of them.

 

Reading them after having viewed the trilogy that replaced them helped to deepen my appreciation for Zahn’s work. Faced with the stricture that he had to work with the survivors of the original film trilogy (something that unfortunately wasn’t imposed on J. J. Abrams as well) but benefiting from a lack of accumulated backstory to accommodate, Zahn creates an effective adventure filled with interesting characters and an enjoyable plot. At the heart of it is Grand Admiral Thrawn, the last great leader of the Empire, who five years after the battle of Endor is determined to rebuild the imperium. His most effective weapon in this effort is knowledge, particularly of the Empire’s secret resources and hidden information. Drawing upon that knowledge, he begins to challenge the New Republic in ways that threaten the existence of that fragile and overstretched organization, which has barely been able to start rebuilding after its years-long fight against Emperor Palpatine’s tyranny.

 

In Thrawn Zahn provides an effective main antagonist to his central characters. Yet it is the original trio of Luke, Leia, and Han that are at the heart of his novel. Here he benefits greatly from their development in Lucas’s films, which allows him to focus in his first novel on building up the post-Empire world and the characters central to his story. This includes not just Thrawn, but the insane Dark Jedi clone Joruus C’baoth, the calculating smuggler Talon Karrde, and the cunning and driven Mara Jade as well, all of whom went on to become fan favorites. Here they are introduced to readers in a way that hints at a clearly-defined past, rather than presented with undefined backstories that would be filled in randomly and in an incoherent manner. This is undoubtedly a reason why they became as popular as they did.

 

When combined with a coherent plot that could play out over the course of all three novels, Zahn provides Star Wars fans with one of the greatest stories of the entire franchise. In this he benefited from all of the advantages that I’ve described, yet it is a testament to his skills as an author that he took these elements and crafted them into a tale that balances politics, mystery, and adventure in ways that surpass most of the “canon” produced since. It’s unfortunate that so much of Zahn’s achievement in creating the post-Original Trilogy Star Wars universe has been undone by the later movies, especially considering how poorly they measure up to Zahn’s work. While turning Zahn’s novels into films was never possible, they certainly demonstrate how to do do Star Wars storytelling right.

Reading progress update: I've read 361 out of 361 pages.

Heir to the Empire  - Timothy Zahn

My disappointment with the recent Star Wars movie led me to revist the Thrawn trilogy that was supposed to be the original stand-in for Episodes 7-9. While I understand why they couldn't be used as the material for the movies, rereading them just underscores for me how they embody everything that I find missing from the films, including character development and a compelling story that develops its mysteries naturally without resorting to silly plot devices. *Sigh*

My review of "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker"

 

Do you like this poster? Because if you do you'll like the movie, as it's every bit as busy and disjointed.

 

That's what I took from it when I saw it yesterday with my son. I had gone in hoping to see a movie similar to The Force Awakens, which I enjoyed and which holds up well after repeated viewings. What I saw was basically The Force Awakens if you had cut out all of the character scenes and filled in the gaps with duplicates of the action sequences. It's entertaining, but it's incredibly rushed, giving neither the characters nor the audience time to breathe.

 

To be fair, I should have expected this. On the press tour J. J. Abrams and the cast have been incredibly disrespectful towards The Last Jedi to a disingenuous degree. After all, it wasn't as though Abrams turned over the keys to Rian Johnson and disappeared on a walkabout for two years; he was an executive producer of the film and supported the things Johnson did in it. Yet it's clear that after the fans' reaction to the last film Abrams decided to go back to playing it safe, which means over two and a half hours of unrelenting fan service. As a cleverer reviewer than I could ever hope to be put it, "There were times it felt like The Rise of Skywalker was put together by reading angry reddit boards, just throwing in anything a fan might possibly want to see." The result is a MacGuffin-laden mess, where at one point they need to find a MacGuffin so they can find another MacGuffin. I'm sure intro-level screenwriting classes will be picking that apart for years to come.

 

None of these criticisms will prevent The Rise of Skywalker from making a bazillion dollars, of course, which is the ultimate point of the film. And I hope that everyone who goes to see it will find the endless sequence of action scenes to be worth their money. But what I walked out of the theater with was a deeper appreciation of Rian Johnson's film, which, for all its flaws, was a much better movie in nearly every respect.

Showing their age

The Forgotten Planet / Contraband Rocket (Ace Double, D-146) - Murray Leinster, Lee Correy

Part of the fun for me in reading Ace Doubles is the pleasure of sampling science fiction written by people who had different perspectives and views from those of writers today. This is most obvious in the plot-driven nature of the novels, in which character development takes a back seat (if not escorted out of the room altogether) in favor of the premise and the resulting action. It's also interesting to read them as artifacts reflecting the concerns of their times, which may seem dated and quaint to us today but were very real to them. In that respect their very datedness can make them worthwhile reading.

 

This datedness emerges in ways that are not as quaint or appealing, however, as most of these novels about the future embody the social attitudes of the authors' time. This was especially evident in the latest pair I read, which offered two very different adventures. The first one was G. Harry Stine's Contraband Rocket. Published under Stine's pseudonym "Lee Corey"), it's about a group of near-future rocket enthusiasts who decide to refurbish a decommissioned rocket and travel to the moon. As a rocket engineer who played a major role in model rocketry, Stine's novel captures well the passion of a group of enthusiasts for the dream of flying in space and makes for interesting for this reason alone. Yet Stine's subplot, in which the wife of one of the central characters leaves him over his obsession with the project, absolutely grates today. What could have added a sense of emotional drama becomes instead a vehicle for taking some Scientology-esque digs at psychiatry (in Stine's future, divorce proceedings are a pretense for court-mandated brainwashing) culminating in an ending in which the wife realizes that it's really her problem and not his. Once again, the Fifties-era patriarchy emerges triumphant.

Ironically, the issue of datedness was less evident in the other novel, even though it was the older of the two works. Murray Leinster's The Forgotten Planet was a fix-up of three short stories two of which were written in the early 1920s. In it a terraforming project is unintentionally abandoned midway through its centuries-long process due to a lost record, leaving a planet seeded by Terran plants and insects that without the presence of other animals grow unchecked. After a space liner crashes on the planet, the savage descendants of its survivors must cope with swarms of foot-long ants, wasps the size of sofas, and spiders that would barely fit comfortably in a garage. Like the writers of the "big-bug" movies of the 1950s Leinster glosses over the impossibility of insect physiology at that size, preferring to focus on his tale of a human (male, of course), who gradually rediscovers the value of tools and leads his tribe to survival. It's a gripping adventure (if a bit monotonous) but it ends with a casual embrace of hunting that is increasing at odds with our ethical development today. Like Stine Leinster is reflecting the attitudes of his class and time, but it's still jarring to see supposedly advanced humans embrace the slaughtering of unique species so eagerly.

My review of Roach's "Æthelred: The Unready" is up!

Æthelred: The Unready - Levi Roach

My eighth review is up on the Best Biographies of British Monarchs website! Please read and enjoy with my compliments

The Battle of the Bulge, day-by-day

Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge - Antony Beevor
On December 16, 1944, sixteen German divisions launched an offensive against American forces in the thinly-held Ardennes Forest region of the Western Front. The brainchild of Adolf Hitler, its goal was to disrupt the Allied campaign in the west by seizing the recently-cleared port of Antwerp, which was playing a vital role in supplying the American, British, and Canadian armies. Though the assault caught the Americans by surprise, many units posed a determined defense that slowed down the German advance, buying time for reinforcements to be rushed to the region. As a result of this response, the German offensive bogged down and was broken in less than two weeks, leaving a "bulge" in the lines that was gradually reduced over the following month before the campaign's end in late January 1945.
 
Thanks to its dramatic circumstances the Battle of the Bulge has never wanted for attention, particularly from American historians. One of the virtues of Antony Beevor's account of the campaign is his scope of coverage. Opening his book with the liberation of Paris, he takes his readers through the operations on the Western Front in the autumn of 1944 in order to show the circumstances that defined the battle. Here he gives particular attention to the battle of Hürtgen Forest, the frustrated American offensive which wore down several divisions of the American First Army that were transferred to the "quiet" Ardennes region to recover. The thinly held sector was thus especially vulnerable to a German assault, which Hitler was determined to launch in a last gamble to decide the war on his terms.
 
Key to the Germans' plan was the element of surprise. Beevor chronicles well their preparations for the offensive, including the deception efforts made to conceal their intentions. Though American intelligence detected signs of the build-up, the Germans were aided by Allied assumptions that a German offensive was simply too impractical to contemplate. While the Germans exploited this, Beevor underscores the strain the massive diversion of resources imposed on their war effort. With their men exhausted and their supplies limited, nearly every German commander regarded the effort as a waste of men and materiel in an attack with little chance of success.
 
The first ten days of the offensive form the heart of Beevor's book. He covers events in a series of chapters that provide a day-to-day chronicle of operations. Through these pages he emphasizes the difficult conditions facing the men on both sides, who battled exhaustion and the cold weather as well as each other. Beevor also gives attention to the experience of the civilians, most of whom had experienced the joy of liberation just a few months beforehand. Their lives were soon threatened not just by the fighting but by German security forces determined to exact revenge. Though his coverage here provides a degree of depth lacking from most accounts of the battle, it lacks the detail about the civilian experience Beevor provided in his book on the D-Day campaign and would have benefited from additional development.
 
This is a minor complaint that shouldn't overshadow Beevor's achievement here, though. Overall his book provides its readers with a clear description of the events of the battle and the factors that shaped its outcome. Seasoned as it is with his often sharp judgment of the personalities in command on both sides, his book serves as an effective account of the campaign. It compliments nicely his superb history of the D-Day campaign and is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in this important episode in the history of the Second World War.

Reading progress update: I've read 72 out of 320 pages.

The Forgotten Planet / Contraband Rocket (Ace Double, D-146) - Murray Leinster, Lee Correy

Ugh, no sooner do I develop warm feelings for Stine's book then he gives me a dose of his shallow libertarianism seasoned with some psychiatrist-bashing strong enough to make me wonder whether he was an early Scientologist.

Reading progress update: I've read 46 out of 320 pages.

The Forgotten Planet / Contraband Rocket (Ace Double, D-146) - Murray Leinster, Lee Correy

Now this is proving a fun read! I started with Harry Stine's Contraband Rocket, the premise of which is that, in a future where space travel throughout the solar system is an established thing, a group of rocket enthusiasts decide to refurbish a rocket and travel to the moon. It reminds me more than a little of the Salvage 1 TV movie from the 1970s — so much so that I'm surprised Harry Stine didn't sue ABC for copyright infringement.

 

What makes the novel work for me, though, is Stine's depiction of the enthusiasts, which is absolutely spot-on. My father volunteers at a railway museum, and the wannabe astronauts in Stine's book are exactly like the train enthusiasts who devote their time and effort to their passion for rail.

Two to disappoint

Three to Conquer / Doomsday Eve  - Eric Frank Russell, Robert Moore Williams

This was the most disappointing pair of Ace Double novels that I have yet read. The main point of interest is that they both shared a common theme of sci-fi "supermen," albeit in different circumstances.

 

The first one I read was Eric Frank Russell's Three to Conquer. In it, a precision instruments maker in the near future who happens to be telepathic stumbles across an alien plot to take over humanity. The idea of an alien virus being able to take over terrestrial life forms is pretty sinister, as it is virtually undetectable by humans, but in the end it serves mainly to give Russell's protagonist the ability to serve as the hero by telling cops and FBI agents how to do their job. It's suspenseful, but the ending is disappointingly anticlimactic.

 

By contrast, Robert Moore Williams's Doomsday Eve is anything but gripping. His story begins with soldiers fighting in a futuristic third World War encountering frequent interventions by "new people" who demonstrate remarkable superpowers. An intelligence officer assigned to investigate them finds out about their mission to save humanity and the impending effort by the "Asiatics" to destroy the continent. Williams telegraphs his ending practically from the book's early pages, leaving much of the book feeling like a wheel-spinning exercise as a result.

Podcast #167 is up!

Law in American History, Volume III: 1930-2000 - G. Edward White

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview the great G. Edward White about the final volume of his trilogy on the history of American law. Enjoy!

Reading progress update: I've read 256 out of 256 pages.

Bow Down to Nul / The Dark Destroyer - Manly Wade Wellman, Brian W. Aldiss

Manly Wade Wellman's book ended up being closer to my expectations for a Golden Age SF novel than Aldiss's. In it, a daring young man undertakes a scouting expedition into alien territory fifty years after they devastated the world and took over control of large portions of it. To defeat the "Cold Creatures" (whose invasion of such an environmentally inhospitable planet must have inspired M. Night Shyamalan's Signs), Wellman's protagonist has to demonstrate such an implausible amount of good fortune that the author keeps remarking on it throughout the book. It's the sort of thing that makes me wonder if the book was a contractual obligation which Wellman just wasn't that interested in writing,

Reading progress update: I've read 145 out of 256 pages.

Bow Down to Nul / The Dark Destroyer - Manly Wade Wellman, Brian W. Aldiss

For this Ace Double I started with Brian Aldiss's Bow Down to Nul. It's the first Aldiss novel that I've ever read, but it's unlikely to be last. It's about an alien occupation of Earth that comes under investigation by the occupiers when a dismissed bureaucrat levels charges of corruption against the governor. Given that it was written in 1960 it reads as a surprisingly advanced critique of capitalism as well as imperialism, and it's refreshing to have an indecisive collaborator as the main human protagonist instead of the square-jawed action type so typical of the era. The ending is also a little different from its counterparts of the time, which wraps it all up with a nice sense of irony.

 

Now it's on to Manly Wade Wellman's book, which has a high bar to cross to equal its companion tale.

My weekend book haul, or: how I profited from the demise of a used bookstore

— feeling happy

This weekend we went with my mother and my sister and her family to Prescott. It's a fairly regular event for our family: we drive up, look at decorations, spend money in shops, and head back. While the town's big shopping draw is the antique scene, there are three bookstores which I like to check out to see what finds they might hold.

 

And this trip proved more profitable than most:

 

 

Our first stop was Peregrine Book Company, which is Prescott's big (relatively speaking) local independent bookseller. Though I never find them less than charming, their stock isn't very big and I usually leave them empty-handed. This time, though, I bought three books: a hardcover of the Spanish-language edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (one of the three Harry Potter collections we're building), a used paperback collection of Robert Silverberg short stories signed by the author himself, and a history of a local railway line that I purchased as a gift for my father and which I subsequently tuned over to my mother because she's having such difficulty finding him something for Christmas.

 

Then, after a stop at Old Sage Books which didn't turn up much, we walked over to the town's third bookstore, Book Nook, which is one of those dusty places crammed floor-to-ceiling with mass-market paperback novels, decades-old nonfiction books, and whatever reading flotsam washed up into their stock. When we arrived, we were greeting by a sign announcing that the owner was retiring and the store was having a "retirement sale" in which customers could buy a bag of books for only $7.

 

So I shed a tear at the imminent demise of another bookstore and proceeded inside to tear what I could from its carcass.

 

My best find came within the first few minutes: a hardcover copy of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire in excellent condition. I had read his Thrawn trilogy when they were first published in the 1990s, and recently in a fit of nostalgia I decided to acquire hardcover copies of the books for my library. The second and third books proved easy to find, but before this weekend I was starting to wonder if I needed to buy a copy of the first book online. That book alone was worth the $7 price tag, so anything else I found there was a plus.

 

The others I picked up for a variety of reasons. The Ross Macdonald novels are for a colleague to whom I recently introduced the Lew Archer series, while Washburn's book on Bacon's Rebellion is about one of those subjects that I cover so frequently in class I would probably benefit from reading a specialized study about it. The Edward the Confessor and Douglas MacArthur biographies are destined for the book box, as I figure I can probably squeeze a few dollars of trade credit out of them. The one I'm realizing that I'm the most excited to read, though, is Isaac Asimov's autobiography. Reading all of those Ace Doubles has deepened my curiosity about the ""golden age" of science fiction, and as Asimov was at the heart of it his autobiography should be a revealing insider's account. When combined with the math books my son wanted we ended up being charged for a bag and a half rather than a bag, which was still a bargain in my book.

Absolutely heartbroken

— feeling sad

With the semester coming to an end I was looking forward to a couple weeks of blessedly uncommitted reading time, which I was going to use to read some more of my collection of Ace Doubles and a nice meaty biography or two. My buoyant mood, though, was crushed by the news of the general election results in the U.K.

 

For as long as I can remember, Great Britain has had a special place in my heart. When I decided to embark on my career as a historian it didn't take me long to settle on modern British history for my specialization, the study of which only deepened my appreciation for that quirky, overachieving island. Over time I drew from that study certain ideas for what Britain's future might be, and I hoped that they might rise to fulfil them.

 

Instead for the past few years the British have been locked in a downward spiral of austerity, desperation, and toxicity. Instead of providing the direction and the leadership to break out of it politicians from across the political spectrum have either dithered for a lack of will or sought to exploit it for their own ends. To me the current prime minister embodies the worst aspects of this, and has demonstrated his eagerness to drive his nation to ruin in order to cement his position. Yet in the end the fault lies not with him but with the voters who have just given his party enormous latitude to impose their beliefs upon the country.

 

The irony is that in doing so they will effectively repudiate everything their party stands for. For nearly a century and a half the bedrock of the Conservative Party has been its unshakeable belief in Unionism — so much so that they even renamed themselves the Unionist Party for a generation to underscore this. Now thanks to their determination to pursue Brexit to its end they may very well shatter that union for good. Northern Ireland is about to discover what southern Unionists learned a century ago, which is the practical limits of unionist rhetoric. Even more momentous will be the drive of Scotland for independence. The independence referendum was defeated in 2014 in no small part because of the warnings that independence would mean being forced out of the EU. If the U.K. leaves the EU, Scottish Nationalists will be able to denounce the "remain" campaign as nothing more than a bait-and-switch. Should they get a second independence referendum the vote to leave will probably be overwhelming, which undoubtedly is why the Tories won't grant them one. What follows could make the Troubles look like a period of peace by comparison.

 

So congratulations, Conservatives. You have won your greatest electoral victory in over thirty years — and all it may cost you is the nation you once claimed you would die to preserve.

A solid if unremarkable pair of adventures

The Man Who Mastered Time / Overlords From Space - Joseph Kelleam, Ray Cummings

The more Ace Doubles I read, the more I come to appreciate how varied the experience of reading them can be. For all of their similarity of their size, their plot-driven approach, and their cover art (which typically consists of square-jawed white dudes inflicting violence on aliens or some other evildoers, often with a woman somewhere in the scene recoiling in terror), the quality and nature of the books can vary widely.

 

This pair provided the best reflection yet of these differences. Ray Cummings's The Man Who Mastered Time was unusual in that it was not an original work but a reprint of a 1920s story which reads like a riff on H.G. Wells's famous novelette The Time Machine. In it, a father-and-son duo of scientists stumble across a process that allows them to peer into the indeterminate future. Witnessing a beautiful girl imperiled by a thuggish brute, the two turn a hoverable aeroplane into a time machine, which the hormonally-driven son uses to travel thousands of years into the future to rescue the maiden. He soon finds himself in the midst of a political struggle between the people of an ice-age north and the remaining civilization, which has retreated to the Caribbean and reflects a class divide that ol' Herbert George would have found familiar (seriously, it wouldn't surprise me in the least to find that he sued for copyright infringement). The young man soon summons his father for aid, and with the help of a friend, aid the civilized underdogs against the barbarian hordes. There are some aspects of the novel – such as the employment of "girls" in combat – that but for the most part it's a prime piece of pulp science fiction, and while it had it's share of problematic elements (the scientist's friend zeroing in on the beautiful girl's teenage sister seemed a little predatory even for the time) I enjoyed it for the action adventure it was.

 

The other novel was Joseph Kelleam's Overlords from Space. Here there was a real contrast with Cummings's novel; whereas Cummings has heroic adventurers as his protagonist, Kelleam's novel centers around humans enslaved by the Zarles, an alien species who conquered the Earth two centuries before. Though their domination of the Earth seems absolute, the ostensibly immortal Zarles are slowly dying from terrestrial disease. Worse they cannot reproduce, and the remaining Zarles are contemplating destroying the Earth and moving on elsewhere. It's a different premise from the ones I expect from the time, though the plot itself moves to familiar beats involving freedom, the discovery of resources and allies that can even the odds, and a climactic battle in which the outcome isn't really in doubt. In this respect it's as much a product of its time as Cummings's older novel (which ends, I kid you not, with a Jazz Age party), though one that proved entertaining enough to see through to its end.

Podcast #166 is up

Thomas Jefferson: A Modern Prometheus - Wilson Jeremiah Moses

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Wilson J. Moses about his survey Thomas Jefferson's manifold intellectual activities and what they reveal about his ideas. Enjoy!