The Greatwinter Trilogy by Sean McMullen

IF

Spoilers

When I first had the book Souls in the Great Machine suggested to me by my significant other, I initially had my doubts. It was supposedly a steampunk novel which is a genre that I really don’t take to seriously and my significant other and I usually don’t agree on what books and literary genres we enjoy. When I was halfway through this book though I had come to realize that I was pleasantly surprised.

Before I begin to discuss what I really enjoyed about this trilogy I really should give some info on the plot. All three books take place 2000 years in the future. The first book takes place in Australia (called Australica by the time the books take place), while the second book takes place in North America (called Mounthaven), The third book takes place in both places and beautifully combines the stories of the first two books. This world is very much different from our own. This is because 2000 years before a strange phenomenon known as “The Call” occurred killing a large swath of the world’s population. The Call when it strikes cause people and any animal larger than a cat, sans all birds, to surrender all control of themselves and to slowly walk into the sea and drown themselves. While most inland area are struck by a Call every few days or so all coastal regions are in a permanent Call that never stops. This obviously had ill effects on the human race and nearly destroyed it. However, out of this humans still survived. To make things worse high above the Earth satellites from before The Call destroy anything over a certain size or speed as well as all electrical devices. This has forced human society into an artificial dark age. I won’t give the source of The Call, nor why there are technology damaging satelittes in the upper atmosphere as these plot points are to big to be given away so easily. 😛

Despite all this humanity has still adapted and is largely prosperous. Cities are built and organized in such a way that if a person is caught in a Call there are various barriers along roads to catch them, houses have no windows or doors on sides that face the sea and most people have clockwork call anchors that if not reset occasionally will release a hook or other sort of anchor that will catch hopefully catch on something or lodge itself in the ground to stop people long enough for the Call to pass. Trains are in existence in Australica, but due to religious precedent by all religions cannot be powered by anything but wind or muscle. Mass communication is maintained to a point by a series of beamflash towers that use mirrors and sunlight to deliver coded messages across large distances. In Mounthaven where there is no such religious precedent a rigid class system has developed which is more similar to feudal Japan than anything else. The ruling class is made up of Airlords and their Wardens who fly above the Earth in small personal aircraft. Wars are fought in the air solely by the airlords and their wardens, both to spare the civilian population at large from brutal warfare, but to also conserve resources. Personal duels have also returned to both continents.

This may seem like a lot to take in, but the author does a very good job in slowly orienting the reader to this new world of his. Also the imagination the author obviously put into all of this is quite impressive. He imagines humanity, despite numerous impediments to its advancement still moving forward, both culturally and technologically. It is quite interesting to see how the author finds ways to get past the barriers he has set for himself. This is quite impressive.

I also enjoyed all the characters. There was not one that I hated, nor found disinteresting. All were interesting in their own right. I have never encountered this in a book before. I mean in most books there is at least one character you can’t stand or at the very least would rather skim over the parts they’re in in order to get to more interesting characters. This is not a problem here. Each character also seemed to have a drive behind them. Some purpose that they all felt they needed to carry out. While this may seem cliché and somewhat unbelievable, I found it quite interesting, this was it was intriguing to see how the author tied in various seemingly unconnected plot points together to become something greater in the end.

The writing was also phenomenal. I have never before encountered a work or series of works that so masterfully combined comedy and action so well together. There were so many witty remarks in all the books that each time you picked up the books to read you were guaranteed at least one laugh. This was a good change of pace for me as many of the books I read are quite serious in nature.

The fact that this trilogy is sometimes labeled as steampunk quite annoys me. This is because it quite simply isn’t. Steampunk is largely Victorian in nature and is needlessly showy. It’s also completely unbelievable, technologically speaking. These novels on the other hand have instances of technology that are quite possible. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, a complex network of towers that deliver messages to each other through sunlight. It’s also easy to imagine pedal trains.

Overall these were amazing books. I was genuinely crestfallen to have had to finish them all. I hope you’ll give them a try and fall in love with them the same way I have.

The books in this trilogy are in order:
The Souls in the Great Machine
The Miocene Arrow
Eyes of the Calculor

IF

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Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

Every once in a while everyone comes across a book that fundamentally changes how the reader sees the world and their place in it. For me that time came when I was 17 years old, and that book was Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Never before had I read a book as fascinating before, and never had a book asked me about my place in society and my purpose along with it.

The high action movie version that seems to be more well-known these days is nothing like the book. While much of the movie takes place through action scenes with little character development, the book takes place largely in flashbacks and in classrooms. Of course there are scenes of action, but these are few and far between.

The story is about a young man named Juan “Johnny” Rico and his training for and eventual participation in a war to protect humanity from a race of insect like creatures known as Arachnids. While this war rages, however, we see through several flash backs how the man at the beginning of the story came to be, first through images of philosophical debates presented to him in school and second through his intense training for the Mobile Infantry. The Mobile Infantry is the name of the military force of the Terran Federation, the super national government which controls Earth and her colonies in other solar systems.

The Terran Federation is a limited democracy, which means that only a select few can vote. The population is divided into two sections: Citizens and Civilians. Citizens earn the right to vote through some type of service to the state (usually a two year term in the Mobile Infantry) while civilians are ordinary people. Other than voting rights there are no real differences between citizens and civilians. Other than voting both groups enjoy the same freedoms and protections by the state. The rationale behind this divide is that only those who are willing to sacrifice their individuality for the greater whole can be properly trusted to vote in the best interests of civilization rather than for their own personal gains.

The book makes the argument that every person must come together to help make the larger world better for all. While this sounds communist in nature it surprisingly isn’t. Heinlein makes the point that all jobs, no matter how petty or unimportant they may seem are always important to the larger picture. A doctor who cures patients is just as important as the janitor who keeps areas clean and sanitary for all to enjoy.

The book also gives a good description of a future military force. All soldiers wear a type of mech-suit which increases strength, maneuverability, and the gathering of battlefield intelligence. Each soldier can do the entire workload of a squad of normal soldiers, thus increasing the capabilities of large armies. Another interesting aspect of the Mobile Infantry is that EVERYONE fights, not just the normal grunts. This includes chaplains and commanding generals. The rationale behind this is that it builds up a greater sense of brotherhood amongst the troops, fostering a higher level of trust in the chain of command.

In conclusion this book is a Sci-Fi classic, while at the same time being a philosophical novel at the same time. I believe that it can interest a whole score of readers, even if they aren’t interested in Sci-Fi or military based fiction.

The Shattered Citadel Series by Michael Mangual

Courtesy of Michael Mangual

Courtesy of Michael Mangual

Spoilers!

I have found in my experience with stories about war that during battle scenes it is a common incident that the action of a battle leaves me bored and reading faster just to get to a part with real human dialogue and storytelling. Is it odd to say that I have become desensitized to the battlefield in literature? Maybe and maybe not. It is very hard to pack real emotion into a battle scene. This is understandable as any battle in war is barely controlled chaos. How is it possible to pack real emotion and sympathy in something where absolutely nothing is certain and every character essentially becomes faceless as they fight for survival? This week’s review is different from those, in that the author has found a way to humanize (as terrible as it sounds) his battle scenes into something more than a faceless mass of death and destruction.

I was first introduced to the world of Shattered Citadel by Michael Mangual, by a stranger at a Barnes and Noble store who saw me looking over the Alternate History section. I’m thankful he suggested it. Shattered Citadel at this point is a series of short stories that can be found here: http://shatteredcitadel.com/ . They are a work of love from the author, one Michael Mangual who hopes to one day turn this labor of love into a full-fledged book in the same style as The Good War by Studs Terkel and World War Z by Max Brooks. Shattered Citadel is about a future world war (also called the Third Human Civil War) between a Federated Europe, United North America, and India against the hordes of the Chinese Hegemony, a newly born Soviet Union, and a new Muslim Caliphate that is made up of the entire Middle East.

I will not lie many of the stories involve intense scenes of violence which include graphic depictions of genocide, cannibalism, and the unmitigated use of weapons of mass destruction. The world he paints is one that I desperately hope we can avoid. Despite these scenes of intense violence there are also instances of compassion and humanity. Many stories deal with the redemption of characters and champion the sacrifice one person can make out of love for another. While Mr. Mangual is able to make his battle scenes stay interesting he is also able to create real sympathy from the reader for the characters he creates.

This series does not only focus on World War III. Many of Mr. Mangual’s short stories also describe the world afterwards as well as the colonization of the solar system by humans along with Humanity’s first interactions with beings from other planets. These stories I find especially well planned and executed as the alien species are very interesting. One race, the Huellok are described as two headed flesh eaters. The second are the Voorik, large crystalline beings that speak through telepathy in the voices of dead loved ones. Both are very different from the standard aliens we seem to get today, most of which always seem to be overly human. These actually seem otherworldly.

I am genuinely glad to have had this series of short stories introduced to me by a random person in a book store. I have not been disappointed. These series of short stories are great reading for anyone who has an interest in military Sci-Fi.

Courtesy of Michael Mangual

Courtesy of Michael Mangual

Red Plenty Review Part 2

http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/08/the-glorious-terrible-strange-ussr-francis-spuffords-red-plenty

Recently I reviewed the novel Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (which can be read here: https://jhame085.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/red-plenty-by-francis-spufford/) I figured it would be fun to read another review of the book (in this case from the blog on Tor.com) to see what another reader enjoyed or didn’t enjoy about it.

If you read the review you’ll find that the blog’s author, Jo Walton, seems to enjoy the book. Like me he mentions how he enjoys the mixture of historical fiction with historical facts to weave a very interesting and telling series of tales. Mr. Meier seems to go a step further into his back research of Francis Spufford research for the book than I did. He mentions in his article that some of the things that the charterers say in the book are, in fact, taken from direct quotes from real people living in the Soviet Union. Walton makes special note of many scenes from the book quoting them word for word.

Walton is also amazed at the level of research Spufford acheived in his research of the book. He mentions the 53 pages of end notes that are included at the end of Red Plenty. Despite the fact that I knew that there were so many end notes in the story it is only after reading this article that I can genuinely appreciate the hard work put into this book. To be honest I feel that this ignorance is quite common among avid readers like myself. We are often so ignorant at the level of hard work our favorite authors put into writing their books.

The Ender’s Game Saga and Ender’s Shadow Saga by Orson Scott Card

photo credit to wikipedia

photo credit to wikipedia

Spoilers!!!

Why I usually only profile one book on this blog, today I am going to be ambitious and not only profile an entire series, but two. I started reading the first Ender Series book, Ender’s Game, with what can only be described as apprehension. I knew what the plot was and it seemed rather cheap to me. After two hours in, I am proud to say that I was gravely mistaken. The plot is not only very memorable, but the characters just stick out in your mind. The world Mr. Card builds through the story is also very thought provoking.

The premise of the main story in the first and most famous book Ender’s Game, is that in the future the world has been twice attacked by an alien enemy known as the Formics, better known through the derogatory term “Buggers”. The Formics are an insect race which are controlled by “Queens” much in the same way ants are. The Formic’s second attack was only just overcome by the combined force of Earth’s many nations. However, despite Earth’s victory the Formics have never been truly defeated outside the Sol Galaxy. To combat this overarching threat the nations of Earth operate a military force known as the International Fleet (IF). The IF institutes a program where extremely gifted children from around the world are collected and sent to the IF’s Battle School to be trained to be the planet’s most gifted military geniuses to lead the Fleet against the Formic threat. The Battle School is located in an orbiting space station far above the Earth. Enter Andrew “Ender” Wiggen, the youngest child of an American Family. The IF takes a peculiar interest in Ender and soon Ender is on his way to the Battle School. Once there he makes many friends and enemies. The students at the Battle School are broken into 41 teams which battle each other in a null gravity room. In this null gravity room the teams act as armies in mock wars and use various tactics to beat one another. After being passed among several teams, Ender is eventually given a team of his own to command. He quickly conquers the other teams to become the battle station’s top commander. Eventually he and his top commanders are taken from the Battle School to Eros were the fight against computer controlled enemies with mock fleets of ships. Eventually Ender beats the simulated enemy and eradicates the enemy’s home planet. At this point it is revealed that the mock war wasn’t a simulation. It was a real war against the Formics that Ender won by completely destroying the Formic Homeworld. Due to the stress from the pressure put on him as well as the guilt at having committed Xenocide (the complete destruction of an entire alien race), Ender temporarily snaps. After the war, he goes of to help build humanity’s first off world colony. Once there he find the last surviving Formic Queen, through her, Ender learns that the Formics didn’t mean to ever interfere in human affairs ever again and regretted the first two wars they started. The third war was started and ended by the Humans. To help redeem himself, Ender agrees to help find the Formic Queen a new home to restart her race. This sets the stage for the rest of the Ender’s Game Saga.

The Ender’s Shadow series deals with the world Ender Leaves behind and how his fellow students from the Battle School deal with their return to Earth. Their return causes many political intrigues to be played out which often result in all out war between countries who use the Battle School students to plan ingenious military plans in an attempt for global Hegemony. Where the Ender’s Game Saga is very spiritual in nature the Ender’s Shadow Saga is much more political in nature.

Throughout both series, Card creates a world that is exceptionally similar to our own, while at the same time very different. For example, while the countries are unofficially united against the alien threat, much bickering still happens between nations. Also the technology, past the spaceships and interstellar travel doesn’t seem to be so different from our own. Tablets seem to be much more commonplace in this world than our own, however.

What really get’s me about these two series are the themes that Card manages to explore with his characters. Besides the usual war and politics of most sci-fi stories, Card also manages to explore such themes as Sibling Rivalry, Collective Guilt, Child Labor, as well as the Concept of Necessary Evil. What get to me most about these stories is how Card manages to get you genuinely love each and every character. When A character achieves joy, the reader experiences it with them, when a character feel pain, the reader feels that as well. The events in every story also keeps the reader in a constant state of wonder and an eagerness to figure out how the characters will solve the problems they will encounter.

On a special note, what I found especially interesting in this novel was the many instances that Catholicism plays a part in the stories. Many of the characters are either practicing Catholics or have a Catholic past. Now to many this may not be an issue, but I find this interesting as Orson Scott Card is a Mormon, and high in the Church at that. Now please don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Mormons or their faith. I am, however, almost certain that Catholicism is a major symbol in the stories, but for the life of me I cannot figure out what the symbol is. I find this to be one of the most intriguing aspects of the novels. I would love to hear any and all ideas on this as well.

Needless to say that I am very excited for the Movie verions of Ender’s Game to premier later this year (trailer shown here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vP0cUBi4hwE) and I will post a review of it whenI finally get to see it. I suggest these novels to anyone and everyone who can read them. They have something for everyone and they will genuinly make you think.

photo credit to wikipedia

photo credit to wikipedia

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Spoilers!

I’m going to be blunt, this novel was a huge disappointment for me. It had so much potential and promise and it just didn’t deliver for me. The characters were for the most part uninteresting and the story dragged in a lot of places. This coupled with the idea that I don’t believe that Mr. Dick did a lot of research into some of the key players of the Nazi Party forces my disappointment in this book.

It tells the story of of a world where, due to the the successful assassination of FDR by Giuseppe Zangara in 1933, the Nazis and Imperial Japanese are able to beat the Allies and more or less conquer the world. The majority of the story takes place in California which is under the rule of the Japanese. Other locales include Germany and the American Midwest, which has become a buffer zone between the German held east coast and the Japanese west coast. A major plot point is the sale of American “antiques” by the wealthy Japanese who are immigrating to the west coast. These antiques, when not forged, are items that display popular American Culture from before the war. This nostalgia for the Americanism from before the war almost displays guilt from the conquerors for what they did to achieve supremacy over the world.

Another major plot point is the almost novel-within-a-novel. Many characters in the book have been influenced by a book they have read known as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by the fictional Hawthorne Abendsen. This inner book is also an alternate history about the Allies winning the Second World War. In this alternate reality after winning the war, the US and the UK go into a cold war that sees the UK eventually overcoming the US. I won’t lie, this aspect of the book was actually interesting and it was my favorite aspect of the story, but it failed to make up for other aspects of the story. 

My first problem with the story was the characters. It’s inherently hard to like them or even to hate them,they’re just there! They’re nothing more than automatons that talk and feel occasionally. I understand that you don’t have to love the characters in a story, but you should at least feel something towards them. My second problem with the story was how at the end of the novel nothing is really resolved. The ending is completely open. Now keep in mind this isn’t necessary to a good story, after all it could be the set up to a sequel. Now I have heard that Philip K. Dick did indeed intend to write a sequel, but never got around to it. If this is indeed the case then I can let this go. My biggest problem was the historical aspects of the novel. This is keeping in mind that Mr. Dick claimed to have done extensive research into the Axis Powers. At one point in the story the current Fuhrer of Germany, Martin Bormann dies and two factions arise in the attempt to replace him. One faction led by Josef Goebbels intends to nuke the Japanese Home Islands in an attempt to conquer the rest of the world. The second faction lead by Reinhard Heydrich wishes to keep the German-Japanese Alliance in place. First off, the fact the Heydrich not only was one of  the main architects of the Final Solution as well as having helped to organize the mass persecution of Jews during the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) as well as having the nickname The Man with the Iron Heart makes me doubt that if he had survived the war with the Nazis winning that he would be for a peaceful coexistence with the Japanese considering that the Nazis considered them a lesser race. I also found it hard to believe the Martin Bormann would have succeeded Hitler as Fuhrer considering that Herman Goering was always considered the second in line to the Nazi “throne”. Also for all Mr. Dick’s “research” he very rarely mentions the Nazis at all. While this annoyed me, I must mention that his main focus on the Japanese aspect of the War was rather refreshing as most alternate histories alway focus on the Nazis rather than their Japanese counterparts.

Despite having a lot going against it. The book did have some positives. I found some of the technology mentioned in the novel interesting, such as a rocket plane that makes the travel time from Europe to California only a matter of a few hours rather than a day. I also enjoyed the description of the Nazis and Italians draining  the Mediterranean Sea and turning it into farmland. These, however, did not make up for the rest of the story.  There was a lot of potential in this book, but he just didn’t pull it off, I’m sorry to say,

World War Z by Max Brooks

To put it simply, this is a generation defining book. Like it or not, that is an undeniable fact. It can be argued that this book along with its semi-prequel The Zombie Survival Guide, have single handedly started the present zombie fad. This is quite simply one of my favorite books and since it is being made into a movie (one that will most likely fail to live up to its written form) I felt that it would be a good time to give my review of it. If you haven’t read this book yet please keep in mind that this review may have some spoilers in it.

The writing in this book is rather different from most other books in that it is actually a collection of short-stories in the form of interviews. The premise of the story is that the author has gone across the world as a UN agent to interview survivors of a recent global war on zombies that humanity barely won. Each interview helps add to the larger picture of the global struggle against the undead as well as adding a distinct human element. Each story is radically different from the last. One story, for example, will be about how human trafficking in Asia helped to hasten the spread of the undead, while the next story will be about a housewife in the USA and how she and her family narrowly avoided being slaughtered in their home. The fact that the author chooses to focus on the world at large rather than just the US or some other country as most other zombie novels choose to do adds to the wide appeal of the book.

Another beautiful aspect of this book is the fact is that the story has several important themes that make this book surprisingly adult. While being a fun read about the undead it also a rather lesson in political theory. The book is decidedly anti-isolationist and also deals extensively with how countries deal with large scale disasters. It is because of this as well as for other reasons I have heard that, at least at the University of Pittsburgh, it is being used as an actual text book for political theory classes. Unfortunately I have no way of confirming this as I do not go to said school.

One of the sillier aspects of the book is that it is written by a decidedly “liberal” author, while the book is actually rather “conservative” in nature. The idea of individuality and self sufficiency is heavily pushed in many of the stories. It should be noted, however, that many stories also discuss team survival, but the the individualist stories are much more detailed and more memorable than the latter.

While this is truly an amazing book, I have serious doubts as to the movie. I admit that I have yet to see the movie (I will update this when I have) but from what I have seen in the form of previews that it will most likely only be World War Z in name only. While this is a book about deep ideas about humanity as a whole, the movie looks like a simple action flick. What can you expect from someone like Brad Pitt though? Even the author, Max Brooks has expressed doubts about this movie in at least one interview, which can be seen here, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QEq-ud0NIc . Will I still see the movie? Yes. Will it be an abortion? Most likely. Hopefully I’m proven wrong.