Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate By Robert Caro

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate
By Robert Caro
Copyright 2003

Historian Robert Caro continues his extensive and detailed chronicle of Lyndon Johnson’s life in his third volume, Master of the Senate. Caro examines 12 years of Lyndon Johnson’s life as he rose from a freshman senator whose legitimacy was in question to possibly the most powerful majority leader in history.

Caro opens his tome with a detailed history of the Senate; how its power ebbed and flowed in comparison to the executive branch and the lower chamber. Designed by the founders to be the world’s greatest deliberative body, it often rose to the occasion in the first 90 years of the republic. Soon after the Civil War, it was where good ideas went to die. Its power and influence waxed in the wake of World War I, but stood in the way of American foreign policy in the run up to World War II. By the time of Lyndon Johnson’s arrival in 1949, it was again a body of old men and little action.

The position of majority leader is relatively new in American politics. It is not a constitutional office like the Speaker of the House. It is purely political and its powers dictated by the rules of the senate. Caro documents the creation of this unofficial leadership position and how it ate alive its first holders.

With meticulous – sometimes too meticulous – detail, Caro describes the two seminal events in Lyndon Johnson’s senate career that put him in the national spotlight and set the stage for his unlikely rise to power in a legislative body where seniority is everything.

Leland Olds was a liberal’s liberal and head of the Federal Power Commission. An ardent New Dealer, Olds had frequently squared off with the oil and power companies who brokered Texas politics. Beholden to these interests, Johnson did their bidding in what many thought would be a routine confirmation hearing for another term for Olds.

Olds never saw the trap Johnson had laid for him as chairman of the subcommittee hearing his testimony. Johnson’s staff researched Olds’ youthful political affiliations and writings. Through this material, they were able to imply – without direct accusation – that Olds was a communist. When Olds tried to defend himself before the subcommittee, Johnson restricted his ability to testify and limited documents he could submit in his defense. With the New Dealer out at the Federal Energy Commission, the oil barons of the South were eager to finance Johnson’s political forays.

The other headlining event that defined Lyndon Johnson before the nation was the hearings before the Subcommittee on Preparedness. The committee was examining the U.S. military’s ability to wage war in Korea. Johnson and his allies on the committee ignored the rather limited scope of the United Nations’ police action and instead raised shrill alarm about how we were going into war without the full power of the nation’s military might behind us. With memories of World War II and a severe lack of preparedness, the public was alarmed. Johnson’s shrieks of alarm landed him on the front pages of several national news magazines and the New York Times.

As he did in the first two volumes of his Johnson biography, Path to Power and Means of Ascent, Caro diverges from this subject matter to present a thumbnail biography of important figures in Johnson’s rise to power. This volume documents the life of Richard Russell and looks extensively at his abortive run for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1956. Lyndon Johnson avidly supported Russell’s presidential ambitions knowing full well that the country would never support such an ardent segregationist for president. Russell’s efforts fell short, but he never forgot Johnson’s support. It became Russell's goal to see Lyndon Johnson elected president.

From his college days, Johnson was able to be all things to all people. To liberals, he was one of them. The conservatives, he was in their camp. The northern liberals of the Democratic Party like Hubert Humphrey supported him. The Southern Caucus counted him as one of their own. One would think he would have to declare some sort of allegiance to run for Senate Majority Leader. Instead, he would broker the unlikeliest of compromise between the two warring factions, courting Humphrey and letting Russell reassure the Southerners. Johnson was elected Senate Majority leader in 1954 after Democrats reclaimed the majority.

One of the many good ideas that had routinely died in the Senate since post-Reconstruction was civil rights bills. Congress had not passed one since 1875 although many had been proposed by the executive branch and several had been passed by the House. Every time such legislation made its way to the Senate, the Southern Caucus killed it through filibuster. Then came the Brownwell Bill which eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Through several chapters, Caro describes the give and take and the brokering between northern liberals, southern conservatives, disinterested westerners, and Midwest Republicans. He gave everybody something they wanted. He cut from the bill the most onerous sections to appease Southerners. He delivered dams and other capital projects to Westerners. He promised liberals he and they would build upon this legally small, but politically monumental achievement. He showed Midwest Republicans how they might benefit with their growing black constituency. While the negotiations were tedious -- as was some of Caro’s narrative – Johnson managed to deliver on the first civil rights legislation in almost 90 years.

Caro promises an extensive examination of Johnson’s run for the presidency in 1960 in the next volume. However, he does chronicle some of what happened after Johnson’s ascendency to the vice presidency in 1961 and the man’s desperate move to hold onto power in the Senate.

When the Senate Democratic Caucus met in December 1960, Johnson convinced presumptive incoming majority leader Mike Mansfield to place his name into nomination to be chairman – an unprecedented move. The position was traditionally that of the majority leader. Democrats who had been foot soldiers and pawns in Johnson’s political machinations for nearly a decade balked. Some protested based on constitutional principles of separation of powers. Others balked simply because they were tired of Johnson pushing them around. Eventually, Johnson asked Mansfield to withdraw the nomination and Mansfield was elected.

Johnson spent the early days of his vice presidency in the Democratic cloak room. But those senators with whom he had been so intimate, who sought his advice and support, and whom he had harassed and cajoled, were now merely cordial. No longer were they clubby. Johnson was no longer a member of the club.

Caro certainly uses a lot of pages to cover just a few years of Lyndon Johnson’s career. But there is enough material on the history of the Senate and its workings and procedures to create a stand alone book.

This book should be required reading material for every U.S. Senator currently holding office and for those aspiring to the club of 100. They can look in the mirror and see themselves as those who are failing to uphold the once lofty reputation of that institution as the world’s greatest deliberating body. The Senate in the 1940s and 1950s before Johnson took over as majority leader was where great ideas went to die. ‘Tis so again today.

What makes Caro’s long tomes about this one man so interesting and engaging is his story telling ability. Some of that got lost in this book. While I understand what a monumental achievement it was to pass a civil rights act in 1957, my eyes sometimes glazed over during Caro’s microscopic examination of the legislative process. Yes, it does illustrate Johnson’s ability to wheel and deal, to cajole, to persuade. But chapter after chapter on the subject was a bit much.

Another element that got lost in this book was Caro’s ability to humanize this historical icon. The first two volumes told tales of Johnson’s personal life, of his relationships with friends, aides, and his wife. There was some of that in this book, but not nearly enough. There was too much focus on the legislative processes in the Senate.

Despite these minor weaknesses, Caro’s third volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson is still compelling reading and illustrate this man’s striking ability to obtain and wield power with effectiveness. I look forward to the fourth volume where Caro will examine Johnson’s activities in the least powerful constitutional office in the U.S. government: the office of vice president.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania By Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
By Erik Larson
Copyright 2015

Erik Larson once again visits the darker side of history in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. As he did with serial killer H.H. Holmes in Devil in the White City, Larson examines this watershed moment in world history from many points of view.

There was President Woodrow Wilson who was trying hard to keep America out of the Great War in Europe. Lusitania Captain William Thomas Turner was confident that his vessel could outrun any U-boat on the seas. U-boat Captain Walther Schwieger enjoyed hunting enemy vessels and raising litters of dogs below decks of his craft. Winston Churchill, who oversaw the operations of the British Admiralty’s Room 40 where German radio transmissions were decoded. And there were the various passengers from different walks of life – some of whom survived and some who did not.

Larson introduces to the Lusitania as she sits in berth 54 at the Cunard docks on the Hudson River in New York. There, she took on her passengers and cargo. She was delayed for almost two hours while Captain Turner provided a tour to VIPs.

Larson provides a brief history of the Lusitania and details of her construction – including the coal bins built into the hull of the ship. She was the fastest ship in the Cunard fleet but, due to war rationing, was not allowed to run with all her boilers lit in order to save coal.

The R.M.S. Lusitania set sail from New York on May 4, 1915, en route to her date with history three days later. She made 23 knots across the Atlantic. Captain Turner was aware German U-boats patrolled the coast of Great Britain, but was confident in his vessel’s ability to outrun them. One thousand two hundred and twenty-two passengers were aboard and 696 crewmen. In the cargo holds, along with tons of coal to feed the ship’s boilers, were small caliber rounds destined for the British war machine.

Larson then gives us backstories on the many passengers aboard the Lusitania. The rich and middle class and just a few poor were aboard. Each of those men, women and children would become a story of bravery, heroism, or tragedy in just a few days.

Meanwhile, Walther Schwieger’s U-Boat 20 was patrolling off the coast of Ireland. He’d sunk some smaller ships and was on his way home, low on fuel. The British Admiralty in Room 40, using the German code they had broken, was aware of Shwieger’s presence off the coast. They were also aware that the Lusitania would soon be sailing through those waters. Room 40’s commanding officer, Winston Churchill, decided to keep the information to himself.

On May 7, the Lusitania met her destiny. Schwieger could scarcely believe his luck when the large ship appeared in his periscope. Schwieger launched his torpedo which struck the Lusitania on her starboard bow. Shortly thereafter, a second explosion rocked the ship. She started going down by the head.

The crew immediately set about launching lifeboats. But the ship’s list made it all but impossible to get them launched. Making the situation worse, many of the men who would have helped with the launching of the boats were below deck at the time of the explosion and were killed instantly.

The Lusitania sunk in just 18 minutes, 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. A distress call brought local boats to the scene to pluck survivors out of the cold water. Many lives were saved because of those efforts. Meanwhile, Schwieger and his crew steamed for home.

1191 people died when the Lusitania went down. 128 of those lost were Americans. Woodrow Wilson, who had tried so hard to maintain America’s neutrality in the great war in Europe, had to take notice. While the sinking of the Lusitania did not bring America into the war, it made it much easier later, when the XYZ Telegram was discovered, for Wilson to request and receive, a declaration of war against Germany.

Erik Larson has a penchant for telling dark tales out of history and without embellishment of the facts, make them read like horror novels. Dead Wake is just a bit different. It’s a bit more history and a little less drama. Fans of his work are probably not going to like it as much as his earlier works which were much darker. However, fans of great sea disasters and naval warfare are going to rejoice in the first mainstream telling of this important tragedy in the history of naval warfare.

Larson’s books tell stories from many independent points of view that are seemingly unrelated to the central plot. He employs that device in Dead Wake as well, but to less effectiveness. Particularly the chapters dealing with Woodrow Wilson and his grief following the death of his wife and his courtship of Edith Galt were not effective in building the drama or telling the story. The book would have been better if that had been left out.

What did work well was the character sketches of the passengers who lived and died aboard the Lusitania and the biographical sketch of Captain Walker. While the lore of the legendary Titanic has made many of those lost in her sinking common names in history, very few know of those lost on the Lusitania. Granted, the Lusitania did not carry the social glitterati that was aboard the Titanic, but those lives and their stories need to be told for a full appreciation of the tragedy.

Larson’s narrative as he describes the sinking of the Lusitania is as fast paced as the events that unfolded. Titanic biographers have two hours of material with which to develop their narratives. Tales of heroism, nobility, and cowardice have time to develop. With just 18 minutes to work with, Larson grabs the reader and has him turning pages at a fever pitch.

The reader can’t read the book and not see how the British admirality was complicit in the sinking of the Lusitania. Larson does not reach that conclusion himself, but lets the reader get there on his own. Churchill knew the chances were good that U-boat 20 would encounter the Lusitania. Knowing that U-boat captains prized tonnage over all other measures of success, he knew no U-boat captain could resist sinking the Lusitania. He also knew many American and British civilians were aboard. The British admiralty issued no warnings. Churchill made sure he was out of the country when the event took place. They let events unfold hoping the outrage would bring America into the war.

Much speculation has surrounded what was in the Lusitania cargo holds and what caused that second explosion. It is common knowledge that the Lusitania was indeed ferrying war materiel to the British despite American protests that we were entirely neutral. But there was nothing in those munitions that would have triggered an explosion of the magnitude described. Many have speculated it was coal dust detonated by the torpedo. Coal was stored in a space between the ships outer and inner hull. Larson seems to poo poo that theory. His belief was that the explosion was a hot boiler hit by cold water.

Erik Larson’s Dead Wake is not the most authoritative or insightful book written on the subject of the Lusitania. However, it is the most accessible and its sales will introduce mainstream readers to the story of that ill fated Cunard liner, its passengers, and its brave captain. Books, plays and movies in great number have been dedicated to the telling of the story of the Titanic and her fate. Finally, the Lusitania will sail from the pages of history texts to the mainstream where the general public can learn of her and the tragedy of her final voyage.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Man in the High Castle By Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle
By Philip K. Dick
Copyright 1962

The Man in the High Castle
is a Hugo Award winning, alternative history novella by Philip K. Dick – a master of science fiction and alternative reality. This book explores the consequences of the Allies losing World War II and the takeover of the United States by the Nazis and the Japanese.

In Dick’s alternative history, President Franklin D. Roosevelt is felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1934, allowing vice president John Nance Garner to rise to the presidency. Garner’s weak government is followed by the election of Ohio senator John W. Bricker to the presidency. An ardent isolationist, Bricker delays American entry into World War II and the Axis become too strong to defeat. The Allies are defeated. Germany continues its extermination of the Jews and Japan takes over the American economy.

Japanese and German governments have an uneasy coexistence in the United States until the death of German Chancellor, Martin Bormann. Maneuvering takes place within the Nazi government to succeed Bormann and the Japanese are eager to take advantage of the power vacuum. Unfortunately, the readers are never allowed to glimpse these intrigues.

Instead, the reader learns of the lives of Japanese and German government officials living in the United States – far removed from the bastions of power. Also included in the story are various American citizens who sell American heirlooms – cherished by the Japanese, his ex wife who is a bohemian yoga instructor, a manufacturer of counterfeit American heirlooms and his business partner.

Frank Frink lives in the former U.S. disguising his Jewish heritage. After throwing a temper tantrum one day at work, he loses his job at Wyndham-Matson – a manufacturer of fake Americana. Frink sets up a fake antique jewelry manufacturing operation with his business partner, Ed McCarthy. They sell their products to Robert Childan who has several high ranking Japanese as his customers.

Frink’s ex-wife, Julianne, falls for an Italian truck driver. As do many of the characters in the novel, she is exposed to the book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This book is an alternative history set within Dick’s alternative history. In the book within a book, Franklin Roosevelt decides not to run after two terms and is succeeded in office by socialist economist, Rexford Tugwell. Tugwell successfully leads the country into war mobilization and defeats the Axis powers. The book is considered seditious by the Nazi and Japanese governments. Julianne is determined to join her new lover in meeting the author, Hawthorne Abendsen.

Meanwhile, Mr. Baynes travels from Europe to California to meet with Japanese trade minister Tagomi to inform him of a plot to drop a hydrogen bomb on the Japanese home islands. Joseph Goebbels's faction of the party is planning this attack as Goebbels tries to fill the Nazi power vacuum.

These two plotlines unfold until the Japanese thwart the German plan and Julianne meets Abendsen and gets him to reveal the true nature of his book.

I like Philip K. Dick a lot and this book has received much acclaim. However, I did not like it very much.

The book was terribly fragmented with many disparate plotlines running at the same time. This can be an effective story telling device as Stephen King proved in The Stand and Dean Koontz proved in Strangers. The characters in these separate plotlines need never meet or interact with each other. But the subplots should eventually coalesce into one main plot driving toward a climax. The Man in the High Castle never arrived at this singular climax.

The weak storytelling is not offset by strong characters. We get to know them some through their inner dialogue – particularly Julianne. But, typical of Dick and others of the pulp era, the characters are fleshed out only enough to make them function in the story.

The two plots would have made for two great, separate novels. Or, The Man in the High Castle would have been a good book if Dick would have found a way to link the two story lines. They had not even tangential relationship to one another.

I did enjoy Dick’s take on historical figures such as John Nance Garner, John Bricker, and Rexford Tugwell. Garner’s name is lost on almost everyone except historians. Bricker enjoyed some fame in the 1940s as Dewey’s running mate in 1944. Tugwell’s name and politics are quite obscure. Dick does not dwell on these men much, but he does represent them accurately and uses their legacies effectively.

Through these figures, Dick examines the history of the lead up to American involvement in World War II and how America almost blew it. Bricker and Garner were both isolationists – as were most people in the United States at that time. In Dick’s tale, the isolationists prevailed and kept America out of World War II until it was too late. In his book within a book, Tugwell moves the Pacific fleet out of Pearl Harbor and preserves it, allowing America much greater strength in that theater.

It is clear that the pacifist Dick believes World War II was a good war and the men who fought it were good men while those who opposed it were incompetent. This is a view shared by most historians, pacifist or not.

Dick also explores the nature of reality. What is real in our existence might not be the real reality as we learn when the source of book within a book is revealed. Many writers would have endeavored to explain this twist on reality. Dick effectively leaves it there for the reader to ponder.

This book is a must read for fans of pulp science fiction. The book and its writer are legendary. Go into it with eyes wide open. If you are looking for hard sci-fi like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, you are not going to find it here. The Man in the High Castle is an alternative history that studies the effects of what could have been. There are very few sci-fi elements to be found.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder By James DeMille

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder
By James DeMille
Copyright 1888

It is important to revisit the novels that serve as a foundation for all of the science fiction we enjoy today. Stories like She, A Princess of Mars, and A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder are the basis of today’s science fiction. In these stories, we find hilariously dated science. But we also find the wellspring of the tropes that still dominate the genre.

Antarctica – largely unexplored in the 19th century when A Strange Manuscript was written – provides the setting for this lost continent story. Four British sailors are caught in a lull in the wind and are trying to find a way to pass the time. One of them finds a barnacle encrusted copper cylinder floating nearby. They open it and remove the manuscript – written on material similar to ancient vellum.

The manuscript was authored by an observer of an Antarctic journey named Adam More. More and a companion went on a lifeboat excursion and became separated from the main ship. Desperate, they set aground on an island. There, they find a tribe of murderous savages that slays More’s friend. More escapes in his boat and rows for a dark cavern where he can hide safely.

He emerges from the other side of the cavern in a seeming paradise with an island covered in palm trees. He makes contact with the natives and finds them to be friendly and quite happy to see him. They seem to hate the sunlight and love death. More learns that this race of men – called the Kosedin -- worships death and poverty. They loath long life and luxuries. The gladly throw themselves at murderous creatures and the ultimate honor is to be eaten by your cannibalistic colleagues.

More is repulsed at their backward society. His life on the continent is made endurable by the presence of a young woman who is also an outsider to these lands. Soon the long Antarctic day becomes a long Antarctic night. When the long night comes, the Kosedin come out of their caves and rejoice. More learns that at the end of this long night, when the Kosedin feast before returning to their caves, that he and his beloved – as the wealthiest couple in the land – will be the main course at a celebration feast.

More and his beloved escape on a flying dragon-like creature and head for a distant island. However, their dragon is injured and they are forced into the ocean. They are rescued by the Kosedin and taken back to their land.

Once they arrive in the Kosedin homeland, Adam More and his beloved are separated and put into prison. There, More meets the leader of the Kosedin. In this upside down society, the leader is a filthy, pathetic wafe locked in a jail cell with no wealth or compansionship. He argues with this pauper who is aghast to find that More appreciates wealth and highborn status.

Finally, More and his beloved are brought together at the feast. They are to go through a separation ceremony before they are killed and spitted. AS the two stand for the separation ceremony, More makes his move, hoping to escape.

Demille’s A Strange Manuscript is one of the earliest examples of the lost world subgenre. Many credit H. Rider Haggard and King Solomon’s Mines as the earliest published example of the lost world novel. Haggard’s story was published in 1885 and Demille’s in 1888. However, it is believed that Demille started his work on A Strange Manuscript before Haggard started work on King Solomon.

The book suffers from Demille’s need for exposition on the cultural and scientific works of the Kosedin. Long exposition in fiction was common in this time period, but Demille’s contemporaries such as Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Jules Verne structured better plots than Demille.

The long interludes of the British sailors discussing the contents of the manuscript were almost painful to read. The discussions were the stuff of pretentiousness in only which academics indulge. Demille was a college professor and although he took time to make fun of himself and others of his ilk, it did not lessen the tedium of reading these interludes. They added nothing to the story.

With this two significant weaknesses detracting from it, A Strange Manuscript was still a worthwhile read. There is some great adventure and Demille’s traditional – yet exciting climax – works well and ends abruptly which I like. The reader also finds the wellspring of some of our more modern fiction.

The found manuscript was employed often in horror and sci-fi through the years. One of the best example I can think of is Pierre Boulle’s The Planet of the Apes. In the novel which differs significantly from the movie, the story is related by two beings – later revealed to be apes – reading a ships log they recovered aboard an abandoned spacecraft. In this day and age of digital video and media, the “found footage” movies made popular by the Blair Witch Project are derivative of Demille’s work.

Demille was a professor of English at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. He wrote primarily romantic and historical fiction and was well known prior to the publication of A Strange Manuscript. It is a shame that Demille’s best known work was not published until after his death in 1880 because, had Demille chosen to publish this work, he’d be credited with in inventing an entirely new subgenre.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Baal By Robert R. McCammon

By Robert R. McCammon
Copyright 1978

Baal was Robert R. McCammon’s first novel. It was very much a novel of its time and would launch a brilliant writing career that would span horror, dystopia, mainstream thrillers, and historical fiction.
Baal was born of a rape. Orphaned when his parents died when he was a small child, he moves to a Catholic orphanage. There, the boy who was Jeffery Harper Raines becomes Baal. Baal launches his reign of terror and proves that he is much more than a simple boy.

Years later, Baal sets up camp in the Kuwaiti desert. Followers, rich and poor, from all over the world are drawn to him. A researcher of religious cults disappears after embarking on a quest to learn more about Baal and his followers. His professor, Dr. Virga heads to Kuwait to investigate.

Virga arrives and is greeted by the cult of Baal. They are the lowest of the low in this Third World Country. They are also oil barons and the nation’s wealthy. They have coalesced around the enigmatic figure.

Virga finally gets his audience with Baal and finds his friend has gone insane and kills himself in a fit of despair. Baal tries to attack Virga, but is unable to because of the Christian Cross Baal wears around his neck. Virga is beaten and left for dead in the desert.

He is rescued by a man named Michael. Michael has a comfortable tent set up near Baal’s camp. Michael, too, is in pursuit of Baal for reasons he will not say.

Baal and his followers decamp from the scorched wastes of Kuwait and head for the frozen tundra of Greenland. Michael and Virga follow in pursuit. Michael and professor Virga land in Greenland. There, they find the wrath that Baal and his followers unleash on a remote village. They recruit a Sherpa named Zark to help them pursue Baal as he moves toward his next target.

They travel across some of the most inhospitable land on earth until they confront Baal and his followers. There, Zark and Virga learn Michael’s true nature as they wage a cosmic battle that will determine the future of mankind.

For a first book, Baal was pretty darn good. As I said, it was a novel of its time when spiritual thrillers such as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Omen were selling big. Despite plowing heavily trod ground, McCammon is careful to make sure his novel is not derivative of any of those religious thrillers.

As with most first novel efforts, the plot is linear. There are no subplots in play. The story is the story and it progresses from point A to point B with no deviation.

Character development is weak as well. Professor Virga’s motivation isn’t fleshed out all too well. He’s enduring the most inhospitable climates in the world and risking his life. Yet, we never get the sense that he was all that close to his missing student. His motivations after seeing his student die are not developed at all. He’s a professor of theology, but he’s no religious fanatic. His desire to kill Baal is inexplicable.

Michael is get ambiguous deliberately to disguise his true nature. However, not too long after his arrival in the story, Michael’s nature is easily discerned.

Even with these weaknesses, the book was a fun, easy read. The story was paced nicely. There were no major holes and no moments of disbelief.

It was not quite as stellar as Stephen King’s opening book, Carrie. But McCammon’s first effort is no doubt a quality book. He would later pull Baal and three other novels from publication, claiming that they were not his best efforts and he was still learning his craft. He has since relented and allowed the books to be printed.

This is a good thing. Some of the early efforts are uneven at times. But each is like Baal in that it is a solid story that has a great plot and is fun to read.

Robert McCammon would hone his craft and write some truly excellent books like Swan Song, Mine, and Speaks the Nightbird. He explores different writing genres through his career and, unlike Stephen King and other recognized masters of horror, he’s never written a bad book. That is a remarkable career accomplishment.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Martian By Andy Weir

The Martian
By Andy Weir
Copyright 2014

Mark Watney is part of a crew of six that rank among the first to visit Mars. He’s about to become its first permanent resident.
Watney is left behind on the red planet when an accident leads to a partial tear in his space suit. With no vital signs showing on the ship computer and a dust storm that threatens the crew’s departure, they elect to leave him behind.

But Watney is alive. Left behind, he must rely on his skills as a botanist and as an engineer to survive in a harsh environment with no means to communicate, he must find a way to generate food, oxygen, and water.

He knows that the next mission to Mars is more than a year off. He knows that the food and other supplies will be arriving before that. He calculates how much food he will need and sets out to make that happen.

Watney devises a plan that allows him to grow potatoes in the small quarters left behind as part of the lander. He finds a heat supply and is able to generate oxygen and water. His only means of entertainment are mystery novels, disco, and 70s television left behind by his fellow astronauts.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA has announced his death and are working on bringing the other five astronauts home. An observer of Martian satellite photos notices objects moving in the camp and NASA realizes they have a stranded astronaut. They immediately try to devise a means of communication and a rescue plan.

Watney is able to find the Pathfinder and Sojourner landers on the Martian surface and is able to use their parts to contact earth. NASA officials are amazed at his ingenuity in being able to grow potatoes, harvest water from the Martian atmosphere, and adapt the two rover vehicles for long range travel. They work with Watney to prepare him for the 3,200 kilometer journey to the Schiaparelli crater where the Ares 4 module will land.

Watney is forced to overcome catastrophic equipment failures, impossible weather, and his own doubts to survive in a world harsher than anyplace on Earth. NASA personnel on Earth work against time, defying budgetary restraint, personal endurance, and science to save the life of one man.

The Martian
was another book of the month club selection and was almost unanimously viewed positively for our group. My own opinion was mixed while not enjoying it very much.

This was science fiction for engineers. In every process Watney undertook, he provided the science and engineering behind it. I understand this kind of detail is important to some people – like engineers and scientists. The vast majority of the reading public is neither. To us, this was a long series of distractions from the story.

This was the only major drawback of the book. Yet it was pervasive enough to significantly reduce my appreciation of the book. More than 70 percent of the book is Watney’s log entries. Weir does a wonderful job of developing Watney through these log entries. I felt like I knew the guy. And had I been Whatley, I’d have certainly featured my own cleverness and ingenuity in my log. I’d want my posterity to know how smart I was. But page after page about the nitrogen cycle in soil and the botany of the potato plant is much, much more than I want.

It’s a shame that Reid chose to write like this. He took an oft-told tale—older than Robinson Crusoe – and retold it in an exciting manner. That is not easy. It would have been a delightful book had it not been for the gross distractions. Many science fiction readers read the genre not for the science – but for the humanity to be found in alien people and settings. Much of Watney’s humanity and much of the appeal of the story was lost in what frequently devolved into a thinly veiled technical manual.

For fans of fiction related to Mars, it's hard not to read The Martian and not think of the 1964 sci-fi classic, Robinson Crusoe on Mars. It's the exact same premise with the same character with the same motivations. However, the 1964 is not remotely scientific -- even by the standards of 1964. I love that silly, unscientific movie much more than I like The Martian

Andy Weir is living the fantasy of so many unpublished authors. His book was self-published in Amazon and was discovered by an agent. Congratulations to Weir on cutting through the vast wasteland of self-published books to break through.

This book will probably appeal to aficionados of hard sci-fi. There are many devotees to the genre who love to analyze science and pick at it. I’m no scientist, but I’m thoroughly convinced that Weir’s science is air tight which will delight those who revel in that sort of thing.

Monday, February 9, 2015

I Sing the Body Electric By Ray Bradbury

I Sing the Body Electric
By Ray Bradbury
Copyright 1969

The Kilimanjaro Device

A young man arrives in Sun Valley in a safari truck. His goal: to find the spirit of Ernest Hemingway and transport him to Africa circa 1954. He shares a drink in a local pub with a fellow Papa fan, then hits the road to find the spirit of Hemingway.
I’m decidedly not a Hemingway fan. But it’s easy enough to see Bradbury was and he shows us how much he treasured Hemmingway’s works. It’s not hard to see the unnamed main character as a psychopomp, delivering Hemingway’s soul to Heaven as he would know it.

The Terrible Conflagration up at the Place

Revolutionaries in Ireland set out to burn their lord’s manor house, but they forget the matches. When they arrive, the lord of the manor invites them in. They inform him of their intent, quite politely and he agrees to allow the burning. He asks the sackers if they will spirit away his art collection for safe keeping. They agree and take off with the paintings. A few hours later, they return.

There were echoes of Mark Twain in this story, but the end was wholly unsatisfying. While there was a fair amount of humorous irony in the story, the climax, as it was, completely lacked in humor or irony.

Tomorrow’s Child
The Horn’s have a baby and that baby is a blue pyramid with three eyes and six tentacles. Their baby, the doctor informs the Horns, was born into another dimension. This baby belongs in that dimension. While the doctors work feverishly for months to figure out how to get the babies back to their proper dimensions, the Horns raise the “child.” Finally, the day comes when the doctors have it all figured out.

The tale is so improbable that it is interesting. The opening paragraph is so matter of fact, much like Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis

The Women
A couple lounges on the beach on the final day of their vacation. The woman senses that a presence in the ocean beckons to her husband, trying to lure him into the water. She tries every delaying tactic she can think of to keep him out of the water. When it starts to rain, she thinks she’s won. But the lure of the blue water proves too much.

This was a story of atmosphere and stirring words more than plot. There was very little plot to it. It does demonstrate Bradbury’s ability to weave moods with the language. Beautiful.

The Inspired Chicken Motel
It’s 1932 and the Great Depression is raging. A family of four is traveling down Route 66 to look for a job and some prosperity. They stop at a fleabag motel where they find a chicken who lays eggs with inscriptions very much like fortune cookies. The family leaves the hotel with new found hope mixing with cynical skepticism.

This story was mildly entertaining. It would seem in this book that Bradbury is trying much harder for rye humor than any serious science fiction.

Downwind from Gettysburg
The manager of a theater is alarmed when someone puts a bullet into the head of his animatronic figure of Abraham Lincoln. The modern assassin is also named Booth, although he has a different first name. The theater manager confronts the assassin and listens to his lame excuse for destroying the robot. Then the manager tells Mr. Booth the real reason for the crime and ends his hopes for glory.

A writer on Huffington Post compared this story to the vainglorious father of the notorious “Balloon Boy” event several years ago when the father contrived to have his young son become ”trapped” in a hot air balloon with the hopes of getting a reality show out of the deal. My own thoughts went to Mark David Chapman who killed John Lennon for the sheer glory of doing it.

Downwind from Gettysburg was made into an episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater.

Yes, We’ll Gather at the River
The residents of a small California town are just a day away from a harsh reality. A new interstate highway is going to open tomorrow and with it take the traffic local merchants rely on for commerce. A cigar store owner ponders his bleak future and that of the town.

This story tells of an all but forgotten chapter in American history. When construction began on the interstate highway system in the 1950s, millions of motorists were moved away from secondary roads and the small towns where they bought gas, bought lunch, and sundry items. Many towns “missed” by the highways died. This beautiful and touching story brings that era to life very much reminiscent of Steinbeck.

Cold Wind and the Warm
A group of faerie people arrive in small town Ireland and make friends with the regulars of a small pub. They charm and entertain the pub patrons with songs and stories of how disparate people come together to become one people. One Irishmen gentleman discerns the faeries true nature and purpose.

I really struggled with this story and did not like it at all. It had the whimsy which was Bradbury’s signature style. But while beautifully written, I just loathed the story. I’m not much for Irish yarns.

Night Call, Collect
An old man is the last survivor on Mars after the rest of the population returns to earth on the eve of atomic war there. He starts receiving phone calls from himself. The first call is from his 20 year old self, then his 21 year old self, then 24, etc. The calls tease and torment him – each a transcription he made in his youth to keep busy. Then he gets a call that is not himself, but the captain of a rocket come to rescue him after 60 years. He rushes to New Chicago to meet the rocket, but all he finds are more phones.

This is a riff on a tale told earlier in The Martian Chronicles. This tale is much darker and quite entertaining. The first real hard sci-fi/horror story in the book.

The Haunting of the New
Grynwood, an old castle once host to the most lavish parties ever known in Ireland, shall host no more parties, for she has burned to the ground. Her owner had built in its place an exact replica. But it’s just not the same and the house, new, wants no old people in its midst.

This story is written very much in a literary style and I wanted to not like it. The flowery, over the top language usually turns me off. But Bradbury is able to evoke emotion with his prose that transcends my dislike of inflated language. This story is about the pain of transition and not being able to go home again when it is not home.

I Sing the Body Electric!
A widower with three children replaces his dead wife with a robot grandma. The grandma is delivered and the two boys immediately take to her. The girl, Abigail, does not and refused to treat the electric grandma like anything but a machine. When grandma meets with tragedy, the source of Abigail’s hostility is laid bare.

A riff on Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name that discusses what makes a human, human as opposed to a souless machine. This story explores the nature of grief, the relationship between generations, and is somewhat over celebratory of what machines are capable of – or will ever be capable of. It is one of Bradbury’s more heartwarming stories.

Ray Bradbury adapted this story for The Twilight Zone episode of the same name. Despite his personal fondness and close relationship with Twilight Zone writers Rod Serling, and Richard Matheson, it was the only original script Bradbury penned for the television series.

Tombling Day

An old woman attends the relocation of her old beau’s grave. She decides to have the body brought back to her house and the casket opened. She looks upon her beloved’s body, sixty years in the ground, and laments that he still looks young while she has grown old.

She is old, he is young. Bradbury says this over and over again without going anywhere. The end is just gibberish. This story was a real dud.

A Friend of Nicholas Nickleby’s is a Friend of Mine

A man arrives in Greentown, Illinois with the unlikely moniker of Charles Dickens and he is a writer. A young man is thrilled to have the famous writer in his mom’s boarding house and is quickly drawn to him. But he’s not so much a writer as a memorizer of tales.

I didn’t see where Bradbury was going with this one. I thought it was to inspire the frustrated writer to keep writing, but the unlikely Charles Dickens never writes anything original. He just rewrites Dickens’ novels. Nothing inspirational there.

Heavy Set
A mother laments her emotionally immature son who spends his days sculpting his body with weights. At 31 years old, he refuses to interact with anyone and takes out his frustration on weights and a punching bag.

On the surface, the story has no plot. But Bradbury’s writing makes the reader tense. You wonder if and when Heavy Set is going to explode. Will he hurt his mother? Will he hurt other people? It’s an emotionally taut story.

The Man in the Rorschach Shirt

A psychiatrist calls it quits when he finds out his senses of sight and hearing have been lying to him for years. Restored hearing and improved vision, he finds, hinders his imagination. He tells a former colleague how he spends his days treating people with his bizarre, multi-patterned shirts.

A Bradbury allegory on writing and imagination. Writers create and imagine, he points out. If all we rely on through our day is what we see and hear, we are left bereft of creativity. Lots of allegory, little story. An enjoyable read nonetheless.

Henry the Ninth
The last man to inhabit England talks with his old friend who is about to depart. The English and all northern Europeans have abandoned their homeland for warmer climes.

Bradbury dedicates several short stories to being alone. Not necessarily loneliness because often, Bradbury’s characters are not unhappy to be alone. There were a couple in The Martian Chronicles that were stellar in their telling. This one wasn’t.

The Lost City of Mars
Captain Wilder, the intrepid explorer from The Martian Chronicles, sets out with a millionaire and other illuminati aboard a yacht on the Martian canals. Their destination is a lost Martian city. They find the city and the city finds them. Each is offered by the city what he or she wants – or thinks he wants. Some reject the deal, some don’t.

Perhaps this was a story written for The Martian Chronicles and left out. If so, leaving it out was a good idea. It lacks the beautiful simplicity of the other stories in that collection.

Christus Apollo – Cantata Celebrating the Eight Day of Creation and the Promise of the Ninth

Christianity meets scientific speculation in this Christmas poem where Bradbury contemplates life on other worlds and whether or not they were created by and worship the same God as Christians on earth.

This is a poem and as I am wont to say when evaluating a poem – I don’t feel qualified. I don’t know good poetry from bad. But I know what I like and I liked this.

I Sing the Body Electric is one of the weaker Bradbury compilations for fans of his sci-fi work. Much of the book relies on playing with the ghosts of authors dead and other mildly fantastical tropes. The title story and the Lost City of Mars stand as the only real sci-fi tales.

Of course, there is more to Bradbury than science fiction and the whimsy that characterizes Bradbury’s Greentown can be found in almost every story in this volume.

While not nearly as interesting as The Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man, I Sing the Body Electric is worth the time to read to find a few Bradbury tales you won’t find anyplace else.