Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books or films, especially those that relate to language or literature in some way.

Little Brother – Review

Cory Doctorow. Little Brother. 2007. E-book.

Remember the British TV show Max Headroom? It always began with the subtitle “20 Minutes into the Future.” This is the second Cory Doctorow book I have read, the other being Makers. Both novels are like Max Headroom in that they are set in the very near future. The stories, like the old TV show, focus on technology and would qualify as cyberpunk. Little Brother, the title is a play on 1984‘s Big Brother, could begin the day after tomorrow.

The narrator and most of the other main characters are high school teens who have a lot of computer savvy and enjoy live-action role-playing games. The quartet is tracking down clues in an online but live-action scavenger hunt in San Francisco where they live when they get rounded up by some heavies from the Department of Homeland Security. They are hooded, taken to a prison, tortured, and accused of being involved in a successful plot to destroy the Oakland Bay Bridge.

Three of them are released, including the narrator Marcus. Marcus and a new girlfriend then try to frustrate the DHS surveillance in the Bay Area by a combination of cyberspoofing and messing with RPIDs (“Arpids”) that have become ubiquitous—not only in EZ-Pass toll clickers and passports but also in credit cards, subway passes, and other common devices that the government is using to track people.

I give Doctorow credit for explaining some Internet arcana and especially for the clearest explanation I have read on Bayesian probability. The kids in the book understand these things; now the reader can, too. They are just trying to have fun with their role-playing games, online messaging, and flash mobs (though he does not call them that). But the DHS continues to track them and considers them potential terrorists.

One of the DHS sympathizers explains that “the framers of the Constitution intended it to be a living document,” that we have to be flexible for the “needs of the day,” that the Bill of Rights is subject to government interpretation.

When Marcus challenges this, is suspended from school for two weeks as “some kind of fundamentalist” like the alleged terrorists. It is not only unjust but also ironic. Indeed, the one caution I would have for some readers is that while the book is billed for Young Adults, i.e., junior high, Marcus does tell how he loses his virginity.

The author has a lot of acknowledgments in the book, and he confesses that he admires William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, especially Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a favorite of mine. Makers reminded me of Stephenson, and I recommended it to a friend who is a Stephenson fan. But the book that Little Brother is most like is The Journal of David Q. Little. Little Brother‘s Marcus could be Little’s little brother.

I thought I was probably the only person living who had read that book. It came out in 1967, and I never saw or heard anything of it since I read it then, but when I checked Amazon, I found out it has some fans. It was re-released in 2012 with some additional material written by a few big-name writers. Because it came out in the late sixties, the “20 minutes into the future” is like the sixties’ America rather than twenty-first century America. With no Internet, Mr. Little relies on typewriters and mimeographs like the samizdat of Soviet Russia. Instead of using the threat of “terrorists” to establish state tyranny, Little’s America blames the Ku Klux Klan.

Little Brother is also a little more sanguine than David Q. Little. The State of California comes to the rescue in a deus ex machina—asserting the Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights. It is impossible to imagine the current ruthless, overfed government of California doing that. That is probably the least believable part of the novel, but it does appeal to a sense of the Creator-endowed unalienable rights.

Little Brother is an entertaining story. It is one of those tales of which we have to say, “It could happen here,” but we pray that it doesn’t.

The author is a Canadian who has lived in the United States and England as well. Each chapter of Little Brother begins with a tribute to a bookstore—usually ones that carry Doctorow’s work or have a solid science fiction section. These tributes plus a nostalgia for sixities radicals give the impression that Doctorow is some kind of bicoastal yuppie. But anyone who likes On the Road must have some contact with the real world.

The Possessed (The Devils) – Review

Fedor Dostoyevsky. The Possessed (The Devils). Trans. Constance Garnett. 1916. 14 July 2011. E-book.

Two of my all-time favorite novels are by Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. The Brothers is probably the greatest novel ever written. I will not quibble if you say War and Peace, Les Miserables, or even Notre Dame de Paris. But the ending of The Brothers stuns the reader with its beauty. So does The Possessed.

Just as the story of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov is sometimes published as a standalone story, so the penultimate chapter, especially Part 2 of Chapter 7, of The Possessed could stand alone in its beauty and eloquence. Except here, it helps to know the events that lead up to Stepan Trofimovitch’s confession—not a confession like that of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, but the last rites involving a dying man and a priest-confessor.

I read this book because The Meaning of Shakespeare referred to it several times. The author of that book enjoyed the numerous allusions to Shakespeare in The Possessed. The characters in The Possessed are more sophisticated than those in Crime and Punishment. A poor college student might identify with Raskolnikov. A college professor or a college benefactor would be more likely to identify with any number of characters in The Possessed.

The novel is set in Russia in the 1860s after the emancipation of the serfs. The middle and upper classes travel to other European countries, sometimes even to America, and read various socialist writings, especially those of Fourier. (N.B.—Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Brook Farm, a.k.a. “Blithedale,” became a Fourierist commune). The younger generation of such people are beginning to form socialist cells. Some cells want to reform Russia peacefully, others believe there has to be unrest and confrontation for a socialist takeover. Much of the plot involves such a cell (a “quintet” they call themselves) that hopes to get the workers and peasants in their town to start something that will resonate even in Moscow and Petersburg.

There are many great quotations in this novel which describe socialism and communism—indeed some could be called prophetic. Yes, the reader says, that is exactly what happened in Russia when it became the U.S.S.R.

[W]hy is it that all these desperate socialists and communists are at the same time such incredible skinflints, so avaricious, so keen over property, and, in fact, the more extreme they are, the keener they are over property—why is it? (1205-1207)

“[T]hey will divide history into two parts: from the gorilla to the annihilation of God, and from the annihilation of God to—”

“To the gorilla?” (1837-1839)

[W]e Russians were like little children beside the Americans, and that one must be born in America, or at least live there for many years with Americans to be on a level with them. (2223-2225)

Reason has never had the power to define good and evil, or even to distinguish between good and evil, even approximately; on the contrary, it has always mixed them up in a disgraceful and pitiful way; science has even given the solution by the fist. (4077, 4078)

Charity ought to be forbidden by law…In the new regime there will be no poor at all. (5547)

Socialism spreads principally through sensationalism.(6303)

[T]he essence of our creed [i.e., socialism] is the negation of honor, and that by an open advocacy of a right to be dishonorable a Russian can be won over more easily than by anything. (6334, 6335) [This reviewer would not limit this observation to Russians only but would apply it to all humans.]

Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism. (6586)

Every member of the society spies on the others, and it’s his duty to inform against them. Everyone belongs to all and everyone. All are slaves and equal in their slavery. In extreme cases he advocates slander and murder, but the great thing about it is equality. To begin with, the level of education and science is only possible for great intellects, and they are not wanted. (6830-6833)

Slaves must have directors. Absolute submission, absolute loss of individuality. (6844, 6845)

Moreover, this riff-raff almost always falls unconsciously under the control of a little group of “advanced people” who do act with a definite aim, and this little group can direct all this rabble as it pleases. (7511, 7513)

One can look at a lot of these and say—that does not merely describe Russia under communists, but trends we can clearly see in many parts of the world.

While some of these quotations stood out from a historical perspective, do not get the idea that The Possessed is a mere political tract or satire. It is an honest work of art. It includes family relationships, unrequited love, aristocrats, workers, and peasants. It begins almost like a Jane Austen or Henry James novel of social status, but it ends up raising questions not just about society and government, but man’s place in the universe, the creation, and God. As always, Dostoyevsky is taking in the big picture.

[A]ll nature cries every minute to its Creator, “Why?” (2839)

One of the main characters, Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch, is compared in an early chapter to Prince Hal in Shakespeare. Perhaps Goddard in The Meaning of Shakespeare sees the prince as a cynical Machiavellian because of The Possessed. But Nikolay does not reform. Think more of Fyodor Karamazov (the father) or even Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is a destitute Nietzchean—but what about someone “beyond good and evil” who has wealth and connections?

As Crime and Punishment has its epiphany around the reading of the New Testament when Sonia reads about the raising of Lazarus, so there is a similar epiphany in The Possessed. If anything, this is even more profoundly moving because it has the potential of hitting every heart. The Scriptures read are quite different—the seventh church in the Book of Revelation and the Gadarene demoniac. The title of the novel comes from the second story. The devils (perhaps a more literal translation of the novel’s title) go into swine and destroy the whole herd.

But the sick man will be healed and “will sit at the feet of Jesus,” and all will look on him with astonishment. (10727)

If you read The Possessed, hang in there to the end. It is worth it. You, too, will be astonished.

A note on the translation. I read the translation on because it is public domain and available for Kindle. The parenthetical references above are Kindle location references, not page numbers! Constance Garnett’s translation is very good, though some critics feel she should have called the book The Devils as that is a more accurate transation of the Russian word. But “the devils” of the book are people, so that is probably why she chose the title that she did. At any rate, the translation is very readable and quite artistic itself. As with War and Peace, the Russian aristocrats often speak French, and Garnett does not translate the French. If that is a problem for you, you might want to find a version that translates the French, or at least has footnotes with the interpretation.

Two last philosophical thoughts from the novel:

“The Jews lived only to await the coming of the true God and left the world to the true God. The Greeks deified nature and bequeathed the world their religion, that is, philosophy and art. Rome deified the people and the State, and bequeathed the idea of the State to the nations.” (4090-4092)

“There are no such things as ghosts nowadays, nothing but natural science. Look it up in a scientific book.”(7819)

Today, we might say, “Look it up on the Internet,” but things really have not changed that much…

Loving the Way Jesus Loves – Review

Phil Ryken. Loving the Way Jesus Loves. Wheaton IL: Crossway, 2012. Print.

Do not read this book if you are content with your life. This will wreck your comfort zone.

There have been a handful of books that have brought me literally to my knees. One, Daring to Draw Near by John White, I pretty much read on my knees. Another that somewhat shocked me was Overcoming Racism by Rick Joyner. I am a Yankee; all my ancestors fought for the North. I lived in the ghetto for a while. I am post-Civil Rights Movement. Yet that book caused me to pray in a way I never had.

Similarly, Loving the Way Jesus Loves opens up Jesus to us the way few books outside of the Bible have. Reading one chapter in this book also brought me to my knees.

As the former manager of a Christian bookstore, I have seen and read numerous books on love. There is a certain sameness in many of them. They are either analytical word studies, or else they tell us what we ought to do. The first are dry; the second are preachy. While we understand that God wants us to love good deeds and avoid evil ones, most of us who have been Christians know what we ought to be doing, even if we do not (see Romans 7).

Loving the Way Jesus Loves is really different. It does not tell us what to do. It shows us. And it mostly shows us through the life of Jesus. The plan is very simple. Analyze I Corinthians 13, the “love chapter,” by showing how Jesus lived it out. That what was literally awesome about this book. Jesus. His love.

There are two things implicit in this approach. One, we can learn to love and appreciate Jesus more. Two, we can live by His example. I think it was chapter five in this book that brought me to my knees. “Love is patient,” says the verse. For years I have noted that patience is the difference between love and lust. But this was different. Ryken used the story of the raising of Lazarus to illustrate this. Jesus waited a couple of extra days after he heard Lazarus was sick. By the time he arrived at his house, Lazarus had been dead four days. Jesus took His own sweet time as they say, but what he accomplished was much more than a mere physical healing. If we get a vision that Jesus really does hold the keys to death and hell (Revelation 1:18), we really can relax. We know it is all in His hands.

So each chapter tells a similar episode in the life of Jesus. Interestingly, the chapters follow the verses of I Corinthians 13 in order, and the episodes follow the life of Jesus in order: His ministry, His arrest and trial, His suffering, His resurrection appearances, and His promise to return.

The author encourages us to try to put our names in the chapter in place of “love”: “I am patient. I am kind.” And so on. That is enough to trouble most of us if we are honest. But, you know, we can say, “Jesus is patient. Jesus is kind.” And so on all the way to the end of the chapter. That ultimately is our hope. Not I, but Jesus. As that old chorus says, “Jesus in me loves you.” Without Jesus, I am nothing: I am that clanging gong and clashing cymbal.

Ryken does include some interesting testimonies. One seemed unbelievable to me, but I found that it had been well documented. There was a famous photograph from the Vietnam War of a village being napalmed by American planes. A small group is fleeing the bombs including a little girl who is completely naked because the napalm had burned off all her clothes. She has her own story of how she learned to forgive.

Read this if you dare. If your heart still beats, it will affect you. My prayer is that in my own life the effect will become a permanent change. Amen.

Cold Fury – Review

T. M. Goeglein. Cold Fury. New York: Putnam, 2012. Print.

This Young Adult (YA) novel has a picture of a girl on the cover. But Cold Fury is not chick lit. The main character happens to be a girl, but from my informal survey of those who have read it, the guys like it more.

Sara Jane Rispoli at the age of sixteen discovers that her family has been at the top of the Chicago mob for three generations. She learns this when her house is broken into while she is out and her family—father, mother, and younger brother—disappears.

This disappearance apparently has something to do with a power play within the Outfit (as they call the mob in Chicago), and because she is now the heiress apparent to the Rispoli position, she finds herself in danger. She has to stay on the run, and she also has to fight back. Unlike most girls, she has learned to box. One of the other main characters is her trusted mentor Willy Williams, owner of a Chicago boxing club. Mystery. Action. And, I should mention, some cool cars.

As a teenager, Sara Jane does use her newfound mob connections to take care of a high school bully. She also learns about throwaway cell phones and safe houses. But most of all, she and the reader learn about the ins and outs of the Outfit. Her father and grandfather achieved their reputation and status by resolving conflicts between different factions and families within the Outfit. Now they turn to Sara Jane for some of the same counsel.

One minor narrative thread reminds of one used by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. Sara Jane is reminiscing about her nanny who died when she was nine. The nanny used to talk about her brother “poor Kevin” who disappeared. In A Tale of Two Cities, the Manette’s housekeeper Miss Pross speaks very highly of her long lost brother Solomon. Near the end of the story we discover who Solomon Pross is and that he has actually played a part in the story on several occasions, though no one realizes it at the time. So we discover “poor Kevin” has not disappeared after all.

One passage was self-consciously making fun of popular YA series. I had to laugh, but at the very end the same thing gave me a little concern:

I roll my eye at books, TV, and movies that depict people my age stuck in some moody teenage dilemma. If they’re rich kids, they’re moody rich kids, if they’re vampire kids, they’re moody vampire kids, if they’re postapocalyptic kids…you get the picture.

Yeah, we get the picture: We know about the Gossip Girls, the Twilight series, and the Hunger Games stories. Sara Jane’s story, she seems to promise, was going to be about more or less ordinary people. Nothing elitist, nothing supernatural, nothing sci-fi. Yet the sample chapter of Cold Fury 2 at the end of this book sounds like a Godfather-zombie mashup. Say it ain’t so Mr. Goeglein…

Anyway, the first two pages of Cold Fury draw the reader in, and the story keeps on rolling. But like the Harry Potter or Gallagher Girls series, to get a real resolution, you have more books to read.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew – Review

Daniel Pool. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox-hunting to Whist—The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993. Print.

This is a book for anyone who likes 19th century literature or the BBC/PBS shows based on them. It might be considered a book of trivia, except that it explains things that would not need explaining to the English people who first read the works when they came out.

The author writes in an engaging manner which keeps the subject matter from becoming dry. In doing so, What Jane Austen Ate covers most of society and culture in the 19th century. It includes things like coinage and the church calendar, aristocratic titles and social status. finances and government, country houses and city houses, transportation, sports, fashion, and institutions of all kinds. It has a little on the militia but otherwise not much on the military, and while it briefly explains most card games, you would have to go to Hoyle’s to get the actual rules.

The book reminds us that the England of 1800 was quite different from that of 1900, but we can see how it changed—the laws, the technology, even the culture. We learn, for example, that between 1750 and 1850 there were 380 known cases of men auctioning their wives like Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge. When we are told that Wickham and Lydia Bennet went north when they eloped, we understand a couple of things better after reading this book. Until 1823 no one could marry without parental consent in England before they were twenty-one. So they eloped. The laws in Scotland concerning marriage were more lenient because the state church was different, so English elopers would cross the border into Scotland. The town of Gretna Green right on the border was the Las Vegas of its day. Finally in 1856 Scotland required a three week residency, which slowed things down but still made it simpler than the south of the island.

Pool does a decent job of explaining inheritance laws and primogeniture. Heathcliff’s machinations to gain control of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange begin to make sense. Indeed Pool even explains what a grange is and how that differs from a hall, manor, or park.

The author cites many Victorian works and is clearly familiar with many of the authors besides Austen and Dickens: He cites the Brontes (all three sisters), Hardy, Henry James, Charles Kingsley, George Eliot (though I could not find George Meredith), Thackeray, Wilde, and especially Trollope. He also cites a few poets like Tennyson, Browning, Yeats, and most of the “major” romantics.

As you read, many different things will “click.” One that did for me helped me see things better in a French play from the 1890s. Pool explains the hierarchy among the various people who sell goods and services on the streets. Orange sellers, who were usually women, were considered socially lower than most “costermongers” because they kept no inventory but simply resold fruits they purchased in bulk. That heightens Cyrano de Bergerac’s chivalrous treatment of the orange seller at the theater in Act 1 of the play. And what skills governesses like Jane Eyre were expected to possess. And why Magwitch was shivering when Pip first met him. And it is significant that Miss Havisham uses wax candles rather than oil lamps or tallow candles. Or why the daughter of a brewer like Miss Havisham would have a reasonably high social status. And from Castle Rackrent to Portrait of a Lady, why titled aristocrats would often look for rich heiresses to marry.

About a third of the book is a glossary to explain all kinds of terms including coins, legal terms, labels of tradespeople, articles of clothing, wheeled transportation, and many other things. There are enough pictures to amplify some of the descriptions as well. For example, the text describes an epergne, but I still had a pretty vague idea until I turned to the glossary which not only defined the term more directly but also had a picture of one. Anyone who teaches English Romantic or Victorian literature, especially the novels, should have access to this book.

The clothes people wore, the social and artistic events they attended, the transportation they use, the names and titles they possess, the types and number of servants they have, how much money they are worth—all these things were important to the English. At times such a society sounds stifling, but then I think of what America is like today. It is not all that different, and members of America’s ruling class still do their best to stifle whatever does not appeal to their prejudices.

The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. I – Review

Harold C. Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Vol. I. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1951. Kindle e-book.

Goddard, head of the English Department at Swarthmore who died before he gave a title to this work, has some fun with Shakespeare critics. Anyone who has read Shakespeare criticism knows what he means:

The lawyer believes he must have been a lawyer, the musician a musician, the Catholic a Catholic, the Protestant a Protestant

Goddard tells us that Shakespeare above all was a humanist. That tells us more about Goddard than about Shakespeare, really. I had to laugh when I read that. Hopefully, Goddard saw the irony in his own assertion about the Bard.

Goddard notes, rightly, that Shakespeare plays acted out “discloses things hidden to the reader. Read, they reveal what no actor or theater can convey.” True enough. Shakespeare was both a playwright and a poet at the same time. Goddard’s approach proves this. Goddard—English professor that he is—is a reader.

Goddard deals with the plays chronologically. Volume I covers 21 plays from The Comedy of Errors to Hamlet. Goddard’s strength is his ability to see patterns among the plays. He is intimately familiar with Shakespeare’s plays, even ones like King John and Henry VIII which few people read and even fewer acting companies perform. His ability to see patterns are especially notable in his character analyses.

For example, Romeo, Jaques, Brutus, and Hamlet all are or become melancholy. Goddard argues that in Shakespeare melancholia is not an inborn temperament as the classics might suggest, but it is a result of being driven to act against one’s own nature. Romeo is a lover who has to maintain the family honor. Jaques is a traveler who has denied his birthright. Brutus is a philosopher who is persuaded to join a plot to murder. Hamlet is an artist who has to play realpolitik.

Another recurring theme is that of the tension between father and son—and the son usually gives in to the pressure of the father’s expectations to his own detriment. Romeo prolongs the family feud when announcing his marriage could end it. Henry V pleads with God before Agincourt to accept his penance for his father’s sins. Cassius persuades Brutus with his famous appeal to Brutus’ ancestry: “There was a Brutus once who would have brooked the eternal devil…” Hamlet ends up obeying his father’s ghost. Still, Goddard is no Freudian. While not completely dismissing Freudian analysis of Shakespeare, he points out that such interpretations are far too narrow, and, in some cases, even silly.

If Goddard reminds this reader of any Shakespeare critic, it is Coleridge. Though Emerson mocked Coleridge’s talk of “omject and sumject,” and Goddard frequently quotes Emerson, it is really Coleridge whom Goddard echoes. To understand the characters we must understand both the subjective motivations of the characters (such as Hamlet’s love of drama and music) and the objective forces surrounding them (like the “rottenness” in the court of Denmark).

Perhaps Goddard’s most pointed—and likely most controversial—analysis is that of Henry V in the three plays in which he is featured. Goddard says, as a “reader,” that Shakespeare presents Henry V as a calculating, cold-blooded tyrant. Yet every production of Henry V I have seen1 and, I suspect, every production that has been mounted show him as a heroic and inspiring leader. One could make a case that Chimes at Midnight is different, but that is from Falstaff’s point of view. Still, in virtually all productions he has the common touch because of his times with the Gadshill gang, but he is a noble leader at heart. To Goddard, Hal-Henry is disloyal, lets others do his dirty work, and is greedy for power. Several times Goddard mentions two world wars in the last three decades (note the publication date). Goddard sees King Henry V as another Bismarck or Hitler trying to prove a point by conquering France.

Like many critics, Goddard saves his most interesting stuff for Hamlet. Like many modern critics (in the literary sense), he dismisses the ghost as a kind of psychological aberration—very differently from the way he treats the ghost in Julius Caesar, though he does draw parallels in the plot elements. The focus of his Hamlet observations is on “The Mousetrap.” The play within a play is common motif in Shakespeare as he points out: A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a literal one, but also the masquerade in Romeo and Juliet, both “setups” in Much Ado about Nothing, Hal and Falstaff’s playing the king in Henry IV Part I, and others noted by Goddard. As an artist, Hamlet enjoys the play. But he does not follow his own advice that he gave to the actors and starts to overdo his commentary in order to get an audience response. In “out-Heroding Herod,” Hamlet shows us how, if not why, he goes in a tragic direction.

There is a lot more to this book. Goddard does a great job with a number plays. In emphasizing the people and what motivates them, and looking at them from the scope of Shakespeare’s body of work, the reader cannot help but love or at least sympathize with so many of his characters. That is certainly one thing that makes Shakespeare great. Few writers get into the heart of human nature the way Shakespeare does (Goddard concedes only Dostoyevsky and maybe Tolstoy on a good day). The Meaning of Shakespeare helps us to see that.

Thanks to the colleague who gave this to me. Perhaps some day I will get to Volume II.

1 I recall two theatrical productions I have seen plus the two well-known film versions, one with Olivier, the other with Branagh.

Locked On – Review

Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney. Locked On. New York: Putnam, 2011. Print.

I have been a fan of Tom Clancy from the days of Hunt for Red October. This last book did not disappoint. Sometimes called the originator of the techno-thriller, Clancy gets it. Twenty years ago when the Internet was made up of bulletin boards and online services like Prodigy and CompuServe, there were already online fan clubs of Clancy. Back then they called themselves technodudes (and “dudesses”). I was one back then.

Thanks to my time in what Flannery O’Connor called “the arm service of his country,” I became familiar with two arms of the “arm service”: submarines and the Coast Guard. Clancy’s first book, Hunt for Red October, portrayed submarines and their technology honestly and realistically. My favorite Clancy novel, Clear and Present Danger, Clancy gets the Coast Guard, too.

Locked On gets it, too. Here, though, it is not a particular branch of the service—it has been a long time since Clark and Chavez were in the SEALs or Special Forces. This book portrays another part of American culture which I have had some firsthand experience with and most of us know from the so-called mainstream media—the cultural elites. Clancy has lived most of his life just outside the beltway. He gets that, too.

Clancy’s original protagonist, Jack Ryan, is running for president to try to regain the office from President Ed Kealty who defeated him four years before. Though Ryan himself hardly appears in the story, some Kealty operatives are trying to make Ryan look bad by outing American spies Clark, Chavez, and Jack Ryan, Jr. The eminence grise behind this is Paul Laska, educated in a former Warsaw Pact nation, immigrated to the United States, earned a fortune on Wall Street, and now financing all kinds of causes that support a socialistic “empirical” big government. Any resemblance between Mr. Laska and George Soros is probably entirely intentional.

There is also a terrorist plot or two brewing involving some of the action heroes and spies in Pakistan, others in Russia, and eventually in Dagestan, a traditionally Muslim region of Russia trying to gain independence in the name of the Caliphate. There are some stops in Egypt, Qatar, and France. Vintage Clancy.

Although not as devastating as the successful terrorist actions in The Sum of All Fears and Debt of Honor, Clancy does inject a dose of realism. The good guys do not completely thwart the bad guys. Still, there is a satisfying ending that exudes irony and/or poetic justice. While nothing can beat the ending of Rainbow Six for that, Locked On has some fun at the end. Like some of Clancy’s other stories, you know there will be more coming on Clark, Chavez, the Ryans, and their cohorts. There are still too many loose ends.

Two of the major plot threads are interesting variations of plot devices Clancy has used before. Yet they are different enough that they cannot be called retreads or formulas. A male-female relationship develops with one person falling in love with a spy. This is reminiscent of the couple in The Bear and the Dragon. But it is not a traditional “honey trap,” and the spy and the victim are both agents for the same country. There is an interagency mistrust, and we are not completely clear at the end of the book exactly who the spy is working for and what the spy’s motivations are. Is Mary Pat Foley trying to bring Ryan down? Say it ain’t so, Tom! We will not know until Threat Vector (maybe).

One of the major players in Locked On is a variation of Captain Marko Ramius, the commanding officer of the submarine Red October. The Captain, you may recall, was considered a Great Russian on his Soviet internal passport. His father had been a high-ranking military hero, so he was granted the privilege of being called Russian even though he was Lithuanian. Captain Ramius, though, identified with Lithuania more than the U.S.S.R.. When he sailed Red October to North America, he did for the sake of his overrun homeland to thwart Soviet imperial designs.

In Locked On Georgi Safronov is considered a native Russian in post-Soviet Russia. He is a wealthy industrialist who has made his fortune designing missiles and rockets both for the Russians and for businesses all over the world who need satellites launched. However, Safronov knows that he was adopted by a Russian couple from an orphanage in Dagestan and that his birth parents would have been Muslim. He begins to identify with Dagestan and secretly trains with a hardened corps of Dagestani freedom fighters with connections to the Pakistan security service and Al Qaeda.

Like Captain Ramius, Safronov identifies with a minority that has been subjugated by the Russians. However, instead of trying to disable a war machine like Ramius, Safronov tries to start a war—indeed, two wars. If there are formulas, there are enough variations that the stories are anything but retreads.

Childhood’s End – Review

Arthur C. Clarke. Childhood’s End. New York: Harcourt, 1962. Print.

After reading From Narnia to a Space Odyssey, it behooved me to read Childhood’s End. Lewis mentions it in his essay “On Science Fiction,” and it is the book that established Clarke’s reputation.

The problem with reviewing this book is that there are numerous plot twists, and I do not want to write a spoiler.

Perhaps the best way to describe the first two-thirds of Childhood’s End is as a cross between “Voyage to Laputa” in Gulliver’s Travels and Brave New World.

A large spaceship, or perhaps fleet of spaceships (the tale is ambiguous on this), arrives on earth. The ship does not land but rather hovers over the earth the way the island of Laputa hovers over Balnibarbi in Gulliver’s Travels. These extraterrestrials impose a kind of Pax Romana over the whole earth. If men start a war, disrupt the environment, or commit a crime, the space ships immediately cause some kind of harm to the perpetrators or their region just as Laputa blocks the sun and rain from a rebellious town in Balnibarbi. These extraterrestrials, called Overlords by the earthlings, sometimes hinder the sun’s rays over an area causing a quick repentance.

The Overlords stay for a hundred years and their oversight creates a kind of utopia. Earth has peace. Crime is nearly nonexistent. It appears that humankind has achieved its humanistic potential.

Of course, this order is imposed in a peaceable, but nevertheless secretive and authoritarian manner. For example, no Overlord is seen by earth men for the first fifty years of the occupation. The family is weakened as in Brave New World by legal acceptance of extramarital sex and having marriage as a mere contract for a limited number of years. After the contract date is up, the contract can be renewed or, more frequently, the spouses are free to pair up with others. A ten-year contract is considered unusually long, though romantic in the thought behind it.

According to Huxley expert David Bradshaw of Oxford, Aldous Huxley was fascinated with planned societies, as were many intellectuals during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Huxley thought both Communism and Nazism had potential for creating a just society. So his Brave New World describes an amoral communal society (like Communism) based on genetics (like Nazism) and run by scientific planners (like both). After the Hitler-Stalin Pact and World War II, Huxley changed his perspective so that his 1946 introduction to Brave New World presents the novel as a dystopia—somewhat different from his original purpose when the book came out in 1932.

Like Huxley’s novel, Clarke’s Overlord utopia is presented as “scientific.” Mankind, thanks to the long-lived aliens, is able to live at peace. Thought Clarke presents this positively, like Huxley he notes some shortcomings:

The world’s now placid, featureless, and culturally dead: nothing really new has been created since the Overlords came. The reason’s obvious. There’s nothing left to struggle for, and there are too many distractions and entertainments…do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels?…No wonder people are becoming passive sponges—absorbing but never creating.

Cable TV anyone?

There is a group of “alternative” people that the Overlords, who appear to be benevolent elitists, permit—the island community of New Athens. Just as ancient Athens was the only state not conquered by the Dorians and so preserved the stories and myths of the Mycenaean culture and kept the arts and learning alive in the region—the island of New Athens is meant to be a place for people to be creative in both the arts and sciences. Indeed, it sounds like Clarke here was influenced by Kitto’s The Greeks, especially his chapter “The Polis.”

There is a lot more to the story, but I am reluctant to share it without giving too much away. There are some characters we do become interested in; even some of the Overlords are portrayed sympathetically. One character does resemble Gulliver. But this book is ultimately no Brave New World. The utopia, or the dystopia, whichever you believe it is, does not last.

There is a reason Clarke called the story Childhood’s End. It ultimately is neither utopian nor dystopian. It is apocalyptic. Just as Clarke’s “Jupiter Five” may have inspired Richard Dawkins with his evolutionary theories, Childhood’s End may have inspired Stephen Jay Gould’s with his. At least Clarke was honest in calling his work fiction.

From Narnia to A Space Odyssey – Review

From Narnia to A Space Odyssey: The War of Ideas between Arthur C. Clarke and C. S. Lewis. Ed. Ryder W. Miller. New York: iBooks, 2003. Print.

The title got my attention. I have been a fan, perhaps even a follower, of C. S. Lewis since I read “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” in high school. And I am old enough to have seen the original 2001: A Space Odyssey film in a Cinerama theater. Cinerama was a large screen, almost like IMax, with depth, not gimmicky 3-D.

The subtitle of the book is a bit misleading, but attention-getting since it implies conflict. Yes, Lewis and Clarke (that sounds funny to an American…) did not agree on some religious and political issues, but their correspondence was mostly about science fiction and space travel. One curious detail this book points out is that Clarke was a long-time friend of Joy Gresham, who would become Mrs. Lewis. Clarke writes here that he could never bring himself to see the play Shadowlands or read Lewis’s A Grief Observed because they were about her death.

Actually, even the title, not just the subtitle, is slightly misleading because both writers considered the Narnia stories fantasy, not science fiction, so neither one wrote about them in their letters or in the works printed in this book. Since Lewis died before Clarke wrote any of his Space Odyssey works and Clarke left England before Lewis had completed the Narnia series, the title really signals the works the respective writers are best known for, not what they actually wrote about in this collection.

Lewis and Clarke wrote each other a few times over eleven years beginning in 1943 after Lewis had published his Space Trilogy until Clarke left England for good in 1954, four years before Lewis married. Most of the letters concern space travel and ethical issues of space exploration. Clarke is slightly more sanguine than Lewis about human nature. One of Lewis’s themes is that colonizing space would mean bringing sin into places that may have not known sin before. Yet Clarke’s essay “The Moon and Mr. Farnsworth” written around 1946 expresses an equally skeptical view of man colonizing space. The editor Mr. Ryder calls Lewis anti-imperialist, and Clarke’s essay could be called the same. Perhaps because Clarke was a scientist, he was more interested in discovery more than Lewis.

The books begins with a collection (likely the collection) of letters that Clarke and Lewis wrote to each other. They are fun to read to get an idea of what they were thinking at the time, but there is hardly the conflict implied either in the book’s subtitle or in the editor’s introduction. Most of the differences were professional–Clarke worked as a scientist, Lewis as a professor of literature. It actually appears that Lewis was curious to understand some of the science Clarke employed in his stories.

Although both men were acquainted with Ms. Gresham, they lived in different parts of England. Clarke moved to Australia in 1954 and eventually settled in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The two men only met once at a pub in Oxford, each with some friends in tow. Clarke did not recall the name of Lewis’s friend at the time, but he realized later that it was J.R.R. Tolkien.

The letters are interesting to read, but the bulk of the book consists of science fiction stories by each of the men, two by Lewis and five by Clarke. “Ministering Angels” expresses Lewis’s skepticism on interplanetary imperialism as well as slamming “liberated” academics. The irony is that many of today’s readers would say to themselves, “So what is wrong with that?” in a manner analogous to today’s President of the United States referring to gay marriage as a “right.” The scientific mumbo-jumbo used to encourage questionable behavior and policy is funny if not sad–it is reminiscent of the “scientific” arguments used by the N.I.C.E. in That Hideous Strength, the third book of the Space Trilogy.

The second Lewis story, “Forms of Things Unknown,” was deliberately chosen to compare with Clarke’s first story here, “A Meeting with Medusa.” Both stories echo the Medusa myth, but reading these tales reminds us that Lewis a literary scholar and Clarke a scientist with a specialty in marine biology. Both stories are quite clever.

Clarke’s “Jupiter Five” is fiction that has been adapted as a possibility for origins of life in the Solar System, most famously (or notoriously) by Richard Dawkins. Two of the other three stories are clever stories that deal with religious issues that Lewis might bring up as well (one Christian, one Buddhist). The last Clarke story is another clever tale that takes place on earth. Today it would probably be considered a short “techno-thriller” à la Tom Clancy rather than science fiction.

The meatiest part of the book is the three essays, one by Lewis and two by Clarke. Lewis’s essay “On Science Fiction” is an overview of the genre at the time, in the early to mid 1950s, starting with Jules Verne and mentioning Clarke (whose writing he admired) several times. Like so much of Lewis’s professional writing, this is well done literary criticism. Perhaps his most pointed remark is that critics should never write about something they hate. Lewis said he hates detective stories, so he never reviews them. “Hatred obscures all distinctions,” so one cannot critique the subject clearly.

Lewis also makes a point about a lot of good science fiction and fantasy writing–including his own:

Every good writer knows that the more unusual the scenes and events of his stories are, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl. (74)

Good advice certainly.

Clarke’s two essays are both about the possibilities of space travel. The first, “The Moon and Mr. Farnsworth,” as mentioned already, expresses Clarke’s own version of skepticism about space imperialism. The second essay would be considered current and publishable in Wired magazine this month: “When Will the Real Space Age Begin?” This is written from the perspective of a scientist who has been able to imagine “star drive” and other “future” technologies.

Perhaps the best analogy he uses is comparing space exploration with the exploration of Antarctica. Men reached the South Pole in 1912 “by the most primitive means imaginable,” ponies and sled dogs.(172) Not until forty years later did people actually establish permanent bases there. By then they had the technology to make such bases practical. Even today, it is inhabited but not colonized–no one lives there permanently, and only Argentina’s Esperanza base has anything approaching family living.

Similarly, the moon landing in 1969 using expendable multi-stage rockets got us there, but such technology was hardly enough for establishing bases or regular voyages there. With greater miniaturizing, more scientific discoveries, greater understanding of human metabolism, and more efficient energy sources, regular space travel might be possible in the future, just as Antarctic exploration and studies had to wait until the development of better icebreakers, more practical snowmobiles, prefabricated Quonset huts, and so on.

Both men were brilliant thinkers, and this slim volume gives a sense of some of the things they thought about, and, really, how they did have a lot of respect for each other.

P.S. Lewis’s quotation from Beowulf (“Nis þæt feor heonan/Mil-gemearces”) is from lines 1362 and 1363 of the epic and says “It’s not that far hence in mile-markers,” describing the distance between Heorot Hall and Grendel’s mere.

The Most Memorable Games in Patriots History – Review

Jim Baker and Bernard M. Corbett. The Most Memorable Games in Patriots History: An Oral History of a Legendary Team. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012. Print.

A great book that covers the highlights of the history of the New England (né Boston) Patriots. While it focuses on 13 games, the book has plenty of information about what was going on between the acts.

As the subtitle tells us, a good part of this book is oral history. A cast of about fifty players, managers, sports journalists, and others reminisce about the background of the Patriots and about those games. Some of the most interesting stories and perspectives come from the non-players. Patrick Sullivan, long-time Patriots general manager and son of one of the original owners, tells a lot about the origin of the team and of the American Football League in 1960.

The book goes back in time to tell of other professional football franchises in Boston. For example, I had known that the Washington Redskins had started in Boston and had moved to Washington not too long after their founding. I did not know that in 1932 they were originally called the Boston Braves, after the baseball team whose stadium they shared. When the baseball Braves did not renew the stadium contract, they changed their name to the Redskins.

People who follow the Patriots will recognize many of the contributors, story tellers, and teammates they talk about: Gino Capelletti, Babe Parilli, Houston Antwine, Mosi Tatupu, Steve Grogan, Jim Plunkett, and on through modern players–including a few story tellers from other teams. One thing I did not realize–that in 1977 the Patriots lost to the Raiders in a nail-biting playoff game thanks to a misapplied penalty call (the book says the replays were clear that the call was wrong). It puts the 2002 “Tuck Rule” Snow Bowl game versus Oakland in perspective. The mills of the gods grind slowly…

One of the 13 game the book focuses on was the 2002 game which I remember vividly. I was visiting Boston that weekend, and my wife and I realized we would have to spend the night because of the weather. (I had some friends in the suburbs, but it was not great driving weather even for a few miles). I got to see the game on TV in the motel where we were staying just outside of Boston. I seldom get to see NFL games because we do not have the luxury of cable, so I was looking forward to seeing that game–and what a game it was!

One of the men sharing his story is Mark Henderson. No, you won’t find his name on any football trading card. He was the guy who drove the tractor in the 1982 “Snowplow Game.” He cleared the spot for kicker John Smith so he could kick what proved to be the game’s only score in the 3-0 win against Miami. The book is clear to point out that it was a tractor with a brush, not an actual snowplow.

John Smith’s own story is quite interesting, too. He was a British soccer player. As he puts it, “The first game of football I ever saw, I was in. I did not even know what a down was.”

More recent players who contribute their stories include Kevin Faulk, Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinest, Troy Brown, Adam Vinatieri, and Vince Wilfork. Some of the older contributors like Mosi Tatupu have died, so clearly the reminiscences are not all from recent interviews.

The Most Memorable Games in Patriots History also has short chapters that act as statistical and historical sidebars that illuminate the specific games or periods in Patriots’ history: most yards in a game, history of tiebreaker games before 1974, last ties by a franchise, single score games, largest comebacks, most years between playoff victories, etc. etc. Some are Patriots records, but most focus on NFL and AFL records. A few bring in other professional football leagues.

This book is fun for a fan. Yes, some of the stories and a lot of the accounts of other games are about losses like that 1977 playoff game, but that is a factor in any sport. Since the NFL has a lot of parity, it does make certain teams stand out, especially in the Super Bowl era. It is a tribute to a few teams that they can be competitive for a number of years: the Cowboys and Steelers in the 70s, the 49ers in the 80s and early 90s, and perhaps the Patriots since 2001.

N.B.: I am writing this the day after the Patriots’ loss to the Ravens in the 2013 AFC Championship Game. While I do not consider myself superstitious, I have always felt that the sportscaster (and I do not recall who it was) who called the Patriots a dynasty at the end of the 2005 Super Bowl jinxed them. Although they continue to get into the playoffs nearly every year, that was the last time they won it all.