Tales from the Empire, ed. Peter Schweighofer

November 27, 2010 at 17:58 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , )

9/10

This rather obscure book follows in the footsteps of the occasionally successful “Tales of…” series, exploring locales interesting enough to write about, but tepid enough that writing an entire novel might not be especially interesting – Mos Eisley Cantina, Jabba’s Palace, etc. As with all anthologies, it must have its hits and its misses, although surprisingly, Tales from the Empire scores considerably higher than might be expected of short stories trawled from the pages of dingy fan magazines.

To say the success of this book is due to the imagination and skill of Timothy Zahn and Michael Stackpole, and their longer-than-a-short-story about their own most-famous characters would be a safe suggestion to make, and there is little bad that could be said about either the centrepiece “Side Trip”, or indeed about the two writers’ individual offerings to the anthology. Their contributions are fast-paced excursions into the adventurous younger days of established, original and popular characters, getting into action-packed adventures and opening enough small windows on their heroes and anti-heroes to satisfy the appetites of any readers.

Truthfully, this book does contain the very worst of the genre, and the sort of self-indulgent fan-fiction that belongs on badly-spelled web pages, and never in print. Slaying Dragons, an immature effort depicting some sort of deranged fantasy intrusion, with willowy siblings thrusting lightsabres hither and yon, is one of the misplaced stories that has little or nothing to do with the Empire, and everything to do with cloying and cringeworthy adolescent writing. A Certain Point of View is the token philosophical tale of star-crossed lovers, cruelly separated by intransigence and – oh, the Empire, or something.

However, Tales from the Empire rises significantly above a cheap collection of poor stories, sold under the names of Zahn and Stackpole. Besides the best of the best and a handful of shockingly awful pieces, it includes several quite excellent short stories, most of which have in common some intriguing and satisfyingly complex original characters, stories that actually deliver on the book’s premise and lift the veil on the murky Empire, and some terrific storytelling. We have standard farm-boy-against-murderous-Empire scenarios; brave authors who venture entirely outside of the standard Empire-vs.-Rebellion galaxy, and explore the fringes of the Star Wars universe; even at least one story where the Imperial foes are humanised, and the very nature of the galactic conflict is brought into question. Almost without exception, these stories are constructive and compelling, and for the most part do not suffer from the usual self-importance and arrogant preaching found in much of the Star Wars literature today.

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MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, by Stephen Dorril

November 26, 2010 at 14:55 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )

7/10

A history of bungling. Dorril writes like a fellow who expects every sentence to be challenged, meticulously footnoting and stuffing names, dates, names, sources, acronyms and names into each paragraph. Also acronyms and sources. Naturally, this makes his work (for the most part) about as thrilling as James Bond’s sock drawer, though admittedly Dorril is not going for the thrill factor.

His stories range from the unbelievable to the mundane, and his biggest factual lack is his assumption that his readers are intimately familiar with an awful lot of related history. Even Military Intelligence specific figures like Kim Philby and Guy Burgess are discussed only as they relate to certain historical MI misadventures, with the grist of their individual stories almost completely omitted. This is not an entry-level book, nor indeed is it really appropriate for anyone not already intimately acquainted with Cold War history.

There is a noticeable (and expected) drop off in the detail and comprehensiveness which Dorril presents towards the latter half of the book. Whereas it is clear that in his studies of earlier operations Dorril is providing the entire corpus of information he has access to, if the IRA and Desert Fox had been given a quarter the attention of 1950s Albania, this book would have been twice as long again.

There are several passages which simply fly by, and some extremely well-written accounts of some of the more daring exploits (read: stupid exploits) played out by our security services, mostly concerning the Middle East, when MI6 had a few very limited and short term successes.

Dorril’s lambasting of the security services for their short-sightedness and inability to focus where they ought comes as a bitter irony in light of his own dismissal of embassy-bomber Usama bin Laden (the book is published in 2000), and his patrician’s attitude when explaining that much of the terrrorism flap is simply created by intelligence services as scare-tactics. That said, he is equally scornful of conspiracy theories (openly mocking the MI6-killed-Diana claim), and manages despite his noticeable but materially small failings to walk a careful line between admitting the deceptions of the past, doubting the sincerity of the present and rubbishing the alarmist cries that Military Intelligence is some sort of Gestadtspolizei ogre plotting every war and behind every genocide.

And that is where Dorril’s real success lies. He collates an enormous amount of information, both secret and open-source, analyses a tremendous sixty or seventy years of history in great depth, and remains surprisingly aloof from his creation. While his scorn leaks through on several occasions, dealing with certain particularly idiotic situations, he neither writes MI6’s panegyric, nor does his book have an easily seen agenda against the security services. Therein is found his triumph, and the reason why this ridiculously hefty tome will last as a valid and brilliant history of MI6 in the twentieth century.

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Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

November 24, 2010 at 23:27 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , , )

6/10

As a great anti-war book, Slaughterhouse-Five really isn’t all that it might have been, and the martial themes disappear somewhat behind the insanity and the shuddering frame of reference. As a great piece of science fiction, Vonnegut’s style is a little too abrupt and curt (no pun int…eh, forget it) for the casual reader to really connect ably with his ideas about space and time and the human experience, and how these are important and interconnected. Too brief and flippant to really explore its themes securely.

As a metanarrative, Slaughterhouse-Five succeeds, and makes itself incredibly pompous in the process. As an experiment in what make a story an experience, and what makes an experience a lesson, Slaughterhouse-Five winds up as a good book, but one that leaves the reader with the slightly uneasy and rebellious feeling that he has been severely lectured throughout the whole thing.

Perhaps this should be simply viewed as an interesting story, with all its themes and weighty conundrums and reflective ideas tucked away somewhere else. Let us enjoy Slaughterhouse-Five as a book, and nothing else. And so it becomes just a story: a little depressing, a germ of wistful longing, and light and short reading; not bad, and not particularly brilliant, either.

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Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton

November 24, 2010 at 01:46 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Theology) (, , , )

8/10

Of all the apologetics and all the essays for or against Christianity, it is deliciously refreshing to read Chesterton’s work, and find there a man who is so marvellously content to thumb his nose at the world, and yet say so clearly that, for those who want to know, this is the truth.

His writing bears the superb equanimity of one who really does not care if his logic has holes in it – for it is true enough. His theology is incomplete and immature, but it is enough for him to catch a glimpse of the God who became a man, and with that glimpse he is more delighted than he could be with any amount of reasoning or sound doctrine.

Chesterton is a haphazard theological writer at best, but he rightly denounces the label of flippancy that has been flung at him, preferring to simply admit that he does not know everything – but that what he does know is enough. He does not need to have a full grounding in Darwinism to see its absurdities (for his intention is not to make a mockery of opposing philosophies, but to unveil their existing contradictions and follies), and he does not need to be a political scientist to dismiss the grandeur of empire. He does not need to be an avid student of Confucius or Hinduism in order to lay bare their hypocrisies, or worse – their naked and unabashed failures.

Orthodoxy is not an apologetic, and does not open up the scriptures nearly enough to be safely called a great study of theology. Instead, it is an autobiography of Chesterton, in which he relives his life and takes his reader along for the journey, pointing out this philosophical milestone, or that sudden epiphany, and insists its reader take stock of the Christianity of the Bible, for no other reason than it makes sense, and that all evidence in the world, and even in opposing doctrines, point unequivocally to Christ.

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At the Edge of the World, by Simon Schama

November 21, 2010 at 20:55 (Ancient, Book Reviews, Bronze Age, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical) (, , , )

8/10

This is certainly one of Simon Schama’s more populist efforts, and it is instantly clear to the reader that he is performing a careful (and not always successful) balancing act, between accessibility and something that he can put his name on while maintaining his professional reputation. It helps to have watched Schama deliver his incredibly melodramatic discourses on television; he writes exactly how he talks, and if he is informal or chatty then it is because the intended conclusion of this project is less a revolutionary approach towards the understanding of British History, and more a friendly afternoon chat about that same history. Informal, yes; but Schama has a firm hand on the reins, and does not wax too lyrical, or fall too much in love with his own prose.

With five millennia covered in 500 pages, this was never going to be a comprehensive history of anything, but it is a very digestible overview, and beautifully presented. Schama does have a marked reluctance to simply brush over interesting historical characters or events that he considers either irrelevant to the flow of history, or else exhaustively covered in standard school textbooks. This over-editorialising is occasionally tiresome, but certainly serves the purpose of directing the deluge of centuries into an orderly course. He does well in presenting a critical view of history rather than just telling a story, and his sudden delvings into individual and historically unimportant case studies are almost always included to illustrate a point he has already documented in macrocosm first. The book (and the series to which it belongs) is a little too unwieldy to be laid out as a coffee-table book, but is an excellent resource for any amateur historian looking for a useful reference, and fills a comfortable spot on even the scholar’s shelf.

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The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

November 16, 2010 at 02:13 (Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , , , )

10/10

This is an excellently crafted mythology. It seems like the readability of the various sections of the book is inversely proportional to the beauty, and the importance to Tolkien’s world. The Ainulindalë and Valaquenta are some of the lengthier sections and involve mostly singing, but they set in stone Tolkien’s worldview and cosmology, and form the basis for every stroke of his pen in the entire Middle Earth saga. Contrarily, the easier and simpler fairy tales of Beren and Luthien, or the tragedy of Turin Turambar are much more accessible and even beautiful works of literature as independent stories, but are only reflections of the solid rules, morality and cosmos that trip up so many happy-go-lucky readers of the Silmarillion. As tempting as it is to skip past the lagging descriptions of the Ilúvatarian pantheon (avec attributes) or still more tempting, to simply assume that they are a glibly-painted backdrop and ultimately irrelevant to what proceeds, is a gross error. The lofty genesis of this book is the closest any reader can get to the real Tolkien, and the beliefs, loves and desires that spurred him to write his legend in the first place.

Quite simply, without the Akallabeth, there is no reason why we should consider the character of Aragorn as a great hero, nor Sauron as a great deceiver. Without Beren and Luthien, Arwen’s story is just another romantic subplot (which goes a long way to explain why in his adaptation Peter Jackson was forced to create an alternative character for her, rather than tangling with ancient family history!), and utterly unremarkable in its tragedy. Without seeing the Noldor as victimised and traumatised rebels against God, the Elves as we see them in Lord of the Rings are Tolkien’s rather shabby übermensch, with some phenomenal archery skills; and Galadriel is a very poor deus ex machina rather than a dispossessed, stubborn and repentant queen of a lost and tragic race. Together, the stories in The Silmarillion provide depth to all that is shallow in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and complement all that is deep.

The weakest element of the book is surely its lofty style and its millennial viewpoint. It is difficult to force investment in a character who will only live for some forty years out of thirty thousand. A great deal of this weakness is combated in the compendium of Unfinished Tales, in which the depth and tragedy of so many of the stories in the Quenta Silmarillion are explained and exposited marvellously, thoroughly enriching the thousands of years of history with the charming characterisations and hopeless quests that make the Lord of the Rings such a favourite. But the existence of a salvific companion cannot make up for the failings in this story; nor can the adventurous and thrilling prose in the other Middle Earth stories fully repay the Silmarillion’s reader for the occasional dry patch of genealogy and summary. It is in spite of these difficult areas that this book shines as an unassailable classic of literature, and the sheer brilliance of the story that is enough to drown out admittedly slow moments ought to speak in a clarion voice to its doubters.

Related reviews:
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers

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The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

November 14, 2010 at 20:33 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Dystopia, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , )

7/10

Here is a prime example of a book that contains an excellent story, but very little else. Collins has obviously struck gold with this genius update of Lord of the Flies, and is certainly deserving of her reputation. Katniss is a terrific lead character, managing to be cool enough to dazzle young readers, and conflicted enough to be more than just another teenage hero.

Thankfully, Collins is not impatient enough to somehow dismantle her vicious pedocidal dystopia by the end of the first book; it is a pleasant surprise for the pacing of the series that her Evil Empire really sustains very little hurt at all. The choice to write in the present tense was a bold choice, and comes off rather well, although often she gets herself stuck over a sentence which contains just a few too many clauses for her own good. Apparently that’s down to bad copy-editing, but it is unsettling for something like that to remain noticeable as an aspect of any writer’s style.

While Collins is certainly good at writing suspensefully, and her action is never stale, the book does retrospectively seem like little more than a trail of interesting massacres. Predator for kids, as it were. There is a love triangle, if that floats your boat at all, but not a very convincing one. And that’s about it. William Golding managed to say some very important things about human nature and the myopia of human beings in difficult scenarios. Suzanne Collins manages to remind readers once in a while that her protagonist is really quite cross about the whole Capitol Government. For a book that has the gall to boast on its dust jacket how it is a “philosophical” work “with unsettling parallels to the present day”, Collins has some explaining to do.

Ultimately, this book begins and ends as light teenage fiction. It is enjoyable, but not too challenging and not too serious. About the most philosophical thing that takes place is the protagonist pondering briefly as she wipes an opponent’s blood from her arrow whether or not he was really her enemy, or if The Viewers, her “sponsors” and the nameless faceless entities looming overhead might be the ones really responsible for her troubles. For a half page, it’s time for everyone to put on their serious faces…and then she wisely tells herself that thinking about things like that in the middle of the hunt is a luxury she cannot afford. Which is really The Hunger Games’ attitude towards…you know…philosophy and ethics and stuff.

Related Reviews:
Catching Fire
Mockingjay
 

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The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

November 11, 2010 at 22:33 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Politics) (, , , , )

7/10

This was a very frustrating book. There is a noticeable lack of closure in almost every one of the many complex storylines. The truncated ending does not leave an optimistic flavour, and it seems implicit from the penultimate chapter that the Joads will probably end bad…ly, and without exception. The snapshot method of telling the story is effective in a literary sense, but very unsatisfying for the reader. It is hard, for instance, to sympathise with Noah or Connie when they drift out of the periphery as silently and unimpressively as they arrived. No splash, as it were.

Steinbeck’s characterisations are the strong point of this book, and tends to be his strong point as a writer in general. The premonitions he writes are occasionally so strong as to make any effort at actually telling the story almost redundant; how the tragedy unfolds is to be discovered, but rest assured: unfold it will. This method certainly makes for an awful lot of immediate investment on the part of the reader, but this swiftly turns into impatience as Steinbeck leaves his captives hanging.

Tom Joad is a strong protagonist, if that is what one is looking for, and makes for a good hero; but his mother is really John Steinbeck’s hero, and the one character who sets things in motion. Behind all these characters, and occasionally welling up to distort them, Steinbeck’s half-hearted pantheism and self-conscious socialism stand sturdily. As philosophies they tend to be too lukewarm for any real energy to be expended upon them. They are emblems of…something. Perhaps in them the Joads are to find solace, or salvation. Maybe they are warnings of some kind. Steinbeck is not clear or evangelistic in his message, and the tragedy of the story does not bode well for either pantheism (Casy’s death and Tom’s rather undefined and indeterminate doom make that philosophy ring a rather hollow knell) or socialism (the Joads’ disaster seems to echo the author’s disillusionment). Certainly a better story than a message, and a better than average story.

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Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

November 9, 2010 at 13:35 (Book Reviews, Philosophy, Politics, Theology) (, , , , )

9/10

The political philosophy of Hobbes is dated, that is for certain. The discerning reader will object to many of his proto-humanist dogmas concerning theology, and the Catholic reader will almost certainly feel unjustly censured and demonised. Nevertheless, his book does contain a great deal of sound theology, and while some of his more elaborate passages seem to be inexpertly crafted and unnecessarily verbose, his summarised thesis is both rational and valuable, and although not an easy process, can be transposed into today’s political world. As a work whose principal (and perhaps only) concern is the prevention of anarchy and the denouncement of unlawful rebellion against a legitimate sovereign, it is patently reactionary; but of the sort of reaction that shines out as correct and timeless amidst the excess and upheaval of the French, American and Soviet revolutions.

Rather than seeing his book as an anachronistic diatribe against the Catholic Church and Cromwell (in their historic and contemporary roles respectively), the concentration on the Papacy in Leviathan might just as easily serve as a warning against those who attempt to exercise undue authority in dealing with a legitimate ruler; likewise, his contextual pain over the English Civil War led him to write convincingly of the dangers of supporting an entity with whom no civil contract exists, as opposed to the extant monarchy (and its default civil contract). Hobbes’ description of the Kingdom of Heaven as a material and earthly realm under the direct kingship of Christ after the last days is a surprisingly scriptural and anti-gnostic reading of the Bible, particularly written as it was in the immediate context of the prevailing winds of platonic dualism.

Hobbes comes apart when he reaches the pith of the issue: that is, what to do with a system that is corrupt and vile. He offers all manner of caveats (mostly out of recourse to biblical narratives) – and points out that foreign sovereigns are seldom valid authorities (particularly ironic in light of European monarchy’s invariably mixed pedigree!). He points out that a monarchy that has defaulted on its ability to defend its people is no longer valid; that there are rights inalienable to every man, all linked inextricably to his right to preserve his life at all costs, even by rebellion against the natural authority.

Despite his myriad scenarios wherein rebellion might be permitted (or even necessary) – and despite the plain fact that every revolution in history has provided its own excuses and reasons for rising against the status quo – it is difficult to find outright contradictions in the pages of Leviathan. That is the truly impressive thing about it; Hobbes manages to defend a reactionary and utterly indefensible position, and he does it well, coming out with a comprehensive philosophy and definite moral codes. His success is made all the plainer when considering in hindsight the results of absolutely any violent revolution in subsequent history. Even when considering those cases that managed to preserve some semblance of statehood, or avoided civil war on a massive scale, it becomes clear that a peaceful transition and reformation was in every case both necessary and possible. Therein lies Hobbes’ legacy, and while his essay on the subject is often unclear, frequently rambling and at least as concerned with theology as with political science, still it preserves material both insightful, valuable, and several hundred years ahead of its time.

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Plain Tales From the Hills, by Rudyard Kipling

November 7, 2010 at 13:19 (Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , )

10/10

For all his faults, Rudyard Kipling is intimately acquainted with the human condition. His prose is beautiful (with the possible exception of when he delves into the story of Orth’ris and company!) and his narration is polite, and presents the perfect balance between the “man of the world”, the cynical British man and the Indiophile.

His innate understanding of what makes people do the things – the stupid things, the vile things, the noble things and the beautiful things – that they do; this is offset magnificently by the feeling that he truly is a humanist of the first degree. He loves the people he writes about, and he loves them dearly, even the selfish, stubborn schemers.

Herein lies his only fault, as a man if not as a writer. His love of the men and women who inhabit his pages (even the ones he consigns to tragedy) blinds him to the remedy for wicked behaviour, and while he manages to see the pathos of a man’s self-destruction or a woman’s self-delusion, he considers the final result to be a thing of beauty and a thing of worth, and a good end in and of itself; a pyrrhic victory out of whose ashes rises the noble theme of mankind, British and Indian, triumphantly marching on.

Kipling’s portrayal of life in Colonial India is a portrayal that will outlast the centuries, and his empathy and love for his characters make this book even more fascinating than the Jungle Book (and considerably higher than Forster’s self-important and windy essays). It is sad that its epitaph will not be the beauty of humanity (which is Kipling’s calling card and raison d’etre) but the glorification of tragedy and the admiration of destruction…but even seeing its flaws, this collection of stories is peerless in its quality and heart-wrenching in its simple wonder.

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