Saturday, September 13, 2008

Robert A Heinlein: Friday

I’ve had a copy of Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday since it came out in paperback in 1982. I’m sure I read it back then, but as I re-read it I remembered absolutely NOTHING. Normally I would remember major plot lines, or significant events, just not contextual details. Maybe the difference this time is that there are no major plot lines or significant events.

Miss Friday is a genetically enhanced and engineered “Artificial Person”. As she says, her mother was a test tube and her father was a knife. (Actually in her time, that is considered an insult.) She works for a crotchety old man, Boss”, as a courier. She is skilled at crossing borders, and kills easily when necessary.

Friday is caught out of the office on vacation when a global disruption known as “Red Thursday” breaks out. She traces a route from British Canada, to the California Democracy, the Texas Republic, the Chicago Imperium, and then back to British Canada and the California Democracy trying to get back to the office. She overcomes a variety of obstacles at the borders.

Another series of adventures involve Friday trying to make her way to an off-world colony. Should she go to an existing colony? Or should she join a group pioneering a new planet?

This being a Heinlein book, we get a lot of pre-AIDS, 1960s style “free love” attitude. Friday is a pretty friendly girl. Fortunately we do not get too descriptive past a lot of kissing.

We follow Friday through her many adventures, but the main theme seems to be dealing with racism. She is an “Artificial Person” passing as human. She deals with a lot of prejudice against “APs”. We also get a healthy dose on the declining stages of civilizations.

To me the plot of Friday wanders almost as much as the character Friday. She is pretty interesting, but most of the supporting cast is pretty shallow. Although there was quite a bit of action, it was easy to put the book down, because I didn’t care too much about what would happen next. I was confident that Friday could handle it.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

W. S. Nye: Carbine & Lance

I bought Carbine & Lance The Story of Old Fort Sill by Colonel W. S. Nye a long time ago when I was stationed at Fort Sill. I started it back then, but did not get more than a few pages into it. I was not really very good with non-fiction in those days. I finally read it a few months ago at a time that I was applying for a job with the Oklahoma Historical Society. The first edition was written in 1937. I have the third edition, published in 1969.

The establishment and development of Fort Sill certainly figures in this history. But the book is much more a description of the conflict between Native Americans and the US Cavalry in Southwestern Oklahoma during the 19th century.

In the early 1800s the area around the Wichita Mountains, north of the Red River, and into the Texas Panhandle was primarily inhabited, or controlled, by the Kiowas and their close allies the Comanches. They feared the Osages to their northeast. They liked to raid to the northwest against the Utes and travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. They also liked to raid the White settlements south of the Red River in Texas. This last tendency is what really brought the attention of the U.S. government.

Indian raids picked up considerably during the Civil War years because the White Men were busy fighting each other. In 1864 Kit Carson led a force of cavalrymen, Utes, and Apaches against the Kiowas in the Texas Panhandle. The Kiowas repulsed him with heavy losses. Carson was saved in his retreat only by his light artillery. White response tended to be to attack and kill any Indians they could reach, especially women and children of tribes uninvolved in hostilities. That tended to make the survivors more hostile.

After the Civil War, General Sheridan and Colonel Custer led veteran cavalry into the region. They were somewhat successful in controlling the area for a few years.

After U.S. Grant was inaugurated as President he began the “peace policy”. A delegation of Quakers had convinced him to let them take over the Indian Agencies. They wanted to substitute brotherly love for the sword. During this period Fort Sill and its associated Indian Agency were established. The Kiowas and Comanches learned that they were free to raid south of the Red River at will. If they simply agreed to return to the agency lands all was forgiven.

Obviously the history moves on through many other policies as the book progresses. Nye’s book clearly predates “political correctness” as he freely uses terms like savages and barbarians to describe Native Americans. In his preface he writes, “Living today within a few miles of Fort Sill are human beings who, in a single life-span, have passed from the stone age to the era of the eight-cylinder motor car and the low wing monoplane. Here are men who in fierce exultation have torn reeking scalps from their enemies. Here are women who, while their village moved to evade soldiers, have know the anguish of childbirth on horseback.”

The establishment of the Artillery School, and the Fort Sill I remember shows up only in the Appendix.

I appreciate reading Carbine & Lance, despite its outdated attitudes, for giving me a sense of what was happening in Southwestern Oklahoma in the 19th Century. The history of Oklahoma certainly is rife with the clash of different cultures. It is unfortunate that the clash was so violent, and ultimately so unfair.

Brad Meltzer: The Book of Lies

How do you tie Cain’s murder of Able, the creation of the Superman comics, and a modern day thriller together? That’s the challenge Brad Meltzer accepted in The Book of Lies. Apparently he has wanted to write this story for years. I suppose his success with earlier books gave him the courage to write, and his publisher courage to accept this story.

We already know that early in Genesis Cain kills Abel. But is he really the bad guy history makes him out to be? Or is there another interpretation? What was the murder weapon? Now fast forward a few millennia. Mitchell Siegel was shot and killed in during a robbery in Cleveland. The murder was never investigated, much less solved. Shortly afterwards his teenage son Jerry Siegel, creates a cartoon about a bullet-proof man – Superman. How do these events relate? I certainly won’t tell you; it’s woven through to plot of The Book of Lies.

So now jump forward another three quarters of a century and we meet Cal Harper. Cal is a former (disgraced) officer with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now he works for a homeless shelter. He drives around Fort Lauderdale in a beat up old van picking up indigents and taking them to the shelter. His life gets complicated, and our plot takes off, when he is called to pick up a man with a fresh gunshot wound. Turns out the man is Lloyd Harper, his father whom he has not seen in 19 years, since Lloyd left for prison after killing Cal’s mother. I bet you can guess that we have some family issues.

In the mean time Ellis Belasco is on the track of an ancient lost artifact. Since the first thing we see him do is murder a man, we pretty well know Ellis will be a bad guy. But we also learn pretty early that Lloyd Harper is a truck driver, making a pickup of a shipping container for Ellis. Is Ellis smuggling something? What might it be?

Cal has helped Lloyd get the container through customs. But he pulls favors from old friends that are not strictly by the book. So we also meet Special Agent Naomi Molina of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

From this point the book turns into a treasure hunt, with multiple parties following clues, tracking the prize and/or each other. But no one really knows what the prize is. As the story unfolds we learn more about Cain, and more about Jerry Siegel.

Meltzer also takes this opportunity to explore the relationships between parent and child in a number of contexts. Although I suppose none of the relationships are stereotypically “normal”.

The Book of Lies unfolds with all the twists and suspense that you would expect from an accomplished thriller writer like Meltzer. He does a good job of relating the Cain and Abel story with the Superman story. And he does close out the story with an acceptable conclusion. But I can’t say that I completely bought the whole premise. The story requires a certain suspension of reality. Not as much as a fantasy like Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings, but still a suspension. But I don’t mind that. After all, I’m looking for a good story, and got one.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Lee Child: Killing Floor

Lee Child wrote the Jack Reacher novels in a way that it does not matter what order you read them in. At least that’s what his web site says. And I mostly agree. But after reading several, I still had some questions about Reacher’s background – why he lives the way he does. So I picked up a copy of Killing Floor – it seemed to have the oldest copyright date.

I did learn more about Reacher’s past, and I appreciate that. And I was sort of right about it being the first Jack Reacher novel. But I now realize that there is a prequel, The Enemy, written a few years later. I may have to pick it up some time, because I’m still curious about some of Reacher’s back story. I am tempted to say what was still unanswered, but in a way that could be a spoiler for Killing Floor.

If you don’t know, Jack Reacher is a loner who travels around the country by bus, hitchhike, or foot. He deals only in cash, owns nothing that he isn’t currently wearing or carrying in his pockets. In short he is a pretty independent character. He is also a pretty competent, resourceful former-MP.

Killing Floor starts with Reacher walking into Margrave, Georgia. Before he can even finish his breakfast, four police officers come in to the diner and arrest him for murder. Margrave is a small town somewhere between Atlanta and Macon. But it is a remarkably clean and prosperous looking town.

We meet a competent police sergeant named Baker, a Boston raised black chief of Detectives named Finlay, an attractive police officer named Roscoe, and a fat worthless Police Chief named Morrison. We also meet a prominent town benefactor, the mayor, an Atlanta banker, and miscellaneous other characters.

It’s hard for me to say too much about the story because after about five pages things start to surprise both Reacher and me. I can say that it is a fast paced action story, as you would expect. A lot of people end up dead. To some degree Reacher did not seem quite as well developed to me as he does in later stories – perhaps because this was the first.

I can’t say that Killing Floor is any better than any other Reacher novel. In fact it probably is not my favorite. But then neither is it significantly worse than any other. I still want more of the history, hopefully from The Enemy, but I think I better wait a while. I suspect that I could burn out if I take too much Reacher too fast.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Douglas Preston: Blasphemy

I bought Douglas Preston’s Blasphemy because I was interested in the context. It deals with a fictional US supercollider and the friction between science and religion. I was disappointed when the real US supercollider lost funding, so I was interested to see what Preston would do with the theme. This is my first Preston book, so I was not sure what to expect.

In this story, Gregory North Hazelius is a brilliant Nobel laureate who has driven the 40 billion dollar project to completion in the Arizona dessert. We join the story on the first trial run. With project delays, and little information coming from the scientific team, the President’s Science Advisor recruits Wyman Ford to go in and find out what’s happening. Ford’s background is unusual: ex-anthropologist, ex-CIA, ex-monk. Supposedly he is to go deal with community relations and try to head off a protest by the local Navajo population led by Nelson Begay. But maybe Wyman’s main qualification is that he has a past with the Assistant Director of the project, Kate Mercer.

Spicing up the story, we have lobbyist, Booker Crawley. Crawley is counting on a continuing revenue stream from the Navajo Nation even though the task of getting the project built is done. When they cancel his contract, he decides to show them that they need him. So he makes a large donation to the televangelist, Reverend Don T. Spates, to preach against it. Spates launches his attack, accusing the government of spending taxpayer dollars to try to disprove Genesis. The political fallout ((in another fictional election year) is immediate. Add Pastor Russ Eddy, who preaches at a struggling mission on Navajo land near the supercollider, and our cast is mostly complete.

I think it’s fair to tell you that I like Wyman, Mercer, and Begay. The rest of the cast comes off pretty badly. The plot moves in ways I was not expecting, but definitely explores the debate between science and religion. Does the government fund Secular Humanism as a new state religion? Does religion still address the needs of society? Do charlatans in all camps undermine the good offered by government, religion, and science? Is Native American spiritualism viable in today’s society?

Blasphemy carries a lot of serious undertones in a rollicking good story. But I can’t decide in hindsight whether the book was an attack on religion, or an attack on science. Maybe it’s a call for moderation, an attack on extremism from all sides.