Monday, November 30, 2009

The Labors of Heracles

I loved Greek mythology as a kid and read my copy of D'aulaires to shreds and through Bullfinch's and Edith Hamilton several times each. And everyone knows of Heracles, though not many people can name the 12 labors he performed. (And for some reason, even when talking about Greek myths, people call him Hercules, the Roman name for him.)
  1. slay the Nemean Lion - where he got his lion-headed cloak
  2. slay the Hydra - probably the best known story
  3. capture the Golden Hind of Artemis - a hind is a deer
  4. capture the Erymanthian Boar - a boar is a pig (sorry, can't give effective color commentary on them all)
  5. clean the Augean stables in a day - he diverted a river to wash through the stables
  6. slay the Stymphalion Birds - alfred hitchcock, eat your heart out
  7. capture the Cretan Bull - we present to you, cretins from Bull...make that a bull from Crete
  8. steal the Mares of Diomedes - flesh eating horses. om nom nom
  9. obtain the Girdle of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta - if you learn one thing from this story, it's that chicks dig guys with muscles and wearing lion skins. or that if you kill a woman, you can take whatever you want from her, depending on which version of the story you read.
  10. obtain the Cattle of Geryon - Hera is a real bitch, just FYI
  11. steal the Apples of Hesperides - takes Atlas' place holding up the world for a moment
  12. capture Cerberus - nice doggy
It's kind of interesting going through the list. Heracles is typically known for his strength and skill at arms, but a lot of the tasks involve him being very clever, and acting outside of his expected capabilities. I think this is why his story has been so successful throughout history. It's not that he's an underdog, or a common man making good for himself, he's already a hero and then shows that he's not just a one-dimensional character. It's an aspect that is often missing from protagonists in many modern stories. And, so too, is he a flawed character. He was assigned the tasks as atonement for murdering his wife in an uncontrollable rage. How many of the epic heroes of modern stories have such complicated stories and such varied abilities?

That's why the cleaning of the Augean stables is my favorite of the labors. It required great physical effort on his part, but only in service to a mental capability that just wasn't expected of him.

What's yours?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Watership Down

Fiver has a "bad feeling about this." Something's wrong, and everyone needs to leave. Unfortunately, only Fiver's good friend Hazel believes him. Hazel, however, is able to convince a few others that leaving is going to be a good idea. So without knowing where exactly they are going, the group heads out on an adventure to find a new home. Oh, and they are all rabbits.

On a matter of scale, the journey the rabbits go on isn't quite the same as going from the Shire to Mordor, but there is no question that their travel isn't just as epic as that of the hobbits. Richard Adams has anthropomorphized the rabbits in such a way that their concerns, their emotions, and the fears that they face are eminently human. By mixing in bits and pieces of the rabbit language, and crafting a cultural history and mythology for the rabbits and showing their interactions with rabbits from other warrens he imbues the characters with depth and complexity that many authors fail to provide to their human characters. Hazel, well-spoken and a natural leader despite his own self-doubt; Fiver, undersized but respected because of his connection with the spiritual world; Bigwig, self-confident and capable, but aware of his own limitations. The level of development which Adams provides to his characters is really amazing.

And the scale of his story is perfectly suited to a group of rabbits. Even the things which seem unlikely at first glance -- 20 rabbits climbing into a boat and floating down a river -- work, and they work because Adams pays attention to detail and explains things in a way which never shifts the reader out of the story. As soon as you pick up the book, you're deeply enmeshed in the story and the world. And it is interesting that Adams seems to try to avoid any moralizing about the interactions of humans and nature. There are a few brief comments about it when the rabbits' home warren is destroyed to make way for a building development (the cause of the bad feeling that Fiver had), but it is limited to the horror that the rabbits experience when trying to understand something which is so outside of their ability to understand. That is something that I feel like many authors would not be willing to avoid doing nowadays.

One aspect of the story that remains distinctly non-human is the separation between male and female roles in rabbit society. Females aren't especially important beyond being the ones who generally do the digging to expand a warren and for procreation. There is no discussion of love, or romance, the does are regarded simply as objects. I think that this was intentional on Adams' part, but not representative of his beliefs, or as something he was encouraging. Despite their anthropomorphism, the characters in Watership Down are rabbits. They aren't human, and so can't be expected to have all of the same characteristics of humans. Perhaps love is a distinctly human trait in Adams' mind, whereas things such as bravery, respect, honor, duty, and other "higher" traits are characteristics which animals might actually share with humans.

Score: 4 out of 5

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Sword of the Lady

Still pursued by the occult forces of the Church United and Triumphant, Rudi Mackenzie and his friends are on the final portion of their journey across the post-apocalyptic landscape of the former United States. Making their way from Wisconsin, they end up in lands in New England that have recreated ancient Norse cultures. And by aiding them in rescuing one of their towns which is besieged by a Moorish raiding party who have allied themselves with the Cutters, obtain a ship which takes them to the island of Nantucket, where Rudi finally obtains the legendary Sword of the Lady.

Continuing the story of the second portion of the Emberverse series, The Sword of the Lady continues SM Stirling's wonderful depictions of the various cultures and religions that have sprung up in the aftermath of the technology killing Change. The story itself is quite satisfying as well, and primes you for the return journey. However, the story feels much slower than the original trilogy. Which makes sense. Where the first three books tell of the immediate aftermath of the Change, and the foundation of the various nation-states in the Washington and Oregon region, this is a much more epic story of a heroic quest and the war for the salvation of all of mankind. Unfortunately, this means that the story is not as tightly written as the earlier one. Stirling tries to minimize the time on the road, or to cover it, by having the characters in conversation and describing the cultures and religions, and months can pass in the turn of a page. But as the size of the world in the story expands, he's less able to provide the same amount of detail, and when he does, it occasionally feels like it is taking the reader away from the primary story.

Score: 3 of 5

Series: The Emberverse - 1. Dies the Fire (2004) 2. The Protector's War (2005) 3. A Meeting at Corvallis (2006) 4. The Sunrise Lands (2007) 5. The Scourge of God (2008) 6. The Sword of the Lady (2009) 7. The High King of Montival (2010) 8. The Blood of the Sun (TBA) 9. The Given Sacrifice (TBA)

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Scourge of God

The sequel to SM Stirling's The Sunrise Lands continues the story of the journey of Rudi Mackenzie and his friends across the post-Change lands that used to make up the United States. The book begins with them in a town in Wyoming, recovering in a monastery established by Buddhist monks who had been in town for a convention when the Change occurred. At the same time, their friends and families are beginning their resistance against the attacks of the Church United and Triumphant.

Stirling gets rather metaphysical in this book. It's almost a comparative religions class, but focused primarily on the similarities and shared truths of various religions -- primarily Buddhism, Wicca, Christianity, and Native American shamanism. And it is primarily focused on preparing Rudi for his role as the salvation of mankind. Somehow, during the Change, gods were (again) given great power, and have begun acting directly upon the earth. Those which are evil, directly subjugate humans and focus them on destruction. Those which are good, influence humans and aid them in their opposition to the destructive forces of their enemies. And in the interactions between Rudi and his friends and their gods, those gods are surprisingly lacking in jealousy for their followers.

As a single book, The Scourge of God does not stand out. It is a solid continuance of the series, but some of the religious discussions might not be very interesting to readers who are more interested in the depictions cultures and scenes of combat.

Score: 3 of 5

Series: The Emberverse - 1. Dies the Fire (2004) 2. The Protector's War (2005) 3. A Meeting at Corvallis (2006) 4. The Sunrise Lands (2007) 5. The Scourge of God (2008) 6. The Sword of the Lady (2009) 7. The High King of Montival (2010) 8. The Blood of the Sun (TBA) 9. The Given Sacrifice (TBA)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers is a classic look at the life and training of a member of the Terran Mobile Infantry. Lieutenant Juan Rico recounts how he joined the military, ended up in MI, how he survived basic training, his first experiences of combat in the attack on the Bug homeworld of Klendathu, his decision to go career and training as an officer. And throughout the novel, Robert Heinlein presents a striking image of a worldwide (and interplanetary) limited democracy based on a morality of responsibility. The novel is as much an essay on morality and politics as it is an actual story. If you've only ever seen the movie by Paul Verhoeven, you have no idea what the book is actually like.

And it is in those essay qualities that the novel really stands out. Suffrage is only granted to those members of society who perform a term of military service. It's emphasis on individual responsibility is almost libertarian in leaning, but is more of a direct response to the growth of communism in the real world 1950s just after the Korean War. We don't really see much of the civilian government at all, beyond knowing that all elected officials are also veterans. Johnnie's father is a business man, and very clearly a capitalist as well (at least until he too joins up, following the Bug's destruction of Buenos Aires.)

As a part of science fiction as a whole, Starship Troopers wasn't the first military novel, but it was a distinctly influential one. Joe Halderman's The Forever War, though written in response to Vietnam instead of Korea and much less enthusiastic about military service, is clearly influenced by Heinlein. Joe Scalzi's Old Man's War is almost a direct plot and military/government interaction descendant of Starship Troopers. And there are even similarities present in movies such as Full Metal Jacket. And anyone who has enjoyed games such as Starcraft, Halo, Tribes, and Crysis can thank Heinlein's idea of biomechanical exoskeletons that double as spacesuits.

Score: 5 of 5

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Gathering Storm

The Wheel of Time is arguably the most significant fantasy series of the last 20 years, and when Robert Jordan died before the series was completed, many fans despaired. But through his wife's efforts and thanks to the copious notes that Jordan left, Brandon Sanderson was chosen to complete the final installment in the series. But that final book has turned into three, the first of which is The Gathering Storm.

Jordan's story is horribly complex, following the stories of three young men from the town of Emond's Field. Rand al'Thor is the much prophecied Dragon Reborn. A man who can channel. A man who is destined to unite and destroy the world. A man who must face the Dark One in the final battle of Tarmon Gaidon. A man on who all the hopes of humanity rests. And all the fears. His friends, Perrin Aybara and Matrim Cauthon are both involved in Rand's story, and have complex stories of their own. Because of that, the previous books in the series have seen them, as well as their friends, each walk their own paths, creating many different threads.

[Warning: Spoilers Below!]

The Gathering Storm does much in preparation for the joining of those threads. In the previous book, Mat has married Tuon, the Daughter of the Nine Moons, the leader of the Seanchan invasion and is on his way to rejoin Rand. So too, Perrin is on his way to rejoin Rand after having rescued his wife, Faile, from the Shaido Aiel. But this first book of the final trilogy focuses upon Rand and Egwene al'Vere, a fellow Emond's Fielder and the Amyrlin Seat of the rebel Aes Sedai.

Egwene has been captured by the Aes Sedai who remained in the White Tower, and continues to use her presence there to undermine the authority of the Tower's Amyrlin, Elaida d'Rohan. Following a raid by the Seanchan upon the White Tower, and Elaida's capture and enslavement, Egwene is able to rejoin the rebels with the Tower, without the outbreak of full war that most members of both sides were afraid would happen.

Meanwhile, Rand is struggling to maintain control over the lands he has conquered, while expanding that control into lands still torn by internal strife or under attack by the Seanchan. And must face the pressure that comes with the knowledge that the Last Battle is nearing, repeat attacks by the Forsaken, and maintaining control over himself. All of that pressure comes to a head in a shocking reunion with his father, Tam al'Thor. Rand has been trying to make himself "harder" in an effort to prepare himself for the Final Battle, but what he has been doing has made him lose much of what makes him human -- his emotions, his hope, his contact and understanding with the people he is supposed to fight for. In a rage when he discovers that his father had been in contact with Cadsuane, an Aes Sedai who he believes is trying to undermine him, he nearly kills Tam. Gaining momentary control he Travels to the very top of the Dragonmount, where he faces an internal struggle, and is able to reestablish his humanity. Sanderson and Jordan present this very well. As a reader, you know that the hero can't commit suicide, and has to be returned to goodness, but even so, you are in doubt for most of the book if Rand is going to be able to do so.

The Gathering Storm is definitely a return to the clear, exciting and well-paced writing which so characterized the first four or five books in the series. Like the later books, it still favors shorter scenes over longer more in-depth pieces, but it doesn't have the same choppiness which was often present in them.

Score: 4 of 5

Series: The Wheel of Time - 1. The Eye of the World (1990) 2. The Great Hunt (1990) 3. The Dragon Reborn (1991) 4. The Shadow Rising (1992) 5. The Fires of Heaven (1993) 6. Lord of Chaos (1994) 7. A Crown of Swords (1996) 8. The Path of Daggers (1998) 9. Winter's Heart (2000) 10. Crossroads of Twilight (2003) 11. Knife of Dreams (2005) 12. The Gathering Storm (2009) 13. Towers of Midnight (2010) 14. A Memory of Light (2011)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Sunrise Lands

The Sunrise Lands
The arrival in the lands of the Clan Mackenzie of Ingolf Voegler, a mercenary and traveler who has crossed the entire width of the lands formerly known as the United States of America, and the assassins who follow him, leads Rudi Mackenzie and his friends and family to begin a quest for a sword that has been seen in prophecy and visions in an effort to defend their lands against the fanatical followers of the Prophet of Church Universal and Triumphant. The story picks up 10 years after SM Stirling's earlier trilogy of Emberverse novels, which told the story of several groups of survivors of the Change, an apocalyptic alteration of natural laws, which forced a reversion to nearly medieval technological levels. The new world is one in which the gods of both ancient and new religions have the ability to interact with the world and their followers.

Stirling makes no effort to hide the influence that earlier fantasy authors have made upon him. One of the groups of survivors have even developed a culture based upon the Rangers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. And when Rudi's group is formed, it consists of 9 members, which the characters discuss as being fitting. What is interesting is the wide ranging cultures and beliefs that the characters represent. Rudi Mackenzie and Edain Aylward are pagan Celtic clansmen. Mathilda Arminger and Odard Liu are from a Roman Catholic feudal society. Father Ignatius is a Benedictine warrior monk. Ingolf is a lapsed Catholic mercenary. Mary and Ritva are members of the Dunedain. Along the way, they are joined by Frederick Thurston, the son of a man who has been trying to reestablish the United States in Idaho using ancient Roman style military, who was murdered by his other son Martin who has allied with the Cutters. The Cutters are a fanatical cult who desire to prevent Rudi from reaching the sword which Ingolf saw in a vision on the island of Nantucket, which is where the phenomenon which caused the Change is rumored to have originated.

Score: 4 of 5

Series: The Emberverse - 1. Dies the Fire (2004) 2. The Protector's War (2005) 3. A Meeting at Corvallis (2006) 4. The Sunrise Lands (2007) 5. The Scourge of God (2008) 6. The Sword of the Lady (2009) 7. The High King of Montival (2010) 8. The Blood of the Sun (TBA) 9. The Given Sacrifice (TBA)