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)