Friday, September 30, 2016

The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa By Dr. Caitlin O' Connell

The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa
By Dr. Caitlin O' Connell

Wait, my editor is going to be taking part in this review?  That’s not in my contract!?!  It is!?!  Oh I am having a talk with my agent about this…  I mean… On with the review!  

This is a first for this review: a non-fiction book that isn't about history or politics. Instead The Elephant's Secret Sense is about research that was carried out in the 1990s and 2000s to investigate a newly discovered means of communication between elephant individuals and herds. In short, this is a zoology book. Why did I bring a zoology book into this review series? Well, because I found it interesting in the main and wanted to talk about it. Second, because why not? After all variety is not only the spice of life but in moderation keeps us young. Besides I loved elephants since I was child (one of my first coherent memories is seeing an elephant up close in a zoo and thinking that nothing could be so grand or powerful as a living elephant. While I wasn't entirely correct, I can think of few things grander to see then a live elephant on the move.). Also it's not like I can be fired from reviewing books so...

This book was published in 2007 by Dr. O'Connell, it was her first book to hit publication. Dr. O'Connell is currently a Consulting Assistant Professor (Note from the editor: It is a form of visiting faculty.  They come in to do research and maybe teach the odd course in their area of specialty, but cannot supervise graduate students. It might be surprising to see a zoologist in a medical school, but they often employ anatomists because the best way to understand an anatomical structure is to understand how it varies between organisms.) in the department of Otolaryngology (this is the study and treatment of diseases in the ear, nose and throat, fun note, this is the oldest medical specialization in America) for Stanford University school of Medicine. She's also considered one of the leading experts in elephants in the world, having spent a decade or two studying them in the wild. This book talks a lot about her studies which, when they weren't taking place at the Oakland Zoo, were done in the northeastern portion of Namibia’s Caprivi strip, which is a thin strip of land that separates Angola and Zambia from Botswana. African Elephant herds move across this narrow strip of land roaming across all the nations mentioned with a fine disregard for boundaries and politics. In fact they host some of the very last migratory populations of African Elephants. Unfortunately this often puts them in conflict with their human neighbors.

While human/elephant conflict isn't the focus of the book, it does get discussed and examined quite a bit. In the case of Caprivi (and elsewhere) one of the main issues are elephants raiding farms. Elephants as you can imagine require a lot of food to keep going (these are animals that measure their weight in tons and routinely stand over 8 feet tall) and farms right before harvesting tend to have a lot of said food. While this doesn't come up in the book, some parts of Africa have had problems with elephants raiding villages to ransack breweries. That's right folks, elephants, just like us will go to amazing lengths to get a good bit of booze, but back to the book. The problem comes in when you realize that the farmers need food to keep going and Namibia doesn't have a food stamp program, so it's grow food or starve for a number of these people. So a good amount of Dr. O'Connell's time was taken up by finding ways to keep hungry elephants away from the crops of hungry farmers (and thus reducing the temptation of said hungry farmers to resort to more direct measures of preventing the elephants from dining on their food).

In this role she was a government employee and like all government employees found herself dragged into politics; no matter if she felt those politics had anything to do with her.  An interesting note was a bit of gender politics as Dr. O'Connell found that she made more progress by connecting with the women of each community and working with them. That said, she found herself in political struggles between men more often then she would have liked, be it struggles between opposing tribes or turf battles between bureaucrats, the good doctor takes us through them. Which is a good thing because it's these struggles that actually give Dr. O'Connell a motivation to really dig into the central issue that fuels this book, because she was wondering if she could use the information she found to create a system to keep elephants away from people's crops. She did tend to treat larger events that intruded on her research as minor obstacles to evade or get over on the course of her research. I understand that the book is about researching elephants but when discussing the end of a notorious rebel and poacher it would help if you gave a bit more context.

So what is the central story of the book, you may ask? Well it all starts as a young not-yet-a-Doctor O'Connell was sitting at her watering hole watching herds of elephants drink. Now these were family herds;  adult females and children live separately from adult males in elephant society. Each family is led by a female elephant referred to as the matriarch. Every now and again the matriarchs of certain herds would break off from the others and start well... listening. Not just listening though, at times the matriarch would lift one foot from the ground a bit and start touching the ground with specific parts of that foot, as if it would aide in her hearing. At first our good Doctor wondered if she was just seeing some personal quirks but she soon found the behavior was present in each and every elephant herd that visited the water hole. Even the bulls did it, although a good deal less than the females. So she began to ask “why?”. Was there something they could hear through their feet? If so, what were they hearing? Was there a seismic component to elephant vocalizations? How were they sensing it? What was it that they were communicating and could we replicate that communication?

This began a research project that would last a decade. From gathering data observing animals in the wild and proving that this was something that a large population (if not all elephants) were doing; to hunting down physical characteristics that might explain what's going on; to finding ways of recording these newly discovered sounds and vibrations and seeing if they could use them to provoke a response. Dr. O'Connell was likely slowed down by the fact that she had to do a lot of other necessary tasks, like performing an elephant census and trying to get certain elephants collared so they they could be tracked by satellite. This turned into an interesting discussion in and of itself. I had honestly forgotten before reading this book just how far satellite tracking and communication has come. Today we're all rather used to pinpoint GPS tracking and nearly flawless communication (at least by the standards of our parents) across vast distances. The idea of ever really being out of touch is something of a luxury now. During the days of Dr. O'Connell's research project, it was being in touch that was the luxury. One amusing story is how she would have to go down to the local post office once a week, plug in her laptop to the only phone with the proper connection to download her emails and upload her replies. Needless to say, getting her data out to be analysed and get proper help from other specialists could take weeks if not months.

Additionally there were the issues of getting ahold of an elephant corpse and start cutting it up so they could figure out what physical characteristics would come into play. Still the obstacles were overcome and as a result we learned a lot about the magnificent mammals. For example: elephants have a pad of fat on each foot, along with fat in their foreheads that is actually very like the fat in a dolphin's head (the part is called a melon amusingly enough) which actually helps in sorting out sound waves. This doesn't mean that elephants can echolocate like dolphins, they use it to pick up sound transmitted through the ground. In fact, to help them concentrate, it was found they have a set of “lips” in their ears that let them pinch shut their ear canals so they can focus on seismic communication. To be honest I found this rather wondrous.

Of course there needed to be experimental proof, so she headed over to the Oakland zoo, where experiments were run using a female elephant named Donna. Interestingly enough Donna was born in the wild and brought over to the US, when African Rangers found that her mother had been killed in a cull. The culls are something no one is happy about, but there are times when the population of elephants gets too high for the local park to sustain them and steps have to be taken. These days a lot of work is taken to find alternatives, like relocation or even transporting elephants into captivity, which is preferable to shooting them or allowing an ecological collapse to lead to mass starvation.

Note from the editor: It really is a problem.  African countries can only really protect their wildlife populations inside national parks.  They don’t have the budget or manpower to police the whole of their territories, and poaching is a massive problem because elephant ivory is highly prized as a decorative item, and by the chinese for use in Traditional Chinese Quakery Medicine.  Protected areas also minimize elephant-human conflict in agricultural lands; which is also a problem because elephants like to get drunk and go carousing. Imagine an eight ton bull elephant behaving like a belligerently drunk university student.  However, elephants are nomadic. They move constantly to find food and water, and a herd of elephants rips up and consumes a lot of vegetation, so if they are confined to one place they tend to denude the plant life unless their local population is kept in check.  It is a poor solution, but the best one we have.  Ok, that is not actually true.  In the past few years, we have developed birth control for elephants.  We basically vaccinate males against their own sperm, decreasing the rate at which elephants reproduce.  You can imagine data collection for those experiments: having to go out and get *ahem* samples from bull elephants. I will leave you wondering how they do that.

Donna's experiment was actually fairly simple: using equipment suggested by geologists, they would create a seismic “noise” similar to the ones that elephants used in the wild. Donna would then hit a yes if she “heard” it and a no if she didn't. It did not take long for Donna to understand the experiment and through they were not only able to determine that Donna was picking up this “sound” through her feet but they could figure out the extent of an elephant's hearing range. Using that they returned to Caprivi and did experiments on the local herds to see if they would react to alarm calls transmitted in this fashion. The herds did, sometimes alarmingly (one matriarch would attack the equipment in frustration when she couldn't find the elephant that was calling wolf).

This book not only provides us with a good look into how you prove a theory in the wild, so to speak, but gives us a peek into the challenges of working in Africa. It also gives us a window into the never-ending struggle to balance the needs of animals and the humans who live alongside them. In Caprivi a working compromise was established by creating locally run and managed parks. This turned the elephants from a danger to a farmer's survival into the means of survival by making them an economic asset for the local people. If you're interested in learning more about this kind of work, or you're interested in zoology or just in elephants, this book is a good one for you. I will note that Dr. O'Connell does tend to ramble a bit in places and on several chapters goes into side trips. Many of those are fairly personal windows into working in Africa and others are just kinda leaving me wondering if a stronger editor was needed here. All in all, I'm giving The Elephant's Secret Sense, the Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa by Dr. Caitlin O'Connell a -A.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Announcement! In these next 4 weeks we will be running an experiment of our own. We're doing a theme month in honor of Halloween guys. That theme being dark stories, not necessarily horror mind you but dark all the same. We here at the review series have chosen 3 already but I am throwing the 4th spot open to my readers.

October 7th we start out with Charles Stross' Laundry Series with the Atrocity Archives and a bonus of the Concrete Jungle.

October 14th we return to Matthew Stover's work with Caine Black Knife.

October 21st we go even darker with R. Scott's Bakker's The Great Ordeal

October 28th Is up to you! Leave your choice in the comments/threads and I will choose from among them. Happy Halloween!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Dungeons and Dragons I: Shadowplague by John Rogers Art by Andrea Di Vito

Dungeons and Dragons I: Shadowplague
by John Rogers
Art by Andrea Di Vito

Adric, let's be frank. This town has adventurers. I expect a certain amount of murder.” Lord Warden of Fellcrest

You don't expect much from a commercial tie-in, as a rule. Sure there are exceptions, notably in the Transformers and GI Joe comics, but usually tie-ins are rather dismal. On top of that, while DnD is a fun game, there are issues trying to make a comic out of it.  DnD doesn't have a singular setting or cast of characters, in fact the game itself discourages that in my view. I've run DnD games (said the guy with a book review series, shocking no one) and I've usually made up my own settings to do so.  It feels more rewarding and less constraining that way. This comic series started publication in 2010, this was during the time of the game's 4th edition. Which has a... contentious reputation among gamers to put it lightly. This is a book review series, not a game review series so I won't get into it. Let me just say briefly that 4th edition showed up very close to the heels of 3.5 and introduced major gameplay changes, many of them were rather unpopular in a number of circles. The comic uses the 4th edition cosmology (which I honestly kind of like) but creates a setting out of whole cloth. Who’s the guy they convinced to do all the heavy lifting here?

John Rogers is a veteran writer of comics and screen, when I look at Mr. Roger’s career I find myself both impressed and horrified. This guy is the co-creator of Jamie Reyes aka my favorite Blue Beetle, he co-created the cartoon Jackie Chan Adventures (which I'm a bit old for honestly but a number of my younger friends loved it) and the television show Leverage. On the flip side he co-wrote the Michael Bay Transformer movie in 2007, the Core in 2003, and perhaps most shockingly he admits to helping write the Catwoman movie of 2004 (yeah, that one, you know which one). I believe in forgiveness, but Catwoman? That said, I'm willing to believe that Mr. Rogers was drowned out by his co-writers on the movies or that he just played a minor role. On the other hand we have the artist Andrea Di Vito, a Roman born Italian who got his first major start in the ultimately doomed Crossgen comic company. I was a fan of a couple of Crossgen’s comics so someday I hope to discuss this. Mr. Di Vito however would survive Crossgen and start working for other companies, most notably Marvel Comics. Now let's get to the comic.

D&D Shadowplague introduces us to our heroes, a group of adventurers that have been dubbed by fans Fell's Five. This group is led by the human fighter Adric, who has a complicated past to say the least. It's clear that he has some military experience and has fought orcs at some point. He's also capable of coming up with plans very quickly and is rather fearless. These are very important talents to have. That said he also keeps a number of secrets about his background. Adric's best friend seems to be Varis the elven ranger, who can't go home again. We don't find out a lot of Varis in this graphic novel other than his unwillingness to allow Adric to die and the fact that he gets a bit nervous when around dark magic artifacts that run on the hearts of fey. There's Bree three hands, the amoral halfling rogue. As a result of tthe amorality Adric doesn't really trust her that much but keeps her around because someone has to find the traps...and it's better the he knows where Bree is at all times. Bree is an example of what seems to be the new halfling stereotype of sneaky, underhanded, stab-happy half pints who are tired of your shit. It's kind of enjoyable but I do think we're going to have to dial it back a bit. I'm not saying that halflings can't be bad-ass, just that some of them must give a crap about something besides themselves. If nothing else someone has to raise the next generation of light fingered halfling thieves. The next member of the group is actually my favorite, Khal the dwarven paladin and poet! Khal actually decided to become a paladin both to do good and prove himself worthy of the love of his life. Her family disapproved of their romance due to him being a wild and degenerate poet, who writes about things like thinking about disobeying your clan but not doing it! I like Khal because he's actually a good guy who tries to be better instead of the stuck-up fun-police that paladin's often get characterized as. Lastly is Tisha, a Tiefling warlock. Tieflings are a race of people whose ancestors interbred with well... demons, and has a result have less-than-human appearances (tails and a horn for example) and reputations that could use a Public Relations firm or three. It doesn't help that warlocks are a group of magic users who get their powers by making a deal with dark and dangerous things from beyond the pale. Tisha herself is a driven character, she is looking for the murderer of her parents, who also happens to be her sister.

The graphic novel does a good job introducing us to these characters and a number of supporting cast. We don't spend a lot of time in Fellcrest but we do get an interesting introduction to the cosmology of the world and a fair bit of the world itself as well. We learn there are two alternate worlds alongside the main world, there's the Feywild: the green wild home of the elves and other fey creatures and the Shadow: a dark place that seems to spawn zombies and other dark nasty things. We get a brief lesson on this in the graphic novel when our heroes stumble over a changeling using a dwarven artifact made using dark magic and the previously mentioned fey hearts. From this we have our group fighting everything from orcs to cyclops in an attempt to prevent bad things happening to good people. It's actually a pretty good adventure. The dialogue is fun and snappy (it's everything I can do to keep from littering this review with quotes), the violence is rather raw and full throated, and the characters interact with each in believable but different ways allowing the writers to showcase a variety of different personalities and relationships (for example we have Adric and Varis cracking wise at each other, Khal's supportive actions towards Tisha and Bree... Well Adric can vouch that she is indeed a halfling). That's a great thing to have in a team book, a variety of personalities is good,  but it’s also important to change up the relationships. Bree and Tisha have a different relationship than Adric and Khal and so on. This creates a believable group dynamic. More importantly enough of these characters seem to like and trust each other that I believe they would not only voluntary spend time with each other but throw themselves into dangerous situations in each others company. Something often lacking in team books, especially ones who like to be “gritty” and “realistic” with dysfunctional teams that hate each other. Sometimes you want to read a book about people who don't hate each other and will help each other kill monsters, fulfill quests. and go about the dirty dirty business of making the world safe for others. Unfortunately, the story ends on a cliffhanger so it doesn't get an A. Instead I'll have to give Dungeons and Dragons: Shadowplague by John Rogers and Andrea Di Vito an A-.

Next week, we're going to read about elephants.  

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, September 16, 2016

Unbreakable by WC Bauers

by WC Bauers

Unbreakable was published last year by Tor books and is Mr. Bauers’ first book in print. Its sequel was released this year. Mr. Bauers is an American writer who lives in the shadow of Pike's Peak with his wife, three sons, and a rescue dog. He is also a big fan of French press coffee and knitting, and studies Taekwondo. Unbreakable is military science fiction, a genre I’ve found myself  having a complicated relationship with ever since I started this review series. In the past I might have read books like Master Sergeant and Shadow Ops and simply forgotten about them, exiling the books to the back of my closet, now I have to actually think about them and really look at their faults and mistakes. There were also the Lost Fleet books, which while better than the other two books I listed, still weren't that great. This is frustrating to me because despite what the critics are going to say I know military fiction can be great. Whether it's the Black Company series, Hammers Slammers, or Lt Leary's adventurers, military fiction has a lot of ground it can cover and characters it can explore (let me also point mutely to Lois Bujold's work); but many writers seem utterly hell bent on focusing on the same couple archetypes. Whether it be a gifted enlisted grunt who rises to officerdom, a senior NCO who has absolutely no life outside of the military (No. Mr. Odom, I'm not letting that go!) or the officer who is about to stamp their name in burning letters upon history itself. Speaking as former enlisted, there are more than 4 or 5 types of people in the military guys... But now I'm just ranting, let's get to the book.

Promise Pean is a Republic of Aligned Worlds Marine from the planet Montana. I could swear this is the 3rd time I've run into a planet called Montana. Although the only one I can really point to is the one from David Weber's “The Shadow of Saganami”. The two planets are fairly similar: a libertarian culture led by a Congress and a President, mostly rural and into ranching. Having read both books, I think the similarities are due to both planets being based on the state of Montana, which has a fairly libertarian culture with elected officials and is really rural and into ranching. There's no real similarities between characters and Mr. Bauer honestly does a better job with his Montana (to be fair, he spends more time on it). Pean was driven to join the Marine Corps when a pirate raid murdered her father and burnt her home to the ground. In doing so she was turning her back on her father's beliefs (he was a pacifist semi-christian of some type, there's a lot of Bible quoting but God is referred to as the Maker and there's no mention of Christ.  This annoys me but is too broad a topic to discuss here.), to underscore that she changed her last name to her mother's maiden name when she joined the Marines (her Mother died from disease before the raid). Pean's origin becomes important when she and her company of Marines are called back to the world of her birth when raiders begin hitting it all over again; finding themselves alone at the ass end of the universe against increasingly overwhelming odds, Pean is trying to preserve as much of her birth world as possible and fulfill her duty as a Marine. Before I get into that let me talk about the character.

Pean herself is an example of talented grunt made officer, she enlisted and rose to the rank of Sgt before the various crisis of the book propel her toward the dark fate of becoming a Lt. While that is a common archetype, she managed to be a fairly unique example in some ways, albeit typical in others. Some of the uniqueness I could do without. In the first chapter, I am brought into the book with a scene of Lt. Pean talking to the ghost of her dead mother while playing with a glock pistol (a family heirloom from her mother). I honestly found this incredibly alarming and was left wondering just what are the shrinks in the Republic of Aligned Worlds doing!?! You've just handed command of 40 marines to a woman who spends her free time talking to her dead Mother! The book doesn't really examine this or even try to guess at what's going on (since this is a science fiction I'm guessing Pean is talking to someone who isn't there bluntly) and the character does a good job of hiding this from everyone else. Marines can be a fairly superstitious group and I'm not sure which would be considered worse news: that the CO is crazy and thinks she can talk to her dead mother., or the CO is actually talking to the ghost of her dead mother. Either way I am left thinking that Lt. Pean isn't very stable and wondering just what the hell am I dealing with here. Honestly I if I wasn't reviewing the book I might have simply put it down right there and decided that Mr. Bauer doesn't really grasp what the military is like but I kept reading. That said I can at least say Lt. Pean is a human being and a workable character in her own right, besides her possible instability, she likes to knit, enjoys Bond movies and like 75% of other military fiction characters really likes military history. That last one actually does have a point to it, as military personnel are heavily encouraged to have at least a passing understanding of military history, even if it's just their own organizations and government's military history. Let me touch on those government's real quick.

The Republic of Aligned Worlds is a nation-state that broke away from the Terran Federation a long time ago. As you might guess from the title, it is a Republic. We don't learn a lot about it in this book.  The RAW-Marine Corps (RAW-MC) had it’s origins in that revolutionary war, and because of those origins has a very non-standard structure.  It’s smallest combat element is an eight Marine platoon, organized into companies of five platoons for a total of 40 men per company.  For comparison, a USMC platoon would be three squads of 9-13 people (ideally three fire teams of four men each, but that rarely happens), arranged into companies of four platoons plus the company headquarters with staff officers and senior NCOs.  That totals 144 men plus staff officers and senior NCOs, with officers and staff you’re usually a bit higher than 160.  So in my eyes, the RAW-MC is very undermanned, with under-strength units.

That said, the book does get bonus points for creating a Marine Corps that isn't a carbon copy of the USMC or RMC (Look I do like me some US Marines in Spaaaccceee, but nations should have their own military traditions rooted in their own histories or it just feels less real). While the units of the RAW-MC are very under manned by my standards, they are massively upgunned. Reading the book, I got the sense that just one 8 man platoon could walk through my company or perhaps even my battalion and not only win but win without any loses. These boys and girls go to war in mechanized suits that are co-piloted by semi-sapient AI's and carry enough weapons to make me feel somewhat embarrassed and under-armed. They have anti-armor missiles, heavy rail guns, grenades and more. Additionally, each suit can deploy sensor drones called whiskers and link in real time to the rest of their fellow Marines creating a full map of the battle field. This is really impressive and while Mr. Bauer's grasp on how much this would change infantry combat is imperfect, I'm not sure anyone could really grasp it until it happens. For that matter we also see the use of robots to carry gear and perform labor for the Marines (I'm not sure I approve of that, Marines should not outsource the cleaning of their own weapons. Of course that's easy for me to say, now that I never have to worry about turning in a weapon to the armory ever again!). This makes the RAW-MC feel really different and like something from the future instead of a modern military wearing different colors.

The RAW is involved in a cold war with the Lusitanian Empire, a British style Constitutional Monarchy that has gone aggressively expansionist. The two powers have run right smack into each other and someone needs to get out of the way. We honestly don't get a lot of information about the two nations, except for some off-hand comments about how the Empire is fairly predatory towards new territorial acquisitions and how they engage in underhanded shadowy tactics to engineer crisis' on their borders so they can move in and take over. Their actions in the book don't paint a pretty picture of them: funding pirates to weaken their enemies; trying to take out inconvenient planetary governments; attempting massive cover-ups, that kind of thing. That said the Empire doesn't come across as some evil that needs to be resisted at all costs. Nor does the Republic come across as a shining beacon of good (if anything we are given a number of complaints from the Montanans which mostly focus on the Republic being a neglectful government that doesn't live up to it's promises).

Honestly that's to the stories credit. Not every conflict is a massive war between good and evil, or an ideological twilight struggle to determine which way of life will continue and which won't. Sometimes it's just power politics or conflicting interests between two imperfect nations with imperfect but basically workable social and political systems. Honestly it's that kind of war that I think could stand to be examined more in military fiction. Don't get me wrong there's nothing wrong with epic wars of good and evil amidst the stars or grand struggles to tear down dysfunctional and predatory systems that need to go so people can live decent lives. Those are also things that happen in real life and in history... but they are relatively rare. After all, not every war is World War II and not every story needs to be World War II in space. If nothing else, looking at the wars that are more gray in moral character driven by things other than national survival or moral imperatives would open up more stories to the genre and I'm pretty sure that would be a good thing.
The story itself is fairly serviceable, while the good guys are on the ball and alert for trouble, the bad guys are also shown to be competent and able to get their hits in. While Lt. Pean's company does suffer heavy casualties to illustrate the cost of war, we don't really spend enough time with the Marines for their deaths to really register as the loss of an individual. Bluntly for that to work, Mr. Bauers really should have taken another 50 or 75 pages to spend time with Marines who weren't Lt. Pean so we would know who it was that died in that epic last stand or was caught out by the clever enemy counter tactic. Mr. Bauers is really good at showing that the bad guys are thinking hard on ways to kill you and won't just stand there waiting for you to complete your master plan and I appreciate that (this is a rarer thing in military fiction then I really like).  However, without time spent on expanding your characters and making them people in the eyes of your readers, heavy causalities just become what I call last stand porn where the characters win by the skin of their teeth but all those red shirts died and isn't that just awful. So I have to say Mr. Bauers failed to really bring home the terror of war. That said it's not an awful book. I definitely prefer it to a couple of the books I mentioned earlier. Lt. Paen is a lot easier to deal with than certain other military characters I could go into, despite my lingering dread that she might in fact be insane and we have a mentally unstable person leading enough firepower to reduce a good sized city to burning rubble. Because of that I am giving Unbreakable by W.C. Bauers a C+, it's better than average but not great. That said this was Mr. Bauers first book, on the very slim chance he reads this review, I want to encourage him to keep writing because I honestly thought there was heart and thought in this book. It just needs work.  

Next week, I’m showing y’all something good.  Folks we’re going to meet Fell’s Five.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Wolf's Empire Gladiator By Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan

Wolf's Empire Gladiator
By Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan

First, O Muse, sing of Galactic Rome, master of ten thousand worlds...
Prologue of the book

I was told about this book’s release by this review series’ own editor Dr. Ben Allen. Now I'll admit my main interest was in who was writing it, Ms. Christian, who I knew from her role as Commander Susan Ivanova on what remains one of my favorite science fiction shows Babylon 5 (Go Watch It!). That wasn't her only role, she's done a legion's worth of work in movies and television (both live action and voice acting). She's also done songwriting and written a number of books. Two of them are about her life (Babylon Confidential and My Life Among Freaks and Geeks) and a good number of them are about fictional events. Two of them are Babylon 5 books, which unfortunately don't appear to be available anymore. Her co-author Mr. Buchanan has a great amount of experience as well, having written and edited comics, short stories, and a number of movie scripts. He also co authored Babylon Confidential with Ms. Christian. So this is not the first time they've worked together but this is the first fictional work they've created. A society so interesting I've already started theorizing how it came to pass. Let's take a look at it shall we?

Empire of the Wolf is set in Rome, capital of the Roman Empire (In Spaaaaacccceeee!!!) an empire of over 10,000 worlds divided into eight provinces. Each province is governed as a direct fief by a single Great House (well seven great houses and the central province arranged around earth is ruled by the imperial house). Each house has it's own army, fleet, and government led by a provincial proconsul. The Houses are all represented in the Senate of Rome, which serves some vague function that the book doesn't go into (to be fair giving me a tour of Space Rome's government and society isn't the point of the book... But I want it to!). This is a government that the Roman Empire of our world never used. That said... the way it is presented in the book makes its feel like a government that the Romans could have arrived at with enough time and experimentation. After all the historical Rome was a state that changed it’s methods and form of government a great many times. Nor is it the only state to do so, after all modern day France is on it's 5th Republic since 1792 (and I have money on them creating the 6th before 2100, don't let me down French Rioters!). More importantly the characters in the story feel very Roman--very pre-christian Roman. Let me be clear here, there's no truck with Judeo-Christian values or with Jewish preachers of any stripe. This Rome worships at least some of the traditional Pagan Roman gods and is very proud of it. It preaches the traditional Roman values of loyalty, duty, pride and dignity even unto death. It is also vain, greedy, and cruel much like the historical Rome. Ms. Christian and Mr. Buchanan don't shy away from either the virtues or the vices of the Roman way of life but rather try to update that way of life, making the changes necessary for such things to make sense. One example of this is using real-time internet voting to decide if a gladiator lives or dies in the arena. Like the Historical Rome, our Space Rome is expansionist and rather casually refers to all peoples outside of it's empire as barbarians. This is mostly aimed at aliens, as every alien character we see in this story is a slave, which our Roman characters consider good and proper. Now to be fair there are human slaves as well, but slavery does seem to be considered the natural role of aliens in the empire, which is another change as the historical Rome was able to accept outsiders as Romans, provided they civilized themselves and adapted proper Roman values and behavior of course. Let me talk about our characters and the plot itself.

Two great houses--the Viridian and the Sertorians--have nearly torn apart the Empire with their civil war. The Sertorians started it when they attacked the Viridians, trying to seize a minor ice planet on the edge of the Viridian provincial border. Millions have died; hundreds of planets were bombarded; thousands of cities have been fought over; and every house in the empire has taken sides. Things have gotten so bad that the Emperor with the full weight of Imperial forces has stepped in and announced no more warfare. Instead the civil war will be settled in a series of gladiatorial games during the festival of Jupiter. This is because the fight is more then a scuffle over territory, it's also become an ideological war. House Viridian is the traditionalist house in the Empire, preaching a number of virtues such as duty, honor, loyalty to family and the gods and so on. They have a number of vices as well, they're very conservative, stubborn, and bluntly they're a bunch of sexists. Meanwhile the Sertorians are radicals, while they aren't sexist, they preach an ideology of genetic purity and will to power; where the weak suffer what they must and the strong do what they will. Declaring themselves the new gods and the old traditional gods of Rome to be dead. That's right we're dealing with Internet Atheist Space Roman Nazis here. Honestly I tend to roll my eyes at villains like these but Ms. Christian and Mr. Buchanan avoid much of the worse of it by keeping the story intensely personal and focused (I'll get to this) despite it's rather galactic stakes. Instead of looking at their policies on a large scale or drowning in the millions of victims that such policies would produce, they give a look at the first hand behavior of the elite of such a society and the kind of people who would climb to the top in such an environment. They are brutal and savage monsters locked in eternal competition with each other for every scrap of power, prestige, and position they can get and through our main character we get our faces rubbed in it.

Accala Viridius Camilla, is a Roman noblewoman of House Viridian and the main character of our book. Accala wants to help her house defeat the Sertorians on the battlefield but women aren't allowed in the military. Her motives aren't entirely impersonal, when the war began her mother and little brother were on that minor little ice planet that started this whole thing. In fact they were at ground zero when the Sertorians started bombing the planet and she wants revenge for their deaths. When the Senate finally puts it foot down and refuses to let her in, she becomes a gladiator for the chance to face the Sertorians and kill them. A fact that has scandalized most of Roman society and set her father against her. When her father's manages to lock her out of the gladiatorial games, she finds herself resorting to drastic measures. This brings in Gaius Sertorius Crassus, who wants her to join House Sertorian's team, in return she'll get her brother back (who is alive) and Crassus will help her kill Licinus Sertorius Malleolus, a man who happens to be both Crassus' main rival for power within the house and the guy who personally led the bombing that killed Accala's mother. Accala's still on the fence about the whole join team bad guy plan when her Uncle, the proconsul of House Viridian pulls her aside and suggests this is a great way to get the secret behind House Sertorian's strength and to set up a double cross that will allow House Viridian to win the games, win the war, and in the process put an end to Space Nazis in the Space Roman Empire.

To do this Accala has to go into the very belly of the beast and spend a very long time alone with people who hate everything she stands for and want to turn her into a copy of themselves in all their narcissistic, sociopathic glory. I know those words get tossed around a lot but they are literally told to worship themselves as gods (and their proconsul as a god above them of course) and to not give a solitary damn about anyone else around them. Reading this section was incredibly difficult because I was reading a headstrong girl in over her head surrounded by terrible people who wanted to use her and turn her into a copy of themselves. It was very well written, which frankly made it harder to read. To be honest this section convinced me that Ms. Christian was fully engaged in the writing of this novel, no offense or slight meant but there are a lot of co-writing projects that basically turn into one person writes an outline and the other person writes the entire book from that. While I haven't read Babylon Confidential, I am very aware of Ms. Christian struggles with addiction and the fact that she made lot of self destructive choices. The experience of those choices and struggles display themselves to full effect in first half of the book. Especially for me, because while I've not gone down that rabbit hole (this is not a statement of moral superiority on my part, I've screwed up plenty in my past but by a combination of temperament and luck managed to avoid the worse of it.). I've had to watch plenty of other people do it and it's never fun or easy to see. Even in fiction. In this case you're almost thankful when the blood sports start, because watching people murder each other is going to be easier to read. The violence is very well written, communicating the swift jarring nature of violence and how easy it is for things to change and to lose track of things you really shouldn't. Mr. Buchanan has a background in the martial arts and I suspect this was mostly his work. It's not the best I've seen but it's way better than average and continues to suggest to me that writers who want to write about violence might be well served to join a gym so they can get a small taste of it. It turns out that the gladiator games are only the beginning of it as things spin out of control, Accala finds herself having to make decisions and choices that are going to affect the entire Empire. Like it or not Accala finds herself with no choice but to become a hero, in front of an audience of hundreds of billions.

Wolf’s Empire gives us a story with a tight focus, that of a 19 year old girl willing to go to any lengths to avenge her mother and save her brother with very large stakes. While about revenge it does manage to avoid preaching the old chestnut of the emptiness of revenge, instead we see fully and in detail what the quest can cost a person on every level. Accala may get her revenge but doing so is going to leave her battered and possibly broken, if not worse. Which frankly makes for a better story than some old mentor droning on about it. Accala is a very human character which helps greatly because she carries the book on her willful and determined shoulders. In short, the story works and works well but I kind of feel it needed more time to fully unwind and I was left feeling that I was purposefully given a very narrow view of the culture of Space Rome.  This is something that leaves a guy like me with an Anthropology degree very unsatisfied. Still I do hope to see more novels about this setting in general and I feel this was a good start, despite having an ending that leaves things open for a 2nd book, it tells a complete story which is always a good thing. I also came into this book with low expectations, I mean seriously, a book about Rome in Spaaaacceeee? But Ms. Christian and Mr. Buchanan managed to surprise me. For this I'm giving Wolf's Empire Gladiator a B.

Next week, I go back in military science fiction! See you soon!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl By David Barnett

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl
By David Barnett

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl (or GS Mechanical Girl as I'm going to refer to it for the rest of the review) is the 4th novel by David Barnett, which was released in 2013. David Barnett was born in England in 1970. He was a journalist for 26 years working across North England and later expanded his writing to fiction; his first novel “Hinterland” was released in 2005. He has since written eight novels (counting Calling Major Tom, his most recent one), six short stories that I am aware of and two comics using the open source character Jenny Everywhere (which is something we'll have to discuss another day). GS Mechanical Girl was his 4th novel and is dedicated to his wife Claire with whom he has two children, a boy and a girl.

GS Mechanical Girl is a modern pulp novel set in a steampunk universe, so if you don't like pulp or steampunk, this isn't the book for you. Let's just get that right out of the way. It's actually a fairly good example of modern pulp, in that it tries to model itself after that older style while modernizing it and dumping some of the more... cringe-worthy elements. Let me talk a bit about pulp fiction in general before I dive into the book. Pulp fictions were stories that ranged from horror to westerns to science fiction (usually heavy on the fiction, light on the science however) that were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper and released in magazines. There are a large number of authors who either got their start or worked completely in this setting (men like Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G Wells, Issac Asimov, and Robert Howard for example). I am a fan of good number of these writers and frankly we owe a debt to them. A large number of the archetypes and characters that stubbornly remain in our culture after nearly a hundred years are from this time period and these works. Characters like the Shadow, Conan the Barbarian, Tarzan, and Zorro to give some examples. For that matter, the pulps were one of the ancestors to modern comic books (among other things) so without those magazines or these characters, we wouldn't have Ironman, Batman, or Captain America--and you can forget about Superman or Spiderman. Something to consider the next time you line up to see the latest Marvel blockbuster in all it's glorious cheese. It's hard to make any real sweeping statements about pulp fiction but it was often known for being lurid and sensationalist. Modern pulp has stepped back from that a bit (after all we have fan fiction for that now) and often prefers to try playing with the expectations of the old genre and updating itself for modern sensibilities. To be blunt about it, modern pulp wants to tell stories in classic settings but ditch the racism and sexism of those eras, or at the very least subvert them. So let's take a look at Gideon Smith shall we?

It is the year 1890 and the sun does not set on the reign of her Majesty Queen Victoria or on the British Empire. Since the failed American Revolution of 1775, the Empire has only expanded. Now ruling nearly 3/4ths of the world directly or indirectly. London has become in a real sense the capital of the world and bids to become the capital of the entire human race. It is an industrial world, a world powered by gears, steam and clockwork. A world of factory ships, clockwork airships and the men and women who work them. Gideon Smith is 24 years old and the son of the owner and captain of the Cold Drake: a gear powered fishing trawler in the town of Sandsend. By day he works with his father laboring to bring in an ever decreasing catch of fish, by night he reads the absolutely true adventures of Captain Lucian Trigger “Hero of the Empire” as related by Dr. John Ross released in a magazine. While Gideon would love to see the world and experience his own adventurers, won't catch themselves. That is until his loving father (I'm coming back to this) takes the boat out without him one day and disappears. After a brief but hard bout of mourning Gideon finds a number of clues that convince him that whatever it was, it wasn't the ocean that took away his father. Which means if he's going to find out what happened and get justice for his dad, he'll have to get Captain Lucian Trigger's, Hero of the Empire, help. But what if Captain Trigger's help isn't everything it was cracked up to be?

Gideon is going to travel across England to shores beyond to meet a colorful cast of characters, some of which he thinks he knows. Characters such as Ms. Rowena Fanshawe “ Belle of the Airways”, a woman air-ship pilot running her own business the opinions of men be damned (not that she doesn't like the right sort of man mind you).  She's handy, bold, brave and honestly I kinda like her. There's also Louis Cockayne, who I definitely like if only for his ability to wind Gideon up. Cockayne is a Yankee sky pirate (This review is completely justified just for letting me write that line) who plays the role of antagonistic mentor to Gideon Smith, teaching a number of life lessons while also just flat out fucking with his head. It becomes very clear that Cockayne is fairly fond of Gideon but isn't gonna cut him any slack because of that. As an older brother who has been informed that he is indeed an asshole... I kinda approve. Not of everything Cockayne does, but of him being a glorious asshole. There's also Mr. Bent, a fat, loud, low class, lewd news reporter pulled in because he was determined to uncover the truth of the Jack the Ripper murders. Mr. Barnett avoids over using Mr. Bent, which is good because with characters like this a little goes a long way. As it stands Mr. Bent is amusing without becoming annoying. We also have Bram Stoker and a certain friend of his appearing (not the one you think though). Bram and his friend are on their own mission but it overlaps with Gideon's pretty well. Lastly, I'm going to address the Mechanical Girl in the title. Maria is girl built entirely of clockwork who has to be wound up every so often. A girl who despite all of that is a person who while personally blameless still springs from a dark origin. Gideon runs into her in the mansion of her creator on the way towards London suffering from the abuse of the household caretaker. It's when Maria asks to be rescued from the man that I really warmed up to Gideon. Gideon doesn't hem and haw about whether or not Maria has the right to control access to her own body, he decides anyone who can declare they don't like this and ask for help deserves to be treated like a real person. Gideon has his faults mind you, such as being horribly slow to realize that maybe those magazines he love might not be entirely truthful about the world outside his home..

That said, the magazines were right about one thing. The world is full of monsters, vampires, mummies and worst of all wicked men who do not care about their fellow humans. The world also has plenty of people willing to fight and bleed to protect their fellow humans from those monsters. It is also a world full of marvels both wicked and amazing. We see most of this through Gideon's eyes, although Mr. Barnett also jumps to show us Bram's and Maria's point of view. Frankly I am somewhat grateful for this because there are times I want to beat Gideon with a clue bat until something breaks. Gideon Smith is a good guy, he's mostly honest, he's brave, selfless, and willing to help but God Above He Is Dense. You know I would like to see an honest, brave guy, who is actually insightful and clever as our hero. As it stands there seems to be a divide in a lot of fiction. Our hero can be noble, brave and true; or shifty, tricksy, and clever. A note to future writers, you can mix these traits up just a touch. Seriously try it! You might like it!

This story also takes a while to get started. This is also Gideon's fault as he spends several chapters trying to convince himself to do what he decided he should do about 37 pages into the novel! A bit of inner conflict is a good thing in a novel but not when I need the protagonist to get off his pale lily white butt so we can get this party started. For God Sake Bram Stoker was practically the main character as far as I was concerned for a chunk of this a novel with Gideon’s bloody name in the title! I agree that you don't want to go to fast but you should also realize when a section has served it's purpose and move on. Or to put it bluntly, stop malingering and get on with the story! That said when the story actually gets started it's a good one. The character interactions are fairly believable. They don't act exactly like 19th century English subjects but that's okay because they're from a very different world then our 1890 AD. The important thing is they don't act like 21st century Americans in funny clothes (I will admit they are a bit closer to 21st century acting then stereotyped 19th century but these are adventurers on the edge of society so it works). I should also speak to the treatment of British Society here. Basically through the plot and the treatment of various characters the sexism and classism of the time is put on full display. I have to compliment Mr. Barnett for being willing to put it on display. I also compliment him on not going too far with it and decrying the society as unsaveable and suggesting everyone who is part of it is a monster in human form. The British Empire comes off as a morally ambiguous enterprise in this book but one that manages to create a decent life for hundreds of millions of people and protects the world from even worse fates. Which is about the best you can expect from empires perhaps. The action is well done but is somewhat removed in it's descriptions, it's not as visceral as some other writers I've reviewed. Still it's done with a good solid effort and I appreciated it. I would encourage Mr. Barnett and other writers to maybe take a martial arts class or get into a boxing ring though. While I don't want anyone seriously injured, I think being punched in the face and punching someone else a couple of times really helps with your ability to describe it.

Another note: despite very clearly leading into it's sequel and not neatly resolving everything in the plot, the book does tell a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an ending. I know that doesn't seem like a big thing but those of you who have read a number of my past reviews will recall me pounding the drum against ending on a cliffhanger. We're paying a full story price, we should get a full story! This is after-all a capitalist society, which means among other things we should insist on getting our money's worth. While it has a slow start and a main character who can be a touch exasperating, what we get is a fairly solid and fun tale taking us into the British Empire that never was but also refuses to shy away from the dark underbelly and warts of the time without getting obsessed with that dark side. Because of this I am giving Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett a B. A great recovery from a slow start, interesting characters in a world I want to know more about and a genre I love really help.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.