Fly me to the Moon.

Apollomoonlanding

Between July 16, 1969 and December 7, 1972, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) managed to land six missions on the Moon.  Apollo 13 was, of course, famously aborted when an on-board explosion crippled the vehicle and the astronauts relied on the lunar module as a lifeboat for their return.  With the successful completion of the Apollo 17 mission, manned exploration of the Moon came to an end, but 41 years later authors are still chronicling the missions, speculating about the future of man’s conquest of the moon and writing alternate history based on speculation about lunar missions.

I was born just shortly before the last Apollo mission, so missed the excitement involved with lunar exploration.  As a child I witnessed the Space Shuttle program from inception to eventual retirement and have always held the exploration of space in great regard.  Lately, lunar missions (either real or speculative) have been on my mind, so today’s post is dedicated to three books regarding the Moon, one historical and two speculative.

Rocket Men-Craig NelsonRocketMen

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Viking Press

Publication Date: June 30, 2009

First on the list is Rocket Men by Craig Nelson, a biography of the United States space program, culminating in a description of Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the moon.  From the closing days of the Second World War, Nelson traces the history of manned space flight to NASA’s defining achievement of a man on the Moon.  It’s a fascinating look at the race between the United States and the Soviet Union, one in which the Soviet Union took an early lead and the United States focused their efforts to catch and surpass their cold war foes, eventually culminating in the Apollo program.  I’m only about half way through but find myself captivated by his account of the formation of NASA and their counterparts in the Soviet Union.  I feel confident in recommending Nelson’s biography of the program (after all, I already know how it ends) for anyone who has an interest  in the subject.  Looking around on the internet, Nelson has been criticized for a few technical errors in his account, but, like most of the populace, I’m not a rocket scientist and a few quibbles do not detract from a wonderful account of the early days of space-flight.

Back to the Moon-Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson

Backtothemoon

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Baen Books

Publication Date: December 27, 2011

Back to the Moon is a nice piece of speculative fiction by Les Johnson and Travis Taylor, who also wrote a neat novel (with John Ringo) about the invasion of Earth by a multitude of Von Neumann machines in the 2008 novel, Von Neumann’s War. Back to the Moon tells the a story of the near future in which the United States has finally refocused the mission of NASA on returning to the Moon.  Using a modified vision of the Constellation Program, the United States has once again embarked on a manned moon mission, but they have competition from the private sector in the form of a Virgin Galactic inspired space-plane/lunar orbiter by the name of Dreamscape.  Gary Childers, president of Space Excursions, is an entrepreneur in the mould of Richard Branson and also interested in bringing the experience of space flight and lunar excursions to the common man (well, those who can afford the fee).  Space Excursions is also interested in beating NASA to the Moon, although they aren’t prepared for a landing.  Meanwhile, China has become the successor of the defunct Soviet Union and is also striving to beat the Americans back to the Moon.

When Childer’s Dreamscape vehicle manages to orbit the Moon in advance of NASA’s efforts, the pilot and civilian crew are astonished to receive a distress signal from a crew of Chinese Taikonauts.  They’ve beaten the Americans to the Moon using stolen technology (ironically, from both NASA and Space Excursions) but flubbed the landing.  Once discovered, it becomes a race against time for NASA to launch a recovery mission before the Chinese succumb to their circumstances.

Now I suppose naysayers could nitpick this novel by calling it a “rah-rah” America first bit of fluff, but I found it a fun, pulpy read.  Taylor knows his stuff, after all, he is an actual rocket scientist, and while I would never describe his work as “literary” in the classical sense, he tells a compelling story in an accessible manner.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains-Ian Sales

Adriftontheseaofrains

Source: Bought copy (Kindle)

Publisher: Whippleshield Books

Publication Date: April, 2012

Adrift on the Sea of Rains, is the first in a quartet of proposed novels by U.K. novelist Ian Sales and can be characterized as both speculative fiction and alternate history.  It concerns a group of astronauts who become stranded on a lunar base after a nuclear exchange by the Soviet Union and United States.  Their only hope for rescue is a salvaged Nazi Wunderwaffe, a “torsion-field” generator that can allow them passage through alternate universes, in hope of finding one where the Earth has not been destroyed.  Complicating their situation is the problem of how to get home in the event they find an Earth to return to.

Now in all honesty, I haven’t read this book yet.  It’s on my intent to read list, but having perused the first chapter, I have little doubt that it’s going to be a compelling, although possibly dismal, novel.  Ian Sales appears to have taken a more literary road with regard to his writing style and it shows. His characters are maudlin (granted, you would be too if you’d witnessed the destruction of the Earth and faced a slow death on a desolate rock) and somewhat nihilistic. He’s also managed to win the 2012 BSFA (British Science Fiction Award) for short fiction.

I realize I’m not doing justice to his novella in this brief description, but want to inform you of a talent that has recently come upon my alternate history radar.  I hope to give you a more detailed report once able to spend some time with what appears to be an emerging talent.

 

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The Ethical Assassin–David Liss

the Ethical AssassinI probably wouldn’t have said it without the beer, but I’d had the beer. 

“Okay, fine. Meat is murder.  But you know what else is murder?  Wait, let me think.  Oh, yeah.  I remember now: Murder.  Murder is murder.  That’s right.  Killing a couple of people who are minding their own business.  Breaking into their home and shooting them in the head.  That’s murder too, I think.  The Smiths have an album about that?”

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Publication Date: March, 2006

Lemuel Altick is just a kid, selling encyclopedias door to door in the trailer park township of Meadowbrook Grove, a charming accumulation of worn down trailers permeated with the musk of the local pig farm waste lagoon.  He’s good at it, a natural seller, and the profit he makes from this travelling summer job (Champion Encyclopedias!) should just about cover tuition for college in the fall.  So, when he manages to charm his way into one last trailer before knocking off for the day, he’s ecstatic.  Between the disinterested palooka by unlikely name of “Bastard” and his gullible “wife” Karen, it’s an easy score for a talented salesman like Lem.  And so it goes—the pitch is made—the cheque is written, and Lem is on his way to a $1200 commission. Everything’s clockwork, right up until the moment a spikey haired blonde assassin in black jeans and a button down shirt bursts in on them and shoots his almost clients in the head.  Lem’s commission, and possibly his life, are now forfeit.

Luckily for him, this particular assassin has a peculiar code of ethics, not so much the “no women, no children” of Leon Montana (The Professional), but rather one in which he will not kill those he considers innocent.  However, his definition of “innocent” is the peculiar part.  So, Lem is offered a deal.  His silence, coupled with his fingerprints on the murder weapon—just in case—and things will be cool.  Unknown to either Lem or the assassin, things are most definitely not “cool”, as Bastard and Karen are much more than the uneducated hicks they seemed pre-mortem.  Add a corrupt cop, a wannabe pedophile, a low-level mobster, a meth operation, and most importantly, $40 000 in missing cash to the mix and you have the bizarre ride that is The Ethical Assassin.

I first saw a copy of The Ethical Assassin in a store window while walking down Queen St. West in Toronto, way back in 2006.  What caught my attention were the title and the question that popped to mind.  Is it possible to be ethical when one’s chosen profession is the killing of others?  After all, murder is not exactly what the masses would call an “ethical” profession.  Sure, there are reasons to kill: self-defense, the “politics by other means” known as war, maybe even (if you’re pro-death sentence) execution as punishment for one’s crimes. Melford Kean, the titular “Ethical Assassin” kills not for money, or revenge, but due to a deep rooted—and decidedly odd—sense of morality.

Kean is not so much an ethical assassin as he is an ideological one.  Charming on the surface, yet more empathetic to the animal kingdom than his fellow Homo sapiens, Melford has an uncanny ability to argue his position, making an intriguing portrait of a zealot.   Mired in the idea of moral relativism, what seems/is amoral to Lem, Melford accepts as the price to be paid for his activism by other means.  Without giving out too much detail as to why Melford does what he does, let’s just say it’s not about the money or the drugs but more about his profound sense of egalitarianism of species.

It becomes obvious during the course of the novel that Lem, while terrified of Melford’s predilection towards extreme violence, is also somewhat taken in by his charming nature, and while not exactly becoming friends, they share a relationship that borders on it.  And that’s the thing about Melford—he’s a zealot, and a persuasive one.  Lem is smart enough not to be taken in by his ideology, but their time together and some of his subsequent choices show that he’s definitely influenced by Melford’s arguments, even if only on a subconscious level.

As for Lem, he’s a charming portrait of a boy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  An earnest and upstanding kid, simply trying to make the best of the bad deal he’s been dealt in life, he spends the novel trying to extricate himself from a situation not of his making while not getting killed in the  process.  There’s some irony in the fact that he doesn’t really have to worry about Melford—ethically Lem is in the clear—but his perceived association to the crime by those seeking revenge, and the $40K in drug money.  His problems are also compounded by Melford’s desire to look out for him, all the while proselytizing about his system of ethics while trying to sort out the situation in a way that keeps Lem from harm.

While Lem and Melford are the focus of David Liss’ novel, the villains of the story are interesting in their own right.  The relationship between B.B. and Desiré, meth kingpin/pedophile wannabe and his sexy former addict/consigliere, a truly vile corrupt cop by the name of Joe Doe and a former mafia heavy by the unlikely name of Kenny Rogers (hence the nickname “the gambler) demonstrates an odd alliance of interesting characters.  B.B. seems an unlikely kingpin, more concerned with “advancing” the moral character of young men, while Desiré finds herself questioning her allegiance to a man who may have saved her from the gutter but is on a downward spiral into behavior she can’t countenance.  Doe is a delusional character who thinks he’s the smartest man in the room while continually proving he’s not, and the Gambler is actually somewhat sympathetic.  He’s got Lou Gehrig’s disease, and while his chosen profession is suspect, it’s the only way a former mob heavy can pay his mounting medical costs.  Brought together in opposition to the partnership that is Lem and Melford, they all discover that the ethical assassin is not someone to be trifled with.

There are times when The Ethical Assassin feels like social activism parading as fiction, yet it’s so well written that the author can be forgiven for injecting his particular world view.  David Liss has been interviewed on several occasions regarding the animal rights message of the novel and is very adamant that he’s not suggesting direct action, claiming that the character of Melford is written so outrageously as to make this obvious.  However, there are times in the novel where his claim falls short and it devolves into a lecture on the evils of both the commercial farming of animals and the demerits of choosing to be a carnivore.  I’ll take his word on that (re: direct action) but reserve the right to question his sincerity as to whether or not he’s lecturing the reader.  It’s a narrow path to follow, creating such a charming and persuasive character while still showing the flaws of their argument.  It’s also hard to review without delving into the controversial subject.

Having said that, The Ethical Assassin is a charming novel, well written and entertaining, and deserving its place in the pantheon of unusual crime fiction. 

B

On honesty and Book Reviews

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” ~Oscar Wilde

Anyone who’s browsed through this blog may have noticed over time that most of the reviews I put up are generally laudatory.  There’s a reason for that.  What with a finite amount of time for both reading and writing, owing to, well…life, I generally finish books I like and stop reading those I don’t.  There are times however when I will finish a book that I’m not well disposed toward.  Usually, in that case it’s a book that a publisher has been kind enough to send me for review purposes, although there are times when I’ve bought a book and said to myself, “dammit, I paid for this…I’m damn well reading it!”  Having said that, I reserve the right to give an honest opinion of any book sent to me for review.  It may not be a recommendation that you read it, but anyone willing to send a review copy deserves the satisfaction of a review for their efforts, whether it be good or bad.

 As an example, awhile back Titan Books sent me a copy of Kim Newman’s JagoMy only other experience with Mr. Newman’s work was the delightfully wicked Anno Dracula, and on the basis of that experience, I was quite excited to read something else by someone I consider a superior genre (that genre being Horror) author.  Alas, while the premise was intriguing, it proved to be an overly long behemoth of a novel that suffered from a lack of brevity.  The same novel could have been told better in about half the space and by the time I was done reading it I was more relieved that it was over than excited about writing a review.  That review is still forthcoming, but it will be written.  Quid pro quo, remember?

Of the books this past year that I’ve finished and chosen not to review, John Scalzi’s Redshirts stands out as a novel that I a. bought, b. read to the end, and c. hated.  Yes, yes, I know he won a Hugo, but to me, it was little more than fluff, a derivative bit of fan fiction with several codas tacked on the end in a failed effort to appear “literary.”  As for the Hugo, well, it reinforced my opinion that some awards are more about good marketing or an author’s popularity.  Granted, there are many rave reviews of Redshirts on-line, so I’ll direct you to them, or maybe suggest that you read a much superior novel by the same author, Agent to the Stars.  As for Redshirts, the best I can say about it is that it didn’t take up a lot of my time.

So, what’s the point of this diatribe?  Well, basically this: I want to institute a slight format change to the site.  I want to let you, the reader, know where I, the reviewer, got my source material, whether it be a review copy from a publisher, off an advance review site such as NetGalley, or something I bought at the local bookstore. I’ll include this information before the body of the review. That way you’re forewarned of any biases in my reviewing.  I hope you don’t find any.

Bitter Seeds–Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds

“The price has been negotiated.  It will be paid.”

“The Hell it will!  Tell it to sod off.”

“My friends.”  Will spoke in a rigidly neutral tone.  The strain of maintaining his composure and concentration showed in the beads of moisture on his forehead.  “One does not renege on these negotiations…At best we can control the circumstances of the payment.”

At the dawn of the 20th century, many nations looked toward the creation of a superior human through the study of eugenics, a scientific pursuit that was taken to horrifying extremes under the Nazi regime during the 40’s.  In pursuit of the Übermensch, physicians such as Joseph Mengele became notorious for their barbaric experimentation and disregard for human life, while Adolf Hitler’s attitude towards race and racial “purification” (aryanization) directly led to the Holocaust and the genocide of over six million Jews by war’s end in 1945.  Once the atrocities of the camps were exposed to the wider world, the concept of eugenics fell out of favour with the world community.  Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds is the story of an alternate 20th century in which the Nazi’s were successful in bringing about the Übermensch and placing England in such desperate straits as to delve into forces both unnatural and malevolent to counter their Nazi foes.

While on a mission to extract a German defector from Franco’s Spain during the Spanish Civil War, Lieutenant-Commander Raybould Marsh of the S.I.S. (Secret Intelligence Service) witnesses something beyond his ability to comprehend when his contact spontaneously combusts right before his eyes.  All that’s left of the informant’s belongings are some charred papers and the remnants of a remarkable, almost unbelievable film.  Once the film is reconstructed, it shows German test subjects purported to be exhibiting paranormal abilities.  One subject seemingly walks through walls, another crushes objects with his mind and yet a third demonstrates the ability to create and shape fire to his purposes.  Yet it is a young woman who bears no obvious outward manifestation that will prove to be the most dangerous weapon of this Nazi arsenal. 

Once the war begins in earnest, this group of Wunderwaffen prove their worth, forcing Marsh and his mentor in the secret service, John Stephenson, to enlist the help of Marsh’s college friend—and Warlock—Lord William Beauclerk.  Together, they assemble a unit (code-named Milkweed) comprised of Britain’s foremost magical talents to “negotiate” with otherworldly presences known as Eidolons to assure the safety of the home countries.  However, the assistance of these demonic forces comes with a price—a blood price—that quickly escalates as England’s situation deteriorates.  Beyond the physical blood price is the spiritual one as these patriots commit reprehensible acts upon their own countrymen to secure the continued cooperation of their supernatural allies.  As the novel goes on, the British find themselves in a morally suspect situation, and Will begins to suspect that the price of victory—even to stop the evil that is the Third Reich—may not be worth what they’ve sacrificed, both physically and spiritually.  The morally dubious English alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union that in reality allowed an allied victory is in this alternate history replaced with a morally bankrupt alternative in the form of the mysterious Eidolons.

Bitter Seeds is a wonderfully well written novel.  It’s also incredibly dark and depressing, especially as the reader slowly realizes the depths to which the ostensive “good-guys” will sink in their moral corruption.  The actions of the British Warlocks stretch the meaning of the phrase, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” to incredulity.  Without giving away any spoilers, the price to be paid for each victory “negotiated” with the Eidolons is an assault on the basic morality of otherwise honourable men.  The novel poses the question of whether or not the ends can always justify the means.  What price would you pay; what heinous actions would you undertake, in the name of the greater good?  Could you kill a child if it would end the war?  How about two?  Or twenty?  Who decides what the greater good is or what price is acceptable, especially if one’s essential morality is lost in the process?  

Of the characters in the novel, it is somewhat ironic that Will, the facilitator of the Milkweed project, is the only character to stop long enough to examine himself and his motives.  He begins the novel as a patriot who wants to do something for his country and as a byproduct impress his brother, and further to be seen as something more than an aristocratic fop.  Later, he comes to question the road they’ve travelled and the price of his actions.  Marsh is a less introspective character, beginning the novel as the good son, modeling his career on that of his adoptive father (the aforementioned John Stephenson, a patriotic yet cold and cunning man) and slowly losing his moral compass as tragedy envelops his family and in his desperation to foil the Nazi Übermensch.

Surprisingly, Tregillis gives us a well-rounded depiction of the Nazi super soldiers, from the principled Klaus to the amoral Reinhardt, the sympathetic simpleton that is Kammler and the self-conscious Heike, and of course, the inscrutable Gretel, to whom everything and everyone is a pawn in a game only she comprehends.   The novel also focuses on small scenes while allowing the greater historical events to fall into place as the stage in which their story plays out.  The greater events of the war, such as the Dunkirk evacuation or operation Sea Lion are mentioned merely as background, but a raid by British forces through supernatural means on the farm that acts as a base to the Übermensch takes up a good portion of the narrative.

Credible world-building is an essential factor in the creation of a believable fantasy novel, even more so in the case of an alternate history, and Tregillis manages to successfully interweave fantasy and science fiction into what would otherwise be categorized as an alternate history novel.  All the essential elements of alternate history are there, twisted into his vision of what might be if the element of fantasy is added.  Dunkirk ends quite differently due to the addition of the Übermensch and their far seer, while the invasion of England is forestalled not by the natural vagaries of the weather (as in reality) but by the mystical wall of nature created by the Eidolons.

I cannot stress enough how very much this is a novel structured around the examination of morality and the horrors that occur when ones moral code is compromised.  Will recoils in horror and devolves into madness as he realizes the evil he has unleashed into the world may be worse than the one they are fighting, while Marsh degenerates from a principled patriot into an obsessive who allows revenge to overcome his principles.  It becomes a matter of the ends justify the means to Marsh, while Will continually questions whether or not they have unduly compromised their humanity.

Bitter Seeds left me with a feeling of profound sadness. I allowed Ian Tregillis to create an empathy in me towards the majority of his characters (yes, even the Übermensch) and then watched them devolve into morally bankrupt shells of their former selves.  Tregillis also left me with an unrepentant desire to continue reading of their decline—or possible salvation—in the next book of the Milkweed triptych, The Coldest War.

B+