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Contact Carl Sagan
Contact Contact follows Eleanor Arroway on her quest to find evidence of extraterrestrial life in the galaxy. Arroway, the main protagonist, is a woman. I have probably read a little over 100 science fiction novels in my life - a number that makes me a fan, but not an expert - and I would guess that 10% of those novels were lead by a female protagonist. There are more that have developed female characters, but few see the story from a woman’s perspective. Not only is the story told from one woman’s perspective, it is told from a woman’s perspective in the general sense. Arroway excels in her field of astronomy but must fight to be heard and acknowledged in the male-dominated profession. Its focus on the female protagonist and the female perspective makes it, given the numbers of women in science, a very important novel.

Contact very much loves the “science” in “science fiction” - specifically astronomy. It dives deep into the known and theoretical phenomenon of the field. After Arroway’s radio observatory detects an extraterrestrial message the world works to decode it with mathematics. When the message is decoded it is revealed to contain schematics for building a machine of unknown function. A massive engineering project is undertaken by the nations of the world to build the alien machine with heretofore unknown technology.

What made Contact the most quintessential “science” science fiction book for me was the lack of a big payoff. Not only was there a lack any great action scene, there wasn’t even a satisfying revelation at the end. Sure, the scientists and select government officials know what was found when Ellie and the other four travelers went down that wormhole, but society only thinks of it as a failure. Science doesn’t have dramatic payoffs. It has years and years of incremental gains and disappointing results until slowly the solution coalesces.

In addition to a strong statement in favor of feminism, the story is built around Sagan’s political opposition to nuclear weapons. “The Message”, and “The Machine” that follows, are global phenomena. Many nations play a role in acquiring and decoding the message. The Americans need the Soviets and vice versa. Given the rotation of the Earth there is no way one nation can acquire the entire message without receivers all over the Earth. The multi-layered complexity of the message means there is no way one nation has the expertise to crack it alone. A nationless idealism pervades in the post-Message world. Cold War politics are a hindrance to achieving a grand goal. Transnationalism surpasses nationalism and xenophobia. Humans have been so selfish and nasty and warlike before, but this will bring in a new age of cooperation.

The aliens, the five interstellar travelers learn, won’t let us partake in interstellar travel or the great engineering projects of the galaxy if we don’t shape up. It’s a similar theme I saw in The Day the Earth Stood Still, where the warlike humans are put on notice that their violence will not be tolerated. We are children in a universe of accomplished adults. I admit to finding this theme somewhat distasteful. If Earth were ever contacted by extraterrestrial intelligence it would make sense that the aliens were much more advance than humans. It’s not that I dislike the fact that they are more advanced but rather what that is used for. The paternalistic aliens are a deus ex machina for whatever societal ill the author is criticizing.

Sagan sets up The Message as a battleground between science and religion. One side thinks it is a message from intelligent life, the other from God. Arroway spars with two religious leaders, Billy Jo Rankin and Palmer Joss, over the meaning of The Message. While she easily vanquishes the more fanatical Rankin, she befriends Joss. It is here that this battle between science and religion goes from confrontational to compromising. Joss is able to see past strict adherence of scripture while Arroway’s experience on The Machine opens to her the possibility of a creator, deep within the galaxy.

This is not Arroway becoming religious though. She most certainly rejects belief without evidence. But that does not mean she is devoid of spiritualism. She views the universe through a different lens than Joss, but they end up having the same feelings about it. As logical as the novel was, it’s also a novel for dreamers. Ellie believes, to the detriment of her career, that intelligent life is out there. For all the hard science in her brain she still loves to gaze at the stars.
434 pages
This product was released around 1985 by Mass Market Paperback
I consumed this around January 2015
More: Contact
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 1/26/2015 9:54:39 PM
Nightfall Isaac Asimov
Nightfall Nightfall is a story that is very much the essence of science fiction. What would happen if something was different? Take away a part of our world that we take for granted and see how things would develop. Then give it back.

The planet Lagash has six suns. Its inhabitants have never experienced the darkness of night. What would total darkness feel like if you had never experienced it? How would you combat it if it never occurred to you that it was a problem?

Isaac Asimov was one of the first writers I was introduced to in the science fiction genre. Like Arthur C. Clarke he was a giant whose stories embraced science. Nightfall is thick with it. The law of universal gravitation and heliocentric orbit are part of the plot. More importantly, the process through which these theories were developed is part of the plot. For it is not facts that make up science, rather, it is the scientific method that investigates observations and develops them into facts - and then develops those facts into better facts.

The story’s protagonists - its heroes - are archaeologists, astronomers, and psychologists. The events leading up to Nightfall entail the uncovering of a previously unknown danger. Archaeologists on Lagash discover a periodic destruction of civilization on the planet. Astronomers find anomalies in the orbits of the suns that coincide with that destruction. A psychologist learns something about the human mind.

All of this leads to a startling conclusion of three parts.
  • Every 2,000 years the suns align such that the sky goes dark.
  • People are unaccustomed to the dark, and react with extreme fear when faced with prolonged exposure.
  • People will do whatever they can to expunge the darkness, including lighting fire to everything in sight.
The villains are those who seek to belittle inquiry. A media outlet ignorantly wages a public campaign against the scientists. A religious cult has reached the same conclusion as the scientists but ascribes it to divine intervention, not natural laws. Asimov is clever in his refutation of religious dogma. His scientists actually went to the cult for help when they could not square their data. Accounts from sacred books gave them the knowledge they needed to accurately predict the coming events. While they confirm the dire predictions of the religion they actually refute the mysticism behind it. It is vintage Asimov.

This is a review of the short story version of Nightfall, a story I count as one of the better short stories I’ve ever heard.
91 minutes
This product was released around September 1941 by Escape Pod
I consumed this around August 2014
More: Nightfall
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 8/28/2014 9:25:04 PM
A Dance with Dragons George R.R. Martin
A Dance with Dragons A Dance with Dragons runs chronologically parallel to A Feast for Crows, eventually meeting up with the characters of the series’ fourth book and continuing on for several hundred more pages. Some major storylines and popular characters who were omitted in the fourth book return. Most importantly Jon Snow at the Wall, Bran Stark beyond the Wall, Daenerys Targaryen and Barristan Selmy ruling in Meereen, and Tyrion Lannister on the run from King’s Landing. Theon Greyjoy (omitted from the A Storm of Swords as well) in Bolton captivity and Davos Seaworth in White Harbor return after being assumed dead. We find new characters Quentyn Martell and Griff both on separate quests to Meereen. Finally Arya Stark, Asha Greyjoy, Cersei and Jaime Lannister, and Victarion Greyjoy, whose storylines were running parallel in A Feast for Crows, signaling a syncing of the chronology.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think we the readers were always meant to be partial to the North. The Starks, if not always the most prepared to play the game of thrones, were always the most moral actors. I was pleased to see some of the oft mentioned Northmen play a larger role in the storytelling. The beheading of Davos Seaworth in part four never made sense given the losses White Harbor suffered at the Red Wedding so the few chapters with Wyman Manderly clear a lot up. He and Robett Glover of Deepwood Motte pledge their loyalty to Stannis and scheme their revenge on the Boltons. Manderly especially is portrayed as quite cunning in contrast to the his outward appearance as “Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse”. The anger he secretly harbors towards those who murdered his family members reminds me of Doran Martell’s simmering rage from the previous book. The mountain clans - the Flints of the mountains, the Wulls, Norreys, and Liddles - show their loyalty to House Stark by allying with Stannis as well. They prove the better winter marchers on Stannis’ ill-advise trek to Winterfell. The Umbers, whom I always wanted to see more of because I enjoyed the Greatjon, split their allegiance with the Boltons and Stannis, but state that they will refuse to fight each other, leaving open the possibility that they are actually on the same side. The struggle for power at Karhold after the execution of Rickard Karstark comes into play as well. Alysane Mormont pledges Bear Island’s support to Stannis as well. Even what we learn about the now hated Boltons, a ruthlessly cruel house, is welcome.

The different houses and alliances of the Known World are one of the more nerdy aspects of the series that I enjoy. A Dance with Dragons is great in this respect because it dives deep into the politics at and beyond the Wall, across the Narrow Sea, and in Slaver’s Bay.

At the Wall Jon Snow makes the bold decision to integrate the recently defeated Wildling army south of the Wall and even into the Night’s Watch. Tormund Giantsbane works with Snow to bring thousands of Wildlings from different clans south of the Wall. Mance Rayder is used by Melisandre. Signor, the new Magnar of Thenn, is married to Alys Karstark to sure up the Thenn’s alliance to the Watch. Others like the Weeper, Rattleshirt, Varamyr Sixskins, Wun Wun the giant, and dozens of other characters are mentioned, adding to the richness and detail of Martin’s Known World. On top of that characters like Tormund, Val, and Mance are given important parts, adding some depth and likability to the mostly villainized Wildings. Throughout the series Martin is at his best when a previously hated character is given depth.

As with each previous installment we learn more about the history and politics of the Known World. Across the Narrow Sea on Tyrion’s journey we more of Pentos, Volantis, and other Free Cities. Beyond the Wall we are introduced to the oft mentioned Children of the Forrest. In Barristan Selmy’s much deserved point of view chapters we learn more about the events preceding Robert’s Rebellion.

Another interesting plot device is the use of sellswords. Talked about often in the earlier books, which mostly took place in Westeros, they now serve as important actors in the warring in Slaver’s Bay.

It looks as if the much respected Golden Company is on its way to Meereen. However, on the advice of Tyrion Lannister it changes course to Westeros. Here “Griff” - actually the long-thought dead Jon Connington - begins a quest to win the Iron Throne for “Young Griff” - actually Aegon the long-thought dead son of Rhaegar Targaryen. This is probably the biggest of all of the surprises in this fifth book.

In Meereen different companies are allied against each other in the siege of the city. On the queen’s side are Barristan Selmy with his knights-in-training; freedmen companies such as Symon Stripeback’s Free Brothers, Marselen’s Mother's Men, and the Stalwart Shields; Skahaz mo Kandaq’s Brazen Beasts serving as the city watch; the remains of Dany’s Dothraki warriors; the Stormcrow mercenaries lead by Dany’s love interest, Daario Naharis; the Unsullied lead by Grey Worm; and, of course, 3 dragons.

Against the queen are the masters of Yunkai and their slave army; the Long Lances sellsword company; a Quarthian fleet; the Tattered Prince’s Windblown company; Bloodbeard’s Company of the Cat; Ben Plumm’s Second Sons; and slingers from the city of Tolos. Plumm and the Second Sons, having once betrayed their employer to Daenerys, betray her to Yunkai. Quarthian Xaro Xhoan Daxos was once Daenerys’ suitor but is angered at her insistence at stopping the slave trade. The Tattered Prince decides to put himself in a position to easily switch sides if the war turns. Against both sides is a mounting plague.

It’s dizzying to try to keep track of the names, groups, and alliances. Martin could have been forgiven for putting less effort into the world outside of Westeros. But he refuses to skimp on characters, politics, and geography at any point. It’s probably the reason his planned trilogy will stretch to at least seven books.

-power hard to hold By the end of the novel a main theme we witness is that of characters in over their heads. Quentyn Martell has come too late and with too little support and charisma to win the hand of Daenerys Targaryen. His response is to try to mount one of the queen’s two remaining captive dragons.

Roose Bolton, having just ascended to Warden of the North, realizes he has enemies all around him. Almost every house in the North lost men at the Red Wedding and none of them believe the lies the Boltons and Freys are using to justify the massacre.

Despite Stannis’ victory at the Wall and in Deepwood Motte, his momentum is slowed by a blizzard on the way to Winterfell.

The young command of Jon Snow is fraught with peril as he tries to integrate the long-time enemies of the Watch into its ranks. Many of his brothers make their reservations known while others openly defy his leadership. Stannis’ presence at the Wall tests the Watch’s neutrality. Snow haggles with the king at every turn, careful to tow the line between fighting for the Watch and defying a king. Lady Melisandre seems threatening but more often than not she tries to warn Snow of danger. All the while, as men bicker, an invasion from the Others looms.

As the story returns to Asha Greyjoy she is barely holding on to the iron born foothold in the North.

Maybe even Daenerys Targaryen has overestimated her ability to rule. The Sons of Harpy insurgency is cutting down her forces within her city walls. Her idealistic stand against slavery runs up against cold economics and the status quo. Trade, not human rights, are what the merchants of Quarth, Tolos, Volantis, and Yunkai value. She relies heavily on sellswords, traditionally unloyal allies.

The story reminds us that taking power is not the same as keeping it. Gaining power eliminates some problems but creates others. In fact the amount of peril you’re in and the number of enemies you have seems directly proportional to the amount of power you have. Jon Snow was always in danger as a soldier of the Night’s Watch - from Wildlings, and Others to Watch leaders like Aliser Thorne. In general though he was unimportant and forgettable. When he became Lord Commander his decisions can anger the entire Watch and the self-styled King of Westeros. Asha’s power play on the Pyke in the previous book put her in her brother Euron’s crosshairs when she could have easily become his loyal soldier. Now she languishes in her newly acquired forrest castle, surrounded by enemies with no support. The treachery of the Boltons bought them the North, but didn’t buy them lasting allies to hold it. Stannis is able to quickly win parts of the North, but in order to maintain his standing he must build on it quickly, leaving him on a disastrous winter march. And Dany, of course, is seemingly on the brink of disaster after having just conquered three great cities. Martin never gives the reader a minute to relax. There is no such thing as victory in the long run.
1040 pages
This product was released around 2011 by Bantam
I consumed this around June 2014
More: A Dance with Dragons
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 7/14/2014 8:55:53 PM
Gateway Frederik Pohl
Gateway We know something is wrong with Robinette Broadhead because we first meet him tied down with straps in therapy. The pain he is trying to heal originated on Gateway, a space station on an asteroid in the solar system. "Inside were the stars" (23), so the powerful nations of the solar system (US, USSR, an Asian empire, Brazil, Venus) built a space station on it. Found on the asteroid were a network of tunnels and thousands of space ships from an unknown race of aliens, later named the Heechee. There are three sizes of ships, which fit three exact crew sizes: 1, 3, and 5. The fleet is mostly operational and uses an unknown fuel source to travel faster than light, making the aptly named asteroid a portal to the parts unknown. The problem is that while they can be turned on and made to travel, no one has yet figured out how to pilot them. That doesn't stop people from flying them. Each craft has a programmable dashboard, but Gateway corporation scientists and engineers have not been able to discern the pattern behind the levers and lights. Once a destination is found that pattern should be reproducible, but then it is less lucrative. So the only guarantee is that each journey will take its crew...somewhere. The other side of the journey may hold riches, but it also might be the setting for a gruesome death, or a quick death, or starvation...or nothing of interest. The corporation knows just enough to get a lot of people killed. Despite the high attrition rate, people willingly sign up, and they’re not in a hurry to go back. (35)
There's no charge for a return trip to where you came from, by the way. The rockets always come up fuller than they return. They call it wastage.

The return trip is free...but to what?
Down on Earth vast swaths of land are virtual wasteland as humans extract the last bits of oil the planet has to offer.
Apart from the parks, there is only the surface of Wyoming, and as far as you can see it looks like the surface of the Moon. Nothing green anywhere. Nothing alive. No birds, no squirrels, no pets. A few sludgy, squdgy creeks that for some reason are always bright ochre-red under the oil. They tell us that we’re lucky at that, because our part of Wyoming was shaft-mined. In Colorado, where they strip-mined, things were even worse.
Surely it's used for mechanical and electrical energy in some capacity, but what we’re meant to believe is that its most important use is for food. Yeast and bacteria skimmed off the top of shale oil in places like Wyoming, Colorado, and the Appalachians are turned into the protein that feeds the continent.

Pohl creates a rich environment up on Gateway. It's like a combination of a city, a cave, and a dormitory. There are rooms that the Broadheads of the solar system must rent. There’s a food hall, which is maybe the same place that has the bar. Drop shafts take people up levels, tunnels take them along the same level. There are, of course, the launch areas for the ships. Veteran crew members and scientists give educational lectures. A "central park" scrubs the interior of carbon dioxide. All of that seems standard. Maybe even the chapel makes sense given the perilous nature of the exploration. But then there’s a museum of artifacts from the Heechee and from other worlds that have been discovered. Maybe the flight crews would visit, but then we find out that there are tourists on the rock. There’s also a casino for people like Broadhead to waste away in. There are even food carts and a semblance of market economy existing in this little world. Throughout the book, in places somewhat unrelated to the current progression of the plot, Pohl scatters one page notes - classified ads, trip reports, historical descriptions, lecture notes, contracts - to create a more realistic feel for the history of and the current culture on Gateway.

Gateway, as mentioned before, is managed by the Gateway corporation. You would think that a novel which goes to great lengths to show how easily people can be killed traversing the hostile vacuum of space would take the obvious step of making the corporation that sends them out greedy, uncaring, and cruel. This is not what Pohl describes. The corporation gives out money for what is discovered. In fact, discoveries are quite lucrative. If a site is worth going back to the discoverers get royalties on what it made off the site. It is even mentioned that it will try to find ways to compensate crews who hit a worthless discovery. It’s almost as if Pohl is describing a business run by engineers and scientists rather than the captains of industry.

Broadhead won a lottery and bought himself a one-way ticket out of the food mines. He used all he had to get there, and it felt good. (30)
I don’t know if I can make you feel it, how the universe looked to me from Gateway: like being young with Full Medical. Like a menu in the best restaurant in the world, when somebody else is going to pick up the check. Like a girl you've just met who likes you. Like an unopened gift.
There’s something about this quote that I love. It just says it so nicely. Despite this, he’s not eager to make an expedition. During his long uneventful stay he meets and falls in love with Klara, another resident of Gateway who isn't in a hurry to explore. There is an uncomfortable sense of apprehension that pervades their time on Gateway. It actually fills the reader with unease. What is stopping them from making a journey?
About eighty percent of flights from Gateway come up empty. About fifteen percent don’t come back at all. So one person in twenty, on average, comes back from a prospecting trip with something that Gateway - that mankind in general - can make a profit on. Most of even those are lucky if they collect enough to pay their costs for getting her in the first place.
If we break down this paragraph (35) we can start to figure out why. Eighty percent of expeditions come back with nothing, so there’s a big chance a person might just be a failure. There’s a lot of consternation among crew members about what ship to take and who to take it with because, given the fifteen percent who die on expeditions, failure seems like a worthless risk. Death is the most powerful source of fear there is. Maybe there's even a little fear of success, even if it’s only a one in twenty chance. Most people who come to Gateway must have been desperate on Earth. Maybe the idea of wealth and fame scares them. Success or failure, most can't even pay for their journey nor can they afford to stay on Gateway indefinitely. Being sent back to Earth always lingers. (28)
"Not right this minute." I mean what was the advantage? If I hadn't liked what they said, I might have changed my mind, and what other options did I have, really? Being a prospector is pretty scary. I hate the idea of being killed. I hate the idea of dying at all, ever; not being alive anymore, having everything stop, knowing that all those other people would go on living and having sex and joy without me being there to share it. But I didn't hate it as much as I hated the idea of going back to the food mines.

Not knowing what is on the other end of an expedition might be the scariest part of all. Death is one thing, but how is it going to come? It could be quick and painless, or it could be long and painful. Death is not always the worst thing you can imagine either. Some people come back having lost their mind because of the intense experience of the journey. Their body might be physically destroyed because of trauma during the journey or at the destination. They may have seen their friends die horrible deaths while they have been spared. There are literally thousands of scenarios (if not more) that could be imagined on the other end of an expedition.

There's more with Rob and Klara though. They have formed a bond on Gateway where most people have left all their bonds behind on Earth. Deep down I think they know their relationship is a mistake if they want to succeed on Gateway, but they do love each other, and so it keeps them stationary.

The novel jumps between Broadhead's past on Gateway and present sessions with his robot calm and tireless logical therapist, Sigfrid. The sessions seem like a distraction from the amazingness of Gateway. They don't seem to advance the plot either. We know Robin (or Rob or Bob) is struggling with emotional pain, and we think it stems from something that happened on Gateway. While his continuing participation in these sessions indicates he wants to expunge himself of that pain, he acts evasive and combative instead of forthcoming indicating he cannot bear to cure himself. The sessions are brutal, with Broadhead often ending up emotionally drained in tears. (pg 17)
It is very hard, sometimes, to fool him. I get to the end of a session absolutely limp, with the feeling that if I had stayed with him for one more minute I would have found myself falling right down into that pain and it would have destroyed me.

Or cured me. Perhaps they are the same thing.
The chapters describing his sessions weren't compelling to me. It is not until the final session that the previous ones are vindicated. In that session is one of the greatest revelations I have ever read in science fiction. I put it on par with what is discovered in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. The revelation in Gateway does hard science fiction proud, as it takes a little knowledge of relativity to understand. We find out that Broadhead became rich on just his third trip out, but the rest of the crew of two ships (an experimental trip) was lost when they were pulled into a black hole. Rob's escape doomed the rest of the crew, and Rob can’t tell if he meant to jettison himself or the other nine to safety. Is he a murderer or did he accidentally kill them while trying to be a hero. The story in itself is a pretty good revelation, but that’s not what sets the climax of Gateway apart. See, no matter his intentions, there is no way Bob is a murderer...yet. Because of gravitational time dilation, Klara and the rest of the crew haven't died yet. Years have passed, dozens of sessions have come and gone and the crew is still living in the moments after Bob has left them for dead. (276)
"Don't you understand, Sigfrid? That’s the point. I not only killed her, I’m still killing her!"

Patiently: "Do you think what you just said is true, Bob?"

"She think it is! Now, and forever, as long as I live. It isn't years ago that it happened for her. It's only a few minutes, and it goes on for all of my life. I'm down here, getting older, trying to forget, and there's Klara up there in Sagittarius YY, floating around like a fly in amber!"

I drop to the bare plastic mat, sobbing. [...]

"Let the pain out, Bob," Sigfrid says gently. "Let it all out."

"What do you think I'm doing?" I roll over on the foam mat, staring at the ceiling. "I could get over the pain and the guilt, Sigfrid, if she could. But for her it isn't over. She's out there, stuck in time."

"Go ahead, Bob," he encourages.

"I am going ahead. Every second is still the newest second in her mind - the second when I threw her life away to save my own. I'll live and get old and die before she lives past that second, Sigfrid."

"Keep going, Bob. Say it all."

"She's thinking I betrayed her, and she's thinking it now! I can’t live with that."
The last session, interspersed with the telling of the climactic scene at the black hole, is intense reading.
278 pages
This product was released around 1977 by Ballantine Books
I consumed this around Late 2013
More: Gateway
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 2/21/2014 9:00:16 PM
A Feast for Crows George R.R. Martin
A Feast for Crows There is a point after the death of Balon Greyjoy that you think some of the madness will cease. The Ironborn have been called to a “kingsmoot” by the priest Aeron Greyjoy. House Greyjoy’s rebellion has taken Moat Cailin, House Glover’s Deepwood Motte, House Tallhart’s Torrhen's Square, and burned the Stark’s Winterfell, but there is a sense that they cannot hold it given their power lies in their fleet, not an army. Balon’s brothers Victarion and Euron are the favorites to be chosen by the other lords of the Iron Islands. Asha Greyjoy, a fierce captain and Balon’s only daughter, makes a bid for the throne by demonstrating the folly of continuing this conquest. At the very least it seems the more devout, more skilled, and more respected Victarion will win the lords. Then Euron steps forward with his dragon’s horn. The first born exiled son wins the day with his plan of conquering Westeros with Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons.

It is then that I you realized - if you hadn’t already - that this warring will never end. George R.R. Martin will not be ending the Song of Ice and Fire with a stable truce between the just actors of the known world. Such leaders exist throughout Westeros, but there are just as many, if not more, who take power at the expense of the weak. And those who are power hungry know how play parts of the Game of Thrones that the Starks of the world reject. Ned Stark and his House are now burnt and scattered while the Lannisters, Boltons, and Freys rule from the Dreadfort to King’s Landing.

After the carnage of the end of its predecessor, A Feast for Crows is rather tame. The Seven Kingdoms seem to be settling. Roose Bolton, though not mentioned, is probably consolidating power in the North. There is word that the Manderlys of White Harbor have spurned Ser Davos Seaworth. Most of the river lords who stood with Robb Stark have pledged their loyalty to the Iron Throne in exchange for the lives of their kin who were spared at the Red Wedding. The Riverlands are lousy with Freys and Lannisters as they attempt to expunge the Blackfish and the remaining Tully garrison at Riverrun.

Martin continues to transform Jamie Lannister from one of the most hated and immoral characters to one of the most liked and moral ones. His sister Cersei, however, continues to be consumed by jealousy and ego.

Brienne of Tarth continues her tireless search for Sansa Stark, but Sansa is hidden away in the Vale, disguised as Petyr Baelish’s bastard daughter. Baelish, having killed Lysa Arryn in A Storm of Swords, seeks to hold his title of Lord Protector and guardian of the sickly Lord Robert. He doesn’t have the army to defend against Lord Yohn Royce and the other lords of the Vale who wish to expunge him, but with cunning typical of his character, he prevails in his encounter nonetheless. Baelish’s scheming puts Sansa in the position of inheriting the Vale and the North her brother had lost.

Though his tactics involve scheming instead of fighting, Baelish is much like the Ironborn in his tireless pursuit of power. Both start the Song of Ice and Fire in lowly positions. The Ironborn are confined to their islands after their rebellion was crushed, Balon’s sons killed or taken hostage. Baelish is on King Robert’s small council, but holds no lands. Both are content to wait, but neither ever forget the goal, no matter how distant it seems.

After two full books without a mention, House Dorne make a brief appearance at the end of A Storm of Swords. It is in the fourth book where they are given the full treatment. We find that they too have been biding their time. Prince Doran’s daughter, Arianne Martell, and his guard, Areo Hotah, each have point of view chapters. The Dornish are incensed at the death of Oberyn Martell, who was slain by Gregor Clegane at the end of the previous book. Sunspear, the seat of Dorne, seems to be in conflict, with Oberyn’s bastard daughters (the Sand Snakes) clamoring for war, Arianne seeking to elevate Princess Myrcella Baratheon to queen of the realm, and the Prince trying to suppress it all. The gout ridden Prince is seemingly unphased by all that has happened to his kingdom. His people think him weak, but his cautious demeanor masks a smouldering rage. His grief for Oberyn Martell is a blip compared to the anger he harbors for what the Lannisters did to his sister Elia and her children during the sack of King’s Landing.

In what I thought was the most dramatic scene of the book, Doran allays Arianne’s fears that she was not meant to be his heir. The old men he had offered to wed her to were meant to be rejected. She was meant to wed Viserys Targaryen and exact vengeance upon the Lannisters. Tyrion Lannister and Khal Drogo undid those plans, but the hunger for revenge remains. The Martells have long served as garnish to the story of Westeros, but (to stick with the metaphor) their contribution has been simmering out of sight the whole time.

It is interesting to note that the main female characters in this edition pretend to be someone they are not, or at least something they are not supposed to be. Sansa is disguised as Petyr’s bastard. Arya has already been Arry in Yoren’s trek to the wall, Nan the cupbearer at Harrenhall, Nymeria the direwolf in her dreams, and Salty on a ship to Braavos. In Braavos she must discard everything about her former life if she wishes to join the House of Black and White as an adherent to the Faceless Man god. Cersei is the queen regent, but refuses to hear herself called anything but queen. Asha Greyjoy wants to be queen of Ironborn, but by tradition they will only accept a queen. Brienne of Tarth roams the countryside as a knight would while often being encouraged to go home and marry by the lords and knights who do not accept her as a warrior.

I found interesting the groups not associated with a House in this fourth book. Call them non-state actors. There have always been mentions of sellswords like the Brave Companions and those across the Narrow Sea. And there have always been outlaws and rebels like Lord Beric’s Brotherhood Without Banners. After the spasms of violence that marked the end of the third book, non-state actors gain more prominence. The animals of Vargo Hoat’s Bloody Mummers terrorize the Riverlands while Dondarrion gives his command to vengeful Lady Stoneheart, formerly Catelyn Stark. (I was hoping we’d see more of Stoneheart, given her dramatic appearance at the end of the previous book.)

As the Iron Throne wages total war on its enemies and their lands, it forgets its duty to the Realm. It cannot, nor does it care to, stop outlaws from pillaging towns, raping women, and putting innocents to the sword. That’s if it is not the Throne’s own who are carrying out such atrocities. It is an interesting statement about the power of a state. When a state attains a certain level of power, the maintenance of that power supersedes the protection of its subjects. At this point people must look to others - or themselves - for safety. It puts the state in a difficult position. The harder the state fights to maintain its own power the weaker it becomes, having expended men, weapons, and money on military adventures, spreading its troops throughout the realm, and angering its supporters.

With this understanding we see the rise of the “sparrows”, common folk who flock to King’s Landing with stories of the atrocities committed against the faithful. It is a religious movement, but one that soon becomes political. In a quid pro quo the weakened Throne allies itself with the Faith of the Seven. The Faith is allowed to arm itself in the form of the formerly disbanded Warrior’s Son and Poor Fellows in exchange for forgiving the crown’s debt. Now armed though, the Faith sees fit to enforce its law upon the city...and even upon the Queen Regent.

While this fourth installment is slow and maybe, I dare say, the least enjoyable so far, it is foreboding. Dorne, the Iron Islands, and Petyr Baelish will be making their moves soon. Stannis Baratheon and Daenerys Targaryen have yet to tell their story. And Cersei Lannister has sufficiently hurt the crown so that it seems on the brink of collapse. As the War of the Five Kings died down the suffering of Westeros’ people did not stop. And that was with an alliance between two of strongest of the seven kingdoms. What happens when that collapses and the central government of the realm dissipates? In normal times the great houses and lesser lords might have been able to make due. Maybe even common folk could have gotten along on their own. But the fields have been burnt. Workers have been pillaged or are off pillaging. And as the Starks always warned, winter is coming. In fact, as Jamie Lannister learns gazing upon the riverlands, winter is already here.

This fourth book of A Song of Ice and Fire is the point at which Martin’s story grows too wide for even one of his books. A short explanation after the final chapter reveals Martin excluded Stannis Baratheon, Jon Stark, and Bran at the Wall; the Boltons in the North; Tyrion and Varys; and Daenerys Targaryen’s march through Esteros because he could not have finished all of the stories in one book and wanted to give the entire story of half rather than half the story of all.

The following characters have point of view chapters: Cersei Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, Jaime Lannister, Samwell Tarly, Arya Stark, Sansa Stark, Aeron Greyjoy, Victarion Greyjoy, Arianne Martell, Asha Greyjoy, Areo Hotah, Arys Oakheart, and Pate.
976 pages
This product was released around October 2005 by Bantam Books
I consumed this around January 2014
More: A Feast for Crows
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 2/11/2014 7:13:41 AM
Then We Came To The End Joshua Ferris
Then We Came To The End After a couple dozen pages of Then We Came To The End I remember thinking it read a lot like Catch-22. Soon after I read somewhere - maybe it was on the book liner - I read someone use that same comparison. It’s a testament to the writing that I didn’t underline many passages. Usually if I see something good I’ll make note of it, but from the beginning of the book I found myself loving almost every paragraph. Then We Came To The End is not Catch-22 - which may be my favorite novel - but it reminds me of that classic more than any other book I’ve read.

The subject matter should touch a nerve for the American office worker. It portrays the worst of two sides of the office worker’s psyche. On the one side you have the privileged employee. Given a good education in a safe community, they have taken their place in a well-paying job in a strong economy. Their baseline of expectation is miles above the rest of the world, the rest of the country, even the other side of town. Not knowing how bad it could be they complain about everything. They gossip about the incompetency of their highly educated co-workers. They portray their professionally acting bosses as monsters. They spend their spare time telling stories instead of improving their work. It's only when one of them is fired that they realize how good they had it, and beg to come back.

On the other hand, they know they’re pampered. This knowledge breeds uneasiness. Things were better before, and now layoffs are coming and anyone could be next. The office is nice, the pay is good, and so are the benefits. What would they do if they lost that? They have those same feelings we’ve all had. Are we worth it? Is our job necessary? Can someone do it cheaper? Better? The questions make them neurotic. They’re not bad people (though they’re far from the best). It’s just that they let the smallest distress make them worse.

One of the distinctive features of the novel is the perspective of the narration. The narrator is presumably one of the characters’ co-workers. He or she is never named, but is always a part of the action, as evidenced by his or her use of the royal “we”. Despite that the narrator is never acknowledged by any of the other characters. It’s not until the very end that author Joshua Ferris even (cleverly) acknowledges the narrator’s physical existence.

While some co-workers have traits or opinions that run counter to the group, “we” always sees things the same way - even though every co-worker eventually runs afoul of “we”. Everyone has a trait that identifies them and that everyone else secretly hates. They have personal issues that are the subject of gossip. There is this theme of conformity that adds to the overall neuroticism of the group, like the office is a hive-mind that tries to smooth out individual differences.
385 pages
This product was released around March 2007 by Little, Brown
I consumed this around November 2013
More: Then We Came To The End
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 12/15/2013 2:57:30 PM
To Your Scattered Bodies Go Philip Jose Farmer
To Your Scattered Bodies Go Sir Richard Francis Burton dies, only to wake among rows and columns of naked sleeping bodies. Every intelligent being who has ever lived on Earth has been resurrected and placed in the Riverworld. Burton is unique among the billions of bodies in that he awakes before the resurrection is complete, witnessing it in process.

He awakes a second time on a plain, surrounded by naked humans. On three sides of the plain are impassable mountains which drop down into a valley, leading to a river. Each person has a cylinder tied to their hand. That cylinder fits into grooves on mushroom shaped structures - “grailstones” - spaced about a mile apart against the river bank. When placed on the structure the cylinders fill up with a variety of food and recreational drugs.

The valley is one of millions in the world. The river starts at the north pole and zig-zags to the southern pole, the entire world covered with this pattern. People are grouped by the time and place they died. Each river valley is 60% one group, 30% another, and 10% random individuals. On the other side of the river is another group comprised of a different mixture. Though these groups are blocked off from adjacent valleys, the river passes through a canyon to the next valleys. Some people brave the rapids to explore up and down the river.

We learn later that the Riverworld is a massive scientific experiment run by immortal beings dubbed the “Ethicals”. Burton was intentionally awoken early by a rebel amongst them who disagreed with the experiment. He was chosen for the probing, rebellious nature he exhibited in life. He does not disappoint. Not wasting any time, he quickly organizes a party - with Peter Frigate, a 21st century American; Monat, an alien who died at the end of the world; Kaz, an intelligent Neanderthal; Alice, a Victorian-era brit; and some others - to explore the Riverworld. At some point he is tipped off by his benefactor. Eventually he finds an Ethical observer and extracts more information about the experiment. This information sets him on a quest to find the river’s source. He is determined enough to commit suicide numerous times hoping to be resurrected (as all humans in Riverworld are) in a valley closer to the source.

Burton is a real person, as his Hermann Goering and a few others. The latter was an interesting choice for Farmer. Goering starts where he left off on Earth, enslaving his fellow man. He’s a mess though, getting himself addicted to a mysterious drug that each human has in his or her cannister. Goering dies several times, and is curiously resurrected next to Burton several times. He comes off as a pathetic, rather than evil, character, which is a risky way to portray one of 20th century’s greatest monsters.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go reminded me of Red Mars in a way. Mars before human exploration was a virgin world, possibly a place for humanity to start over as Earth spirals into war and environmental destruction. In the most optimistic of situations, scientists from around the world are sent to create a base of operations for human colonization. Similarly, Riverworld had no organization, no industry, not even any clothes. The societies these people came from, and the conflicts in them, ceased to exist. Both were experiments in a sense. Riverworld was created by all-powerful beings as a way study its inhabitants. The scientists who landed on Mars were meant to study the planet, but those scientists were unwittingly in an unintentional version of the same experiment. In both cases, human instinct took over. As soon as the scientists in Red Mars escaped Earth’s atmosphere they began plotting how to run the world their way. In the Riverworld violence erupted on the first night. People dominated the weak at first chance. The scientists on Mars waged a more “civilized” battle, but with civilization came better weapons, so when it devolved it was much worse.

It is the story of human civilization. There are always those who wish to control the world. Certainly not everyone is evil, but if one group is being aggressive, all must take prepare. Hiding out is only an option for so long even hidden in Martian caves or blocked by large Riverworld mountains. Hoping to be left alone is not an option. In a virgin world like Mars or Riverworld, there is a power void that ambition rushes to fill. The lesson of both is that there is no reason a fresh start will change human group dynamics.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go fell short for me and I’m not sure why. The science fiction concept was fascinating. Farmer created a world with a grand and unique geography. The scale of the sociological aspect - with disparate cultures from every time in the history of the world possibly interacting - was even greater. The concepts weren’t explored far enough though. There was little explanation as to how the world was created. The interactions between different cultures felt too stereotyped, with non-European cultures being explored little and mostly coming off as savage. Given the ending, the novel was obviously set up as part of a series. Farmer has time to expound on the world he has created, and the people he settled in it, but if you haven’t committed to read the series you’re left without a lot of detail.

The characters were interesting but Burton’s passion overshadowed them all. And when he goes off on his quest to find the source of the river, they’re all lost anyway (probably to return in a later book).

Overall I was impressed by the ideas, but thought the execution could have been better.
216 pages
This product was released around 1971 by Del Rey
I consumed this around May 2013
More: To Your Scattered Bodies Go
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 7/29/2013 8:20:53 PM
The Stars My Destination Alfred Bester
The Stars My Destination The basis of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination is jaunting, a form of teleportation. It’s not a technology that has been developed though; it is the human mind that has found the ability to move people hundreds of miles (pg 11):
Any man was capable of jaunting provided he developed two faculties, visualization and concentration. He had to visualize completely and precisely, the spot to which he desired to teleport himself; and he had to concentrate the latent energy of his mind into a single thrust to get him there. Above all, he had to have faith … The slightest doubt would block the mind-thrust necessary for teleportation.

The limitations with which every man is born necessarily limited the ability to jaunte. Some could visualize magnificently and set the co-ordinates of their destination with precision, but lacked the power to get there. Others had the power but could not, so to speak, see where they were jaunting. And space set a final limitation, for no man had ever jaunted further than a thousand miles. He could work his way in jaunting jumps over land and water from Nome to Mexico, but no jump could exceed a thousand miles.
This, you can imagine, disrupts society. Bester, at length, expounds (pg 13):
But within three generations the entire solar system was on the jaunte. The transition was more spectacular than the change-over from horse and buggy to gasoline age five centuries before. On three planets and eight satellites, social, legal, and economic structures crashed while the new customs and laws demanded by universal jaunting mushroomed in their place.

There were land riots as the jaunting poor deserted slums to squat in plains and forests, raiding the livestock and wildlife. There was a revolution in home and office building: labyrinths and masking devices had to be introduced to prevent unlawful entry by jaunting. There were crashes and panics and strikes and famines as pre-jaunte industries failed.

Plagues and pandemics raged as jaunting vagrants carried disease and vermin into defenseless countries. Malaria, elephantiasis, and the breakbone fever came north to Greenland; rabies returned to England after an absence of three hundred years. The Japanese beetle, the citrus scale, the chestnut blight, and the elm borer spread to every corner of the world, and from one forgotten pesthole in Borneo, leprosy, long imagined extinct, reappeared.

Crime waves swept the planets and satellites as their underworlds took to jaunting with the night around the clock, and there were brutalities as the police fought them without quarter. There came a hideous return to the worst prudery of Victorianism as society fought the sexual and moral dangers of jaunting with protocol and taboo. A cruel vicious war broke out between the Inner Planets - Venus, Terra, and Mars - and the Outer Satellites … a war brought on by the economic and political pressures of teleportation.

Until the Jaunte Age dawned, the three Inner Planets (and the Moon)had lived in delicate economic balance with the seven inhabited Outer Satellites: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto of Jupiter; Rhea and Titan of Saturn; and Lassell of Neptune. The United Outer Satellites supplied raw materials for the Inner Planets’ manufactories, and a market for their finished goods. Within a decade this balance was destroyed by jaunting.

The Outer Satellites, raw young worlds in the making, had bought 70 per cent of the I.P. transportation production. Jaunting ended that. They had bought 90 per cent of the I.P. communications production. Jaunting ended that too. In consequence I.P. purchase of O.S. raw materials fell off.

With trade exchange destroyed it was inevitable that the economic war would degenerate into a shooting war. Inner Planets’ cartels refused to ship manufacturing equipment to the Outer Satellites, attempting to protect themselves against competition. The O.S. confiscated the plants already in operation on their worlds, broke patent agreements, ignored royalty obligations … and the war was on.

It was an age of freaks, monsters, and grotesques. All the world was misshapen in marvelous and malevolent ways. The Classicists and Romantics who hated it were unaware of the potential greatness of the twenty-fifth century. They were blind to a cold fact of evolution … that progress stems from the clashing merger of antagonistic extremes, out of the marriage of pinnacle freak. Classicists and Romantics alike were unaware that the Solar System was trembling on the verge of a human explosion that would transform man and make him the master of the universe.
I appreciated how persistent Bester is in explaining how disruptive jaunting is. For instance, take this paragraph on its effect on labor (pg 37):
Laborers in heavy work clothes, still spattered with snow, were on their way south to their homes after a shift in the north woods. Fifty white clad dairy clerks were headed west toward St. Louis. They followed the morning from the Eastern Time Zone to the Pacific Zone. And from eastern Greenland, where it was already noon, a horde of white-collar office workers was pouring into New York for their lunch hour.
The reader could easily throw this paragraph away if he or she was just following the story. Bester is committed to the concept though. He even applies it to a class of people who are routinely ignored in literature and society in general. As he explains, "Jack-jaunting" gives opportunity to the underclass (pg 129):
The jaunting age had crystallized the hoboes, tramps, and vagabonds of the world into a new class. They followed the night from east to west, always in darkness, always in search of loot, the leavings of disaster, carrion. If earthquake shattered a warehouse, they were jacking it the following night. If fire opened a house or explosion split the defenses of a shop, they jaunted in and scavenged. They called themselves Jack-jaunters. They were jackals.
As Bester explained at length earlier, jaunting renders many technologies obsolete. Using that technology - essentially being wasteful - is a sign of wealth (pg 42):
Devoted to the principle of conspicuous waste, on which all society is based, Presteign of Presteign had fitted his Victorian mansion in Central Park with elevators, house phones, dumb-waiters and all the other labor-saving devices which jaunting had made obsolete. The servants in that giant gingerbread castle walked dutifully from room to room, opening and closing doors, and climbing stairs.

Presteign of Presteign arose, dressed with the aid of his valet and barber, descended to the morning room with the aid of an elevator, and breakfasted, assisted by a butler, footman, and waitresses. He left the morning room and entered his study. In an age when communication systems were virtually extinct - when it was far easier to jaunte directly a man’s office for a discussion than to telephone or telegraph - Presteign still maintained an antique telephone switchboard with an operator in his study.
I love his description of the rich and powerful arriving at a party. They are almost like hipsters in their love of retro (pg 162):
The sightseers buzzed and exclaimed as the famous and near-famous of clan and sept arrived by car, by coach, by litter, by every form of luxurious transportation. Presteign of Presteign himself stood before the door, iron gray, handsome, smiling his basilisk smile, and welcomed society to his open house. Hardly had a celebrity stepped through the door and disappeared behind the screen when another, even more famous, came clattering up in a vehicle more fabulous.

The Colas arrived in a band wagon. The Esso family (six sons, three daughters) was magnificent in a glass-topped Greyhound bus. But Greyhound arrived (in an Edison electric runabout) hard on their heels and there was much laughter and chaffing at the door. But when Edison of Westinghouse dismounted from his Esso-fueled gasoline buggy, completing the circle, the laughter on the steps turned into a roar.
Bester links jaunting to interplanetary war, economic upheaval, and societal regression, and still takes the time to note that AAA and the DMV have evolved into jaunting classification bureaus.

Bester throws a lot of sci-fi concepts at the reader. There’s jaunting, planetary colonization, corporate power and disloyalty, and solar war. But there’s also Foyle’s lethal body enhancements, a staple of science fiction. It is partially revealed that less dangerous body modifications are, if not common, known by society and attained by some people. Robin Wednesbury is a (one-way) telepath. Sigurd is a very powerful child telepath on Mars. The Skoptsy cult willingly remove all sensory nerves. Saul Dagenham uses “Nightmare theater” to torture Foyle. Some of the concepts seemed gratuitous. Some of them felt too convenient. Then again the story takes place in the twenty-fifth century. Bester deserves credit for not just transferring the 1950s to the 2450s.

The one concept omitted above is the driver of Foyle’s opposition. PyrE is the reason Foyle is being chased (pg 216):
“PyrE is a pyrophoric alloy. A pyrophore is a metal which emits sparks when scraped or struck. PyrE emits energy, which is why E, the energy symbol, was added to the prefix Pyr. PyrE is a solid solution of transplutonian isotopes, releasing thermonuclear energy on the order of stellar Phoenix action. Its discoverer was of the opinion that he had produced the equivalent of the primordial protomatter which exploded the Universe. “

“My God!” Jisbella exclaimed.

Dagenham silenced her with a gesture and bent over Presteign. “How is it brought to critical mass, Presteign? How is the energy release?”

“As the original energy was generated in the beginning of time,” Presteign droned. “Through Will and Idea.”

“I’m convinced he’s a Cellar Christian,” Dagenham muttered to Y’ang-Yeovil. He raised his voice. “Will you explain, Presteign?”

“Through Will and Idea,” Presteign repeated. “PyrE can only be exploded by psychokinesis. Its energy can only be released by thought. It must be willed to explode and the thought directed at it. That is the only way.”

“There’s no key? No formula?”

“No. Only Will and Idea are necessary.” The glazed eyes closed.

“God in heaven!” Dagenham mopped his brow. “Will this give the Outer Satellites pause, Yeovil?”

“It’ll give us all pause.”

“It’s the road to hell,” Jisbella said.

Through most of this book I found myself asking “What is happening?” and, more curiously, “Why is it happening?” We open with Gully Foyle, who has been floating in a storage locker in the wreckage of the Nomad for six months. Our protagonist is described as
A man of physical strength and intellectual potential stunted by lack of ambition. Energizes at minimum. The stereotype Common Man. Some unexpected shock might possibly awaken him, but Psych cannot find the key. Not recommended for promotion. Has reached a dead end.
When the Vorga comes upon his distress signal and declines to pick him up, Foyle’s ambition, in a word, energizes. What follows is a mad quest for revenge against the people responsible for leaving Foyle to die in deep space. This “dead end” jury-rigs the Nomad’s propulsion system to send him somewhere, anywhere. He’s picked up by a forgotten cult living on an asteroid. The wife assigned to him is not enough to keep him from escaping, despite six months in a storage locker. He leaves her, nearly destroying the asteroid, but takes a horrible facial tattoo. His single-mindedness is noteworthy.

Foyle learns to jaunte at a rehabilitation hospital in New York City under the tutelage of Robin Wednesbury. He quickly launches an attack, but he isn’t sophisticated enough. For one, he targets the actual ship instead of the crew or the owners. He’s captured, but kept alive because Nomad was carrying valuable cargo. Things get weirder. He’s sent to a subterranean prison in France, but escapes - or rather, is allowed to escape - with the help of a fellow prisoner, Jisbella. Gully finds the asteroid, the Nomad, and its loot. For Foyle to continue at this point seems mad. He’s just found millions of credits worth of platinum. The best revenge, they say, is living well. He should buy himself a life of luxury as repayment.

Instead Foyle resurfaces as Geoffrey Fourmyle, the owner of an outlandish circus. The money he obtained on the Nomad paid for a body modification that allows him to turn ultra-fast and ultra-lethal. It also buys him into high society where he looks for the people responsible for his abandonment. Each time he tracks down another link in the chain, the link is mysteriously killed. More confusingly, each time a major event happens in his quest, he sees - not hallucinates - a burning image of himself. All the while, the businessman Presteign and his hired gun Dagenham, the lawyer Sheffield, and the intelligence agent Y'ang-Yeovil continue to search for him.

The whole time I kept asking myself, “for this?” Is this really all about revenge? His hunters’ motives are just as perplexing. They are keeping him alive because of the cargo Nomad was carrying. “PyrE” is a supposedly dangerous compound, but no one can explain what it does. Without explanation, I was left wondering if this story was worth a novel, let alone a novel listed on top sci-fi lists.

When the revelations come, they hit hard. They are worth the earlier confusion. It’s worth not reading if you don’t want spoilers. PyrE is insanely dangerous. Foyle finds out he knows how to space-jaunte and hops across the galaxy. The burning man is Foyle jaunting through time. Foyle’s senses get crossed so that he sees sound and hears light. It is simply an amazing few pages as Bester describes what is happening to Foyle.

And after all of this, another revelation. Foyle has a change of heart. He regrets his vengeful attacks. Given the lengths he went and the people he rolled over to get revenge, this makes sense. He realizes the damage he’s done with his crazed quest. It was a quest for control. He then takes a mental leap in applying this lesson to his opponents. He sees that same lust for control in people like Presteign, his daughter Olivia, Sheffield, and Dagenham. Men like Gully Foyle - “the stereotype Common Man” - were the will of men like Geoffrey Fourmyle. He doesn’t want any more common men. (pg 225)
“No. I believe in them. I was one of them before I turned tiger. They can all turn uncommon if they’re kicked awake like I was.”
“Stop treating them like children and they’ll stop behaving like children.Explain the loaded gun to them. Bring it all out into the open.” Foyle laughed savagely. “I’ve ended the last star-chamber conference in the world. I’ve blown the last secret wide open. No more secrets from now on. … No more telling the children what’s best for them to know. … Let ‘em all grow up. It’s about time.”

“Christ, he is insane.”

“Am I? I’ve handed life and death back to the people who do the living and dying. The common man’s been whipped and led long enough by driven men like us. … Compulsive men … Tiger men who can’t help lashing the world before them. We’re all tigers, the three of us, but who the hell are we to make decisions for the world just because we’re compulsive? Let the world make its own choice between life and death. Why should we be saddled with the responsibility?”
So he releases knowledge of PyrE and space-jaunting to the public. It will force the common man into being uncommon. In effect, Foyle is forcing another step in human evolution. It will now be a necessity to be what Foyle is. The Dagenhams and Yeovils of the world will not be able to control it all (whether they used to do it for greed, patriotism, or paternalism). “Then let them learn or die. We’re all in this together. Let’s live together or die together.”

It’s a surprising turn.

Some other quotes I liked:

On fear (pg 61):
Every child in the world imagines that its phantasy world is unique to itself. Psychiatry knows that the joys and terrors of private phantasies are a common heritage shared by all mankind. Fears, guilts, terrors, and shames could be interchanged, from one man to the next, and none would notice the difference. The therapy department at Combined Hospital had recorded thousands of emotional tapes and boiled them down to one all-inclusive all-terrifying performance in Nightmare Theater.
Religion is outlawed (pg 145):
“Cellar Christians!” Foyle exclaimed. He and Robin peered through the window. Thirty worshippers of assorted faiths were celebrating the New Year with a combined and highly illegal service. The twenty-fifth century had not yet abolished God, but it had abolished organized religion.
Something from the inside (pg 188):
Dagenham smiled. “Yes, no matter how we defend ourselves against the outside we’re always licked by something from the inside. There’s no defense against betrayal, and we all betrayal ourselves.”
Revenge (pg 194):
Revenge is for dreams ... never for reality.
And I just like his description of the land looking like corduroy (pg 228):
In Texas, where Prof. John Mantley had had the same baffling experience with PyrE, most of the residues had gone down the shaft of an exhausted oil well which was also used to accommodate radioactive wastes. A deep water table had absorbed much of the matter and spread it slowly over an area of some ten square miles. Ten square miles of Texas flats shook themselves into corduroy. A vast untapped deposit of natural gas at last found a vent and came shrieking up to the surface where sparks from flying stones ignited it into a roaring torch, two hundred feet high.
258 pages
This product was released around 1956 by Vintage
I consumed this around March 2012
More: The Stars My Destination
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 3/24/2013 10:47:57 PM
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City Nick Flynn
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City I was turned off from memoirs after reading Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors. I wasn’t sure why the life-story of an alcoholic writer with a messed up family was worth my time. It felt like a long string of glorified bad decisions. Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, fell into the same category, but it had a catchy title so I gave it a shot anyway.

The book chronicles two timelines that eventually merge - Nick’s life, from birth to now, and his father Jonathan’s life from, marrying Nick’s mother to the present. Nick relays his father’s stories with scepticism. His father, we are lead to believe, is a phony. He cashes phony checks and he writes phony novels. He exaggerates his illnesses and his importance in the world.

As an adult, working at the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter in Boston, Nick crosses paths with his father. Jonathan is on the edge of homelessness, with some mental illness dogging him as he ages. Eventually he ends up on the street, always potentially right around the corner from his son.

They are in the same city, but Nick does not take him in. While his seldom mentioned brother has disavowed his father, it’s clear that Nick holds guilt for his own inaction. He is torn between wanting to help his biological father and wanting to ignore the father who was never a father. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that the contact the son has with the father is not all coincidental. Flynn could have left Boston. He could have found a new job. He didn’t have to help out a man he had little connection to. By the end of the story he openly wonders why he’s sticking around, making excuses to see his father.

It’s curiosity that keeps him around. But it’s not as simple as someone wanting to know who his father is. Nick wants to find out if who his father - as described in numerous letters the latter has written to him - is really who his father is. Are all the letters about the novel Jonathan is writing truthful? Are the stories of his past to be believed? The reader shares Nick’s scepticism because his father comes off as a liar, or maybe a braggart, or a charlatan. The funny thing is, some of it ends up being true in the end. Some of his backstory checks out. He was writing a novel but, given how his life plays out in his later years, mental illness might have derailed any chance of completing it. And so maybe his troubles with the law weren’t all his fault. Maybe, despite consistently failing to produce, he really meant to write that novel.

Nick still seems a little weary of his father. But Jonathan is at least inside at the time of publication. Honestly, I had assumed the story would end at the man’s death. But he’s still alive. Ultimately, what set this apart from Running With Scissors is that I felt Nick Flynn’s quest had some value to it. He was reckless and he was a drunk, but his story seemed to have a deeper purpose. His words and actions and motives seemed sincere. And maybe most importantly he examined himself in the process. He may not have known it when it was happening but by the time he was writing his memoir he saw the similarities in the mistakes both men had made in life.
355 pages
This product was released around September 2004 by Norton
I consumed this around February 2013
More: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 2/20/2013 9:07:01 PM
The Day of the Triffids John Wyndham
The Day of the Triffids If you thought The Walking Dead stole from 28 Days Later or vice versa, you haven’t heard the story of Bill Masen. Masen was temporarily blinded by a “triffid”, a recently discovered carnivorous plant that disables its prey with poison lashes. As he laid in the hospital the world watched an amazing meteor shower. The next day all of the watchers woke up permanently blinded by the green light emitted from the meteors. Some, like Masen, fortunately avoided the meteor shower and retained their sight.

As humans attempt to survive without their sense of sight, the triffids slowly take control of the world. With sight humans easily controlled and exploited the triffids. Without sight the scales are evened. The triffids are blind, but they’re naturally blind and so better adapted to live without sight. They are still not as intelligent as humans, but their ability to move and poison their prey allows them to slowly control most of Masen’s England over the novel’s 6 year time span. The triffids are like zombies in some respects. They are described as “indefatigable”, which is the zombie’s most important characteristic if you go by Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide. But they also have the ability to learn. Even before the apocalypse they were known to hide near areas that humans frequented in order to attack them. Masen observes what looks like inter-triffid communication during his time working with them. Post-apocalypse, the survivors see the triffids learn how to avoid attacks. Their ability to learn human patterns combined with humanity losing its most important sense makes the situation even more precarious than the zombie apocalypse.

Bill is advantaged by his sight, but also coveted by those who lack it. He mentions that he is “hiding from them even while I moved among them.” (pg 49) and worries that helping any number of the blind would put him in a “leader-cum-prisoner-role” (pg 56). It’s interesting that after society breaks down, those with advantages are even more conspicuous and sought after.

The Day of the Triffids is unique in the field of post-apocalyptic novels (that I’ve read) in that it tackles the question of loneliness. While searching from the group he was split from, Masen notes the crush of isolation on the human psyche:
Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative - the absence of company, and, of course, something temporary … That day I had learned that it was much more. It was something which could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary and play tricks with the mind. Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care. It showed one as an atom adrift in vastness, and it waited all the time its chance to frighten and frighten horribly - that was what loneliness was really trying to do; and that was what one must never let it do...

To deprive a gregarious creature of companionship is to maim it, to outrage its nature. The prisoner and the cenobite are aware that the herd exists beyond their exile; they are an aspect of it. But when the herd no longer exists, there is, for the herd creature, no longer entity. He is part of no whole, a freak without a place. If he cannot hold onto his reason, then he is lost indeed: most utterly and most fearfully lost, so that he becomes no more than the twitch in the limb of a corpse.
The idea of loneliness is always there, but rarely articulated, in post-apocalypse stories. On a subconscious level I submit that it is something that is somewhat desirable to the reader. It’s like the times you were a kid and envisioned all the fun you would have if you were locked in the mall for a night. The world is yours to explore. The pre-existing conditions that were placed on your life at birth are gone. Masen admits as much to himself over a drink (pg 46):
Perhaps it had needed that blow to drive it home. Now I came face to face with the fact that my existence simply had no focus any longer. My way of life, my plans, ambitions, every expectation I had had, they were all wiped out at a stroke, along with the conditions that had formed them. I suppose that had I had any relatives or close attachments to mourn I should have felt suicidally derelict at that moment. But what had seemed at times a rather empty existence turned out now to be lucky. My mother and father were dead,m y one attempt to marry had miscarried some years before, and there was no particular person dependent on me. And, curiously, what I found that I did feel - with a consciousness that it was against what I ought to be feeling - was release …

It wasn’t just the brandy, for it persisted. I think it may have come from the sense of facing something quite fresh and new to me. All the old problems, the stale ones, both personal and general, had been solved by one mighty slash. Heaven alone knew as yet what others might arise - and it looked as though there would be plenty of them - but they would be new. I was emerging as my own master, and no longer a cog. It might well be a world full of horrors and dangers that I should have to face, but I could take my own steps to deal with it - I would no longer be shoved hither and thither by forces and interests that I neither understood nor cared about.

No, it wasn’t altogether the brandy, for even now, years afterward, I can still feel something of it - though possibly the brandy did oversimplify things a little just then.

Then there was, too, the little question of what to do next: how and where to start on this new life. But I did not let that worry me a lot for the present. I drank up and went out of the hotel to see what this strange world had to offer.
Secretly we want this challenge. That, I think, is why post-apocalyptic novels hold so much appeal. If we were in that situation, we would thrive instead of middling through the civilized world. What motivation we lack in real life would be forced upon us at the end of the world. This “world that [seems] so safe and certain” (pg 93) has dulled our sense of adventure, and only the greatest of shocks will awaken it. In short, we’re bored here.

But I suspect most of us would beg to come running back to our safe lives very quickly after the apocalypse. Most of us don’t know - but would find out quite soon - how much of our daily lives we take for granted. In an advanced society we simply don’t know how much of the basics of life are brought to us. The market economy that had a part in making the West so wealthy is predicated on specialization. We have accountants, actors, bureaucrats, clerks, and sales people whose white collar jobs aren’t necessary in this new world. But even the manual laborers are specialized. Does the construction worker know how to grow food? Can the coal miner fire a gun? Maybe the owner of a small farm is self-sufficient, but as the farm grows the farmer will need more specialized help to manage the scale of his operation. Masen compares the two realities he has known (pg 46):
It is not easy to think oneself back to the outlook of those days. We have to be more self-reliant now. But then there was so much routine, things were so interlinked. Each one of us so steadily did his little part in the right place that it was easy to mistake habit and custom for the natural law - and all the more disturbing, therefore, when the routine was in any way upset.

When almost half a lifetime has been spent in one conception of order, reorientation is no five-minute business. Looking back at the shape of things then, the amount we did not know and did not care to know about our daily lives is not only astonishing but somehow a bit shocking. I knew practically nothing, for instance, of such ordinary things as how my food reached me, where the fresh water came from, how the clothes I wore were woven and made, how the drainage of cities kept them healthy. Our life had become a complexity of specialists, all attending to their own jobs with more or less efficiency and expecting others to do the same. That made it incredible to me, therefore, that complete disorganization could have overtaken the hospital. Somebody somewhere, I was sure, must have it in hand - unfortunately it was a somebody who had forgotten all about Room 48.
Civilization has built up a baseline of services that simply won’t exist and infrastructure that will crumble in this new world. It is more so today, but even in Wyndham’s 1950 London it was certainly true. Fellow sighted survivor, Coker, fears that beyond the physical, humanity will lose the ability to think. As it reverts to having to toil for everything, it will no longer have leisure time to philosophize or develop new technology. As the triffids isolate different survivor groups behind hastily constructed fences on farms across the countryside or within ad hoc city walls, the national identity of Great Britain will break down, leading to a more tribalistic society, with the ideals of democracy and equality falling by the wayside.

People will have a hard time giving up what they lost. Holding onto the past though, is dangerous. False hope stops people from planning for the future in their new, tougher reality. It reminds me of The Road where “the man” has trouble forgetting his wife and the life he used to have. Eventually he had to let it go, pushing his wedding ring off a bridge to symbolically move on. In order to protect his son he had to forget his old way of life. Masen is able to move on quicker than most, but he still has some reservations. Seeing Josella in a dress, watching London decay, and driving past fields as they fall into disarray brings about short bouts of wistful longing. In general though, he’s able to acclimate to the end of the world (pg 201):
“Don’t you still feel sometimes that if you were to close your eyes for a bit you might open them again to find it all as it was, Bill? … I do.”

“Not often now,” I told her. “But I’ve had to see so much more of it than you have. All the same, sometimes - “
An apocalyptic world is awful. It’s even worse when compared to what the world used to be. It will take determination to survive. Dreaming of the past is exactly the type of activity that will sap a person’s will power (pg 95):
“Self-pity and a sense of high tragedy are going to build nothing at all. So we had better throw them out at once, for it is builders that we must become.”
People didn’t prepare because “it couldn’t happen here”, and when it did it was shocking (pg 93):
“You know, one of the most shocking things about it is to realize how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain.”
The shock is so great that many don’t believe the entirety of the situation. Throughout the novel there are characters convinced that the Americans are coming to save them. But it’s clear to the sober minded that this comet blinded the entire planet. There will be no deus ex machina in this story. Slowly the horror will fade and this will become the new normal. Masen realizes that life will continue, and that the strong can have a place in it if they wished (pg 135):
I began to feel the lightening of spirit that Coker was already showing. The sight of the open country gave one hope of a sort. It was true that the young green crops would never be harvested when they had ripened, nor the fruit from the trees gathered; that the countryside might never again look as trim and neat as it did that day, but for all that it would go on, after its own fashion. It was not, like the towns, sterile, stopped forever. It was a place one could work and tend, and still find a future. It made my existence of the previous week see like that of a rat living on crumbs and ferreting in garbage heaps. As I look out over the fields I felt my spirits expanding.

One of the harder things to realize is that some of the morality of the civilized world would not work in the new world. In World War Z Max Brooks writes of the “Redeker Plan” employed by South Africa. The plan sacrifices large portions of the population for a better probability of saving a smaller portion. Bill and Josella come across Michael Beadley’s group while an angry mob of the blind (lead by Coker) try to storm the gates of the university the group has settled in. They watch as Beadley politely but firmly turns them away. Discussing the morality of the strategy, they wonder what good Coker could even do (pg 84)
“If we face it squarely, there’s a simple choice,” I said. “Either we can set out to save what can be saved from the wreck - and that has to include ourselves - or we can devote ourselves to stretching the lives of these people a little longer. That is the most objective view I can take.

“But I can see, too, that the more obviously humane course is also, probably, the road to suicide. Should we spend our time in prolonging misery when we believe that there is no chance of saving the people in the end? Would that be the best use to make of ourselves?”
Bill and Josella - and even Coker - learn first hand that trying to save everyone results in ruin. Coker raids Beadley’s group for sighted people and attaches each one he captures to a group of blind people. Masen - exploited for his sight just as he feared - is able to set his group up in a house and help them find supplies. When faced with threats like triffids, a hostile group, or disease the blind are literally an anchor that stops him from defending them and himself.
Decent intentions seem to be the most dangerous things around just now.
A member of Beadley’s group, Dr. Dr E H Vorless, gives a long speech exemplifying the moral choices the survivors of the apocalypse have to make (pg 98):
“My friends,” he said, “I think I may claim to be the oldest among you. In nearly seventy years I have learned, and had to unlearn, many things - though not nearly so many as I could have wished. But if, in the course of a long study of man’s institutions, one thing has struck me more than their stubbornness, it is their variety.

“Well, indeed do the French say autres temps, autres moeurs. We must all see, if we pause to think, that one kind of community’s virtue may well be another kind of community’s crime; that what is frowned upon here may be considered laudable elsewhere; that customs condemned in one century are condoned in another. And we must also see that in each community and each period there is a widespread belief in the moral rightness of its own customs.

“Now, clearly, since many of these beliefs conflict, they cannot all be ‘right’ in an absolute sense. The most judgement one can pass on them - if one has to pass judgments at all - is to say that they have at some period been ‘right’ for those communities that hold them. It may be that they still are, but it frequently is found that they are not, and that the communities who continue to follow them blindly without heed to changed circumstances do so to their own disadvantage - perhaps to their ultimate destruction.”

The audience did not perceive where this introduction might be leading. It fidgeted. Most of it was accustomed, when it encountered this kind of thing, to turn the radio off at once. Now it felt trapped. The speaker decided to make himself clearer.

“Thus,” he continued, “you would not expect to find the same manners, customs, and forms in a penurious Indian village living on the edge of starvation as you would in, say, Mayfair. Similarly, the people in a warm country, where life is easy, are going to differ quite a deal from the people of an overcrowded, hard-working country as to the nature of the principle virtues. In other words, different environments set different standards.

“I point this out to you because the world we knew is gone - finished.

“The conditions which framed and taught us our standards have gone with it. Our needs are now different, and our aims must be different. If you want an example, I would point out to you that we have all spent the day induldging with perfectly easy consciences in what two days ago would have been housebreaking and theft. With the old pattern broken, we have now to find out what mode of life is best suited to the new. We have not simply to start building again; we have to start thinking again - which is much more difficult, and far more distasteful.

“Man remains physically adaptable to a remarkable degree. But it is the custom of each community to form the minds of its young in a mold, introducing a binding agent of prejudice. The result is a remarkably tough substance capable of withstanding successfully even the pressure of many innate tendencies and instincts. In this way it has been possible to produce a man who against all his basic sense of self preservation will voluntarily risk death for an ideal - but also in this way is produced the dolt who is sure of everything and knows what is ‘right’.

“In the time now ahead of us a great many of these prejudices we have been given will have to go, or be radically altered. We can accept and retain only one primary prejudice, and that is that the race is worth preserving. To that consideration all else will, for a time at least, be subordinate. We must look at all we do, with this question in mind: ‘Is this going to help our race survive - or will it hinder us?’ If it will help, we must do it, whether or not it conflicts with the ideas in which we were brought up. If not, we must avoid it, even though the omission may clash with our previous notions of duty and even of justice.

“It will not be easy; old prejudices die hard. The simple rely on a bolstering mass of maxim and precept; so do the timid; so do the mentally lazy - and so do all of us, more than we imagine. Now that the organization has gone, our ready reckoners for conduct within it no longer give the right answers. We must have the moral courage to think and to plan for ourselves.”

Some other notes and quotes:

Bill does not believe that the comet was solely to blame for blinding the world. He believes some weapon was triggered by the meteor shower. It is surprising that he is the only character that blames humanity for the fall. I would have expected the group lead by Miss Durant that broke off from Beadley’s group to be the ones that would have carried this post-apocalyptic trope. They were a more religious lot and so were horrified by Beadley’s polygamous society. Instead, only Masen seems to think this was anything more than an accident. I’m not sure if Wyndham meant for that to be a major theme, but Masen’s anti-militarization screed comes off as a conspiracy theory instead - and somewhat out of place for one of the more level-headed characters in the book.

Coker redeems himself after his ill-thought raid on Beadley’s group. In his past life, we learn, he was a master of rhetoric. I like his explanation of his methods (pg 134):
There’s a whole lot of people don’t seem to understand that you have to talk to a man in his own language before he’ll take you seriously. If you talk tough and quote Shelley they think you’re cute, like a performing monkey or something, but they don’t pay any attention to what you say. You have to talk the kind of lingo they’re accustomed to taking seriously. And it works the other way too. Half the political intelligentsia who talk to a working audience don’t get the value of their stuff across - not so much because they’re over their audience’s heads, as because half the chaps are listening to the voice and not to the words, so they knock a big discount off what they do hear because it’s all a bit fancy, and not like ordinary, normal talk. So I reckoned the thing to do was to make myself bilingual, and use the right one in the right place - and occasionally the wrong one in the wrong place, unexpectedly. Surprising how that jolts ‘em.
Josella notes that people will have to work together more in order to survive. I thought this part of the book conflicted with what she and Bill agreed was the best method of survival - namely, the idea that the welfare of many would have to be ignored for the few to survive (pg 104).
“All this” - she waved her hand around - “it’s done something to me. It’s like suddenly seeing everything differently. And one of the things I think I see is that those of us who get through are going to be much nearer to one another, more dependent on one another, more like - well, more like a tribe than we ever were before.”
But it does make some sense if you move past the initial culling of the population. People could afford to be more selfish and individualistic when there was a higher margin for survival. Now the surviving groups will have to work together for even a basic existence.

Josella notes that the totality of the cataclysm actually saved the survivors from a level of suffering. If there had been more people left with sight there might be more and more brutal intertribal fighting (pg 158).
228 pages
This product was released around 1951 by A Modern Library
I consumed this around December 2012
More: The Day of the Triffids
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 1/2/2013 12:42:25 PM
Assassination Vacation Sarah Vowell
Assassination Vacation Sarah Vowell’s book is not just about the dry facts of the deaths of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley. It’s about the current events at the time of their deaths, and how these events are similar to today’s political climate. Vowell wonders how close she or any other critic of the then current Bush administration are to violence. As Timothy Douglass, director of the musical “Assassins”, puts it (pg 6):
Proportionate to my own mounting frustrations at feeling increasingly excluded from the best interests of the current administration’s control in these extraordinary ties helps me toward a visceral understanding of the motivation of one who would perpetrate a violent act upon the leader of the free world. My capacity for this depth of empathy also gives me pause, for I have no idea how far away I am from the “invisible line” that separates me from a similar or identical purpose.
While a slain leader gets a statue, the assassin is just as important to the murder. Lincoln - or for the purposes of this book, Vowell’s personal Jesus - was known as the emancipator of the slaves and the leader of the Union. For that he was hated by the South and its sympathizers, like John Wilkes Booth (pg 17).
Then again, in the late 1860s, at least half the country loathed Abraham Lincoln for filling up too many soldiers’ coffins. Which is why Daniel Chester French isn’t the only reason that marble likeness sits there on the Mall. John Wilkes Booth deserves some of the credit - a notion that would make the assassin want to throw up. After all, if no one had hated Lincoln, there would be no Lincoln Memorial to love.
Garfield was seen as a moderate Republican (Vowell pegs him as a good leader and decent man) and a compromise presidential nomination that would unite the Republican Party. Charles Guiteau hated him for not being sufficiently hostile to the Democrats like the pro-Ulysses S. Grant “Stalwarts” (pg 170).
So Garfield is the victim of Guiteau, but he’s also the victim of his own party rhetoric of exaggerating a Democratic victory into a matter of life and death.
William McKinley was seen as part of the capitalist class, which to Leon Czolgosz meant he was oppressing the workers of the world. Vowell does little to dissuade the reader of McKinley’s lousiness.

How close to violence is an anti-war protestor today compared to a confederate spy of 1865, a disaffected Republican in 1881, or an anarchist in 1901? The gap between a confederate and a unionist warranted the bloodiest war in American history in the minds of both the north and south. Assassination does not seem so extreme after that. Fifteen years later the war was over but the differences remained. Violence then was perpetrated between factions of the same side, one being not sufficiently supportive of the union in the eyes of the other. Twenty years after that it was the class war that sparked violence. From today’s perspective, Guiteau’s killing of Garfield seems a most apt comparison, with both sides of the Iraq War debate being on the same side of the fight against Islamic extremism, but disagreeing on the veracity of the means needed to win. As far as Booth and Czolgosz are concerned, their reasons are from different worlds.

Vowell also gives the reader a look into the assassins’ past and tries to gauge who they saw themselves as. Booth was a famous stage actor in his time. Guiteau used to be part of the Oneida Community, a sort of free love cult. Czolgosz was an anarchist in love with Emma Goldman. Booth saw himself, incredulously, akin to John Brown, and was shocked when the nation didn’t agree with his comparison to the abolitionist. Guiteau thought he was helping the Republican Party and Chester A. Arthur. Czolgocz was trying to prove his anarchist bonafides.

For a history lesson about presidential assassinations, Assassination Vacation is aptly named. What makes the book an entertaining read rather than a list of interesting facts is the context in which Sarah Vowell tells it. She gives equal time to the journey to the knowledge itself. Each new fact is accompanied by the story of the trip to the landmark that holds it. She treks from grand museums to quaint historical houses to lowly plaques to simple unmarked coordinates on a map. Her travels, though extensive, are limited in range, the nation having not had to to spread out as much at the time of these three assassinations. Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York City are hot spots, as to a lesser extent are Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Buffalo, and the Adirondacks.

Vowell takes anyone who doesn’t know better, whether it be her adorable nephew, a good friend, or an acquaintance with a car. Some people enjoy their trip, many more show signs of boredom, cynicism, or annoyance. But they all seem to at least humor their friend and her odd assassination obsession.

In all these places we find another layer to her story. This is a book about historical preservation. In towns across the country there are bits of history, small claims to fame. A president may have been assassinated there (District of Columbia, Buffalo) or eventually died there (New Jersey) or was interned there (Illinois, Ohio, ) or has a statue there (District of Columbia, California) or has a body part there (Mutter Museum in Philadelphia). Or maybe the assassin resided there (Oneida) or escaped there (Maryland) or the Vice President learned of his new prominence there (Adirondacks) or something completely random is there.

In each one of these places there seems to be a person who knows every detail of this minor event in American history. More importantly, there is a person who cares deeply about the history as an American, and, as a local resident, is proud of their town’s place in history (pg 183).
The unforeseen pleasant surprise about traveling around the country researching historical ugliness is that I seem to luck into a lot of present-day kindness, making the acquaintance of an embarrassment of knowledgeable nice people … who are generous with their time, happy to share what they’ve learned.

Some quotes of interest:

On the importance of physical artifacts in the understanding of history:

Jack Hitt in Off the Road (pg 9)
Relics were treasured as something close to the divine. Often when a great monk died and there was a sense that he might be canonized, the corpse was carefully guarded in a tomb - often twenty-four hours a day. Visitors could come to the tomb. Most of the funeral vaults of potential saints had a small door, like you might have in your suburban house for cats. Visitors could poke their heads in the little door and breathe in the holy dust. Most people thought that such dust had curative powers since it was associated with a near-saint whose corporeal matter had been directly blessed by God. So, getting near a relic, touching it, being near it was considered extremely beneficial and treasured.
pg 11
One thing the Spanish king’s Catholicism and my rickety patriotism have in common, besides the high body count, is that both faiths can get a little ethereal and abstract. Jesus and Lincoln. Moses and Jefferson can seem so long gone, so unbelievable, so dead. It’s reassuring to be able to go look at something real, something you can put your hands on (though you might want to wash them afterward).
From Loren Eiseley (pg 98):
What, I ask, is the difference between a relic and a specimen?

“It depends on the specimen,” she says. “We do have some pieces of famous people, but the other specimens are simply important because they are demonstrating a particular pathology or anatomy that we want to show. So it varies. But the importance of the relic, the importance of the little sacred icon, is a sense of connection to the past. To look on a tooth, look at George Washington’s teeth, to look at instrumetns that were actually handled by Joseph Lister, there’s power in there.

“I still have some of my mother’s clothes, you know, for no other reason than I can’t bear to part with them. Because it’s her favorite sweater, stuff like that. Because of the fact that it was an immediate contact with somebody it just brings up memories. It’s also interesting. If you want to know that Joesph Lister used this particular instrument and we have a set, that provides you more information about his practice of medicine, et. But often it’s simply the almost sentimental association of the fact that this is a piece of a great man. It’s the same thing as a piece of the true cross.”
On sanctifying the dead:

pg 249
A controversial politician widely blamed for the casualties and hardships of war, Lincoln was suddenly and forever upgraded to the persecuted savior who died so that country might live.
pg 118
The problem with the fog of history, with the way the taboo against speaking ill of the dead tends to edit memorials down to saying nothing much more than the deceased subject’s name, is that all the specifics get washed away, leaving behind some universal nobody.
From Henry Adams
The cynical impudence with which the reformers have tried to manufacture an ideal statesman out of the late shady politician beats anything in novel-writing.
Other random quotes I enjoyed: pg 4
But when I’m around strangers, I turn into a conversational Mount St. Helens. I’m dormant, dormant, quiet, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the slops of my silence and then, boom, it’s 1980. Once I erupt, they’ll be wiping my verbal ashes off their windshields as far away as North Dakota.
pg 7
I am only slightly less astonished by the egotism of the assassins, the inflated self-esteem it requires to kill a president, that I am astonished by the men who run for president. These are people who have the gall to believe they can fix us-us and our deficit, our fossil fuels, our racism, poverty, our potholes and public schools. The egomania required to be president or a presidential assassin makes the two types brothers of sorts. Presidents and presidential assassins are like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City that way. Even though one city is all about sin and the other is all about salvation, they are identical, one-dimensional company towns built up out of the desert by the sheer will of true believers. The assassins and the presidents invite the same basic question: Just who do you think you are?
pg 99
The neighborhood of Gramercy Park, where Edwin used to live, was built to look like London, which is to say that its considerable beauty is skin deep while its heart beats with the ugliness of monarchy.
Frederick Douglass
In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness.
I think it was that fast and that cheap to run a single railroad spur from the main line out to a little community here, out to be a little factory there, and that following the canal is what made this area so interesting and which allowed ideas as well as people carrying ideas to spread so quickly that you get terms like ‘Burned-over District.’
258 pages
This product was released around 2005 by Simon & Schuster
I consumed this around July 2012
More: Assassination Vacation
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 8/13/2012 9:29:57 PM
The Water Man Ursula Pflug
The Water Man A shop owner gets water delivered as she and her partner build masks for a festival - "Carnival" - for wage earners. The imported water is better than the town water, which it is implied is somehow harmful to one's health. The water seems to improve the owner's creativity, but I had a hard time figuring out what this story was really about.
33 minutes
This product was released around March 2012 by Escape Pod
I consumed this around April 2012
More: The Water Man
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 4/16/2012 10:04:35 PM
The Speed of Time Jay Lake
The Speed of Time A failed Russian weapon is slowly and silently killing off humanity. As humans experience an economic boom from their expansion throughout the galaxy, individuals simply disappear without explanation.
23 minutes
This product was released around March 2012 by Escape Pod
I consumed this around April 2012
More: The Speed of Time
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 4/16/2012 10:01:16 PM
Counting Cracks George R. Galuschak
Counting Cracks A monster emits a "hum" that has killed off the entire town. The only survivors are those - mostly children - who have personal ticks, rituals like counting cracks in the sidewalk or counting prime numbers.

This story reminded me a little of Stephen King's The Mist with the large spiders, empty town, and small band of overmatched survivors fighting a beast of unknown origins. It's a cool monster story.
37 minutes
This product was released around March 2012 by Escape Pod
I consumed this around April 2012
More: Counting Cracks
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 4/16/2012 9:59:40 PM
The Eckener Alternative James L. Cambias
The Eckener Alternative Everyone knows that you’re not supposed to touch anything if you go back in time. It’s the butterfly effect. John Cavalli knows this. The Time Center, where he’s studying, is very clear about this. They go back in time to save small things, like artwork, not make major changes. Stop the Holocaust and who knows what rises up in its place. John feels strongly about making a change though. He’s going to go back to 1930s Germany and change the world. He’s going to make sure zeppelins survive.
22 minutes
This product was released around March 2012 by Escape Pod
I consumed this around April 2012
More: The Eckener Alternative
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 4/16/2012 9:57:44 PM
Overclocking James L. Sutter
Overclocking The next line of synthetic drugs are made from code, not chemicals.
21 minutes
This product was released around February 2012 by Escape Pod
I consumed this around April 2012
More: Overclocking
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 4/16/2012 9:55:06 PM
Asteroid Monte Craig DeLancey
Asteroid Monte Two members of an elite galactic police force - a human and a bear-like Sussuratian - search through an asteroid belt to determine if the Symbionts - “the only known self-reproducing non-intelligent machine-organic hybridization” - are trying to break out into the galaxy. Amir, the new “Predator”, must earn the trust of his partner, Bria. She does not know if he, a human, is capable of controlling the violent tendencies that his race possesses. A true predator - a carnivore - controls its violence by nature, but Bria is not sure if humans meet that criteria.

Asteroid Monte is a detective story. We're not really sure a crime is even being committed. Amir shows us that the Symbionts are fooling the galactic government with misdirection, like the title of the story implies.

Though it doesn't go into detail, the story tells of a galaxy of many races, with different alliances and conflicts.
40 minutes
This product was released around February 2012 by Escape Pod
I consumed this around April 2012
More: Asteroid Monte
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 4/12/2012 11:07:53 PM
Devour Ferrett Steinmetz
Devour China launched a mass biological weapons attack on the United States using drones that dropped a cancer causing agent. The cancer was engineered from a Chinese citizen, patient zero. As the cancer grows in its host it tries to change its host into patient zero so that it may then attack the United States. Insidiously it tries to use the personality of its host to keep it from being destroyed by the host's loved ones. Three cities were eradicated in this way. The cancer’s flaw is that it must learn about its host so that it can convince others not to kill it. Upon learning about individual Americans it can no longer sustain the hatred it had when it volunteered to be the cancer.
46 minutes
This product was released around February 2012 by Escape Pod
I consumed this around April 2012
More: Devour
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 4/12/2012 10:59:37 PM
Surviving the eBookalypse Randy Henderson
Surviving the eBookalypse An author tries to survive in a world where the publishing industry has essentially been destroyed by technology. Authors now vie for patronage by giving performances of their work in libraries. Copyright infringement is nearly unstoppable.
44 minutes
This product was released around January 2012 by Escape Pod
I consumed this around January 2012
More: Surviving the eBookalypse
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 4/12/2012 10:56:25 PM
Pairs Zachary Jernigan
Pairs Humanity has been wiped out. The race that eradicated it is selling disembodied human souls throughout the galaxy. It uses the only two human left that inhabit a physical form as their transporters. Members of the conquered race, it has been learned over time, are more careful with their cargo. Though still in physical form the humans are capable of changing their form. Louca, a female who takes the form of the transport ship, is crazy. The narrator, a male who monitors Louca’s actions, is not, but waits for his chance to kill his employer.
44 minutes
This product was released around January 2012 by Escape Pod
I consumed this around April 2012
More: Pairs
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 4/12/2012 10:53:39 PM

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