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camelot_30k_cover

Camelot 30K is about humans encountering alien life for the first time.

In 2009, humanity discovers a signal from a planetoid way beyond the orbit of Neptune, about 35 astronomical units out in the Kuiper belt. It then takes another two decades to develop and deploy a catapult system capable to send human explorers to the planetoid they have named Ice. During the time of preparation, humans develop a method of translation between the two languages. When the first six explorers arrive on Ice, they find a world very different from Earth. First, the ambient temperature is 30° Kelvin, or about minus 240° Celsius. Forward is a physicist, and he uses a set of low-temperature chemistry to establish the unique life forms that could live in that environment. The aliens are called keracks. They are very small, just a few centimeters long, have 10 legs and are shrimp-like in appearance. They have a thorax and an abdomen, a single large eye globe on their heads, antennas for radio communications, and a large war claw for fighting.

Humans have a body temperature of 37°C. To keracks, who have a body temperature of about minus 200°C, humans are first huge (since the keracks are the size of shrimp) and second glowing hot, so hot, that there is no way of the two species actually having any physical contact without destruction to both organisms. To mitigate that, robotics experts have developed micro robots in the shape of keracks, which are controlled by humans from immersion pods. Think about the pods used by the humans in the movie Avatar. They brought two of those robots along, so working in shifts, the six human explorers keep controlling the robots from their base about 30 kilometers away from the kerack city they are exploring.

As the humans get to know the keracks better and better, they keep finding out more about their mysterious body chemistry, and their culture, until they finally realize the danger they are in.

This hard science fiction book by Robert Forward came out in 1993, before the Internet, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it projects a few decades into the future from its point of view, which, of course, for me reading it in 2016, is already in the past. 2009, when Camelot 30K starts, is some 15 years in Robert Forward’s future. Then most of the action plays around 2030 when humanity finally reaches Ice.

There are a few cute “predict the future technology twists” in this book. For instance, the humans bring along a “Lookman,” which is a tablet-like computer with a video screen that they can interact with by touching the screen. On the Lookman they have manuals, books, references, encyclopedia and the like. Basically Forward is describing the iPad which of course did not exist even in concept in 1993, but there was the Sony Walkman that we all know which came out in the late 1970s, a gadget Forward would have known and has obviously used to derive his concept for the Lookman.

The fascinating hard science fiction speculations by Robert Forward notwithstanding, I found Camelot 30K a very boring book. Nothing much happens beyond hard science speculation. If you are a physicist or chemist with an interest in science fiction, great. But for me, an average reader, there was not enough going on in the story to keep me satisfied. I also found it hokey that the kerack culture was oddly reminiscent of England in the age of the knights. The agrarian feudalism, the King Arthur-like battles, including jousting, not by horses and knights, but by kerack (shrimp) warriors on top of their heullers (large caterpillar-like creatures they domesticate and ride in battle and for transportation in general). The parallels between European culture 500 years ago and an alien culture based on chemistry at minus 200°C  on a planetoid in the Kuiper belt seemed just too unlikely for me to just accept and move on.

Keracks are humans in shrimp bodies with human problems and human troubles to solve.

In contrast, I loved Robert Forward’s book Dragon’s Egg. I should read that again and review. But then, I think I no longer have the hardcopy after my latest purge of my books. Oh well.

Rating - One and a Half Stars

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chronothon

After Ben Travers finally made it back to his apartment in 2009, he didn’t stay there long. Being home alone with nothing to do but going to work the next morning at the marina in St. Petersburg, fixing other people’s boats, he decided to look up his time-traveling girlfriend Mym. Along the way, in Manhattan, Ben gets snagged by a Mafioso and coerced into participating in a 25th century game show: The Chronothon. Think of a chronothon as a race, like our current Amazing Race on TV. The different levels are like trips on Amazing Race, and there are about a dozen levels to go through. As the racers start, they go through a time gate, which is also a space gate, and they appear in the desert in ancient Egypt. In each level, the racers have an objective they have to achieve. Usually the objective is an artifact of some type they have to find and bring to the next get to move on to the next level. As the racers go through the gates, they have no idea where they come out on the other side, neither where, or when. What further complicates the race it that not everything is what it seems. Might the game even be rigged?

The Chronothon is the second book in Van Coops’ time travel adventure trilogy. The first book was In Times Like These. Unlike some sequels, where the second book is much like the first book, but with a different story and twist, The Chronothon is a completely fresh story, based on the same time travel technology applied In Times Like These. While Van Coops wrote this to be a stand-alone book, and while I can imagine it might work that way, I would no recommend it. If you are interested in The Chronothon, you really should read In Times Like These first to have a grounding in the technology and the characters of this book.

For me, this was a page turner with surprises and delights in every chapter. Like the first book, everything about this story is related to time travel and its effects and challenges. It’s not a story about a game using time travel, it’s about how time travel can be used for a game.

The Chronothon was a little corny at times. For instance, on the planet Diamatra, there is a native sentient species, the Soma Djinn, which are centipede-like creatures that inhabit human hosts and turn them into cannibalistic zombies. I would expect that sentence either turned you off completely, or it made you want to read The Chronothon, just to figure out how a reasonable and well-read human being like me can give this book three stars.

But here you have it:

Rating - Three Stars

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I cannot state enough times how important it is for every citizen of the world to read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It should be required reading for humanity.

— Norbert Haupt

After Hitler was democratically elected in January 1933, he quickly and illegally took dictatorial powers. His empire lasted only 12 years, from the illustrious and promising start, to the utter destruction of most of Europe, and especially Germany, the “fatherland” he wanted to make great again. He directly killed 11 million people in death camps and indirectly caused the deaths of 60 million people worldwide, about 3% of the world’s population in 1940.

Right now would be a great time to read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I did so in 2012, and here is my review. It is a very long book, but worth every minute. It is the best history book I have ever read.

However, if you only have a couple of hours, rather than a couple of months, then you might like to read Jimmy Coca’s book instead. Quick and dirty, and all the facts you need.

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in-times-like-these

The best time travel book of all time is Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. This book is the second best.

Ben, Carson, Blake and Robbie are four young men in their mid-twenties in St. Petersburg, Florida who belong to a softball league and enjoy their games after work. Francesca is one of their friends who likes to play the role of fan and sometimes she comes to the games to watch. On June 10, 2009, they start their game as a thunderstorm rolls in. Soon they get rained out completely. As they linger around the dugout, changing out of their uniforms, getting ready to go home, lightning strikes nearby. A power line whips free with sparks flying off the end. The world of the five friends goes dark.

When they come to a bit later, the world seems different. It’s mid-day. Were they passed out all night? Then they notice that the baseball field is no longer there. Their cars are gone. Everything seems somewhat retro. Within an hour of head scratching and ambling around they finally come to the conclusion that they are in St. Petersburg, Florida, in December 1986. They have the few clothes on their backs, flip flops, no money to speak of. Their cell phones don’t work. Now what?

They have no idea what happened to them, and the rest of the story is about their journey back through time.

The story is told in first person narration by Ben and from Ben’s point of view. First person stories often drive a sense of urgency and action, which works marvelously here. The descriptions are vivid and I have pictures of the scenes and people in front of me. The story is fast-paced and filled with action. And it’s all about time travel. This is not a book where time travel is just another method of getting around, like tracking a trolley to the city, or an airplane to Tokyo, or a time machine to 1955. No, this story does not just “use” time travel, it is about time travel. The mechanics of time travel, its limitations, its amazing possibilities, are central to the plot and the story line, very much like it was with The Time Traveler’s Wife. In Times Like These is not a story that applies time travel as a vehicle, but rather it’s time travel that reveals itself by telling a story.

As it is with time travel books, the methods of travel, the triggers, are always different. Sometimes there are machines that make it possible. Sometimes there are natural phenomena that accidentally cause travel. In Times Like These it is science that makes it possible, with limitations. And the limitations are what makes it complicated and very, very dangerous.

For instance, when you travel in time (and I’ll leave it up to you to read about how this can happen), you disappear from the current location and materialize elsewhere, and elsewhen. Since the earth rotates faster than a jet plane, if you were to jump in time by a second into the future, the earth would have moved under you by about a third of a mile. So, you can’t just time travel, you have to space travel also. Since you can’t afford to rematerialize in outer space after a time jump, since the earth moved away from you, you need an anchor, some object that fixes you in place on earth. And that gets tricky. What if you materialize where some other object occupies the space? You would be fused with that other object.

Imagine you materialize in a meadow where there was tall grass. Now the grass would be growing through your feet? It would be very painful indeed.

I don’t want to get too technical in this review, but this is what the book is about. How does a person travel in time safely with these terrible limitations?

There is only one technicality that bothered me somewhat, and it permeates the story. They make extra sure that fusion does not happen. Humans do not suddenly occupy the space of other objects. But air does not seem to matter. The entire technical plot and plausibility seems to ignore the fact that air also is matter, and it needs to take up space. We’re not in a vacuum, even when we’re not co-occupying space with furniture, or buildings, or other people.

But that’s ok. I got over that quickly, immersed myself in a world where time travel was invented, and I thoroughly enjoyed the sheer adventure of it.

There is a sequel, titled The Chronothon, and I am reading it now.

Rating - Three Stars

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time-scouts

Tales of the Time Scouts is time travel story with a great premise. It is also the first of a series of four books.

Due to a scientific accident, time gates have developed all over the world. People walking through these gates end up in different places at different times. The stable gates reappear at predictable intervals, sort of like the Old Faithful geyser. But the intervals are not initially obvious, and the destinations of gates must be explored. To make it worse, gates sometimes are unstable. Walking  through an unstable gate can, of course, be fatal, or fateful. It could be a one-way ticket and you could  be stuck in a dinosaur world with nothing but your pocket knife.

Time Scouts are individuals whose job it is to explore the gates, and document their specifics. A stable gate can then be used for research, trade, and time tourism. It’s possible, with the help of Time Guides, to visit ancient Rome, for instance.

The time portals are like transit stations, you can think of them as train stations or airports, except the departures are going into times, not places.

I have serious issues with the credibility of the main characters. One is Kit Carson, the most famous time scout of all, who is now retired, working as a hotel keeper at Time Terminal 86. From the description and behavior, I have formed a picture of Sam Elliott in my mind for Kit Carson. Margo, a girl barely 18 years old, desperately wants to be the world’s first female time scout. Females have never been used as time scouts, because in almost all societies in the past, in almost all eras, females were at best second-class citizens, and often abused, enslaved and worse. It’s not considered healthy for a female to show up in ancient Egypt, for instance, come up with a credible story and actually survive to return when the gate opens again.

For that reason, nobody is willing to train Margo. Everyone thinks it’s a suicide mission. She vehemently insists on fulfilling this goal. However, she constantly does stupid stuff. When she has to work at learning self-defense, she mopes.  When math is involved, she complains. When book learning comes up, she rebels.  Her behavior just makes no sense. If she were really dedicated to success, after she convinced the most renowned person in the business to train her, why would she keep bickering and sabotaging her own training?

Her juvenile behavior and her inconsistent character traits make for a jarring story line. I found myself constantly annoyed by Margo’s immaturity and stupidity, to the point where I lost interest.

Why the authors chose a hot-looking 18-year-old girl as protagonist for this story I do not understand. The story, the premise, is very promising and thought-provoking. Margo’s character destroys it.

I gave up at about 15% into the book. Perhaps Margo’s role gets better as the story goes on, I’ll never know, and I won’t be reading the sequels.

Not star-rated because I didn’t finish reading the book.

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heart-of-darkness

Heart of Darkness, published in 1899, is a novel by Joseph Conrad. It is listed as number 67 in Random House Board’s list of the 100 greatest novels in the English language, which I maintain here. Two friends recently recommended that I read this book. One of them is my literary professor friend in Germany (W.I.). The other is my blogger friend in Australia (V.P.), who was actually inspired to read Heart of Darkness partly by my listing it here on my blog. I might add here that her review of the book is much more inspiring and meaningful than mine – so please check it out.

Charles Marlow is a sailor who tells his story about a steamship trip up the Congo river to transport ivory out of Africa.

Marlow becomes obsessed with the central character of the story, Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader, who reportedly had disappeared without a trace. People were wondering if he’d gone “native,” or been kidnapped, or had run away with company’s money, or even been killed by the natives.

Eventually Marlow finds Kurtz, and discovers that he has become almost a demigod to the natives. Although he has a fiancé in England, he has taken a native woman as a wife. But he is ill. Marlow takes Kurtz, against his will, with him down the river to bring him back to civilization. But Kurtz does not survive the trip. When Marlow gets home to England, he has to tell the story to Kurtz’ fiancé.

Reading this short book of only 111 pages was a difficult slog. Conrad’s writing is dense and requires reading and re-reading to understand. I kept finding myself drifting in and out of attention.

Due to the stellar reputation of Conrad in general and this novel in particular in the world of literature, I had decided to keep going, for the “experience of it.” I would read a page or two with interest, and sometime re-read some sections, but invariably my attention would drift away and I would find myself reading empty words. In the end, I must admit, I didn’t “get” half the story, I am sure.

The most enjoyable part for me was, ironically, the frame or lead-in story, where Conrad describes Marlow sitting at night with a few friends on a tugboat in England on the Thames. He talks of England, the river, and the immense city of London upstream in descriptive and emotional terms, so the frame really came to light for me and I looked forward to the story. Here is a sample:

Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the serenity became less brilliant but more profound. The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth. We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs for ever, but in the august light of abiding memories. And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, “followed the sea” with reverence and affection, than to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames. The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled— the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests— and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith— the adventurers and the settlers; kings’ ships and the ships of men on ‘Change; captains, admirals, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned “generals” of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

What is it with me and literature and classic books? I almost always have a hard time reading them, and if I read them, I do not enjoy them. I find that reading should be a pleasure, not work. When it turns into work, my short modern American attention span breaks up and I get lost.

Therefore I cannot rate this highly. I cannot recommend that you, the reader, pick up Heart of Darkness, unless you know for sure what you are getting into.

Now, I have read about 10% into Lord Jim by Conrad, and I really should continue, but the dense writing has my mind drifting, and I am not sure I can continue much longer, particularly with a list of more interesting reading queued up in my library.

Rating - One and a Half Stars

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hungerwinter

Translation of Title:

Winter of Hunger – Germany’s Humanitarian Catastrophe of 1946/47

My father was born in 1936 in Breslau, Germany which is now Wrocław, Poland. When I was a child, I remember our father telling us about how there was nothing to eat after the war. He was the second oldest child of six siblings. His mother would cut a loaf of bread in half, and then cut the half into six slices and lay them out on the kitchen counter. Since he was the second oldest, he knew that the second largest slice (from the middle of the loaf) was his. Each sibling was allotted a slice of bread and that was their food for the day.

My father told that story many times when we were little and he wanted to make a point when we didn’t want to eat our broccoli at the dinner table, or when we didn’t want to finish what was on our plate. My father is now 80 years old, and he still clears his plate no matter how full it is.

He recently visited us in the United States and we took him to Claim Jumper, a restaurant known for its American fare and truly huge portions. Unbelievably, my father cleared his plate.

As a child, I was tired of the story of the six slices of bread. I never paid much attention to it. Now that my father is 80, and he shares more about his childhood and youth, I am beginning to understand, after all these years, just how much his entire life was shaped by his childhood during World War II and his youth in the aftermath of  the war. His life was destroyed before it had even really started, and he struggled his entire life to come to terms with the immense damage that was inflicted on his life.

During his last visit in July he brought the book Hungerwinter with him and urged me to read it. It is written in German and I assume there are no translations.

When we think of the end of World War II, we think of Hitler’s suicide in Berlin in May of 1945. Then we realize it took another three months and two nuclear bombs in Japan before the war was completely over. The concentration camps in Europe were liberated, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Wrong. So very wrong.

Nobody thinks much about what happened to Germany after the war. Hungerwinter tells the crushing story of the immense misery of the German people in the aftermath of the war. It is a forgotten story, one that even children of Germany born about 10 years after the war – like myself – never heard much about or had strong feelings about.

Hitler’s folly sent a generation of men into far-away places to be broken and often to die. Sometimes the prisoners of war took two or three years after the war before they returned home. During the war, Germany’s schools were closed. Since all the men were gone, and later all the boys too, everything was left to the women to maintain. Due to the bombing, the country was in ruin and a huge percentage of housing was either reduced to rubble or seriously damaged to the point of being unlivable. Factories had been destroyed by bombs. Roads and railroad lines, was well as locomotives and railroad cars were largely destroyed by raids. Farms had not been kept running during the war, due to the lack of peace, and of men.

When the Russians closed in from the east at the end of the war, they often systematically raped all women and girls, sometime so badly they had to be hospitalized for months afterwards. Many women were broken for life.

Hitler and the Nazis were gone, and the four victorious powers, Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union, divided the country into four quarters. Each quarter was administered and governed by its occupying nation. Groceries or raw ingredients, like grain, flower, sugar, milk, potatoes and cheese were simply not available. To top it all off, the winter between 1946 and 1947, was the strongest, longest and coldest winter of the century. There was nothing to heat with, no coal, oil, or wood. There was no infrastructure to deliver coal to where it was needed, to fuel trains and factories, and to heat homes. Hundreds of thousands of people froze and starved, became ill and died.

Hungerwinter tells of what it was like in Germany in 1945, 1946 and 1947, when the rest of the world was glad that fascism was defeated and peace was upon us by introducing us to specific families, and telling us their stories and anecdotes.

The people telling the stories are now all in their eighties, like my father, and it took me 60 years and reading this little book that he gave me, to understand that his life was ruined before it had even started. His mother died in childbirth in 1946, his father, who was gone in the war for the entire six years was a stranger, and the Hungerwinter left the motherless family of six children, with one infant, with a father they didn’t even know, fighting for their survival. Now I know and believe that he never got over what happened to him in his childhood.

I was born ten years later.

Rating - Four Stars

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the long way

I have heard science fiction writers say that they are writing the books they’d like to read. Well, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a book I would want to write because I would like to read it.

The debut novel by Becky Chambers is a quirky little road trip story, except the participants are not a motley crew of young adults driving from New York to the American West in a VW van. Rather, a crew of humans and aliens are on a trip in a space ship from the human “area” of the galaxy to the “core” where an obnoxious and dangerous alien race wields power.

The Wayfarer is a tunneling ship – that’s a spaceship designed to punch hyperspace tunnels into space so you can travel thousands of light years in a few hours. How that is done, how the science of it all works, is not explained, and it really does not matter much to advance the story.

When I said it’s a road trip story, I mean that it does not have much of a plot or a conflict. The joy of reading it is simply following the crew from adventure to adventure.

The universe they live in is one where humans are not the primary race. There are three founding races that formed the “Galactic Commons” long before humans even had technology, let alone space travel. One of the races are the Harmagians, a mollusk-like race with tentacles and slimy skin, but no feet, so they have to move around in wheelchair-like carts. Then there are the Aandrisks. They are lizard-like creatures, a bit like velociraptors but with more gentle, human-like faces. They have scales, are cold-blooded, and have claws. They also have to molt. The third funding race are the Aeluons, humanoid creatures, with scales, and no vocal chords, that communicate with the coloring of their skin. They are perceived as beautiful by humans. Humans were only very recently voted in to join the Galactic Commons as a member race. They therefore don’t carry much weight yet.

Rosemary Harper, a human with a secret in her history, is getting away from it all by joining the Wayfarer as a clerk. The captain of the Wayfarer is Ashby, a human. Its pilot is Sissix, an Aandrisk. Its medical officer and cook is Dr. Chef, a Grum. Grums are an almost extinct, ancient race, that have six “handfeet” that they can use interchangeably, multiple throats, and many other very alien features. Then there is Corbin, the ship’s algaeist, a human, and Kizzy and Jenks, the techs, also humans whose job it is keep the ship running. Finally, there is Ohan, the ship’s navigator, a Sianat, which is a feline-like race with fur and four legs. Ohan is extremely reclusive, but a vital member of the crew because due to a strange viral condition is able to visualize hyperspace, a crucial skill if the job of the ship is to “punch holes” into space to create wormholes for other ships to travel through.

How this crew interacts with each other and with other aliens is what the book is mostly about. Other aliens they come across are the Toremi Ka, a very nasty sort with four legs with knees bent the wrong way, or the Quelin, lobster-like creatures with lots of clicking legs and a centaur-like torso and head.

I was fascinated with all the aliens and their interactions, both individually on the ship, and as races with each other, in the Galactic Commons, with all its politics and social structure. But there were some flaws with this book.

As some Amazon reviewers noted, the dialog is sometimes that of high school girls, perhaps because Kizzy, the tech, is a ditsy, albeit brilliant, chick.

My major complaint is that most of the aliens are really humans dressed up as aliens. While their bodies and structures are very different, they pretty much think and feel like humans in other bodies. To me, they are not alien enough.

I also found that the author didn’t describe them well enough. So I could picture them somewhat, but not sufficiently to, say, draw or paint them. I’d have to make a lot of things up. I would say that if you write a book which is centrally focused around aliens interacting, you should do a much better job putting pictures of those aliens into my head. The aliens are all about the same size, approximately human, so they can all interact, sort of like in the bar scenes of the Star Wars movies.

Here is what pushed it over the top, though. Some of the humans and aliens had the hots for each other. There is one central plotline revolving around a sexual relationship between a Human and an Aeluon, and another between a Human and an Aandrisk. That was too much for me. I can’t imagine how one would get sexually attracted to an alien, no matter how humanoid that alien is. And how would that work, claws, tentacles and all, not to speak of sex organs, if there even are any in the aliens. So while it was tastefully handled by the author, it just made it too outlandish and farfetched for me, and I was always reminded that, yes, I was reading a book, and I just had to accept that this was somehow possible.

For me, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was eminently readable, a page-turner even, with some major flaws that I was willing to forgive. I read that Becky Chambers is working on a sequel.

I will read the sequel when it comes out in October.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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Moby Dick - Chapter IX

I recently connected with my Latin and German professor from when I was 11, and he was 28. An email exchange ensued discussing literature in a multitude of languages. I told him I could not read Moby Dick.

He responded:

Zu Moby Dick: Da ist zweifellos so manches, was für den Leser nur schwer verdaulich ist. Aber nicht wenige Stellen sind wunderbar. Besonders schön Kapitel 9 „The Sermon“! Jeder einzelne Satz ist ein Genuß! Beispiel: “In this world, shipmates, Sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.“ Oder: “Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness!”

Ah, so I pulled the trusty old book off the shelf, thumbed through the yellowed pages, found chapter IX and started reading.

Coffee, Moby Dick and world class prose on a Saturday morning, after coming home from a long work trip back east last night – it does not get any better than this.

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Seveneves1

The title SEVENEVES is a palindrome. I didn’t realize that until just now, when I wrote the title here.

Seveneves has a lot of flaws. Yet, it was the best future earth hard science fiction novel I remember ever reading. I was fascinated with its concepts, yet there were many facets about the plot and the story that were outright hokey.

Some of the one-star reviewers on Amazon blasted the book, called it the absolutely worst Stephenson novel ever. It was my very first Stephenson novel. I couldn’t read Cryptonomicon eight years ago. That left an anti-Stephenson taste in my mouth.

But I loved Seveneves, and I kept turning the pages. This is the first paragraph in the book:

THE MOON BLEW UP WITHOUT WARNING AND FOR NO APPARENT reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05: 03: 12 UTC. Later it would be designated A + 0.0.0, or simply Zero.

How can one possibly stop reading after that sentence?

The basic premise of the book is this: After the moon blows up, scientists realize that the earth will be bombarded by small and large meteorites from the moon, trillions of them. Meteorites generate a lot of friction heat and they will heat up the planet to a point where it can’t sustain life. To make things worse, the meteor shower will last between 5,000 and 10,000 years. It will start in about two years.

So humanity has two years’ notice to figure out what to do, and the only viable strategy to ensure the future of the human race is to escape into space. Everyone on earth will die in two years, except the lucky few that live in space.

I will stop here, lest I introduce spoilers. As I said, there are a number of things wrong with this novel, that kept bothering me. Some of the basic plot points are just too unreal. I know we haven’t figured out how to live in a completely enclosed system. They tried that on earth with Biosphere at one time, but it failed. The International Space Station (ISS) has been fully enclosed for a couple of decades by now, but it’s constantly being supplied by ships from earth with consumables, and it supports 5 to 10 people at the most. The concept of having the human race survive in space habitats based on 2015 technology for millennia is too farfetched to make sense.

However, I just got over it. I ignored these plot issues, and said to myself: What would happen if humanity could survive in that environment?

Stephenson explores this question to the utmost. He explains many of the technological concepts in great detail. Some negative reviewers complained about this level of  detail and wanted more of a plot and character development. I didn’t. Science fiction, for me, is about marveling what might be, and Seveneves is full of tremendous marveling. I loved the extensive and elaborate descriptions of the space habitats that humanity eventually develops. I loved the implications of using orbital mechanics to facilitate travel. I loved the mega-machines humanity built to live in.

For instance, just to give you one example, there is what they call “the eye.” The eye is a circular structure of about 50 kilometers in diameter. Inside of the circle, picture a “chain” of large habitats, sort of like giant train cars, each car about the size of a city block in length, or half a degree of arc inside the circle. This means there are 720 links in the chain. Each link is a habitat. The chain runs inside the circle so it generates artificial gravity by centrifugal force. You can walk from car to car around the whole 50 kilometer circle, if you wanted to, going from one habitat to the next. To generate one earth-normal gravity (1g), the chain has to move at a speed of about 1,500 meters per second, or about mach 1.5. To put it in terms on modern airliners, which travel at a speed between 800 and 900 meters per second, it means the chain moves at a speed of about 1.6 times as fast as an airliner. Once you are in the chain, you don’t notice it’s moving, and you just experience gravity. But to get on it from the outside of the ring, you basically have to get catapulted onto it. Humans sit down in little “cars” that get accelerated into tubes like bullets until they match the speed of the chain, so they can get off. It’s kind of like some of the rides at Disneyland where you walk up on a moving platform that goes at the same speed of the cars on the ride, so you can get on without the entire ride stopping, except the cars go at a speed of mach 1.5.

Fascinating. Seveneves is chock full of such concepts. Fascinating.

I wanted to join that world and live in it. I didn’t want the book to end.

Rating - Three Stars

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Prophets Prey

San Brower is a private investigator who took on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, as it is commonly referred to, and gradually, over years of painstaking work, exposed it and its leader and “prophet,” Warren Jeffs, as an organized criminal enterprise of massive proportions.

Prophet’s Prey is his chilling exposé of the Fundamentalist Mormon religion and the endless, brutal crimes perpetrated by the “leadership” all in the name of God.

The FLDS is acult with its headquarters in Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, two neighboring towns in a remote and isolated strip of the country, bordered by the Grand Canyon to the south and cliffs to the north. Pretty much all the people who live there are part of the cult.

The Mormon religion was founded by Joseph Smith in 1820. In my opinion, Smith was a pedophile and a con man. He started a religion to create a lifestyle for himself. When he eventually was murdered, Brigham Young, another autocratic child abuser and power-grabbing dictator built up the Mormon church. One of the tenets of the religion was polygamy. When the practice started becoming unpopular in the United States about 100 years ago, the “mainstream” Mormons renounced polygamy.

Some of the faithful didn’t like that, and eventually split off to start the FLDS. It exists to this day.

The flock is not allowed to listen to the radio, watch TV or movies, read books, listen to music or get an education. Most children stop school at the elementary level. The people have lived in this environment their entire lives and are completely brainwashed about what the “real world” is like. They think they are God’s chosen people, and their leader is the prophet who speaks God’s will. Everyone is in on it. The doctors and nurses in the hospital. The judges. The police. The mayor. The bishop. The contractors. The health inspectors. The teachers. You can’t escape the reach of the church leadership, and their word, their will, is God’s word and will. People blindly follow orders, whether the orders are legal or not.

When God wants the prophet to be “sealed” to a 12-year-old girl in marriage, then the father of that child has no choice but give up his daughter. Systematic child abuse, rape of boys as young as five to eight years old in the guise of God’s will, and getting underage girls as young as 12 and 13 pregnant by the dozens is apparently commonplace and normal in that environment.

Prophets Prey 2

A recently married and newly pregnant Veda Keate, the thirteen-year-old daughter of convicted child molester Allen Keate. Shortly after Allen gave Veda in marriage to Warren, he took an underage bride of his own. He is serving thirty-three years in Huntsville State Prison in Texas.

— Brower, Sam (2011-08-01). Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (p. 311). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Prophets Prey 1

Ora Bonnie Steed posing with underage sister wife Veda Keate. Warren wrote that both conceived their babies during the same “heavenly session” with him. Veda also appeared in a photo in a National Geographic cover story on the FLDS, along with her daughter Serena. The caption in the magazine identified them only as two of the children taken in the raid on the YFZ Ranch.

— Brower, Sam (2011-08-01). Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (p. 311). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

“Heavenly session” is what the man of God and FLDS leader calls group sex with multiple underage girls at the same time – because somehow that helps the salvation of the world. The entire religion buys into this.

One girl, who eventually escaped, tells her story of growing up in a house with 20 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms with her father, his six wives and 52 children. This seems normal to them. Yet, we all know that this kind of lifestyle is not supportable. Most American’s have trouble supporting a family of four or five people with two incomes. How does a man support six wives and 52 children?

By having five of the wives apply for welfare as single mothers with the State of Arizona or Utah, or both. By sending boys as young as 11 off to work on construction sites as slave laborers. By sucking as much money as possible out of the system, out of our taxes and welfare money. They call it “bleeding the beast” and justify it since they are God’s chosen people.

Prophet’s Prey is a shocking book that provides a view into what almost seems like an alternate universe. It is astonishing that these things can be going on right now, in our time, with very little interference from law enforcement of any kind. After reading Prophet’s Prey, you will never think about the Mormon religion the same way again.

The “mainstream” Mormons are distancing themselves from the Fundamentalists. I don’t buy it. It’s the same messed-up cult, just a different, more drastic flavor of it.

But read about it yourself, and be your own judge. Prophet’s Prey is a must-read book for any educated and responsible American.

Rating - Four Stars

Other articles and reviews I wrote related to Mormonism:

Play Review: The Book of Mormon

Mormon Apostles Paid Off

Mormon Handcarts

Romney Going Psycho about Mormonism

To Mormon or Not to Mormon

Mormonism in Decline

Institutional Lies and Deception of Mormonism

Atrocities in Mormon History

Mormon Doctrine on Race (White and Black)

Mormons and Masturbation

Mormons Baptize Jews Posthumously

Book Review: Wife No. 19 – by Ann Eliza Young

Park Romney’s Book and Mitt Romney’s Waffling

Book Review: An American Fraud – by Kate Burningham

 

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Kiss Every Step

A few weeks ago, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I walked into our local Barnes & Noble in Escondido for a little browsing. Near the door was a little old lady with a display easel and a stack of books. She looked up at me, held one of the books, and said “This is my book!”

Kiss Every Step 1

[picture credit: The Charterian]

It took me a few moments of talking with her before I realized that she was Doris Martin, and she pointed to herself on a photograph of prisoners in front of a cattle car in Auschwitz.

Doris Martin is 90 years old, and she spends her afternoons standing in the lobby of our book store telling her remarkable story of survival. I had the honor of buying a signed copy of her book, and talking with her for a few moments. She was 13 years old when World War II started.

It won’t be long now before all eye witnesses of this terrible time in the history of humanity will no longer be alive. I am grateful for every book they wrote, every story they told, and every tear they shed. Because those stories need to be told, as an everlasting lesson to those of us lucky enough to be born decades after the maelstrom of evil we now call the holocaust.

I find it despicable that there are actually people around today, called holocaust deniers, that claim the entire thing didn’t actually happen. It’s a spit in the face of every living Jew, it’s a trampling on the graves of every one of the 12 million Jews that were slaughtered, and it’s a terrible insult to those who lived through this awful time and survived to tell the story.

Doris Martin is one of those. She spent three years in a labor camp in Ludwigsdorf as a young girl. The book tells the story of her parents and her siblings, a Jewish family lucky enough to have all members survive the war and reunite afterwards. The odds must have been one in a million. Perhaps they were the only ones.

Kiss Every Step is a book everyone should read. It illustrates what happens when a minority, in this case a religious one, gets ostracized and cast out of society, initially through subtle regulation, soon through brutal discrimination and racism, and finally by outright, open, unfettered, blatant murder.

It happened in 1933 in Germany.

Unfortunately, and frighteningly, traces of this are happening right here, right now, in 2016 in the United States of America. Watch out!

Rating - Four Stars

Link to the official website of Kiss Every Step

Other posts related to the holocaust in this blog:

Visualize 12 Million People

Movie Review: Sarah’s Key

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – by William Shirer

Book Review: Auschwitz – by Miklos Nyiszli

Book Review: Five Chimneys – by Olga Lengyel

Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning – by Viktor E. Frankl

Book Review: Yellow Star – by Jennifer Roy

Rantings of a Kook: Holocaust Denier – Ingrid Rimland Zundel

Holocaust Memorial in Iowa

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See – by Anthony Doerr

Book Review: Der Gelbe Stern – by Gerhard Schoenberner

Book Review: Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl

 

 

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Endurance

Ernest Shackleton was an English explorer who wanted to be the first to cross Antarctica on foot. After many years of preparation and huge expense, he outfitted the Endurance, a ship especially built for the journey, and set sail from England in 1914 for Antarctica. They left for the final push from South Georgia, an island in the Southern Sea, on December 5, 1914, the beginning of summer on the southern hemisphere, heading for the Antarctic coast.

Eventually the Endurance got trapped in pack ice only a few days of sailing away from their destination. They ended up spending months marooned on the ship, waiting for the ice to clear. However, pack ice is dangerous and soon the ice started crushing the ship, forcing the crew and the more than 70 sled dogs they had with them to leave the ship and camp on the ice.

Eventually the ice started to break up…

Endurance is the story of how 28 men, with only three life boats and provisions for a few months spent 17 months in the Antarctic ocean with no possibility of rescue before they could save themselves.

This was before Goretex, and modern gear, and GPS, and high-tech trekking equipment and food. The men lived through an Antarctic winter in sleeping bags made out of reindeer hide, wearing wool clothes and mittens. When you camp on ice floes in summer, the surface melts during the day and freezes again at night, making for a constant water-logged camp. Their clothes were always damp or wet, and the temperatures reached 40 below with gale force winds.

And they camped out, every night, for 17 months.

Lansing tells the story of the 28 men on the Endurance. I felt I was there with them, every step of the way, I felt their agony, their boredom, and the hopelessness of their situation. But I was also inspired by their indomitable will to live.

Rating - Three Stars

 

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War and Peace

I finished reading War and Peace. I am pretty much the only person I know that has read War and Peace all the way through. If a reader wants to challenge me on this, leave a comment!

With over 580,000 words (in English), the book is listed on Wikipedia’s list of longest books as number 22.

The only books I also know on this list is Les Misérables by Victor Hugo with 655,000 words, and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand with 645,000 words, which I have actually read and reviewed here.

But why am I whining about how long the book is? Because it’s iconic for its length. When our English teacher told us that an assigned essay would not have to be too long, he would say: “You don’t need to write War and Peace.”

It also took me longer than any other book I can remember. I started reading this around New Years 2016, and look, it’s almost Tax Day 2016, that’s how long it took me. I am starving for other reading material. I can’t wait to start another book, any other book!

War and Peace is one of the central pieces of world literature. In 2007, Time magazine ranked War and Peace third in its poll of the 10 greatest books of all time. Tolstoy’s other major work, Anna Karenina, was first. Incidentally, Anna Karenina is one major novel I have actually read twice, listed with a few others here. Newsweek ranked War and Peace first in its list of 100 greatest books in 2009.

War and Peace plays in Russia, mostly in and around Moscow, during the Napoleonic Wars, and the central action is the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812. While there are hundreds of important characters in the book, there are some protagonists that the work follows from beginning to end. One is Pierre Bezukhov, an illegitimate son of a count who grows up a misfit and then unexpectedly becomes one of the richest men in Russia when his father dies and leaves his estate to him. Another is Prince Andrew, who becomes an officer in the war. Natasha Rostov is a the young and beautiful daughter of a count who is the object of intrigue by both Andrew and Pierre, and a number of other suitors.

The book follows mostly members of the nobility. We get to learn how Russian nobility lived, and there are enough princes and princesses, and counts and countesses in War and Peace to last me a lifetime. While Tolstoy clearly spent a lot of time and effort describing the lifestyles of the rich, famous and glamorous of Russian society around 1800, I felt that I didn’t learn enough about the lives of the peasantry, the soldiers and the ordinary workers. As it seems, half the book is filled with endless petty conversations between princes, counts and their panderers in the drawing rooms of Russian estates. Real people, the servants, the footmen, the nurses and tutors, are only referenced. They hardly ever talk. It’s as if life only consisted of the one percent.

From reading Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky), Fathers and Sons (Turgenev), all playing in Russia of the Czars, I have a completely different picture of Russian life in its glory days than I do of Russia today, when we think of oligarchs, Putin, Soviets, Stalin, and communism. Read War and Peace, experience how the gentry lived and used and abused the people, and you will understand why the Russian revolution happened about 100 years after War and Peace played. The people, the workers, the serfs, the peasants, they couldn’t take it anymore. Alas, it didn’t last long, and a new breed of abusers took over, not by inherited titles, but by power. That’s what made Russia what it is today.

War and Peace tells a story of epic proportions and provides endless material to marvel about. It is an unforgettable book – and it is very, very challenging to read and finish.

So while it behooves me to give such a classic work four stars, I simply didn’t experience it that way. It’s a must-read, yes, but it’s not a page turner.

You don’t read War and Peace, War and Peace reads you!

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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In the last few weeks, a set of amazing coincidences came together around me that had me marveling enough to write a post about it. It all starts in 1973, when I was a 16-year-old high school student in Germany. I was in my room and somebody took a photograph of me – probably one of my siblings. In those days, we made photographs into slides. Slides are endemically difficult to thumb through and browse in an album, so they are often forgotten. I had no idea that this picture of me even existed. I have no recollection of it being taken. It was taken in my teenage-decorated room, where I had plastered the walls with my own artwork and knick-knacks.

Norbert at Age 17

I didn’t have this slide. One of my sisters, when moving house a few months ago in Germany, found it in one of her picture boxes. She, too, did not know how she came to have it, but she thought I’d like it and put it in an envelope and mailed it to me.

It was difficult to see what was on it. Trisha had it developed for me and “cleaned up.” Slides almost 45 years old have spots and marks. One day a few weeks ago she brought it home to me enlarged in print and framed. It was a surprise. Now I could finally look at it.

At this point is must digress for a minute for a backstory. I have written about getting rid of much of my old collection of hardcover books, as I outlined in this post of last winter. I have proceeded with that project, and many of my non-descript books, old paperbacks, outdated non-fiction books, and the like, are now gone. However, I have saved some of the treasures I have – and will always have, and some of those are resting, seemingly forever and untouched, on the shelves around me.

There is an old book of humorous poetry by the German poet Christian Morgenstern, born May 6, 1871 in Munich, and died in 1941 at age 42. The book’s title is Alle Galgenlieder (All Gallows Songs). Morgenstern is a little like a German Shel Silverstein, writing hilarious poems that make fun of human nature and ordinary situations.

Galgenlieder1

You can see the little blue softcover book Alle Galgenlieder on the left side of this little section of my shelf, not four feet behind my head. The book has been sitting there for the last few years, pretty much untouched and unmoved. It’s in revered company, as you can see, with Moby Dick, Tristram Shandy, The Prophet, War and Peace, and The Count of Monte Cristo.

So where is the coincidence, you ask?

Well, there are very few books that I had in my youth and my childhood that I still have today. I never gave Galgenlieder much thought in the last 40 years, other than thinking of it as an ancient classic, and keeping it around.

Then I looked at the photograph made of the slide, and it hit me:

Galgenlieder4

Here it is, on the shelf next to me, in a photograph I didn’t know even existed. Don’t ask me how I even made that connection. I just looked at the picture, the knick-knacks I had forgotten, and I noticed the book. I turned around in my chair, and here it was.

Galgenlieder2

And that, I thought, was pretty cool.

But the story does not end here. Today, I came across a Reddit post about the prefix Hella.

Galgenlieder5

You know, in the series of Mega, Giga, Tera, and so on, Hella is for one octillion.  So I clicked on the link and came to this Wikipedia article, where the origins of some of the other prefixes are discussed. I scrolled around and got to the now ubiquitous Giga.

In the age of the iPhone and iPad, every grandmother knows what a Gig is – or at least acts like she does. Then I read about the origin of the prefix Giga, and was thunderstruck:

The prefix giga is usually pronounced /ˈɡɪɡə/ but sometimes /ˈɪɡə/. According to the American writer Kevin Self, in the 1920s a German committee member of the International Electrotechnical Commission proposed giga as a prefix for 109, drawing on a verse (evidently “Anto-logie”) by the humorous poet Christian Morgenstern that appeared in the third (1908) edition of Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs).[6][7]

This suggests a hard German g was originally intended as the pronunciation. Self was unable to ascertain when the /dʒ/ (soft g) pronunciation was accepted, but as of 1995 current practice had returned to /ɡ/ (hard g).[8] [9]

So this claimed that Morgenstern first used the word Gig or Giga. Could that be true?

So I turned around, reached for my trusty Galgenlieder behind me, checked the index for Anto-Logie, and promptly found it on page 76:

Galgenlieder3

Sure enough. Here it is.

A friend (KJ) emailed me an excellent translation by Max Knight:

Anto-logy

Of yore, on earth was dominant

the biggest mammal: the Gig-ant.

(“Gig” is a numeral so vast,

it’s been extinct for ages past.)

But off, like smoke, that vastness flew.

Time did abound, and numbers too,

until one day a tiny thing,

the Tweleph-ant, was chosen king.

Where is he now? Where is his throne?

In the museum pales his bone.

True, Mother Nature gave with grace

the Eleph-ant us in his place,

but, woe, that shooting anthropoid

called “Man”, in quest for tusks destroyed

him ere he could degenerate,

by stages, to an Ten-ant’s state.

 

 

And there it is, the story of coincidences:

Through this unlikely coincidence I learned the origin of Giga

From an old 19th century book by a German poet

That I didn’t realize I had near me

That I was reminded about by a slide over 40 years old

That my sister found when moving

In which I recognized a book

That I didn’t know I still had.

 

 

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