Aye, Robot by Robert Kroese

I too have read a novel by Robert Kroese recently. It seems to be closer to the vein of Kroese’s other novels than perhaps The Dream of the Iron Dragon is, judging by titles and Lars’s review alone.

Aye, Robot is the latest in a short series of Starship Grifters book. It’s the second of three, the prequel, Out of the Soylent Planet, being published after its release. A few dialogue lines refer to previous events and none of the main characters need reintroduction, but it stands on its own.

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” snapped Rex. “What’s my name?”
“Rex Nihilio,” I said.
“And what’s my occupation?”
“You’re the self-described ‘greatest wheeler-dealer in the galaxy.'”
“Correct,” said Rex. “It sounds better if you leave off the ‘self-described,’ though. What’s your name?”
“Sasha.”
“Which stands for what?”
“Self-Arresting near Sentient Heuristic Android.”

Sasha, the narrator of the story, tells us the space grifter Rex Nihilio is reckless enough to need someone to hold him back (or get in his way) so he doesn’t get killed while off on a wild hair. That’s where she comes in. She begins by wondering about loss of memory, because she realizes nether she nor Rex can recall details of their actions from minutes before the conversation above. Plus Rex is acting generously, completely out of character for him.

They quickly fall into trouble through Rex’s new behavior patterns and just as quickly go from fryer to fire as something very big watches them from the shadows. As their adventure continues, they run afowl common criminals, Space Apostles, and the Malarchian government’s worst law-enforcer, Heinous Vlaak.

The story leans more light-hearted crime novel than full-throated comic. Most of the comedy comes in funny names and misused words. Nothing dark. Gullible stooges get their just desserts. It’s all good. I enjoyed it. One of my children did too, but a younger one didn’t get it.

Also included in this book is the novella, “The Yanthus Prime Job,” another light-hearted crime story with one of the characters we meet in the main story. It raises questions about how we treat those we deem unimportant.

Pronouncing Old Norse names

I haven’t yet posted any links to Prof. Jackson Crawford’s videos. I have not viewed as much of his stuff as I probably should have, but what I’ve seen impresses me very much. In this short one he tells us how the Vikings pronounced a number of names of gods and mythological characters. If you’re wondering whether I pronounce them that way, no, I confess I don’t. But it’s good to learn.

Have a good weekend.

‘The Dream of the Iron Dragon,’ by Robert Kroese

The Dream of the Iron Dragon

I was offered a free copy of Robert Kroese’s The Dream of the Iron Dragon, and I figured it’s a space opera with Vikings, I’ll give it a shot. I found it an entertaining read.

It’s the 23rd Century, and earth is no longer habitable. An alien enemy called the Cho-ta’an destroyed the planet, and now humanity survives on a handful of scattered earth-like worlds, grimly awaiting the day when the technologically superior Cho-ta’an will finish the job.

The Andrea Luhman is a small scouting ship, sent out to hunt for new habitable planets. They are not prepared for a mysterious message, sent from an unlikely ally who offers them a doomsday weapon that could turn the whole war around.

Soon they are racing home, pursued by a Cho-ta’an ship. A desperate maneuver sends them back in time, to earth in the 9th Century, and they crash-land in Norway.

King Harald Fairhair is at that point consolidating his unification of the country. The space people soon find themselves caught up in the resistance, using their rapidly diminishing weapons and ammunition, plus their technological knowledge, to help a chieftain in his campaign to avenge himself on Harald.

The Dream of the Iron Dragon is pretty good. I’m not personally a big fan of space opera, but I judge this pretty much the kind of optimistic military sci fi story Baen Books fans would welcome. As for the Viking elements, they could be worse. There were some errors – especially toward the end – but author Kroese has clearly done some serious research, and he manages to craft a plausible Viking world.

First of a trilogy. Recommended, with cautions for language and violence.

Intelligence — the low kind and the artificial kind

It reached 27 degrees today where I live, and that feels pretty good after the cold stretch. Yesterday I was able to wear my Mad Bomber hat with the ear flaps up, and today I was able to switch to a flat cap with ear flaps. The sun doesn’t go down till about a minute after 5:00, which means I can at least begin my homeward commute with the car lights off, sparing my battery a little work. (I’m thoughtful like that.)

I’ve been listening to a bit of Glenn Beck in the mornings recently. I’m not a big fan of his, but I had to stop listening to his competitor on the other talk network, Mike Gallagher. Mike is a very nice guy, I’m sure, but I’ve grown more and more to suspect that he isn’t terribly bright. He thinks with his heart, which annoys me. It’s like a conservative operating with a liberal’s equipment. What made him dead to me, though, was a day some time before Christmas, when a listener called in to his show to repeat the canard that goes, “Well, you know, Abraham Lincoln owned slaves.”

[For the record, in case it comes up, Abraham Lincoln never owned a slave. Not one. Nor did his father, who was an abolitionist. Lincoln’s wife’s family owned slaves, it’s true, but the Lincolns never did. I’ll reconsider the argument if the person making it is willing to take responsibility for all his own in-laws’ actions.]

But Mike Gallagher, with his national microphone and a staff of assistants, didn’t bother to refute the assertion. He just said, “Well, Lincoln had a lot of problems in relation to black people.” Then when angry listeners (like me) called in to complain, he just said, “I didn’t say he owned slaves.”

In my opinion, all conservative talk show hosts are morally obligated to let no one ever get away with saying Lincoln owned slaves. That obligation is right up there with shooting down the “Bush blew up the Twin Towers” theory.

Anyway, as I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, I listened to a piece of Glenn Beck’s program. He was talking to a science fiction writer about the concept of Artificial Intelligence. They were agreed that humanity is in grave danger, in the fairly near future, of being surpassed and perhaps enslaved by something like androids. The Singularity, it’s called – the day when machines become smarter than humans.

Let me go out on a limb and say it – I am not worried about the Singularity. Continue reading Intelligence — the low kind and the artificial kind

Richard Scarry’s ‘What Do People Do All Day’

What Do People Do All Day turns 50 this year. Author Richard Scarry (1919-1994) has sold well over 100 million books by sticking to what The Independent calls “his limitation. Having hit on a formula that worked so well he did little more than tinker with it throughout a long and highly profitable creative career.” When your readers and their parents beat your books up with love, why would you shift gears to draw maps for the army or some such?

Half his books are storybooks,” his son, Richard Scarry, Jr., who writes under the name Huck Scarry, told the NY Times in 1994, “and half are educational books, but the educational books always try to get across whatever educational information they have to tell in an amusing and lighthearted way.”

Books behind bars

In the two years Hart spent at the facility, the library’s inventory grew from 600 books to more than 15,000. When prisoners weren’t after books on deboning animals, they sought out titles on crocheting, affordable living in tiny homes, and what Hart calls “street lit,” a genre of memoirs from reformed criminals. The Japanese graphic novel Naruto was popular; so was the Christian-driven Left Behind series, about the people who remain following the Rapture.

The prison library is a set commonly seen in movies. It offers a lot of opportunities for secret conversations, the transfer of contraband items, and sending messages in code. If you’re curious what it’s like to serve the information needs of real-world incarcerated offenders, here’s an article on the subject from Atlas Obscura.

It’s interesting that they bring up the subject of “banned books.” I expect the American Library Association is working hard to get prisoners access to bomb-making manuals. You can’t deny people their constitutional rights, just because they’ve forfeited their constitutional rights, after all. Stop discriminating against the morally creative!

Blogging through LOTR: War stories

The Two Towers

‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’

Much has been written in Tolkien scholarship about the influence World War I had on the composition of The Lord of the Rings. That influence is certainly discernable in The Two Towers, which I recently completed re-reading. It’s been a few days since I finished it, so I’ve probably forgotten some of what I thought while reading, but I’ll try to offer a few crumbs from the feast for your perusal.

When I first read of the World War I connection, I had some trouble understanding it. The corpses in the Dead Marshes, people said, were reminiscent of the corpses in No Man’s Land, between the trenches. The journey was like trench warfare… somehow.

I understood it a little better, I think, in this reading. Frodo’s and Sam’s journey is in some psychological ways like the experience of a long war. Sam is a perfect epitome of the “common” soldier whom so many men of Tolkien’s class learned to appreciate, as never before, in the shared experience of combat. C. S. Lewis writes affectingly of his experience with his own sergeant, technically his subordinate, who taught him enough war-craft to stay alive in the early stages, and finally gave his own life (inadvertently) for Lewis through standing between him and the exploding shell that would have killed him. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: War stories

The Draw of Historical Re-enacting

We have many historical re-enactors or living historians where I live. Our neighboring battlefields and monuments need context to understand what happened on this land 150 years ago and more. Just to the north of where I live is a park dedicated to the Cherokee nation and the beginning of the Trail of Tears. A few miles down the road is a national battlefield where the Confederate army won a major battle just before losing a bigger one.

What is the draw and the danger of re-enacting portions of history?

It isn’t only recreational. Craftspeople specialize in creating historical replicas, like the armour that was used in the Marathon re-enactment. Experimental archaeologists test specific hypotheses about aspects of history as a form of academic inquiry. Inevitably, some guesswork is involved; recreating the past means you have to fill in a lot of little gaps in the historical record. . . .

Even within specific groups of re-enactors, people hold a range of views about how closely clothing, items, and activities should mimic the originals. “Some people are button and stitch counters, and they’re not much fun,” says one re-enactor, dressed in wool clothes and standing in a field outside Hamilton, Ontario. (He was taking part in an annual living-history recreation of late medieval Italy, in the spring of 2016.) “They’re so historically correct it becomes ridiculous.”

(via Prufrock News)

Pearls, swine, etc.

Here’s what I told my co-workers when I led office devotions today.

Recognize this Bible verse? It’s Matthew 7:6:

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.”

I’ve always taken that verse to mean “Don’t waste too much time trying to preach or witness to stubborn and obstinate people. Go on and plant the seed in more fertile soil.”

But when I read it recently in my own devotions, in The Lutheran Study Bible (ESV), I was surprised to find there an entirely different interpretation.

The ESV Bible appends it to the first five verses of the chapter, in a single section. Verses 1 through 5 go like this. You’re probably familiar with them, especially Verse 1. It’s probably the most quoted verse in the Bible nowadays.

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Contrary to popular opinion, the purpose of this passage is not to forbid us from judging anyone – indeed, further on in the same chapter Jesus tells us to judge teachers by their fruits. His point, as you no doubt see, is that we need to ruthlessly examine ourselves before judging, to make sure we’re not practicing the very sins we’re condemning in others. Judging, Jesus tells us, is a dangerous thing. It’s like a knife – if you don’t grasp it the right way, you’ll cut your own hand.

What I’d never heard of before I read the notes in The Lutheran Study Bible (and none of the pastors present had ever heard it before either, which made me feel a little better), is the interpretation that says that the “pearls” in Verse 6 are not the words of the gospel. The pearls are our fellow Christians. If we practice hypocritical judgment, our injustice drives those pearls out of the safety of the congregation, into the world, where “dogs” and “pigs” will devour them.

Ever heard of this interpretation before? The editors of The Lutheran Study Bible aren’t known for eccentric thinking.

Blogging through LOTR: Anglo-Saxon echoes

Anglo-Saxons

‘Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?’

‘A man may do both,’ said Aragorn. ‘For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!’

I’ve been looking for Norse elements in The Two Towers. Of all the LOTR books, I think this one is richest in Scandinavian echoes – or at least Anglo-Saxon, which is as close as makes almost no difference, when you’re thinking of the Age of Beowulf (who lived in what is now Sweden, after all). Because the Rohirrim are plainly modeled on the Anglo-Saxons (though I suspect a tribe of horsemen would have developed the kite-shaped shield by this point, as the Normans did when they took to fighting on horseback).

There’s the boat-burial of Boromir, similar to the classic (mythical) Viking burial. Although most people think of ship burials at sea as a Viking custom, it’s actually undocumented in history or archaeology. Where it comes from is a passage in Beowulf (fully legendary), and the funeral of Baldur in Norse mythology (fully mythical). But it works well for the kind of high fantasy we’re involved with here. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: Anglo-Saxon echoes

‘Ricochet Joe,’ by Dean Koontz

I took another brief break from The Two Towers to read this new release from Dean Koontz. It wasn’t a long break. This is a Kindle Single, little more than a short story, and correspondingly inexpensive.

Fans of the Odd Thomas books will find Ricochet Joe evocative. The hero is Joe Mandel, an ordinary young man living in a small town. He goes to college, dreams of writing a novel, and volunteers for community clean-up projects. One day he picks up an empty rum bottle and feels a sudden, irresistible compulsion to run to a particular Corvette automobile. Touching the Corvette leads him to a further goal, until at last he’s in a position to stop a mugging. He also meets Portia Montclair, the beautiful young daughter of the local chief of police. She understands what’s happening to him, and soon Joe finds himself conscripted into a cosmic battle between good and evil – a battle that will cause him to make a heart-wrenching sacrifice.

The book is enhanced, if you read it on a Kindle device or app, by illustrations featuring built-in animation. The enhanced pictures are cool, but I don’t know that they added a whole lot to the reading experience. But hey, they came at no extra charge.

Ricochet Joe is not the greatest of Dean Koontz’s stories. It’s over too soon to really engage the reader. But it’s Koontz and it’s entertaining, and there’s another supernatural dog, and I recommend it. It won’t cost you much.

The death of a fruitful man

I went to another funeral today (they come more and more frequently these days), down in Kenyon, Minnesota, my home town. The departed was Jim, one of my dad’s cousins. In point of fact, his farm was right across the road from ours – probably a half mile from house to house, due to the distance between our driveways and the length of his driveway.

In spite of our kinship and proximity, I never knew Jim terribly well. Turns out there was more to him than we ever guessed – farmer (we knew that), helicopter mechanic in Korea, electrician, small businessman, lifelong learner, short-term missionary, skier, and parasailer.

But the achievement that impressed me most, and must have impressed everyone there, was that he left behind a large number of descendants. He and his wife had had five children, and with their grandchildren and their spouses they filled up several pews in our little church.

The virtue of leaving a large family (with a godly heritage) behind is something any Bible character would have understood. Not for them the anxious handwringing of the modern man or woman, wondering if he/she might be “wasting their lives” if they expend their energies and financial resources on “mere” child-rearing. The idea that leaving a large progeny behind is a noble goal went without saying in Bible times.

As I thought about Jim’s life, it occurred to me (and I said it to the widow), that he had lived a really good life. In basic human terms, stripped of fripperies and cheats like ambition and acquisition, he had lived a truly blessed life in a charmed place in a charmed time in history. There are only a few things that matter when you’re on your deathbed, and Jim was rich in them.

Which made it all the more poignant to read this article over at Threedonia (it contains links to a Smithsonian article; I’ll let them have credit) about the great evil and suffering inspired by a book we all trusted back when I was in college: Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. (No Amazon link; the heck with it.)

The International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Population Council, the World Bank, the United Nations Population Fund, the Hugh Moore-backed Association for Voluntary Sterilization and other organizations promoted and funded programs to reduce fertility in poor places. “The results were horrific,” says Betsy Hartmann, author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, a classic 1987 exposé of the anti-population crusade. Some population-control programs pressured women to use only certain officially mandated contraceptives. In Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan, health workers’ salaries were, in a system that invited abuse, dictated by the number of IUDs they inserted into women. In the Philippines, birth-control pills were literally pitched out of helicopters hovering over remote villages. Millions of people were sterilized, often coercively, sometimes illegally, frequently in unsafe conditions, in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

But better that than being a Science Denier, I guess.

‘Right Tool for the Job,’ by Mark Goldblatt

Right Tool for the Job

The headphones jerked out of my ears, and I made a grab for them, which caused me to trip over my feet, fall onto my side, and shoot off the back of the treadmill, knocking over two young women in spandex outfits who’d been chatting behind me. As one witness said, it looked like I was picking up a six-ten spare.

Yes, I’m blogging through The Lord of the Rings, and I’ll be back with that momentarily. But my Facebook friend Mark Goldblatt announced a deal on his book Right Tool for the Job: A Memoir of Manly Concerns, and I figured it wouldn’t do me any serious harm to take a break between hobbits with a short, light book. I did, and it didn’t.

Right Tool for the Job is a collection of humorous essays, sort of an autobiography under strobe light. We begin with an awkward memory of Mark’s father taking him to a Turkish bath, and end with a meditation on giving up softball because your body’s just getting too old for the punishment. A recurring theme seems to be the unlimited indignities men’s bodies impose on them, with particular emphasis on sexual awkwardness, though all the stories aren’t about sex, and honestly, what else is a guy going to write about?

Author Goldblatt is Jewish, secular, and conservative. He’s also extremely funny. I laughed out loud more than once. I recommend The Right Tool for the Job, with cautions for mature themes. I especially recommend it to women, as an introduction to what’s laughingly known as male psychology.

Blogging through LOTR: “Write what you know”

The Fellowship of the Ring

Frodo felt that he was in a timeless land that did not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness. When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among the Elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlórien.

I have finished my latest re-reading of The Fellowship of the Ring (don’t ask me how many times I’ve read it; I haven’t kept count. I know many a geek has surpassed me in that department).

The last time I read the Trilogy was in the wake of the releases of the Peter Jackson movies. I remember that I had to struggle a bit to override the film images in my imagination (as I’ve mentioned before). This time through, although the “struggle” remained, it bothered me less. I found that I relished the depth and scope of the book, compared to film with its many limitations (even in wide-screen with special effects).

Continuing my theme from last night’s post, I was most struck by the sense of time in the book – an impression of a comprehensive history, often only hinted at but lurking behind every corner. You can learn much of that greater history in the works that Christopher Tolkien has given us, but frankly I’ve never had the patience for all that. I don’t need to know the details. I just need to know it’s there, adding a deeper perspective to the epic narrative.

This is a lesson to writers.

Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” And that’s good advice, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “Write only about your own life and experiences.” You can know many things outside your experience. Tolkien writes with such authority about the Third Age of Middle Earth (which, if you didn’t know, corresponds to the Norse term for our planet in mythological terms – Midgard) because he had put in a lot of hard work creating a coherent world with a coherent history, including languages. All those things were imaginary, but he “knew” them because he’d spent so much time with it all. That’s what we really mean when we say, “Write what you know.” We mean know your basic material, even if you’re making it up. Do your spade work before you plant. We live in the golden age of research – the internet gives you access to resources the greatest scholars of the past could only dream of. Take advantage of them.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture