Southern Dust – by Caspar Vega – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review

Caspar Vega must be an interesting character.  His books are a bizarre mixture of fantasy/horror and crime drama.  Many of his characters are not the kind of people you’d want to live next door to or even meet.  They range from anti-social to sociopath to worse.  And his books are never linear.  They track back and forth in time and place and skip from voice to voice in unexpected directions.

I’ve read and reviewed two other books by Caspar Vega, “The Pink Beetle” and the “The Eclectic Prince.”  And after each one I confirm both to myself and to my readers that Mr. Vega’s stories are way outside my wheelhouse.  Not that I only read or enjoy light-hearted fare.  I enjoy horror and even crime drama.  But there is something nihilistic about the atmosphere in these stories that is off-putting for me.  I must be getting old.

But here I am again.  I decided to try out Southern Dust.  The premise of the story is that in the near future the Democrats assassinate a Republican president and install one of their own through chicanery.  In response, a revolt in Alabama breaks the state away from the Union.  And in short order a good number of other states also declare their independence.  This story follows the fates of three individuals that collide in this strange new world.

Along with the other suppositions of this world are super soldiers, vampires and black magic.  But the mainstay of the story are the characters.  And they live up to the type that I remember from Mr. Vega’s earlier books.  Even the good guys are very troubled individuals.  The criminals on the other hand can be at least somewhat sympathetic but brutality is their stock in trade.  Murder for hire, framing up ex-girlfriends and bounty hunting all occur but brain-washed undead is probably the weirdest plot device you run into.  And even when one of the characters tries to do a good deed it boomerangs back on him in the classic no good deed  goes unpunished catergory.

I’ll finish my review of this book much as I’ve done with its predecessors, with a mixed message.  This is an interesting book.  But it’s not for everyone. It’s for those who like gritty crime dramas with a staccato, post-modern, minimalist writing style.  Your call.

Galaxy’s Edge (Volume 5) – Sword of the Legion – A Science Fiction Book Review

Galaxy’s Edge (Volume 4) – Attack of Shadows – A Science Fiction Book Review

 

Jason Anspach and Nick Cole have now consistently produced a series of military science fiction adventure stories that compares favorably to the better products in the genre from whatever era one might choose.  And I am being specific.  This is science fiction not Tolstoy.  The criterion is enjoyment not enlightenment or prose purity.  They write a story that has interesting characters caught up in a cataclysmic moment in the history of their science fictional civilization.  With respect to the question I asked in the review of the first installment, that is whether the authors could build on a well written military science fiction story about a small battle and produce a series that holds the reader’s interest, the answer is an emphatic yes!  Here we are at book five and I’m completely sold.  The story keeps expanding and becoming more complex and interesting.  The range of characters keeps growing and they are varied and entertaining.  Once again, this is not deathless prose.  It is a very well written science fiction series that can hold its head up among any of the favorites in its genre.

Getting back to the review of the book, the action begins before the end of the previous volume, “Attack of Shadows.”  In that book, the Black Fleet was attacking Tarrago in order to capture its shipyards.  The Republic and the Black Fleet needed those shipyards for the coming war.  The majority of the present book chronicles a kill team working to destroy those shipyards.  And like the battle scenes from the earlier books the action is non-stop and well written.  We renew our acquaintance with Dark Ops Team Victory.  And then the story collides with Wraith and his shipload of oddballs.  Here two threads of the larger story touch and the last quarter of the book lurches off in a completely unexpected direction and we meet an even more sinister force than Goth Sullus.  In fact, I’m starting to like old Goth.  He seems conflicted about having to kill old friends.  I’m really looking forward to a more thorough understanding of his back story.  I won’t go into details but suffice it to say that the new threat to the Galaxy is much more existential than the Black Fleet and its leader.

“Sword of the Legion” is lots of fun and is one more stepping stone in the journey that is Galaxy’s Edge.  If you’ve come this far you either like the series or you have an OCD thing going on.  This book is highly recommended.

 

Galaxy’s Edge (Volume 6) – Prisoners of Darkness – A Science Fiction Book Review

Chuck Dixon’s Avalon #1 – The Street Rules – A Science Fiction & Fantasy Review

I’ve never been a comic book guy.  My thing was always science fiction books.  My closest approach to comics was the Marvel and DC tv shows I saw as a kid.  So, I never really had a reason to buy any.  But my policy on right wing artistic and commercial endeavors is to always give them the benefit of the doubt when they compete on the Left’s turf.  I decided to pick up Avalon #1 to see if I could understand what it was all about.  A comic book is like a book chapter with pictures.  You tell a piece of a story and try to hook the reader in for the next installment.  The story and the art work are of equal importance.  Well, to me they are.  I guess if you’re really more of an art lover then the pictures might be the main attraction.  But I don’t think that would work for me.  There’s got to be a story I want to hear.

I’ll make this short because I don’t have the background to talk any nuance about comic books.  The story is introducing a world where people with superpowers are a fact of life and not all of them are good and not all of them are heroes.  We meet a small cross section as we are primarily introduced to King Ace and Fazer.  They are close to the classic vigilante super hero like Batman or Superman.  They fight crime outside of the prescribed legal framework that superheroes adhere to in this world.  They do it according to their code.  Well, for the most part.  Some hints of a less selfless motive do show up in the book.  The story is good.  It’s set up as Fazer telling his story to a reporter but the action bounces back and forth between narrated action and other events that give additional information on other characters and other plot lines.  I like the art work but I will not claim I know much or even anything about the state of the art in comic book aesthetics.

Long story, short I think it’s good.  I look forward to the next installment.  I won’t say I’m hooked but I’m interested enough to want to see where this all goes.  Bravo Chuck Dixon and good for Vox Day for venturing into enemy territory.

Skin in the Game – Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life – by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – A Book Review

Back in March 2017 I purchased Taleb’s four volume set “Incerto: Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes, Antifragile.”  Taleb is a retired options trader.  He made his fortune betting on unlikely events.  And the topic of that whole, almost sixteen hundred page work, was the concept of the Black Swan.  The Black Swan is the very rare but extremely disruptive event.  It’s the thousand-year storm, the “extinct” volcano eruption, the Black Monday stock crash.  The subject is extremely interesting and I plan to review these books in the future.  “Skin in the Game,” on the other hand is not about any of that.  It’s more or less exactly about what it’s named, skin in the game.  Well let me qualify that.  He explains why those without skin in the game shouldn’t be trusted with deciding what is and isn’t risky.

Taleb’s writing style is iterative.  He provides numerous examples of various aspects of this thesis.  I will now distill the whole book into one sentence.  Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game.  That’s the whole thing right there.  But Taleb provides the logic, the applications and the ethical underpinning for why those who avoid a risk have no credibility talking about risk.  One of his prime examples are the big banks who benefitted phenomenally from financial practices that ignored the risks associated with their business practices but when the meltdown finally came were bailed out by the federal government by claiming the meltdown was an act of God.  So, if they know they can’t lose they have no skin in the game and therefore can’t be trusted to avoid endangering everyone.

The list of untrustworthy authorities is defined to include any entity that is centralized, bureaucratic and otherwise insulated from accountability.  Highest on that list is anyone who either directly or indirectly partakes in the immunity of the federal bureaucracy.  EPA administrators, climate and wildlife scientists, IRS agents, FDA and banking regulators and all other petty mandarins that are immunized against real life consequences but revel in their ability to bully and dictate to the productive sectors of the population.

Taleb makes a lot of good points and reinforces his theories with examples from normal life and even adds some mathematical rigor to his argument to show that these unaccountable experts that benefit from heads-I-win-tails-the-fed-bails-me-out tactics need to be made accountable for benefitting from Black Swan government insurance.

Throughout the book Taleb makes use of concepts that he explored in his larger study Incerto.  The concepts of fragility and the above described Black Swan.  He also mentions the “Lindy Effect.”  It’s the phenomenon that the longer something is successful the longer it is predicted to continue being successful.  This highlights that one of the real advantages of skin in the game is the sorting of winners and losers along an evolutionary and survival of the fittest mechanism.  Without this accountability it’s possible for hidden bubbles to grow unnoticed and take down the system they reside in.

Skin in the Game is a strange combination of philosophical meditation and real-world critique of the unaccountable entities that put us all at risk.  I can’t and won’t pretend that this book will be enjoyed by everyone.  Taleb has an odd repetitive style that at times can seem almost garrulous.  He has many axes to grind and he can be both petty and somewhat gossipy in his personal anecdotes.  But he has a very strong case for his thesis.  And the point is a valuable one to keep in mind.  Basically, he is providing a tool to evaluate experts.  The question to ask yourself about them is what would they lose if they are wrong.  If the answer is not much then run away.

And finally, this reminds me of a story I once heard about Grouch Marx.  It might be apocryphal.  When the New York Stock Exchange crashed in 1929 Groucho Marx lost $800,000.  When Groucho received this news in his stockbroker’s office he was devastated and became almost incoherent.  His broker tried to console him by saying Marx wasn’t alone and that everyone had lost.  When Groucho thought about this he regained some composure and asked the broker how much he had lost.  When the broker replied $350, Groucho then attempted to strangle him.

Remember.  Look for skin in the game.

The Silly Season

It’s officially the summer doldrums both on the web and in the real world.  I remember an old science fiction short story called the “Silly Season” that had as a premise that during the summer doldrums newspapers were so starved for real news that they would publish any kind of nonsense just to fill space.  Apparently the Martians knew about this too so they flooded the news with UFO sightings throughout the silly season for several years running.  This had the effect that the papers and their readers became so completely fed up with reading these accounts that when the real invasion began everyone ignored the initial news stories for so long that the humans were conquered before they could react.

That is how I’m beginning to feel about Flynn and Cohen and Manafort and Mueller and Hayden and  Brennan and Clapper and Rice and McCabe and Comey and Page and Stryzk and Rosenstein and, and, and!!!

I am completely and utterly fed up with hearing about these idiots.  I just can’t decide who is playing whom.  Is President Trump about to be dragged off in irons or is Comey and the whole lot of them headed for Guantanamo Bay?  Either way I just can’t care anymore about any of this stuff.  In fact, I can’t even care enough to make a Trump vs. —– parody about it.  The only thing I can think of is to have a parody where he is bored to tears about it.  That seems reasonable.

So anyway, sorry for the lack of output.  But let’s face it, the silly season is in full swing.  If only there were some way to get the Kanamits to load all of the Deep State swamp creatures into the saucer and send them off to that big smorgasbord in the sky.  That at least would be worthy of a parody.

18JUL2018 – OCF Update

Greetings readers old and new.  As is my want, or as less pretentious people would say, my habit, I like to let you know what is coming up on the site.  This week is my annual stay-cation.  For eight full days I make believe that my corporate masters have been swallowed up by some beneficent plague that only spared the good.  I revel in the joys of summer and put all cares aside.  After monsoon-like thunderstorms deluged us yesterday, the world has been swept clean and the air is hot and dry just the way I like it.  I’m hosting my annual family reunion on Saturday but with days off on both sides of the big event, I see plenty of time to produce excellent OCF posts all week.

  • I’m renting the “Contemporary Series” version of the Sigma 150-600 lens and the Sony 90mm Macro lens.  They should arrive today and allow me to post on how they perform for the things I would use them for.
  • I plan to yammer on about the joys of summer.
  • I have a photo post I’m going to write about moths and butterflies and maybe other insects in my area.
  • I have some things to say about several political topics.
  • I’ll start reading some more sci-fi which may provide a review this week.
  • I plan on doing some classic movie reviews.
  • I might have some country music reviews coming up too.
  • And I plan to include this summer’s installment of my rant about the Twilight Zone.

Looks like a good week to visit the site.

Galaxy’s Edge (Volume 4) – Attack of Shadows – A Science Fiction Book Review

Kill Team – Galaxy’s Edge (Volume 3) by Jason Anspach & Nick Cole – A Science Fiction Book Review

The fourth installment in the Galaxy’s Edge series is a straight up mil-sf story chronicling the Battle of Tarrago.  In this sense, it most resembles the first book in this series, “Legionnaire.”  But whereas Legionnaire involved a small force of soldiers scrambling to survive on the outskirts of a larger action, “Attack of Shadows” is the chronicle of a full-blown invasion that plays out not only on the surfaces of a planet and its moon but also in open space.  There is a full contingent of minor characters and any number of set pieces.  There are dog fights between attack fighters, pitched infantry battles, kamikaze bombing runs and battle ships going toe to toe with the big guns.  And then there is Goth Sullus, basically the bogey man.  He is probably modelled after Darth Vader and shares many of his abilities and personality traits.  If you’ve been following my book reviews of the series then you know that the authors have obviously riffed on some of the central features of the Star Wars story.  There is a Galactic Republic rapidly turning into an Empire.  Corrupt leaders are forcing normally loyal military men to become outlaws and apparently there is no shortage of smugglers, bounty hunters, space pirates and even princesses!  And surprisingly, the imitation is far superior to the original.  The characters are infinitely more interesting, the plots actually make sense and the action is extremely well done.

One of the interesting features of the story is the civil war aspect to the conflict.  Basically, the fighting is taking place between Legionnaires fighting on both sides.  And whereas the leaders on both sides are often shown as underhanded there are no cardboard cutout villains in the trenches fighting for either side.  Valor is prominently on display on both sides and realistically, it is often rewarded with death.

Because of the large number of subplots and characters, the chapters are broken down into a very large number of independent scenes that ping pong the action back and forth between the two sides and the multiple locations.  But the storytelling doesn’t suffer because of it and my interest was never lost.

From my point of view this book confirmed my feeling that the military sf aspects of this series are the best part of it.  When the series veers into other scenarios like espionage or individual adventures the story is satisfactory but when the battle scenes erupt the story sings.  It is definitely their strong suit.

So the rebels are led by Darth Vader.  Who am I supposed to be cheering for?  Actually, at this point I’m cheering for Darth Vader, uh, I mean Goth Sullus.  And based on the way the elite leadership of the Republic despises the general population of the galaxy I wouldn’t be surprised if Goth takes of his helmet and is revealed to be Donald Trump.

So, do I have any complaints?  Yes, there are a few too many women running their military and flying their fighter ships.  But at least they don’t appear to be feminist scolds.  And they haven’t tried to add women to the Legion.  That elite fighting force is all men.  So on balance no real problems with the world building.

Summing up, “Attack of Shadows” is the most entertaining book so far in the Galaxy’s Edge series and I highly recommend it to fans of military science fiction.

 

Galaxy’s Edge (Volume 5) – Sword of the Legion – A Science Fiction Book Review

Valentine Pontifex – Volume Three of the Majipoor Cycle by Robert Silverberg – A Science Fiction-Fantasy  Book Review

This review is for both the final volume and also an overall review of the series.  I got started reading this series a while ago because of an on-line discussion I had on Orion’s Cold Fire (OCF) with Tom about whether there were any stories that could be considered science fiction and also fantasy.  Tom pointed to the Majipoor Cycle and piqued my curiosity enough that I picked up the books.  For the curious my reviews of the two earlier volumes are here and here.  If you don’t want any spoilers then put this aside until you’ve read those reviews (and possibly the books) and then decide if you want to risk this review.  Otherwise here we go.

The Majipoor books have been a fairly unique experience.  They combine a relatively straight forward adventure tale with a world-building framework that tries to encapsulate approximately ten thousand years of the colonization of a new world by a number of cooperating intelligent alien species.  And Silverberg is an idiosyncratic writer with a style that came of age in the 1960s.  This combines to create a very complex and sometimes meandering tale.

In the third book, Valentine Pontifex, the eponymous protagonist of the first book, Lord Valentine, is re-established as the principal ruler of Majipoor and is preparing for a triumphal tour of the far-flung cities of his realm when premonitions of disaster begin intruding on his mind.  In Majipoor dreams are regarded as legitimate warnings from the reigning spiritual powers, the King of Dreams and the Lady of the Isle.  Under this cloud Valentine and his friends and advisors begin the ill-fated Processional and unsurprisingly a long series of disasters occur.  Valentine identifies these cataclysms with a karmic reaction to the original conquest of Majipoor and attempts to expiate this original sin through diplomacy and love.  The tension between his actions and the situation on the ground makes up the action of the story.

Valentine Pontifex is, as I mentioned, a very complicated and meandering story line.  There are close to a dozen threads weaving through the book with their own characters, locations and subplots, some more important to the main narrative and some less so.  And Silverberg provides a veritable Tolkienian plethora of Majipoorian names.  There is a veritable blizzard of names; names of cities, regions, rivers, forests, animals, trees, fruit, cereal crops, food dishes, wines, medicines and people.  Also Valentine’s character is of a contemplative and judicious nature so that he agonizes a good deal about the conflicting needs of the various parties involved.  Luckily some of the other characters are less conflicted and help to push the action forward.

Another aspect of the story and the Majipoor series in general is the metaphorical nature of the story.  To my mind, Majipoor is a metaphor for the English colonization of the United States.  The aboriginal inhabitants of Majipoor, the Shapeshifters, defeated and relegated to life on an inhospitable reservation, are a stand in for the Native Americans.  The other species brought to Majipoor by the humans equate to the other nationalities and races that have immigrated to the United States.  To be honest, I am not a big fan of this kind of representation.  All too often this kind of metaphorical story telling is just a chance to bash this country and curry favor with the social justice apparatchiks.  And Valentine does have a certain amount of the Jimmy Carter syndrome in his make-up.  There is even a subplot that involves humans hunting and harvesting an intelligent water dwelling species that is the equivalent of whales.

Looking at all these detrimental story elements, you would be unsurprised if I gave Valentine Pontifex and the Majipoor cycle in general a failing grade.  I’m going to instead provide an opinion that combines warning with guarded approval.

My first statement will be the warning.  Majipoor is not for those who are looking for fast-paced adventure and classic fantasy ala Middle Earth.  It is not that.  And if you absolutely are not in the mood to hear about the rights of the dispossessed aborigines skip this story.  And lastly, if you have a very strong aversion to human/lizard-man romances then absolutely skip the second volume Majipoor Chronicles.  As mentioned in my review of that book, this was a weakness of Silverberg living through the Crazy Years of the 1960s.  For them sex was something they had to inject into any scenario.

So those are all the reasons to skip Majipoor.  Now, here’s the guarded approval.  Silverberg has created a genuinely interesting universe.  His characters are engaging and genuinely recognizable humans (even the non-humans).  The story, for the most part, works within its boundaries and despite some pacing problems gets to the finish line intact.  For someone interested in a fusion of science fiction and fantasy the Majipoor books are a quirky read.  Let’s say it’s for the hard-core sf&f connoisseur.

Who We Are and How We Got Here; Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Past by David Reich – A Book Review

This review is a companion piece to my earlier review of Gregory Cochran’s “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution.”  These two books lay out step by step how the new tool of ancient DNA isolation has allowed geneticists to turn museum fossils into an amazingly detailed history of the inter-relations between and movements of, the various branches of the human species as it emerged out of Africa 50,000 to 150,000 years ago and went on to settle the planet.

It is truly remarkable how comparing DNA sequences between modern and ancient humans has allowed these researchers to answer historical mysteries such as who were the first Indo-European speakers (the Yamnaya) and where did they live (the Russian Steppe).  We can determine if the Native Americans are essentially the direct descendants of the ancestors of the East Asians or was there some other component involved.  We can find out where the blond hair and blue eyes of the Northern Europeans came from.  We can even find out how many concubines Genghis Kahn must have had.

So, this book is full of facts to satisfy our curiosity about where we all came from.  But there is another dimension to this book that is also interesting.  David Reich is an academic scientist.  He interacts constantly with the very politically correct denizens of the social sciences.  He describes his run-ins with anthropologists and bio-ethicists who accuse him of racism for identifying various biological traits with specific human races.  Even though these traits such as sickle-cell anemia are widely known to reside almost exclusively in one racial group or another, these academics were so conditioned to reject the concept of physical race differences that even mentioning them in the context of biomedical research was the equivalent of heresy.

To his credit, Reich recognizes the intellectual weakness inherent in this response but it is obvious by the compromises he will commit to assuage the discomfort of his colleagues that he feels more comfortable himself being on the “side of the angels.”  For instance, after his research clearly showed that the present population of India is the result of the Yamnaya invading from the north and mixing in with the earlier inhabitants he allowed the feelings of his Indian colleagues to force him to rename these groups Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians.

And Reich is much harsher toward those on the right who speculate about natural selection at work in the differences measured between present day groups.  He is obviously unwilling to assume a neutral position along the spectrum of opinion on human biodiversity and feels more comfortable aligning himself at least in spirit with those whose opinions about human racial differences fly in the face of his own research.

So, Reich’s book is both fascinating and aggravating at one and the same time.  I imagine virtue signaling is the price he thinks he has to pay to get this book accepted by the academic community and then New York Times Book Review.

My recommendation is to read this book.  But be sure to read Cochran’s book along with it to see an opinion that isn’t captured in an orbit around the black hole that is Modern Academia.

07JUN2018 – OCF Update

The summer is now an actual thing and get-togethers and parties are happening.   But things will continue unabated here on OCF, the pulse of the spite filled, unforgiving, vindictive vengeful right.  I’m starting to read David Reich’s book “Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past.”  It goes over a lot of the same ground as Gregory Cochran’s book “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution,” but from a very apologetic, politically correct, “diversity is our strength” point of view.  But from of the small parts I’ve read it’s still very interesting to see the pushback he experienced.  Should be instructive.  I’ve got the last Majipoor book to read and the next Galaxy’s edge installment and some other sf and I’ve got some photo projects lined up.  But the elephant in the room should be the DOJ IG’s report coming out this week.  I’m hoping that will trigger a lot of stuff.  Maybe even the end of the Mueller investigation or at least a counter-attack to take him out.  So good stuff coming up.

On a more local note I’ve been intrigued by the general dearth of comments.  Now this is my first blog so maybe it’s how it works but I’m curious, so I have a survey poll on it.  I’ll leave it on the next few posts and I look forward to the info I get.