Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance – A Book Review

Several places where I read on-line had praised Vance’s book so I decided to read it.  I already knew basically what it was about but I guess I wanted to see what all the excitement was about.

J. D. Vance’s family came originally from Appalachia, specifically Jackson Kentucky. His maternal grandfather and grandmother moved to Middletown Ohio after WW II to let him get work in the steel factory there and his family became part of the boom economy in the industrial Mid-West that followed the war. But as that economic expansion slowly collapsed into the Rust Belt reality of the 1970s and beyond, his family more and more shared in the dislocation and finally the hopelessness of life in that blighted region.

Through the personal history of his family he presents evidence and draws conclusions about what internal and external factors led to the train wreck that is the Rust Belt.  And he tries to back up this evidence by including general information on the socio-economic and cultural characteristics of the white working class and specifically Appalachian people in question.

The personal story of his family and the details of their lives is poignant and honest and draws sympathy from anyone who came from a family that is full of complicated people who struggle and succeed and fail and generally make a messy story to tell.  It’s about the love and hate and anger and fear and confusion that consumed the first decade and a half of his life.  It’s got colorful characters like his grandparents who swear and spit and brandish guns and break down doors if strangers seem to threaten their family.  It’s his mother who tried to find a middle-class identity for her small family but was too damaged to even save herself from drugs and broken marriages.

In the final analysis I think that the point the book tries to make is that the people who left Appalachia were so ill-suited to live in the modern world of nuclear families and suburban society that only the post-war boom allowed even the illusion that they had assimilated into the Mid-Western lifestyle.  Their people were shorn of the support that multi-generational family units provided to them back in the hills and were surrounded by people who had been raised in and could take of advantage of the community resources that exist in middle America.  Vance’s family was always suspicious and angry at the school system and the police and the other government entities that could provide assistance to people in need.  Their independence when stripped of the extended family support structure meant isolation and poverty and an endless string of failures that reinforced the sense of hopelessness that eventually led to drug addiction and despair.

I think it’s a pretty interesting story.  And I recognize the components that he brings up as existing in the real world.  But he does let the powers that be off the hook to a degree that I think is unrealistic.  The post-war boom was a result of government policy that encouraged the harnessing of the human capital that had been freed up by the end of World War II.  Tens of millions of enlisted men were brought back to this country and it had been so thoroughly transformed that only massive top-down control allowed for the re-integration.  Thirty years later there was no similar top-down planning to continue that existence once the earlier generation disappeared from the work place.  The corporations were allowed to shift into a globalist mindset and because those Rust Belt workers were inconvenient because they made too much money or weren’t desperate enough to work like Japanese or Chinese workers they were dismissed from the plans of industry.

Vance may slightly touch on this but his thesis is that personal responsibility and family support systems are what saved him.  When his mother’s chaotic lifestyle came close to destroying his chance at building a healthy life his grandmother stepped up and provided a stable and supportive home in which he was able to re-apply himself at school and finally prove to himself that it was possible for him escape from the cycle of failure and break through to the normal world.

Okay.  His emphasis makes sense based on his experience and world view.  I think there is another side to the present crisis and he somewhat touches on this too.  Some say he is blaming the victims.  I think that overstates it.  I think it’s an interesting book.  I know it made me reconsider some things in my past.  And the anecdotes about his grandparents and that generation of his family are fun to read.  His family is somewhat in volved in the Hatfield and McCoy feud interestingly enough.  I’m not sure that this book is for everyone but if you are interested in the dynamic that has laid waste to the Rust Belt it might be something for you to read.

Battle Ground – A Novel of The Dresden Files – by Jim Butcher – An SF&F Book Review

Spoiler Alert.  All my reviews are spoilers.  If you wan to avoid them go down to the end and just read my recommendation.

For anyone coming to this review without any background to the Dresden Files, Battle Ground is I believe the seventeenth book of that series.  Jim Butcher has created quite a complicated and very entertaining world that centers on a Chicago that is embedded in a reality that has several kinds of vampires, two faery realms, werewolves, sasquatches, Norse mythological characters, Knights of the Cross, Fallen Angels and wizards.  And in particular Harry Dresden is the extremely conflicted and always wise-cracking Wizard of Chicago.  If you want to delve into the series, I guess it would be much more sensible and fun to start at book one but to each his own.

Battle Ground is the conclusion of the story arc begun in the previous book, Peace Talks.  And for all intents and purposes this book is taken up by the Battle of Chicago.  A really angry Titan named Ethniu has decided to destroy Chicago as a way to turn the human world against the supernatural groups that were parties to the “Unseelie Accords” that acted as a council to ensure that humans do not discover the hidden creatures all around them.

Along with her amphibious allies the Fomor who have a settlement under Lake Michigan they attack the city and with the power of the “Eye,” that Ethniu wields, they begin destroying the city and killing the population.  Standing against this systematic destruction and murder of Chicago is Harry and his allies.  I won’t say friends because many of them fear and/or hate him.  He has an Italian American mobster turned supernatural power broker named Marcone providing significant infrastructure, manpower and significant strategic support.  He has his current boss the Queen of Air and Darkness, Mab the Winter Queen, providing her troops and her own very considerable magical powers.  There are Harry’s nominal brothers in arms, the White Council of Wizards that are always right at the edge of expelling him for all the unorthodox and insubordinate actions he takes.  This includes his grandfather Ebenezar McCoy who is more or less the head of the Council and who always seem on the edge of either throttling Harry or apologizing to him.  There are the Knights of the Cross who are Harry’s friends and possess power that can stand against the evil that the enemy represent but even with these allies Harry and his friends are hopelessly overmatched.

But Harry has one ace in the hole.  He has a magical resource that if he can lure the Titan to a certain spot would allow him to capture her permanently.  But in order to do that Ethniu would have to be lured in by targets that she wanted to destroy and the destruction that she would accomplish would be ruinous.  And that is what the book is about.  As Harry and his allies go block by block saving civilians and battling monsters the Titan levels the city skyscrapers on her way to confronting Mab and the other powerful leaders.  And it’s a long book, over four hundred pages and the overwhelming majority of the book is this battle.

If you’re a fan of the series, and obviously if you’re still reading at book seventeen then you are, you will like this book a lot.  Sure, there are parts of the battle that seem kind of repetitive or at least maybe overkill.  And I have never been a big fan of Harry’s romantic attachment to Karren Murphy.  For whatever reason it never seems to keep my interest.  And there are a few scenes where some of the characters sound a little too touchy feely with too much “I’m here for you,” and all that.  But there is plenty on the battle side and on the personal side of this story to satisfy fans of the books.  Some questions from Peace Talks get answered and some things that were left hanging remain that way.  Some old friends and enemies die.  Others change their relation to Harry and further complicate his life.  And some characters that do not have a major part in the action still provide a needed presence.  I always enjoy the character of Michael Carpenter.  He’s the retired Knight of the Cross who is probably the most grounded character in the series and also provides sanctuary for Harry’s young daughter when horrible things come looking for Harry.  And Harry reaches a kind of crossroads with respect to his stature in the supernatural world.  He is now a heavy hitter and has gained respect and even some wisdom.

What can I say?  You’re going to like most of this book. And there will be few things that you won’t care for.  But if you’re a Dresden fan you will have to read it.

Mutiny in Space – The Thousand Worlds – A Science Fiction Book Review

Back in 2015 and thereafter there was a titanic struggle to liberate science fiction and fantasy books from the iron grip of the social justice school of fiction writing that controlled the publishing and awards for writing in these genres.  You can read about these things here.

Vox Day has a publishing firm called Castalia House and he has attempted to promote authors who practice old time science fiction and fantasy story writing.  Mutiny in Space is published by Castalia House and is the first volume in the author, Rod Walker’s “The Thousand Worlds” series.

In the description on the back cover of the paperback edition Castalia House explicitly states that Mutiny in Space is written in the style of Robert A Heinlein’s series of books for young adults (or juveniles, as they were described in the old days).  Now Heinlein wrote some really excellent fiction back in his day.  Here’s a link to my thoughts on his writing.  In a nutshell if someone were to successfully write science fiction in the style of Heinlein’s juveniles, I would think these stories would be very sought after.  So I bought Mutiny in Space intending to see if it lived up to this representation.

I’ll cut to the chase.  It does.  Now I don’t mean it reads exactly like Heinlein.  In fact, far from it.  Rod Walker has different characters and different plots and a different voice.  There are similarities in the universe that he has built.  The way that his interstellar drive works approximates the multi-jump method used by Heinlein in his book “Starman Jones.”  And the emphasis on technical skills among his heroes as opposed to the dependence on rhetorical ability among his villains is also reminiscent of Heinlein’s style.  And the pairing of a father figure and an orphaned young man is also familiar to Heinlein readers.

The story is the adventure of sixteen-year-old Nikolai Rovio leaving his unhappy life on New Chicago for the promise of a new life as a technician on an interstellar freighter the Rusalka.  But the unsettled politics of New Chicago aren’t left behind when he boards his ship and he quickly learns that trouble can find you even after you stop looking for it.

I won’t dig into the plot details.  The book is short by today’s standards, about 180 pages.  But that is actually very much like the length of Heinlein’s juveniles.  It isn’t deathless prose but it is a straight up adventure story very much in the tradition of the older style of science fiction from the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties.  I can recommend this book for a young reader or anyone who like the old style of science fiction that I grew up on.

The Inside Baseball of Film Versions of “A Christmas Carol” – Part 2

A couple of years ago, in the first installment of this essay, I wrote about the plot devices that were added in the 1951 and 1984 movie versions that weren’t written in Dickens’ novella.  And those two versions are my favorites.  The actors playing Scrooge in each case do a memorable job with the part.  And the productions are very good.

There are several other versions that I have watched several times.  There is a musical version with Albert Finney as Scrooge which has its points.  And the 1938 movie with Reginald Owens as Scrooge is acceptable.  But I’ve never cared for his acting style in the part.

But recently a friend told me he regards the 1938 version as his favorite.  Well, tastes differ so I just chalked it up to that.  But when this came up again during a conversation I asked if he thought Owens was the better Scrooge.  He said no.  What he liked about the 1938 version was the greater screen time given to the Cratchit family.  He thought that Gene Lockhart as Bob Cratchit and the rest of the family made the movie.

Since I had never analyzed the movie in that sense, I decided to give it another viewing.  In the 1938 version Gene Lockhart’s wife Kathleen plays Mrs. Cratchit and his daughter June Lockhart played Belinda Cratchit, one of the daughters.  Watching the various scenes they are in, it’s apparent that the Cratchit component of the story has been amplified.  The Christmas dinner scene is quite long and includes much more detail than any of the other versions.  And several other additional scenes involve Bob, Tim or Peter Cratchit interacting with either Scrooge or his nephew Fred.

And I noticed that Scrooge’s part had also been modified in this version.  Instead of the Ghost of Christmas Past bringing Scrooge to see his corruption by money he stops the ghost after the earlier Fezziwig scene.  Considered in the sense of time on the screen, the Cratchits are actually a larger part of the movie than Scrooge.  I think that is why someone might prefer this version.  It minimizes the amount of time spent with Scrooge.  So, if you aren’t primarily interested in Scrooge’s transformation then this would be the version that you would be drawn to.

Looked at in that light I understand the opinion.  But even though I will admit that the Cratchit family scenes in this version are attractive and enjoyable I have to go back to the story of Scrooge.  That is the center of the story and the reason for the action.

But it does bring up another trivia question.  Which is the best Cratchit family?  The most pitiable Tiny Tim is the one in the 1984 version.  He looks like he may keel over at any moment.  But for the rest of the Cratchit family including Bob I’d pick the ones in the 1951 version.  They seem the most authentic.

One thing that I notice is that no matter how many times I watch the various versions of A Christmas Carol I’m still affected by the emotions.  The Cratchits’ sorrow over Tim and Scrooge’s contrition and almost manic joy at being given a second chance always warm my heart.  Obviously, I’m over-sentimental and probably associate the feelings I felt when seeing these movies in my youth.  But whatever the reason they still work after all these years.  This is a tribute to Dickens’ genius but also to the culture that honored the humanity embedded in the Christmas spirit.  Peace on Earth, good will to men.  Or as Tiny Tim says, “God bless us all, everyone.

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 3 – The Various Races or Peoples of Middle Earth

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 1

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 2 – Tolkien’s Creation Story

In the Lord of the Rings and his other writings Tolkien speaks of races and peoples to mean what we would call different species.  The major division between the Children of Illuvatar was between the Elves and Men (the Eldar and the Edain).  Within these two groups there were further subgroupings that I guess could best be described as tribes or nations.  But the differences between Elves and Men are profound.  The Elves do not grow old.  Therefore, unless they are killed by accident or illness they can live indefinitely.  And even when they die their spirit is constrained to remain within the Realm of Arda which is under the control of the angelic powers, the Valar.  In fact, it is hinted at by Tolkien that eventually the spirits of Elves that have died will be returned to life in Arda after some very long time.  Men are mortal just as humans are on Earth.  In Tolkien’s theology men do not remain in Arda after they die.  Their spirits leave Arda altogether and return to Illuvatar outside of the jurisdiction of the Valar.

What Tolkien seemed to be mirroring with the Elves and Men was the distinction between men who lived before the Christian era who had no chance of redemption from the Christian perspective and those who lived after.  The Elves would be like the Valar in a way.  They could serve Illuvatar and share in the smaller creation that was Arda but within Arda they were not in direct contact with Illuvatar.  Men were meant to escape Arda after their lives and then return to Illuvatar.  Despite the profound differences between Men and Elves Tolkien allowed for the possibility of love and even children between Men and Elves.  But what would the children be, deathless Elves or mortal Men?  Tolkien decided that they would be permitted a choice.  If they chose to be Men then that was a final choice for them and their children.  But if they chose to be of Elven-kind then their children also had the choice to make and in the same way.  Now what this means to me is that any child of a Man would always have the choice to choose to be Human.  And I think this is because the Fate of Man is the higher fate.  The Elves are halfway between Valar and Men.  And despite the tremendous power of the angelic Valar their fate is less than that of Men.

Then there are the Dwarves.  According to the Silmarillion the Dwarves were not created by Illuvatar but instead were the unsanctioned creation of Aulë, one of the Valar.  When Illuvatar spoke to Aulë about what he had done Aulë realized that what he had created weren’t independent beings but only shadows of himself, puppets.  Aulë was about to smash them when he saw that Illuvatar had turned them into living beings with souls of their own.  This makes the Dwarves sort of adoptive children of Illuvatar.  I believe they are like the Elves in being bound to Arda and under the authority of the Valar.  And they are odd in other ways and always seem to be at odds with the natural children of Illuvatar.  They are not naturally evil but the properties that Aulë endowed them with put them at odds with Men and Elves.

The Hobbits are sort of like nature spirits that inhabit English folklore like Puck or Robin Goodfellow but based on Tolkien’s characterization in his books I have to say I believe the Hobbits are human.  They are mortal and beside their stature they are in all ways human.  Maybe Tolkien intended to make them bound to Arda like the Elves and Dwarves but based on the Hobbits we meet I wouldn’t think they should be left out of human heaven.  They’re just too human.

In the Silmarillion Tolkien tells us that the Orcs were made by Morgoth by capturing Elves and corrupting them through his evil influence.  This always made me wonder then if Orcs also did not die of old age.  We are never shown any female Orcs which is probably a blessing but I assume they must exist.  The idea of a corrupted race is a little hard to understand theologically.  For instance, it seems possible that just by chance, an Orc might be born that wasn’t particularly evil.  And if he managed to escape the evil influence of his tribe might live a virtuous life.  I’ve heard people talk along these lines and mock the idea of “good Orcs” and based on what we see in the Lord of the Rings it does seem patently ridiculous but since Tolkien was a Christian writer, I’m sure he thought about that possibility.  Suffice it to say that no “good Orcs” ever show up anywhere in the Tolkien tests.

Dwarves and Elves are pretty standard creatures of Northern European folklore and Tolkien adapted as needed for his use but one of the most original characters that Tolkien place in his Middle Earth was the Ent.  They are the “Shepherds of the Trees.”  They resemble trees.  They are gigantic in size and have great physical strength.  Their ability to rend stone is compared to a much-accelerated version of the action that roots have for infiltrating and cracking stone that they come in contact with.  Ents also appear to live indefinitely unless killed by violence.  But they can become senescent and become completely tree-like.  It seems that the Ents must be another race of creatures like the Elves that are restricted to Arda forever.  But from their description in the Silmarillion, they are never described as Children of Illuvatar.  Possibly Tolkien never left any notes about the status of the Ents because he invented them later on than the Elves and Dwarves.  Whatever their place in the theology of Middle Earth Tolkien designed them with a distinctive and entertaining character.  They are extremely slow and methodical in their actions and extremely long winded in their method of speech.  They think of normal action by any other race as extremely hasty.  This must be to mimic the immobility and permanence of trees in the landscape.

And finally, the last of the other major peoples of Middle Earth are the Trolls.  Trolls are a well-known creature of legend but how Tolkien fits them into his creation is not well defined.  I can remember hearing the explanation that they were Ents that were twisted by Morgoth into evil creatures just as the Elves were turned into Orcs.  Honestly this seems singularly unconvincing.  There doesn’t seem to be much Ent-like character to Trolls.  But I haven’t heard any other explanation so I’ll just leave this as a loose end.  In addition to being evil the main character trait of Trolls seems to be stupidity.  But they are enormously strong and tough so they come in handy for war scenes when something special is needed.

Based on the status of the various races of speaking peoples in Middle Earth what it seems is that Tolkien has Christianized the folklore creatures of Norse mythology by giving them a place in the Genesis story of his world, Middle Earth.  It is not at all clear what the final status is of the Elves, Dwarves, Ents or even the Orcs and Trolls.  They seem to have souls like men and are judged on their deeds, good and evil.  But it is far from clear whether even the Elves can gain Paradise in this theology.  Instead, they seem to be permanently attached to sub-creation of the Valar, the Kingdom of Arda.  And that may be Tolkien’s intention.

Mathematics, Its Contents, Methods and Meaning – A Book Review

Back in the times before the Great Flood, I was a lowly undergraduate student in a public university.  I started out as a chemistry major but credits back then were very cheap, almost free, so I ended up taking an enormous number of credits in mathematics too.  When I reached my senior year, I had taken all the requisite chemistry courses for the BS degree but I also had discovered that I found the lab work extremely tedious.  What was a nerd to do?  Well, I took a few more math courses and got my degree in mathematics instead.  Since I was planning on raising an expensive family with Camera Girl, I decided to get a job as an actuary at one of the many fine insurance companies in Manhattan.  Imagine my embarrassment to find that compared to being an actuary a lab chemist was like being James Bond.  These insurance actuaries were the most boring human beings that walked this green earth.  With two strikes against me I had to be careful what I did next.  I talked to some smart guys and they asked me what I thought of chemical engineering.  I asked them, “What is chemical engineering?”  Well, these wise men told me that it was the golden road to wealth, fame and happiness.  Since I’ve always been gullible, I believed them.  Where things went from there is a story for a long winter evening but suffice it to say that I abandoned science for the greener pastures of the engineering world.  In other words, I sold my soul to the devil.  But I earned enough to raise a family.

But I always hankered for the chance to take more math classes.  While I was taking my engineering courses I had the chance to speak to an old math professor of mine and described my regret that I’d be too busy for the next thirty years or so to take anymore math classes and wondered whether he could recommend a self-study text that covered all the fields of mathematics that I might be interested in.  I knew that this guy was something of a bibliophile and luckily for me he said he had the very thing.  He told me it was a Soviet Russian three volume set published in translation by the MIT Press.  It wasn’t too pricey so I bought it and stuck it in a corner of my bookshelf and there it sat mostly unread for thirty years.

About ten years ago I finally got my last kid out of college and paid off the house and I was looking at cleaning out all the junk I had accumulated over the years when I rediscovered this set of books.  On a lark I started thumbing through it and opened up the section on topology.  And quickly discovered that I still enjoyed mathematics.  Now you may think that engineering was a field where mathematics abounds.  But after almost thirty years in the field the mathematical content of what I did on a daily basis had degenerated from differential equations into spreadsheets to figure out equipment depreciation and maybe the odd pressure drop or heat transfer calculation.  I had become a lapsed mathematician.  So, it was with great pleasure that I scanned the various sections of the set.  Non-Euclidean Geometry, Topology, Prime Numbers and other equally useless but interesting things.  Now whenever I have time I delve into the books and lose myself for a few hours and enjoy the guilty pleasure of contemplating the whichness of what.  Today I was reading what these long dead Russians had to say about the relevance of Non-Euclidean Geometry when considering the details of our actual universe.  When a ray of light can be bent by gravity what exactly is the validity of the concept of the parallel postulate?  With our current understanding of particle/wave duality what exactly can we consider empty space?  These esteemed commies made a statement from what they call dialectic materialism and define space as the form of existence of matter.  Now what the hell does that mean?  From what I read they are saying that the concept of space only has meaning in the contest of matter.  Well does that mean there is no such thing as empty space?

This is great stuff.  It makes me feel young again and inspires me to want to write a science fiction story where everything in the universe is adjacent to everything else and therefore problems like faster than light travel are merely a matter of having the correct mental picture when attempting to go from your leather recliner to, let us say, a planet in the Andromeda galaxy.

Anyway, if you’re ever in need of a general reference on mathematics that might spark your gray matter, I highly recommend Mathematics, Its Contents, Methods and Meaning by A. D. Aleksandrov, A. N. Kolmogorov and M. A. Lavrent’ev.

Peace Talks – A Novel of The Dresden Files – by Jim Butcher – An SF&F Book Review

Back in 2018 I did a review of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files urban fantasy series.  In that review I enthusiastically recommended the series but noted that the last installment was released back in 2014.  This year Butcher published the sixteenth and seventeenth volumes in the series, “Peace Talks” and “Battle Ground.”  Somewhat unusually these two books comprise a single story.  So that means that the ending of Peace Talks is a great big “to be continued” notice.  Normally that would be extremely annoying but because the two books were released back to back it’s tolerable.  Another unusual situation is the fact that I haven’t read a Dresden Files book in several years.  For that reason, I’m having trouble deciding if the “voice” of Harry in the book is the same as it used to be.  I’m going to say that it isn’t the same.  Part of this may have to do with the changes in Harry’s status since his last story.  Now he is the “Knight” for Mab the dangerous Winter Queen and also the father of a young girl, Maggie.  I’ll have to go back to the previous book but I believe they have tamed down Harry quite a bit.

If you haven’t read the earlier books then you don’t want to jump into the series at volume sixteen.  Read my review of the series and decide if you want to start up with this very long but very good urban fantasy series.  If you have read the earlier volumes then I’ll report that the series is shaping up to be just as chaotic and crazy as ever.  As is Butcher’s way, the story starts out with an existential crisis developing in Harry’s life and then blossoms into the apocalypse.  Whenever something really bad happens the scramble to avoid catastrophe leads to a crisis that is orders of magnitude worse.  I will say that the pacing of the initial crisis seemed a little slow in spots based on my memory of how Butcher did these things.  And maybe that has to do with this being a two-book story.  But by the end of the book things were falling apart very nicely and Harry was right in his sweet spot, trying to save the world without any reasonable hope of even saving himself.  All his enemies were his only possible allies and all of his friends were alienated and hostile.  I won’t throw in any spoilers.  All the old characters are back and we see some of the damage done in the last book is still haunting the characters here.  Murph is seriously injured in a leg and arm.  She is no longer with Chicago PD and is awaiting additional surgeries and rehab to partially recover from her injuries.  Molly Carpenter is now the Winter Lady, Mab’s lieutenant and she has used her connections to provide Harry and his daughter with a home.  It is an apartment that is contained within a sort of embassy building owned and run by the Svartalves (dark elves) who are very serious about security.  This was necessary because in the last book the Red House Vampires finally burned Harry’s crummy home to the ground.  And his Volkswagen Bug was also finished off.  Now he’s driving a reconditioned and ancient hearse that he calls the Munstermobile.

I will say that the annoyance of having the book end in the middle of the story is acceptable because having Harry back is worth it.  I expect really good things from Battle Ground and if you’re a Dresden Files fan you have no choice but to jump in and enjoy the wreckage that Harry drags in his wake.  Highly recommended.

Warbound – Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles – by Larry Correia – A Science Fiction-Fantasy Book Review

Warbound is the third and the (currently) final volume of Larry Correia’s Grimnoir series.  And as such it ties together the threads from the earlier volumes, Hard Magic and Spellbound and provides the resolution of the story lines for the main characters Jake Sullivan and Faye Vierra.  These two are powerful “actives,” possessors of magic abilities in one or several categories working for the Grimnoir Society.  Jake is a Gravity Spiker with the ability to alter gravity at will while Faye is a Traveler, someone who can teleport from one location to another.  Both have been tested during the crises in the earlier books when they faced off first against the Iron Guard actives of the Japanese Imperium and afterward against rogue actives in the US intelligence agencies that were attempting to blame the Grimnoir Society for magical attacks by other forces.

But now the whole planet is threatened by an alien creature that preys on the entity that produces the magic.  The knowledge of what is at stake produces some strange alliances that alter the dynamic that the earlier books portrayed.  And despite the war footing that the book details Correia is able to mix just enough humor and other character driven interest to allow the pleasant juggling of a large number of characters.  One of the features of this historical fantasy world is the introduction of historical figures often possessing magic themselves.  Blackjack Pershing, J. Edgar Hoover, Buckminster Fuller, even FDR make longer or shorter appearances in the books.

I won’t go into a detailed plot summary because I don’t want to spoil the story.  Suffice it to say I’m giving it a very good rating.  And I’ll finish off by saying a few things about Correia’s story writing.  Without a doubt Correia is one of the best sf&f authors around today.  Going beyond that I’ll say he compares well with the older authors back in the heyday of the genres.  He writes good heroes and good villains.  He has a good ear for dialog and he can even inject humor into the story in a natural way.  One of his favorite types is a variant of the competent man but instead of Heinlein’s omnicompetent type Correia’s hero is usually a working- or middle-class guy who is good with his fists and guns and adheres to a code of conventional morality.  And as an added bonus his heroes are actually likable.  Even his villains are interesting.

And there’s one final bonus with Correia that is refreshing to see in today’s social justice infused entertainment industry.  There won’t be a single character thrown in just to earn intersectional social justice brownie points from the pink science fiction crowd.  Just regular people with super powers fighting super villains without having to worry if any of them is being oppressed by the really evil cis-het white man.

So far, I’ve read all Correia’s Monster Hunter books and now the Grimmoir books.  I’ve also enjoyed his comical Tom Stranger audiobooks and I follow his website for his take on the latest outrages by the pink science fiction scolds.  Next, I’ll start his epic fantasy series “Saga of the Forgotten Warrior” without bothering to check reviews because I’m already sure it’ll be excellent.  And in today’s science fiction and fantasy environment that’s pretty rare.

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem – A Science Fiction Book Review

Many years ago, I read some short stories by the Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem.  I remember they had futuristic elements like interstellar travel but they also included a certain amount of communist doublespeak about socialist this and soviet that.  And that seemed really odd.

But recently War Dog mentioned favorably the “The Cyberiad” collection of stories and its mathematical love poem so I decided to give Lem another whirl.

The stories in this book are the adventures of two robot inventors, or as they are called in their world Constructors, named Trurl and Klapaucius.  And when I say robot inventors I mean to say that they are inventors who are themselves robots.  They are friends and rivals and from time to time enemies.  They go on assignments together or separately taking on contracts to build just about anything imaginable.  And sometimes they build things for themselves that don’t always seem to be very sensible.  For instance, one- time Trurl constructed a machine that could create anything starting with the letter n.  It could make needles, negligees, nepenthe, narcotics, nimbuses, noodles, nuclei, neutrons, naphtha, noses, nymphs, naiads but not natrium.  And why not?  Because natrium is Latin for sodium and in English sodium starts with s!  Later on, being told to make nothing almost puts an end to the universe but luckily Trurl stops the machine just in time.

So as you can see this is comic science fiction. It’s something sort of in the same vein as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” but what it also reminds me of is Lewis Carroll and his Wonderland stories.  There is an enormous amount of wordplay and punning going on in the stories.  The interesting thing is that a lot of the word play is specific to English and these stories were written in Polish which makes me wonder if the translator had to find English equivalents for Polish puns.

The Constructors become involved in adventures that take them all through the cosmos fulfilling contracts for kings and emperors and pirates and sometimes for common people who just really need help.  They build monsters and demons and story telling machines and even machines that know everything about the whole universe.  Interestingly it seems most of the universe is populated by robots and other cybernetic beings.  Organic beings exist and seem to be pretty generally looked down upon by the robots.  But the robots are very human in their foibles and behavior and none more so than our heroes Trurl and Klapaucius.

Mixed in with the zaniness of each of their adventures is a good dose of irony about the human condition.  The selfishness and cruelty of many of their employers and the vanity and greed of the Constructors themselves is often the point of the stories and the fantasy setting is there to add humor and interest to the tale.  And also Lem is enjoying the poetic aspect of the words.  Sure, we can’t hear the Polish words to know it’s poetical but based on the English words you can see that Stanislaw Lem is like a “drunken lord of language” always using twenty words for effect where one is needed for meaning.  Here’s an example:

“Multitudinous are you?”

“We are!”  they shouted, bursting with pride.  “We are innumerable.”

And others cried:

“We are like fish in the sea.”

“Like pebbles on the beach.”

“Like stars in the sky.  Like atoms!”

You get the idea.  Lem is a poet.  And his stories are parables.  And because of this I find that it needs to be broken up and digested in small chunks.  Each of the chapters is a separate story and should be approached as such.  With all of the word play and digressions you can lose track of the nub of the story if you’re tired and not paying attention so I wouldn’t suggest reading them at night before going to bed.  This happened to me once or twice and I realized this wasn’t the kind of material that can be enjoyed at high speed like an adventure novel.  But if you give each story some time and attention it will reward you with a smile and a chuckle.  I’m glad now I was made aware of The Cyberiad.  I will enjoy returning to the adventures of the two intrepid Constructors Trurl and Klapaucius on some cold night in January when my world needs something lighthearted and clever to get me through the short days and long nights of winter.  But if you don’t like an airy, poetical style of writing this might not be for you.

Spellbound – Book II of the Grimnoir Chronicles – by Larry Correia – A Science Fiction-Fantasy Book Review

“Spellbound” is the second book in this series.  Obviously since I am reviewing this second volume, I enjoyed the first installment “Hard Magic” (see my review of it here).

In this story the main characters Jake Sullivan and Faye Vierra are once again swept along in the cataclysmic ricochets of real magic altering the world of the early 20th century.  It’s 1933 and FDR is coming into office and one of his priorities is dealing with the ‘Actives.”  This is the term for humans that have major magical powers.  This includes “Brutes” who are inhumanly strong, “Travelers” who can teleport, “Healers” who can cure almost any disease or injury and numerous other special types.  In the first book we learned how the Japanese had harnessed Actives as a spearpoint for their war machine in Asia.  And we met Jake and Faye.  Now they are veteran “knights” in the Grimnoir Society, sworn to use their powers to protect the innocent and destroy those using magic for evil.

But forces within the United States government are conspiring to discredit the Grimnoir and turn the American public against the Actives through a series of false flag operations.  This book is the story of the Grimnoir fighting against that operation.  But it also builds on the conflict with the Japanese Iron Guard, (enhanced military Actives) from the first book and then clarifies the nature of the forces that had originally unleashed magic into the world and how that will threaten the whole world in the very near future.

Okay, so that’s the setup.  Larry Correia is a very good story teller.  He paints a very rich picture with his characters and the action of the plot.  Even the villains are well written and the story is peppered with historical personages like J Edgar Hoover and Buckminster Fuller who are adapted to fill their roles in this alternate universe.  Each chapter begins with a quote from some person, mostly historical, saying something that illustrates how real magic has impacted the alternate universe of the story.

I find this alternate world very entertaining.  The Jake Sullivan character is one of Correia’s competent man heroes.  He is a brawler who has been treated badly by the world but refuses to abandon the good.  Even his enemies have learned to respect his abilities and this allows him to form alliances that otherwise would be impossible.  Faye is a powerfully gifted “Traveler” who possess abilities that far exceed what other Actives can do.  She is also a very young woman from a sheltered small-town environment who is still trying to figure out how she fits into this strange world she finds herself in.

These two characters are the twin focuses around which the other characters and the plot revolve.  The whole story is a straight forward action adventure.  There are plenty of good guys, bad guys and even some good bad guys and bad good guys.  It’s a combination of Buck Rodgers, The Untouchables and H. P. Lovecraft with some film noir thrown in for good measure.  If that sounds like something you might like then pick up the first book Hard Magic and start at the beginning.  If you’ve already read it then know that the series is still getting better in book two, Spellbound.