The Green And The Gray by Timothy Zahn

I’ve read more than a few “franchise” books, by which I mean stories where an author writes a story within an existing universe, such as Diane Duane’s Spider-man books (very good) or Warhammer 40K stories. I always wonder how much of a help or hinderance the existing framework is for the authors; after all, it probably does some of the creative heavy lifting, but it constrains the possible stories by having someone looking over your shoulder more than usual.

Timothy Zahn is likely best known for his Thrawn trilogy set in the Star Wars universe. I rather enjoyed them, and based on the strength of those books I picked up this book, cautiously hopeful as I hadn’t read any of his other stories, and curious to see how he would set about creating a brand-new world. I can happily say that he did not disappoint.

The story opens in New York City, with a couple walking home from a play. Roger and Caroline Whittier are people with deep personal issues, constantly at odds due to their different personalities and approaches to everything: he is more analytical and avoids confrontation, she more emotional and willing to speak up for the underdog. This tense situation is broken up by a sudden intrusion of an armed man who hustles them into an alley, and makes an odd request: that they take with them a young girl named Melantha who is lying unconscious on the ground. Out of compassion, the Whittiers’ agree, and thusly are drawn into an ancient conflict.

As the title states, the two parts of the trouble are groups known as the Greens and Grays. Both have strange and advanced technology and a bitter hatred of each other, with few qualms about using them in public, or against outsiders to their conflict. unfortunately, the police are soon drawn into the “secret war”, bringing more attention to their problems. Melantha is important to both sides, and they will stop at nothing to secure her from the Whittiers.’

Roger & Caroline, as mentioned, are involved with their own disintegrating relationship, and the introduction of a strange young girl at first puts a heavy strain on their lives. However, her presence and the pressure from both sides draws them to defend her and to solve a war.

There are a lot of characters in this story, and they are all given some care. Interestingly, we never see the action or from the POV of either a Green or Gray, only the humans. However, the different culture and approach of each side is well explained, as is their types of technology and gifts. The Green, as their name suggests, are more connected to nature, while the Gray are more acclimated to an urban environment.

Zahn does an excellent job in fleshing out his protagonists and their inner voices. In the beginning the frustrations of Roger and Caroline towards each other are distinctly uncomfortable and made the story slightly difficult to read. As it went on I was happy to see that they were growing closer, making their interactions more pleasant, and in fact I looked forward to seeing how the next twist or obstacle would bring them closer together.

All in all it was an excellent story and certainly encouraged me to seek out other books by Zahn.

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Confederates In The Attic by Tony Horwitz

Even though I live not far from Gettysburg, the Civil War was never that interesting a subject. This book has changed all of that impression by relating the causes and effects of the War Between The States to the modern memory and response to that conflict, from reenactors to the various organizations who remember their ancestors who fought in the war.

Mr. Horwitz approaches this subject with both humor and insight, approaching everyone with respect and attempting to see their points of view without disguising his own feelings about their own. This allows him to gain the trust and voice of a wide range of people in his travels across both the South and the years between the War and today.

It opens with his interviews with a group of Civil War enthusiasts, especially a particular group who approach the activity with an aim toward absolute authenticity, even going as far as losing weight to an alarming degree, careful recreation of uniforms down to the proper coloring agents and grime, and going without bathing for an extended period. These guys are interested in the War as a period of upheaval and trying to recapture the same feelings and experiences as their ancestors. It’s an interesting snapshot of a group, especially since there’s so much information about the day-to-day lives of people in that time period that they have a lot of information to consult, as opposed to people who reenact being, say, Roman soldiers. The Civil War guys don’t extend their passion to the larger issues of the conflict aside from making disparaging remarks about “damn Yankees.” The mystique in their minds is for the War itself, without seeing it as a rallying point or pining for the “good old days” apart from trying to have the same experiences as the average soldier.

The same can’t be said of other people Horowitz encounters on his travels. The idea of the Civil War as a Lost Cause, a mythical conflict or Holy War where the South was overwhelmed but not defeated but will one day rise again and the place of Southern generals in a pantheon of noble heroes, is a strong belief in some circles (a dark cousin of the legend of the sleeping champion such as King Arthur or Frederick in England and Germany) which sees the War as a case where the South’s superior military skill and passion were beaten by sheer numbers and industrial force. This is wedded to both religious feeling and racism, given slavery’s place as the economic and moral cause of the war.

The individuals Horwitz meets along the way include the Last Confederate Widow, the owner of the Tara movie set of Gone With the Wind members of the Daughters of the Confederacy. Along the way, he also visits the site of Andersonville prison camp, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Fitzgerald, Georgia (a town founded for Civil War veterans and populated by descendants of both sides.

Horwitz asks penetrating questions without being confrontational, and is honest about but his place as a Northerner and a passionate student of the conflict itself. While he clearly disagrees with the ideas set forth by some of the people he meets who espouse the War as a more-than-historical event where the wrong side lost, he also tries to explain their motivations and backstories in a comprehensive way, as opposed to lazily painting them as the villains. For example, the question of how to advertise the Civil War for tourists without offending locals. Do you put a statue of Arthur Ashe along the same street as the generals of the South, many of whom were slaveholders? If you put him on a separate street, that’s another unfortunate message.

A flip side is the culture and ideas of people who celebrate the pre-War time as the “good old days” and slam Reconstruction and the current view of the South as lies and misinformation. The racism here is subtle in some places but heavily wedded to a semi-religious veneration of both the notable figures of the War and people who have lost their lives as “heroes,” such as Michael Westerman, a young man allegedly killed In Kentucky (which never joined the Confederacy) by black youths for having a Confederate battle flag on his truck. In the book he is gradually made a figurehead and example of a fallen soldier for the right to fly that flag and celebrate “white rights.”

There are several more people interviewed in the book, encompassing a wide variety of ideas and viewpoints, and their words are better read than repeated by me. I’d encourage anyone with an interest in history, civil rights, or past and present cultural clashes to read this book. It tackles a sensitive topic with both a writer’s clear-eyed analysis, humor and the passion of an amateur historian.

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Movie Review: The Machine

In a previous post I derided the sometimes formulaic plot of the robot who wants to be a human, a story that’s at least as old as Disney’s little puppet boy. I was saddened that the same story seemed to have been repeated ad nauseum all this time with little variation. How many times did we need the same idea repeated to us?  It’s a kind of ego-stroking for the audience, and we just like to see something else trying to figure out what it means to be human, but at the same time it holds us back from exploring other ideas, at least from what I’ve seen in most movies and TV.

The Machine is somewhat different from that idea, at least to some extent. It stars Toby Stephens and Caity Lotz (of Arrow) as brilliant scientists looking to perfect Prostheses and eventually a complete artificial lifeform. When Lotz’ character dies, her brain is uploaded to a robot body, and then the fun begins. There’s the expected military connection and evil director played by the brilliantly slimy Denis Lawson, (who I’ve only just learned was in the original Star Wars). For a film with only 3 main characters to do the heavy lifting, it’s quite engrossing.

The artificial being is never really referred to as anything other than the “Machine”, and while it does ask many questions about emotions, our reactions and has a very childlike response to most of the things she encounters. She doesn’t show any real desire to be human, but does try to not be the weapon she’s designed to become in the end. I think you know how the story ends, but she brings real depth to what could be a shallow or simple character. In fact, she’s an actress who will have a bright future and hopefully overcome the unfortunate tendency of some young women to be relegated as “scenery.” Toby Stephens is an actor who’s had a long and successful career, and he does an excellent job here as well, playing a brilliant scientist who for once doesn’t want to create robots for an evil purpose. He has a real weight of intelligence about him, enough that he can believably play a top-notch scientist.

All in all it’s a fun and engaging film, and while it doesn’t strictly break any new ground as far as the human/robot relationship, it is far enough away from the Johnny 5 and Robocop model to bring a fresher perspective to the story.


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Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie”: No Gray Robots

Neill Blomkamp, the creator of District 9 and Elysium, is working on a new film called Chappie , about a group of scientists who create a robot who can think and feel for itself, and about its struggles to learn and find its place in the world.

I’ve watched the trailer, which is all that we know about the movie so far, and thusly of course it’s hard to make a full discussion about the film just based on those few minutes. However, the trailer itself seems so trite and empty that it makes me want to discuss it, and to a larger extent the “genre”, if we can call it that, of the Pinocchios, of things not alive that want to be human, and it seems to me that there’s a lot of ground these films don’t cover-these A.I.s want to be adorable and human, as in the case of Johnny 5, the Iron Giant, Machine,  Pinocchio himself, and a half-dozen I’m not thinking of at this moment, not to mention the ones that have aliens instead of robots as the central figure.

I’m trying really hard not to be a cynical bastard. I’m not seeing anything new or amazing or original here. “Artificial intelligence is too unpredictable!” Are there evil robots in this world? Sorry, I know, if you don’t like it why comment? It’s just that I’d like to see a film about a robot who doesn’t want to be human but instead explore what it means to be a robot. It seems like we either have good or evil, not both, and that’s just too simplistic. Humans aren’t all evil or good, why should something that wants to BE human fall into those narrow areas?Are our only options Ultron or Chappie, Data or Lore? Is there only black or white?

I suppose it’s the same reason there are so many cookie-cutter action films and rom-coms and horror films: the studios know what works and is safe and profitable. There’s no problem with this approach, since it’s a business and risks without rewards are not a winning prospect if you want to make money. I just feel that there’s such a rich and unexplored area here that could be the basis for good films that would make a buck AND make us think, and people are being sold short on the possibilities, which is a disservice to everyone concerned. Johnny 5 can be alive, but what happens next? That’s the story I want to see, the robot teenage years, not just the miracle of artificial birth. It’s easy to make us cry, harder to make us think.


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The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

I’ve mentioned before here about books that were cornerstones of my life and influenced my life and views in some way or another. When you stumble upon a book that has this effect, it’s a wonderful feeling, in that it will make you wonder, whether for good or bad. A book that opens your eyes in some way is a rare beast, and of course no book will be one of THOSE books for the same people. I’ve convinced my mom to read Watership Down because I loved it, but I’m skeptical that it will be as remarkable for her as it was for the young me.

The Daughter of Time was one of those books for me in another way. Not because of the remarkable characters involved (there aren’t any) or the magnificent writing (it’s a rather breezy style, only taking a few sentences to sketch things out, competent but not groundbreaking. That’s not to say that she was a bad writer in general or that her other books were no good-she wrote so often and was clearly so comfortable with writing that the talent is there. It’s just that the story and characters were just the means to an end for the book. No, the real treasure here that blew up my young brain was the subject matter.

Shakespeare was reasonably entertaining to me as a high schooler, not dreaded but not loved. That was until we got to Richard III. I’ve always liked the bad guys, the Sith, the supervillians. Heck, I’m wearing a Bizarro shirt as I write this. And Richard of Gloucester was and is one of the best-known villains of all literature. I enjoyed his book, and if you have the opportunity to watch Ian McKellen as Richard, please do so as soon as possible. I actually liked reading the play and I enjoyed the wickedness of the central character, without ever once taking it as more than simply a play.

After we finished the play, the teacher who hadn’t assigned the play (we had two English teachers who worked alternating days-I never quite figured out why this was so) passed out copies of this book. I was hesitant, since a brief and incorrect reading of the back gave me the mistaken impression it was an actual historical mystery set in Shakespeare’s time.

I was very wrong. The book itself is about an invalid English detective who is bored out of his mind and sets about investigating the notoriously bad reputation of Richard out of a sense of curiosity. He’s joined in the search by an eager American graduate student who manages to dig up a lot of interesting backstory on all of the characters in the play, as well as the times and events where they lived. As I said before, the setting and main characters in this book don’t matter, since they are the means by which Tey sets forth her arguments for Richard’s innocence, and that’s the part that left its impression on me so strongly.

I don’t know if Richard was innocent-I haven’t done enough study of the subject. Tey lays down what looks to be a strong argument of it, and I can’t refute any of it. No, it was the investigation itself that really got to me; that something can be well-known, read by millions of people and accepted as true by millions more, and be totally wrong. Call me naive, but the idea of the complexity of history, or the idea that everything we know or are told are only part of the true story, was something that had never really stuck home until then for some reason. Obviously I hadn’t known much about politics until then either.

The book itself is an easy read, written as I’ve said as an exposition piece for the main idea of Richard’s story, and expects you to be at least passingly familiar with the main characters in the play. That aside, it takes the whole thing pretty slowly and goes easy on the heavy historical research for people new to the idea. Tey was not apparently a member of the Richard III Society, a group dedicated to the study and hopeful exoneration of the monarch, but her book is certainly sympathetic to their views and goals. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in historical scholarship, Richard III, or Shakespeare in general.






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Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History by James Morone

Looking over my posts on this blog, I’ve noticed that I’ve done a ton of fiction & fantasy books. Don’t misunderstand, I like fiction & fantasy books. It’s just that spreading my wings is a good thing, so I’ve started reading more historical books and such recently, something I’ve gotten away from for no good reason.

Hellfire Nation is a book that at first was intimidating to me because of its size; this is a doorstopper, but given the weighty subject matter it’s not surprising. What’s nice is that Morone’s writing is very readable and easy to enjoy; he makes what might otherwise be a heavy or daunting book quite interesting. I’m also a fan of books that examine some unusual facet of society or culture that isn’t often examined, or isn’t examined in great detail (for example, a book I want to review soon is about the social habits of the rich vs. that of animals).

As the title states, the idea of sin has been a popular weapon to be used to demonize the “other side”, as seen during the Witch Trials, the censorship of Comstock, Prohibition, white slavery and other “moral outrages” right up to the modern era, and is a proud tradition fully embraced and applied to politics and social media today by both parties, though I’ll freely admit to being a loyal Democrat and feel that the extreme right today is much more blatant and brutal in their use of this technique. However, this is not a political blog (though I have and am considering creating one) and so I will leave it at that in this review.

In essence Morone discusses the origins of American exceptionalism from a moral standpoint; he quotes and uses as a main theme and underlying idea Puritan John Winthrop’s statement that America should be a “city on a hill”, and the recurring idea in American history of “us” vs. “them,” whether it’s immigrants, slaves, city and country people, or religious and political groups.

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested to the tangled path and sometimes dark  shadow religion has cast on the history and culture of the United States. This country was, of course, founded by people wishing the freedom to practice their beliefs in their own way. Of course, the depressing fact that some of them instantly turned around and proceeded to condemn and persecute both the natives that were already here and people who followed other paths such as the Quakers (who were in fact tortured by some early settlers to “encourage them to change) or chose to split off into other schools of thought.

Abortion,  the debate over “God” on our money and the Pledge of Allegiance are just some of the legacy of Sin in America and our reaction and fear of it as a label or brand to be used against the world or each other. The clear path Morone shows to the present day is intriguing and provides real food for thought; obvious when you truly see the religious roots of much of the conflict and debate present in U.S. political thought that has influenced both our foreign and domestic policy since the beginning of the nation.

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A New Look

I’m trying out a new look to mark my return to this blog after a lengthy hiatus. I kinda like it, but I’m open to other opinions. If you think it’s an abomination and should be burned with fire, let me know.

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