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11-11-11: Karl Marlantes Knows ' What It Is Like to Go to War'

Battle of the Spirit

We assume that the adults are in charge, especially when it comes to the big decisions — for example, sending our sons and daughters into war. It's 2011; by now we have a pretty good idea of what to do, and what to expect. The consequences of that decision have been thought through, beginning to end — or have they?

Karl Marlantes makes a powerful argument that we've actually forgotten many of the most important preparations for war in his slim, elegant and hard-hitting 'What It Is Like To Go To War,' a non-fiction companion to his monumental novel 'Matterhorn.' Here, he exhibits an equally high level of writerly skill as he works in a very different manner and medium.

'What It Is Like To Go To War' is an examination of how we currently prepare the boys and girls (by and large, they are not adults) we send into battle by way of Marlantes' experiences when he was sent to Vietnam. The tech we use in the field has changed radically, but the way we prepare our children has not. War, Marlantes argues, is a searing spiritual experience, but we never even think to address that aspect before we hand soldiers their guns and ask them to kill. It's an oversight that has lifelong consequences for warriors and their families.

Marlantes' book is admirably direct. In eleven short chapters, he addresses a variety of aspects of war from the perspective of a man who went to war as a partially-educated youth, and managed to return, complete his education, and spend some forty years thinking about his experiences. Any given chapter will include visceral stories of his time in Vietnam and perhaps Jungian analysis, introspection about his own personal aftermaths, sociological and psychological insights, historical and literary perspectives on war, and more. It's all superbly written in prose that ranges from poetically raw to analytically insightful. He breaks war down into intelligible parts whose sum is clearly greater than the whole. Marlantes manages to speak for all soldiers in a voice that is clear, elegant, engaging and deeply readable.

For a man who went to Vietnam and returned, his message is not so dark as one might expect. He does not take it upon himself to offer political fixits or hard condemnations. He's much smarter than that. By showing with both anecdote and analysis the effects of war on the psyches of the youth sent to fight, he lets his readers reach the same conclusions he reaches. If war is ever with us, and it is likely to be so, then we had best understand what we are asking so that we can offer those sent to sacrifice in our names the best chance of rejoining us as one of us.

While Marlantes holds back from offering prescriptions as to what must be done, readers need not and should not, indeed, will not, feel the same way. This is a book that needs to be bought twice. Readers will want to buy it for themselves to understand just what the title implies; this book will indeed convey very precisely in visceral and intellectual terms, what it is like to go to war. Marlantes succeeds beyond any doubt in this regard.

But his real triumph is that readers will want that second book to hand, to send to anyone supposedly representing them in our government. Those who are in charge are not adults; not until they've read this book and internalized the experiences, the expertise here. Going to war should not begin with worries about national defense, and international conflicts. When we go to war, our first thoughts and concerns needs must be of those we are sending in our stead. Our warriors will fight not just with guns and lives. They will enter into an intense, profound spiritual battle, and we must win that war before they ever set foot on foreign soil to ensure that they can truly return home.

11-09-11: Peter F. Hamilton Engineers 'Manhattan in Reverse'

Short, Science Fiction and Mystery

Reading memories have a strange quality to them because readers can experience the events in the best books as memories at the same time we can recall the actual times and places we read the books. For me, a perfect example of this is Peter F. Hamilton's first short story collection, 'A Second Chance At Eden.' In the same moment, I can immerse myself in visions of the planets visited by Hamilton's characters, and my own memories of this planet when I was reading the short stories in that book. It's easy to think of Hamilton as the author of weighty tomes. He's good at that.

But 'Manhattan in Reverse' shows that he works well in the short story and novella format as well. It also displays his strengths not just as a science fiction writer, but also as a mystery writer. He may set his mysteries in his various universes, or in alternate timelines, but the appeal of many of his stories is the appeal of a good mystery.

That's true from the start here, with his PS Publishing novella, "Watching Trees Grow," which starts out with a murder in an alternate Oxford in the early 19th century. In Hamilton's timeline, progress is much faster, and the protagonist pursues the perpetrator through centuries, thanks to an extended lifetime. There's a bit of the current steampunk feel to this novella, written well before the current deluge, but the plot and character drivers are firmly rooted in the mystery genre, with the science fiction backdrop offering Hamilton some great opportunities to spin the mystery and play with our perceptions.

PS Publishing also brought readers the first spin of "Footvote" (via Postscripts, their magazine), a dark political satire that has been revised for this collection. Like all political satire, it's tied to its time, and that can be jolting, but it is nonetheless humorous and written with the sort of details that make Hamilton's SF work so appealing. "The Forever Kitten," a 1,000 word thought experiment written for Nature, harkens back to Hamilton's earlier work for Fear magazine. He's quite adept at SFnal horror.

The remaining stories; "If At First," "Blessed by an Angel," "The Demon Trap," and "Manhattan in Reverse," are all effective science fiction mysteries, with the last three set in the Commonwealth Universe, featuring the ever-more-endearing Paula Mayo. Hamilton gets up a real head of steam here, creating complicated mysteries, great characters and toe-tapping plots that are rich in detail. There's no shortage of wildly imaginative science fiction ideas percolating at any instant, but Hamilton uses mystery tropes to keep us engaged as well. This is smart, fun reading in a great package. Macmillan has always done right by Peter F. Hamilton, this time around with great Steve Stone cover. If mystery, science fiction and short fiction sound appealing, shockingly, Peter F. Hamilton is here to deliver a slim volume that should not get lost when shelved amidst his megaliths.

11-08-11: Alastair Reynolds' 'Revelation Space'

Remembering Why

Editors Note: As I looked through my archives, for a new old review to post this week, I discovered the obvious; Alastair Reynolds' 'Revelation Space,' the novel that brought me back to reading science fiction after a hiatus of years. I had truly given up on the form, other than the occasional Philip K. Dick novel or Stanislaw Lem translation, but something back around the turn of the century made me read a review of this book at *.* written by David Langford.

For reasons I can't recall, I decided to give the book a try and ordered it from the UK. Reynolds' fine prose, his superb plot, his landscapes and characters involved me as no other work of SF had in years. Reynolds was not, and is still not simply fine science fiction writer; he's a fine writer, period. If you don't read science fiction, but are willing to give something new a try, I don't think you can do better than 'Revelation Space' by Alastair Reynolds.
Space operas can easily spend too much time in the vacuum. The gulf between the worlds becomes a gulf between the reader's experiences and those of the characters. When readers don't get a chance to connect intimately with the characters, the awe that is aspired for is too easily translated into a yawn. 'Revelation Space', the first novel by Alastair Reynolds connects the readers with the characters in gritty, detailed prose that has the ring of reality.

Starting in an ice storm at an archaeological dig, 'Revelation Space' dials the reader out of this world and into the clever universe that Reynolds has mapped. His writing is organic, dense and detailed. As an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency, he's able to bring an air of complete authenticity as he creates technologies to explore space and cultures that inhabit worlds. Moreover, he's willing to answer the hard questions. He doesn't handwave hyperdrives to give his characters an edge. 'Revelation Space' is set a very relativistic universe, where the rules are the rules, and they're the rules we all know. People, being people, have just had to figure out a way to work with them.

The dig that begins the novel unearths something very disturbing for scientist Dan Sylveste. A patrician son of the wealthy, Sylveste does not welcome any interruption in his quest to find out what happened to the previous inhabitants of the planet Resurgam. They were extinguished en masse, just as they were on the verge of achieving interstellar space flight. It appears that this might not be purely accidental. He requires the assistance of the crew of Nostalgia for Infinity, a huge gothic spaceship cathedral with a cache of "hell class" weapons. But there's a tiny problem with the Captain. And Ana Khouri, a recent addition to the crew has an ulterior motive for joining.

'Revelation Space' delivers a consistently enthralling and entertaining vision of mankind in deep space. Because the ship cannot travel faster than light, but rather only at "lighthugger" speed, action in the novel is spread out in time as well as space. And, there are no 'ansibles', so news travels no faster than humanity can. This allows Reynolds to create tension in a number of ways on a number of levels. He understands that science fiction can be written in three dimensions, and he doesn't stint the human dimension. Ana Khouri and the Triumvir Ilia Volyova are complex women characters with a dark edge not often found in SF.

In fact, darkness is a theme running through 'Revelation Space', which, though it deals with major SF themes, often has the feel of a monsterific horror novel. Reynolds prose really helps in this effect, and surely the Nostalgia for Infinity is one of the most interesting ships we've seen in the SF world in a long time. Reynolds describes it as if it was a living haunted house, and has a very clever way to bring it to life. It's not that living ships are anything particularly new in SF, but Reynolds original vision and careful prose help create a very creepy, believable space cathedral.

Given the old writer's tenet about writing what you know, the astrophysicist's experience and knowledge that Reynolds brings to bear means that he can effortlessly invent, describe and create some rather fantastic imagery in space. Because he's got the readers dialed in to the characters, when he brings on the awesome, he manages to translate it to the reader quite effectively. 'Revelation Space' more than lives up to its title: not only in the revelations within the novel itself, but most importantly in the revelation of Alastair Reynolds as a major writer who starts literally light years beyond any readers' expectations.

11-07-11: Lawrence Lessig Mourns 'Republic, Lost'

A Voice of Reason

Addressing the problems that plague America's government and politics is a task both obvious and impossible. There are so many visible ills that even cataloguing them begins to seem hopeless, coming up with solutions unimaginable, and implementing change hopeless. This does not stop a veritable army from writing books that range in outlook from Pollyanna-esque to Apocalyptic. No matter what the perspective, the tone of these tomes is dishearteningly similar. The sound of axe-grinding threatens to deafen the audience.

The first victory, then, of 'Republic, Lost' by Harvard Law scholar Lawrence Lessig, is his prose. It's hard to pin down, but immediately noticeable. Soon, as Lessig explores the literature and history of economy, power and politics, it becomes clear. He lets his readers join him in a journey to understanding. He works out the ideas for himself and lets readers come along for the ride. 'Republic, Lost' works as a reading experience precisely because it lives up to its title. Yes, we have lost our way, and the Republic itself is at risk. But as Lessig examines both the perception and exercise of political power, both the author and the reader begin to understand the source of the problem. With understanding, a solution becomes possible — but not easy.

Lessig's analysis of American politics began with his work on the laws as they regard the Internet. He found that though there were clearly two sides to the legal arguments about copyright infringement, only one side was visible to Congress — the one with money. In 'Republic, Lost,' he follows up on this idea and analyzes not just the effect of money in how laws are passed, but the perception of the effect of money. He looks at the intentions of the Constitution, and concludes that money has corrupted not the people but the setup of the governmental system itself. We are not the victims of evil individuals, though there are more than a few haunting the hallways. American government and liberty are the victims of a system that by necessity runs on money. The huge amounts required to both live a life and run a campaign distort the intentions of all involved, in the same way that gravity bends light.

Lessig is himself an academic, and the studies he cites to support his conclusions are academic as well. He needs the facts to make his case, and he uses them. The triumph here is that Lessig's prose style is conversational but never condescending. It's really enjoyable to join him on his journey, and he is not hesitant to address the reader directly. At one point he tells the reader that his book is not of a particular type, and that if the reader wants that book, the reader is welcome to write it him or her self. It's a risky strategy that pays off. We trust Lessig, who seems authentically non-partisan. He even has chapters that show how the problems inherent in our current system of elections harm both parties.

The outlook he has is grim, but not without hope. Understanding the problem, which Lessig explains with clarity, requires a nuanced perception. And once you understand the problem, a solution becomes possible, though not easy. Like many writers in the political vein, he presents potential solutions. The difference here is that he keeps the reader along with him for the ride. He acknowledges difficulty without succumbing to pessimism. The amount of hope you can carve out of this book is proportional to the amount of work you're willing to do.

In the interim, just reading this book will give you hope. Lessig's writing is a breath of fresh air. The works he cites come from all stripes of the political spectrum, and one can guess that they too are worth one's valuable reading time. The problems in our political landscape are not just loud. They thrive on their own volume and excess. Talking heads are more and more difficult to find. Most of them seem to be shouting. Lawrence Lessig's calm style stands out. 'Republic, Lost' clearly identifies the subtle problems that underlie the obvious disaster, and offers possible solutions to a seemingly impossible predicament. With entertaining conversational prose, Lessig defeats the language of an army of lawyers and lobbyists.

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09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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