Monday, November 30, 2015

Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be InvincibleSoon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book seemed to have promise and had a very unique premise and one of the two main characters is pretty cool, but the other main character is so bland and boring that you wonder what happened to the author while he was writing her into the text. Furthermore, most of the other characters, and certainly her peers, are equally as boring and bland, so this book fails in its attempt at a campy "sci fi" (yeah, right), fantasy, comic book, literary fiction novel and it's a big let down.

We begin the book with Doctor Impossible, an evil genius in prison for trying to take over the world some 11 times or so. His descriptions and reflections on his upbringing and his criminal efforts are generally pretty creative and pretty hilarious. He makes the book.

Then you switch to Fatale, a female rookie cyborg "hero" who has just been asked to join the newly reformed superhero group, Champions, and she wants to impress enough to show she fits in. But she really doesn't. She really doesn't have a clue. Or a personality. And neither do the bickering other heroes.

I probably should have kept reading as the book still had possibilities, but I had read the reviews and they pretty much confirmed what I had already guessed -- that this book, loved by some, is largely dead on arrival, aside from Doctor Impossible. And frankly, the author -- at the time of this writing -- was a doctoral student at Cal. That means he was writing "literary fiction" while trying to dress it up as stylized genre fiction. Uh huh. No. Doesn't work. Still retains some of the aspects of standard academic-speak. Which I hate. Which is why I read Bukowski and Kerouac for my main fiction and sci fi for my genre fiction. I didn't finish this book, didn't even get far. I was annoyed with all of the characters except for Doctor Impossible and I was annoyed with the author's peculiar use of certain words and phrases. It seemed linguistically wrong. I probably should give this book three stars, because it is highly original, but as I didn't finish it because I found most of it boring and pretentious, I'm giving it two stars. Not recommended.



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A World Called Solitude

A World Called SolitudeA World Called Solitude by Stephen Goldin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book sounded pretty good at first and read pretty well at first, but then it simply just degenerated into smut, so I gave up in disgust midway through and didn't finish it.

Birk Aaland is a world class scientist who invents an awesome new space ship engine that revolutionizes space travel and he becomes wealthy and famous. Then, a military dictator takes over and starts purging Earth of undesirables. He imprisons, tortures, and murders millions. Birk is stupid enough to speak out, thinking that his fame will protect him, and he soon joins the other political prisoners. His beautiful wife divorces him, his colleagues lie about him, he is sentenced and tortured and doesn't know when he's going to be executed. However, this dictator has filled up so many Earth prisons, that he has to start shipping prisoners off planet to colony worlds, so Birk is loaded on a ship with other prisoners and they take off. And they mutiny and take over the ship, but take some damage. Birk is the only one who knows how to fly, so they fly seeking a suitable planet to land on and finally he flies into a huge gas cloud in desperation and spots an unmapped, perfect planet. However, he doesn't know how to land and crashes the ship. He's the only survivor. He wakes to find he was saved by robots and the world is fully developed and full of functioning robots, but empty of its previous civilization, whom he begins to refer to as the Makers, a warlike alien race, long gone. And so he spends 11 years there, exploring and basically enjoying his solitude.

However, we learn early on he's horny as hell and masturbates frequently. Even the robots joke with him about it. He wants a woman, preferably one who looks like and reminds him of his ex-wife. So, his life is uprooted one day when a new space ship crash lands on the planet. The robots rush to the crash site, while he has ambivalent feelings. What if they're looking for him? What if they're after him? He goes to the site and discovers that, sure enough, it's a military ship. There are six critically wounded survivors, two of whom are women. And so it begins.

One, a tall blonde, reminds him of his ex in his fantasies, so he begins masturbating while fantasizing about her. Three of the men die and then this woman dies. He's distraught because the remaining woman is Japanese and apparently Asians aren't nearly as attractive in his book. The robots come to him with a dilemma. Both of the remaining survivors are doing badly, but it's possible one could survive -- with organ transplants from the other. So he has to play God and decide who lives and who dies. And while he makes a big show about trying hard to decide, naturally he chooses the woman, because above all else, he wants to get laid and he's already begun fantasizing about having her as his sex slave, er mate, and is masturbating frantically to the fantasy.

Michi Nakamura survives. She awakes in a hospital surrounded by robots, confused, and wondering where the people are. Arthur, the robot boss, comes to talk to her and tells her there are people in charge and she'll see someone soon. But that's not good enough for her, so she escapes from her room and flees through the building, eventually locating Birk, where she tells him her colony world was invaded and it's imperative she reach Earth to warn them. He tells her she can't, she's stuck there and she pretty much loses it. And he loses it back. And then the book is full of them fighting and his continued stupid fantasies about her. When he sees her or even thinks about her, no matter how much he despises her, he gets an erection and wants to bone her. Honestly, I know many sci fi writers are perverts, but the only writer I've seen that's more sex obsessed than this one is Heinlein and he's a pervert of the first degree, beaten only by de Sade. I don't know whether Goldin himself is a sex starved maniac or just likes to create characters who are and I can buy someone who hasn't had sex with a woman in over a decade being horny, but every single thought and action surrounding this single woman has to involve sex? It's ridiculous! And Birk also acts like a spoiled brat, like a small child. He's got the emotional breakdown of a four year old. At first I kind of liked him and his explorations and interactions with the robots, but when he went to a dark city to have sex with a robot who, through somehow magically reading his thoughts and memories, could look and act like his ex-wife, I was just kind of repelled. And it just got worse. I don't know how this book ends. I suspect that they wind up fucking each other's brains out and loving it and they both escape this planet and make it back to Earth where she warns the government and he is granted a reprieve. But who knows? I do know that I don't want to continue reading this one track smut to find out. I'm no prude -- I've read de Sade -- but I don't like gratuitous sex just for the sake of turning horny teenage readers on. It's really quite stupid. This could have been a good book. Instead, I can't recommend it at all.


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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Firemask

Firemask (The Last Legion, #2)Firemask by Chris Bunch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Firemask is a most excellent sequel to a fun, really good military sci fi novel called The Last Legion, which is the beginning of a series. The Last Legion was action packed and followed two characters, Garvin Jaansma and Njangu Yoshitaro, as they joined the Confederation’s military and are shipped to a distant planet called Cumbre, only to be cut off from Confederation civilization by no one knows what. Is the Confederation disintegrating? Jaansma and Yoshitaro are assigned to the “Last Legion,” a Confederation force of some 10,000 men and women who have to fight a guerilla uprising against the minority 'Raum, while also worrying about the alien Musth who leave Cumbre in a fit upon suffering casualties when the ‘Raum attack them, promising vengeance upon all men. And so Book Two.

There was a lot of slaughter in the first book, so people have been promoted in this book and there are new recruits. Jaansma takes a team of new recruits out into the wilderness to an old Musth base camp for training, only to find it mysteriously manned and they are fired upon and take casualties. They return fire, killing all aliens, but now the shit starts. Many Musth have been looking for an excuse to return to Cumbre to kill and enslave humans and now they invade in force. The Legion pretty much gives up, because it’s obvious they’re horribly outnumbered and the Musth have serious air support where the humans have virtually none. However, when the Musth give the Legion an ultimatum it can’t meet, all hell breaks loose and war truly breaks out with astonishing casualties for both sides. Finally, the Legion breaks off and up into small groups to live to see and fight another day in guerilla warfare methods and tactics and the Musth continue to take casualties. One thing about Bunch – he has little problem in killing off major characters. People continue to get slaughtered throughout this book and the book is action packed. At some point, you start to wonder how things are going to get resolved as you near the end of the book and then some characters go on a “last resort” mission that borders on insane and does it, can it, will it work? It’s got to, right? As the Musth continue slaughtering people, there’s really only one hope. And since there’s a Book Three, one can assume something happens. Or not. Read it. But read the first book before this one because this really isn’t a stand alone book. But it’s a good, fun read. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it knows that. The author knows that. The reader knows that. It’s just escapism. It’s an action movie waiting to be filmed. But it’s good. A good series. Recommended.





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Monday, November 23, 2015

Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories Volume 1

The Complete Stories, Vol 1The Complete Stories, Vol 1 by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 600+ page book of short stories is a pretty good collection of Asimov's early 1950s work. Some of the stories are very, very good, such as "Nightfall," which I was delighted to find had been turned into a full novel later, which I recently bought and intend to read. Others are not quite as good. One that irritated me was "I'm in Marsport Without Hilda," where a man comes "home" to a space station after being out in space for a long time and as he'll be heading for the planet and his wife in another day, he contacts a local woman for a one nighter -- even though he's married. Events occur that delay their tryst and she gets impatient with him and I guess the humor lies in his attempts to solve everything so they can get together and hit the sack. Finally, everything has been taken care of and he's ready to go meet the whore, when he hears a woman call his name and turns around to find his wife unexpectedly greeting him -- and he's ticked. To me, this was a very offensive and sexist story. I didn't think it merited inclusion in an anthology of collected works since it was in such poor taste. But then, as I've discovered, Asimov -- if you go by his early work -- was a bit of a sexist himself, as he rarely used female characters and with one exception I can think of, when he did, they were typically window dressing -- poor, helpless, empty headed dullards completely dependent on men to save them from whatever was happening to them. Oh, and as we learn in one story here, woman like to talk. A lot. I guess that's all they do. Pig. I try to give him the benefit of the doubt by saying maybe he was a product of his times. It was the 1950s after all and women's lib hadn't occurred and a woman's place was in the home, so maybe.... And I haven't read enough of his later work to know differently, although I just finished Foundation's Edge today and it had strong female characters, although one was evil. It was written in the 1980s. Maybe he adjusted with the times.

In any event, the stories in the book are largely pretty good, until you get to about the last 100 pages or so and then the quality of the work drops off immensely. I'm not sure why that is, but the last several stories are quite bad. There's a marked difference between them and the earlier pieces. Again, I don't know why the editors decided to do it that way, but that's just the way it happened, so I guess you have to live with it. One thing that was interesting is Asimov's obsession with computers, using one giant computer he calls "Multivac" repeatedly in his stories. Multivac is a computer that pretty much runs the world and everything in it. It is hundreds of miles big and spits out data punch cards, much like the giant 1950s-era computers did, requiring specially trained computer programmers and operators to interpret its results and instructions. He also worries about man versus machine and sides with man virtually every time, which is interesting as he is constantly writing about machines such as robots. I find Multivac interesting because it's proof that Asimov had absolutely no sci fi foresight like other sci fi writers, such as Philip K. Dick, did. He never was really able to guess at desktops, laptops, smart phones, or anything like that. Meanwhile, so many other early sci fi writers were able to envision things such as these that I am continually amazed that Asimov maintains the massive sci fi reputation he enjoys. Personally, I think he was stuck in a 1950s nuclear-era technology rut with absolutely little ability to think ahead creatively like so many of his peers and while the stories in this book are generally pleasantly well written, except for much dialogue, which Asimov always seems to have problems writing, his writing skills don't even begin to measure up to so many other sci fi writers, it's not even funny. Personally, I think he had several decent ideas and could tell a decent story, but then so could hundreds of other writers, so in my opinion, he was just a hack. I can easily name numerous other sci fi writers who are infinitely better than he ever was.

Whatever the case, and no matter how poorly Asimov wrote most of his novels, most of these short stories are quite good and are pretty well written. I assume he must have had a good editor. This book is the highest rated book I have ever seen on Goodreads, with a 4.36 out of 5 score. I certainly don't think it deserves a 5 at all and I'm not even sure it deserves a 4, but I'm going ahead and giving it one just because so much of it was entertaining and after all, isn't that what you want out of a good short story? I'm curious, now, to see how his writing matured in the '60s, so if I see Volume 2 of this series, I'll probably get it. As for this book? Recommended.

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Foundation's Edge

Foundation's Edge (Foundation, #4)Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Spectacular! Finally, a Foundation book worthy of its reputation and legacy. I found the Foundation Trilogy to be quite mediocre, at best, and even gave the second one just one star and couldn’t even finish it, it was so bad. The writing was horrible in the first three books, the characters undeveloped, the plotlines flat, the technology rather pathetic with far too much reliance on nuclear energy 20,000 years in the future. The books sucked. But this one, written 30 years later, shows a maturity in the writing style, a certain growth, and while no one can ever confuse Asimov’s ability to create character development with “real” writers, he certainly improves it in this book. So, too, the plot is decidedly better, more intricate, more intriguing, the book may even be viewed as a page turner! What a pleasant surprise.

Foundation's Edge focuses on Foundation Councilman Golan Trevize, whose ideas about the existence of the Second Foundation get him in a great deal of trouble. Likewise, a young Speaker of the Second Foundation, also aware that something is completely wrong with the Seldon Plan, is viewed as a troublemaker. Trevize is arrested and exiled for his challenge to the Mayor of the Foundation. He is given a secret mission – to find the Second Foundation and determine what it is up to and then to report back. The Second Foundation’s Speaker's goal is to find who is manipulating the Seldon Plan outside the Second Foundation, as he is now convinced is happening. These two mysteries and men are destined to find one another and then, what happens, happens.

Trevize takes historian Jan Pelorat, an unknown academic who believes, bizarrely, that humans, now spread over a zillion planets, actually originated on a single planet: Earth. Pelorat unwittingly joins Trevize as a cover for his search for the Second Foundation. Pelorat is obsessed with Earth. Why did people leave Earth 20,000 years ago? For instance, why are there no records of its history or location anywhere, just rumors? Was Earth destroyed by radioactivity? Did a war between robots and humanity force humans to flee the planet to establish new worlds?

Speaker Gendibal takes as his companion a Hamish woman named Novi, whom he will use as a mental alarm in the event anyone or anything attempts to take his mind over. Novi ends up playing a significant role in this book.

Foundation Mayor Branno leads a fleet of five warships to the mysterious planet Trevize and Pelorat locate, Gaia, a planet found on no maps or in no databases anywhere. Trevize, Gendibal, and Branno all appear at Gaia simultaneously and discover something unbelievable. And something unbelievable happens to end the novel.

There is another book Asimov apparently wrote after this book and this one was so good that I’ll probably buy that one and read it too. I hope it’ll be nearly as decent as this was. I also know there are now preludes to the original trilogy, but as I hated the trilogy so much, I doubt I’m interested in reading any preludes. This book is superior, a most excellent book, and while it helps to have read the trilogy, I’m not certain it’s necessary – it can probably be read as a stand alone book. Even though it’s over 425 pages, it doesn’t feel long and is a quick read. Definitely worth the investment. Strongly recommended.



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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Hell Hath No Fury

Hell Hath No Fury (Multiverse, #2)Hell Hath No Fury by David Weber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Second in the Multiverse series created by David Weber and Linda Evans, Hell Hath No Fury is quite excellent. If one can stomach quite a bit of violence. For violent it is. Two separate worlds in two separate universes, each exploring new alternate universes through portals they’ve discovered, encounter each other in the first book. And Arcana, the magical, militaristic culture run entirely by spells attacks a civilian survey crew from Sharona, which is a technology-based world, of a WW I era of technology, including rifles, revolvers, artillery, etc. Both sides suffer casualties, but while Arcana takes two prisoners, both of whom are presumed dead by Sharona, and one of them is the most popular woman in their universe, Sharona exacts their revenge on Arcana. So Arcana sends out some “diplomats,” asking to negotiate, not shoot. Things seem odd, but the Sharonans decide to negotiate in good faith, as they don’t want an interstellar war. Meanwhile, the devious Arcanans are moving up thousands of troops and dozens of battle and transport dragons to attack the Sharonans and invade their portals and take as many as possible into Sharonan territory. In doing so, they’ve lied to their troops, telling them their most popular citizen was killed by Sharanon troops when in fact it was an Arcanan who killed him. And they know that. They’re itching to start an interstellar war, but they have no orders to do so. One rogue mid-level officer has ordered this and now tens of thousands of lives are at stake.

Meanwhile, we meet Crown Prince Janaki, heir to the Sharonan throne, detailed to take some prisoners home and accompany Voice Darcel Kinlafia, the man who “saw” the original slaughter and alerted all of Sharona to what had happened. Janaki is a good man and talks Kinlafia into going ahead of him to run for Parliament, where he might be able to do some good. He, like his whole royal family, has Glimpses and knows his destiny lies in dying in defense of a major portal fort several universes away. His father, Zindel, and his sister, Andrin, not yet 18, both have strong Glimpses and are deeply worried. A Conclave is called and a world government is called for to unify the world’s countries and their armies into one, all presumably to be led by Zindel. Unfortunately, one Chava Busar, Emperor of Uromathia, is holding everything up, refusing to give his approval to this arrangement unless Zindel’s son marries one of his daughters, thus putting his grandchild on the empire’s throne at some point in the future. Many people are ticked, but Zindel agrees and the time is set for putting this all together.

So, the time has come for the Arcanans to attack. And they do, with 14,000 men against 800 Sharonans. And they lose a battle dragon or two, which shocks them, even though they annihilate all Sharonans. There are three types of battle dragons. One breathes fire, one throws lightning bolts, the third breathes poison gas, killing the most people. They are their secret weapon, since the uncivilized, barbaric Sharonans don’t have and have never seen magic.

And they attack a fort. And decimate it. And take prisoners. And torture and slaughter the prisoners. And this becomes a pattern. When Weber, for this is undoubtedly his work, writes bad guys, they are REALLY bad! The Arcanans are evil bastards. They kill all the Voices, since the have learned about the Sharonan VoiceNet and how they use it, and they destroy fort after fort, taking prisoners and torturing and slaughtering them as they go. It seems the only honorable Arcanans are the long distant Jasak Olderhan and Gadrial Kelbryan.

Finally, they reach the big fort, the major fort where Janaki is. Through his Glimpses, he has been able to warn the commander of the impending attack, how it will happen, where it will come from, how to defend, etc. And they’re ready. The battle scene is a typical David Weber battle scene: most excellent. And of course, Janaki dies. The serious problem with that is it leaves Andrin heir to the throne and now Busar is insisting she immediately marry one of his sons and he is gloating his way to the throne. However, as we will hopefully find out in the next book, Kinlafi will have something to say about that and will play a major role in the survival of Sharona. The book ends in a typical Weber cliffhanger stalemate and I’m damned eager to see some Sharonan revenge. The problem for many people is that this book was published in 2007 and there’s been no Book Three. People have been left hanging and they’re not happy about it. Apparently, Linda Evans became quite ill, so the series was discontinued. People ask why Weber didn’t just continue it himself, since it was so quite obviously HIS book. But he didn’t. The good news is, I just learned that Book Three is scheduled for publication in March 2016! With a different co-author. Don’t know what happened to Evans, but I’m damned glad Weber got together with someone to continue an excellent series. The first book was quite good, but this one was better. Lots of action, lots of intrigue. Definitely recommended.




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Hyper-Chondriac

Hyper-chondriac: One Man's Quest to Hurry Up and Calm DownHyper-chondriac: One Man's Quest to Hurry Up and Calm Down by Brian Frazer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an interesting memoir. At times, it's often quite funny. At times, it's often quite sad. It's about one man's experience with coming to terms with and trying to overcome his rage, anxiety, tension, and violent outbursts. At least he recognized his problems and tried, right?

Brian grew up in a Long Island Jewish family where his mother had MS and was one angry, pissed off, horrible bitch of a human being who practically tortured his father for life and made life miserable for him and his siblings. They never ate dinner together, except for once a year. They only ate fast food. When Brian went to college, he didn't know how to use utensils and ate, quite quickly, with his fingers and hands and thought all the stares were admiring stares of appreciation for his appetite. He literally ate everything as quickly as possible and with his hands. In fact, he was always in a hurry, always impatient, and blew up at anyone who got in his way or who let him down, especially as he was excessively punctual. He took up body building -- he was rather OCD -- and built his body so greatly that he won competitions. Then he took to eating ice cream competitions. And so it continued.

One thing I didn't like about the book is that somewhere there's a break in the book -- and his life -- where he apparently graduates from college, moves to Los Angeles, marries a girl named Nancy, and becomes a writer -- and he doesn't mention any of this in his own memoir. Um, okay. Yeah. Rather stupid, if you ask me.

The remaining chapters are about Brian's attempts to get his life under control. He finally finds out he's "abnormal" when he goes to a dermatologist who tells him he's the most tense human he's ever seen and proscribes Zoloft for him. He's stunned. Of course, he knew he was guilty of tremendous road rage, but then, wasn't everyone? So, he turns to other areas that might help him -- yoga, tai chi, Ayurveda, cranial-sacral therapy, etc. Each chapter is on one of these and more. He learns something about himself and of value for his search for betterment in each chapter, no matter how ridiculous the scene or how badly he's getting ripped off. Finally, he and Nancy get a dog near the end of the book and it's a very calm dog. And it helps calm him, along with his stringent diet, yoga (which initially almost destroyed his hip), etc. Towards the end of the book, a sister calls him to let him know his mother is having serious medical problems and his father has thrown his back out and needs help caring for her, so Brian and Nancy take off for the East coast to help out, where he is immediately taken back to the anger and hatred of his youth. But he survives and moves on, wishing his mother could too. He leaves the reader with his status as a work in progress. It's really an unfinished book. I wondered why he chose to write this particular book at this particular time in his life. I don't know the reason and will probably never find out. Whatever the case, it's a good read, if for no other reason then it's very, very funny. Recommended.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary FaithMeeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith by Marcus J. Borg
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

For a long time now, I’ve heard that Marcus Borg is THE intellectual theologian of liberal Christians and as a result, I’ve been wanting to read some of his work. See, I was born into a strict evangelical, near fundie, home and grew up indoctrinated in evangelical tenants, taught to fear and hate “liberal” Christians, who weren’t actual Christians at all and who were going to hell. By the time I reached college, I was so disgusted with my religion, I left the church – went as far away as I could – and stayed away for two decades. Sometime in my mid to late 30s, for some unknown reason, I felt drawn back to God and the church and explored my old church and others like it because I knew no better. And I was overwhelmed by the judgmentalness, intolerance, dogma, right wing politics, hatred of the poor, and obsession with wealth. Literally, in my old church, the richest man in town went to “our church,” the mayor went to “our church,” a state senator went to “our church,” the governor was an elder at “our church,” a congressman went to “our church,” 5,000 people went to “our church” which had a huge campus you needed a map for and a budget in the tens of millions. It was truly disgusting. I’ve read what Jesus taught and did while he lived and these people certainly didn’t reflect that, in my opinion. So, it took a long time, I guess because I’m stupid, but I finally figured out I’m not an evangelical in my 40s and went looking for a new church. And found a home in a mainline church. Which seems to teach what Jesus taught, unlike the evangelicals and fundies. Now, in all honesty, even though I know Jesus wouldn’t approve, evangelicals repulse and disgust me and I can’t stand them and can’t stand to be around their arrogant, I’m-better-than-you, I’m-the-only-person-saved, yuppie asses. If there is a hell, I personally think most of them will wind up there. But then I sound too much like them, so maybe I better retract that statement.

Anyway, Borg. I got this book and started reading eagerly. And to my astonishment, I was beyond disappointed. I was appalled. Borg is literally bone headed stupid. He’s a dumbass of the first degree. He’s not a “real” Christian, in my opinion, probably doesn’t even know what one is, and this book is a sham. Even though I view myself as a fairly liberal Christian, I’m afraid I’m going to probably come across sounding like my old evangelical self in this review. And that disturbs me.

First of all, Borg grew up Lutheran. And didn’t really know too much about Christianity, even by his own admission. He began having doubts at a young age, like many people. However, unlike many people who wonder why God allows horrors to happen to “innocent” people, he wondered how God could be everywhere when he was clearly up in Heaven. Which strikes me as odd. Just odd.

He went to college, I believe at a Lutheran school. And experienced enough doubts to become a closet agnostic. And then a closet atheist. And so, logically (sarcasm intended), he went to seminary. Where he had four life changing experiences that changed his mind forever and brought him back to Christianity. As he wrote this, I eagerly waited to read about them. Imagine my shock and disappointment when he NEVER even wrote what they were, not one of them. What the hell? What is that about? Bizarre!

So Borg went on to become a religious studies professor at Oregon State University where he did “research” on historic Christianity and Jesus and came up with some “startling” conclusions. Bear in mind, it took him some 40 years or so to realize this and he’s announcing this publicly in this book – he’s come to the realization that Christianity is not about works or deeds or following commandments or belief or sacraments. Instead it’s simply about having a personal relationship with God! With God! Unreal!!! Can you believe that? I knew that at age four. Ask ANY evangelical child of five years or so and they’ll be able to tell you that. And yet Borg had to study and research and dedicate years to come up with this mind blowing conclusion that he is illuminating the world with, one which most of the world already knows. His stupidity is unsurpassed.

This book then goes on to talk about Jesus. Sort of. It talks about “pre-Easter” and “post-Easter” Jesus. See, pre-Easter Jesus is historical. Post-Easter Jesus probably didn’t exist and is metaphorical. Not possible. Jesus was a “spirit person.” A holy man, but you can’t say that, because holy means spiritual and that’s not cool and of course it’s not PC to say “man,” so spirit person it is. And here’s another startling revelation Borg comes to. Jesus was compassionate! Wow! Borg, you sure are brilliant. However, that’s not all. Oh no. See, Borg talks about wisdom, how important it is in the Bible, how it was present at the beginning of creation, how it connotes with Jesus himself. He then goes on to say that the Greek word for wisdom is the feminine noun, “Sophia.” So he does this neat little trick of quoting several Bible verses, substituting “Sophia” for “wisdom” wherever he finds it, thus making it feminine, yet proving nothing. Except in his own mind. See, he equates wisdom with God. And since wisdom is equated with God and since wisdom is female, therefore God is a woman. Yep. And Jesus was therefore not the Son of God the Father, but the Mother. Not that Jesus was the Son of anyone, nor was he God, nor was he part of the Trinity, cause all of that’s bullshit for Borg. Not possible. Pure metaphor, if not outright lie. I honestly don’t have a problem with a genderless god. In fact, that’s how I view God. But probably due to my ingrained evangelical upbringing, I have a major problem with God as woman. Unless I’m mistaken, God is a patriarchal god throughout the Bible, worshiped as such by his people, a patriarchal people, and worshiped as a male god by Christians throughout the centuries. Now I admit, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true, but I’m unwilling to simply throw that out and change God to a woman just to be PC. I have a woman pastor at my church, so I obviously don’t have a problem with female religious leadership, but in my opinion, both the Old and New Testaments clearly define the female role in society and it’s certainly not to be a matriarchal culture, like it or not, fair or not. Sorry, but true.

Even though I was near the end of the book, after this chapter and after the preceding showcases of utter ignorance and stupidity, I decided not to finish the last few pages of the book. And I’m deleting all of the other Borg books I have on my Amazon wish list. To me, he’s a pathetic fraud and no intellectual. To me, he wouldn’t know Christianity if it bit him on the butt. I’ll be content to read liberal Christian authors like Rob Bell and Brian McClaren. While reading reviews of this highly rated book, I came across a highly placed one star review that sums up a lot of what I think about this book and I’m going to quote it in its entirety, giving credit to the author, but doing so without his permission. I hope he won’t mind.



Oct 04, 2012 Webster Bull rated it 1 of 5 stars
Shelves: faith
Two Episcopalians whom I respect told me I should read this book. Both said that it frames Jesus in a way that makes sense to them. It does not make sense to me.

The non-sense begins with the whole notion of needing to frame Jesus to make him palatable for our liberal, postmodern, science-driven culture. Which is what Lutheran theologian Marcus Borg does in this popular book whose cover claims "Over 250,000 Sold!"

Borg says that we need to look at our images of Jesus, and if we don't like them, come up with our own. Better yet, adopt Borg's images, for which he provides up-to-the-minute scholarly reasons. He is the Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion at Oregon State University.

Borg doesn't buy the image of Jesus as divine savior. So out it goes. He doesn't particularly like the image of Jesus as a teacher either, because it leads, he claims, to a moralistic image of the Christian life.

Instead, he asks us to "image" Jesus as a spirit person. (Why does "image" have to be a verb? For that matter, who made "narratival" an adjective?)

What, you ask, is a "spirit person"? It is Borg's gender-inclusive term for what used to be known, in the dark ages, as a holy man. Spirit, of course, is that shapeless something so many of us take for granted, the noun form of the comfy, empty, all-embracing adjective "spiritual." Heaven forbid that anyone should be "religious"! But at least we've learned something earthshaking: Jesus was a holy man! Except that we shouldn’t refer to him as a man.

Next, Borg asks us to "image" Jesus as compassionate. What a breakthrough idea! This leads to a discussion of the Jewish "purity system" and how Jesus broke down this system, which of course suggests that we, in our compassion, should break down any and all cultural norms.

Yet the idea of "compassion" overturning cultural norms involves Borg in a circular logic he doesn't admit. If you overturn the old norms for new ones, shouldn't the new ones become new targets of our "compassion"? But he is so determined to make Jesus politically correct that logic goes out the window.

Here's another revolutionary image of Jesus we are asked to embrace: He was a sage! He was a "teacher of wisdom"! This leads to a long disquisition on the Greek word for wisdom, Sophia, and the fact that it is a feminine noun. Soon enough we are asked to envision God as feminine and "womb-like." Borg retranslates passages from the Book of Wisdom, substituting Sophia. The amusing results speak for themselves:

"Sophia cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance tot he city gates she speaks . . . " And so on. Pretty soon, we are asked to consider Jesus Christ's feminine qualities:

"In what sense is Christ the wisdom of (and from) God? In particular, are we to understand 'wisdom of God' in these verses [from St. Paul] as resonating with the nuances of divine Sophia? It is possible, and if so, it means that Paul spoke of Jesus as the Sophia of and from God."

Later: "For Paul, Jesus is the embodiment of Sophia." So the Lord is actually a woman in a man's body? Isn't that what's meant by transgendered? Wow, I never thought of Jesus that way!

Borg ends this flight of theological fancy by analyzing the three "Macro-Stories of Scripture." (For Borg, everything is narratival!) Two macro-stories are acceptable to him: the Exodus narrative and the story of exile and return surrounding the Babylonian captivity. The third is not so acceptable, however: the "priestly story," the whole idea that "the priest is the one who makes us right with God by offering sacrifice on our behalf." To take this story seriously means taking sin seriously, and guilt, and forgiveness. Let Borg speak for himself:

"This story is very hard to believe. The notion that God's only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that God could not forgive us without that having happened, and that we are saved by believing this story, is simply incredible. Taken metaphorically, this story can be very powerful. But taken literally, it is a profound obstacle to accepting the Christian message. To many people, it simply makes no sense, and I think we need to be straightforward about that."

The author throws out so much of the baby Jesus with the bathwater that there's very little left of Him. Arguing against the "purity system," Borg ends with a Jesus who has been air-brushed clean of any possibly offensive qualities, like his manhood, for example. Though Borg says he is searching for the historical Jesus, he ends with nothing but images, thinking apparently that only a politically correct, sanitized, insubstantial Jesus can bring skeptics back to church.

Which of course is why the mainline Protestant denominations are shrinking every week. There's no there there, and nothing left of Jesus, man or God.




Needless to say, this book is most certainly NOT recommended under any circumstance. Unless you’re a transgender, feminist liberal Christian, at which point you’ll probably like it….




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Beserker

Berserker (Berserker, #1)Berserker by Fred Saberhagen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Berserker is an old classic I've been meaning to read for years and have finally gotten around to it. And I'm glad I did. It's a collection of short stories loosely tied together about Death Star-sized and like robot machines/ships with one sole purpose: to destroy any life they encounter anywhere they encounter it. No one knows why these apparently ancient machines came from or why, but when hundreds of them appear in humanity's galaxy and start wiping out entire planets, humanity is forced to act. The cool thing about this book is that it is told from a variety of perspectives, such as from a painter, a comic, a mercenary, the human fleet's commander, etc. Even a shepherd. Berserkers show a great deal of flexibility in their ability to adjust to man's attacks, even though ultimately man's biggest fleet wipes out most of the Berserkers. The Berserkers just retreat to rebuild. One interesting moment occurs when one of these newly built Berserkers takes a human prisoner and admits to him it is programmed to destroy life, but it doesn't know what life is. The human uses that knowledge to save his planet. This is probably a four star book, but when I look at the David Weber and Jack McDevitt books I've given four stars to, this can't compare at all, so I'm forced to give it three. Nonetheless, recommended.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Hell's Gate

Hell's Gate (Multiverse, #1)Hell's Gate by David Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hell’s Gate is a newish military sci fi/fantasy series by prolific writer David Weber and Linda Evans. It’s about two separate earth-like universes exploring portals into other similar universes, leading to an unthinkable meeting in one of these alternative universes, by accident. And, to everyone’s shock and horror, both men who see each other shoot at each other simultaneously (although the Arcanan – the “bad” guys – actually shoots first) and kill each other. Unfortunately, the Sharonan team is a small civilian survey team while the Arcanans are a much larger military force and they go after the Sharonans. And they slaughter them, while taking heavy casualties.

Something of note. The interesting premise of this book and series is this: Sharona runs on the standard technology of the early 20th century, complete with standard weaponry such as rifles, revolvers, machine guns, etc., although a certain percentage of the population has “Talent,” and are “Voices” – mental abilities to speak over long distances, etc. They are invaluable for communicating over incredibly long distances in the empire. However, Arcana uses magic to function as a manufacturing/military society. Everything is run by spells and their weapons are both ancient (crossbows) and mythical (fire breathing dragons). The utter shock when both sides encounter each other is huge. Especially when they ultimately find they can’t even communicate, nor can they understand how either civilization can even work.

The only two Sharonian survivors of what turns out to be a mistaken Arcanan attack, Shaylar and Jathmar, are taken prisoner by Sir Jasak Olderhan, an honorable officer who seeks to protect their lives from his own people. He is helped by Magister Gadrial Kelbryan, a Gifted sorceress, for lack of a better description. Unfortunately, it seems the Arcanans are a war-like people, while at the same time, word of this disaster has reached Sharona and people are outraged, especially since Shaylar was the most popular woman in their universe and they mistakenly believe she was killed. Their whole world is shocked, outraged, and terrified of a possible war coming to them and preparations are made for war --- troops, logistics, a worldwide Conclave of all the rulers leading to a demand for a universal government, most likely lead by Ternathian emperor Zindel chan Calirath.

The end of the novel is a cliffhanger, as the Arcanans have sent “diplomats” out to seek negotiations with the Sharonans while they move thousands of troops and dozens of dragons to the front for a surprise attack. Sharona won’t know what hit them. And there the book ends. Weber is so good at ending his books like this. It’s damned maddening! So I immediately had to go out and buy the sequel and I’m already halfway through it.

This is a great book with a unique and great premise, but I’m only giving it four stars because there are so many wasted pages of descriptions and explanations of kingdoms and territories and populations and peoples, none of which really matter to the story – they’re just filler. And this book is almost 1,300 pages! It’s the biggest damn book I’ve ever read! If they had cut out the unessential stuff, it probably would have been closer to 800 pages or less. But as I’ve always said of Weber books, I’m convinced he’s paid by the word/page count. He writes really, really long books with tons of completely unnecessary infodumps that you learn to just skim over to save your own sanity. Four stars for what should be a five star book. Definitely recommended.



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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Deathworld

Deathworld 1Deathworld 1 by Harry Harrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book! It wasn't perfect, but boy, was it unique and original! It was so interesting and so intriguing and so action packed, especially for such a small book. And it was really good, surprisingly so for one published as long ago as 1960.

Jason dinAlt, an interplanetary gambler, is forced to take a small sum of money and gamble to make a huge sum of money or face death by some huge, deathly stranger he encounters in his new hotel room. And he does it. But he takes the casino for so much that he has to escape with the stranger. He discovers that this man, Kerk, is an ambassador from a planet he's never heard of -- Pyrrus. The money is for a large weapons shipment. Jason quizzes Kerk about Pyrrus and is intrigued when he is told it's the most dangerous planet in the galaxy, that mankind is always at war with every living creature, as well as the whole environment, on the planet. Jason thinks of it as a challenge and decides to go to Pyrrus with Kerk, against Kerk's wishes. And so he does.

When he gets there, he is immediately brought inside a large building and begins survival training with small children. He's outfitted with a hardy gun and develops quick draw instincts. He practices in simulators against predators and plants and insects and learns to use his medkit and how to survive, along with the six year olds. Eventually he's learned all he thinks there is to learn, but he hasn't been released yet, so he complains and they finally let him outside. And he's shocked. He's immediately attacked by some huge beast with large, sharp teeth and giant claws that he manages to shoot. The gravity is twice that of Earth's. There are volcanoes, hurricanes, five or six rainstorms a day, snowstorms, hailstorms, earthquakes, grass blades with real blades on them, insects that can poison you within seconds, etc. The city of 30,000 people is walled off and everyone is trained to kill anything nonhuman that moves.

Jason begins to think something is odd about this. He starts to think that it's weird how everything on the planet is trying to kill all the humans and maybe, just maybe, there's someone or something directing them to do this for some reason. He's determined to find out and put a stop to this war, for that's what it is. He goes to the library and goes through the remains of the old colony's records, but they're all destroyed, except for one, which details life on the planet for the original settlers. And it wasn't quite so bad back then. So what happened? He needs access to more records. However, there's a large scale attack on the city and everyone has to go to the battle. He goes and while trying to escape the killer animals, a Pyrrun man is killed saving Jason. And Kerk is incensed. He banishes Jason to his quarters and tells him he's going off planet the next time a ship leaves in 11 days. However, Jason is restless and can't let it go. He sneaks out and goes to the kitchens. He talks to people, asking for their records. They laugh at him. No one lives long enough on Pyrrus to have records. He asks about oral histories. They laugh at that too. However, someone mentions something about "grubbers" and he asks what that is. And is astonished at the hostile and violent reaction he gets. From more than one person. But a semi-friend, while hostile, suggests he ask someone else, so he finds this person and does and he talks to Jason. Apparently, these city dwellers aren't the only people on the planet. That's shocking. Apparently there are savage barbarians living across the jungles and not only that, but the city trades goods with them for food! Jason is blown away. He asks if he can go on an exchange run and talks his way into it. When he arrives at the destination, he escapes into the jungle and is left alone. However, nothing attacks him. Strange. At some point, though, someone or something grabs him from behind and he is taken captive. He travels some distance and is released from his bonds and he finds he is in the grubbers' hands. They want to know who he is and what he wants. He explains that he's an offworld ecologist, studying animal and plant life on the planet and that he came from the city and wanted to meet them. He strikes up a friendship with them, discovers they're farmers, descended from the original colonists, resent the city dwellers for withholding important goods like medicine and yet live in areas with no environmental hostility. In fact, they have pets and pack animals. Jason is a psi and all of a sudden realizes that everything on this planet has psionic abilities and the truth of the situation comes to him. The rest of the book lies in his efforts to help the city folks attain peace with their attackers and bring the grubbers and the city people back together to live in harmony. Can it be done? Hard task. Maybe he's up to it, maybe he's not. That's what sequels are for, right?

Interesting book. Some people complain that it's too direct, not complex enough, but I have no troubles with that. It was still interesting and entertaining and again, highly original. I've never read anything like it and you rarely get to say something like that. This is the first book in a trilogy and I'll probably end up buying the other two books. Highly recommended.

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March Upcountry

March Upcountry (Empire of Man, #1)March Upcountry by David Weber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an odd book. On one hand, it had a lot of action, which was good, and it had some interesting characters whom you could come to enjoy seeing in a series, of which this is the first book. On the other hand, it drags at times and the conversations can seem unnecessary and arbitrary and a little too long winded and the main battle is just too much to be believable. It's far too one sided of a victory to be remotely believable. More on that in a minute.

Prince Roger MacClintock of the Empire of Man has been sent by his Empress mother to another planet with a contingent bodyguard company of royal marines. However, their ship gets sabotaged and they're forced to land on a strange planet with one port, held by an enemy force. Thus, they're forced to land on the opposite side of the planet and walk for up to six months to go take the port by force since they would have been shot out of the sky if they had been seen coming down from space. Roger is a rich, spoiled brat, but an heir to the throne and must be protected at all times and returned to the empire. The troop sets off through what turns out to be hostile territory, picks up a few alien allies, but runs into a huge alien army intent on destroying them. The major battle is 18,000 technologically deficient aliens against 70 Marines. Long odds. Virtually impossible. And bizarrely, while the Marines take casualties, they slaughter a zillion aliens and win the battle. Now, I'm sorry, but that just seems freaking impossible and implausible to me. I know they have technologically superior weapons, but 18,000 to 70 odds are just too much to overcome and there's no way that could happen. No way. Not believable. To make matters crazier, they move on, come to another alien city state and are taken captive, where about 35 of the unwounded or remaining Marines slaughter another army and live to move on to a sequel. Right. Uh huh. So, good action, but asking the reader to believe a little too much, I'm sorry.

I didn't know whether to give this book three or four stars, because it's probably a four star book, but I'm so annoyed by the impossible outcome of the major battle, that I'm knocking a star off and giving it three. Nonetheless, I bought the second book and will be reading it, hoping for more realistic action this time. It's not a bad story. Just make it a little more realistic. Please. Cautiously recommended.


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Monday, November 9, 2015

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (The World As Myth)The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Why, why, why? Why am I so stupid? After I finished my last Heinlein book some months ago (can't remember which one, sorry), in my review I said I'd never read another one of his books, I was so disgusted with him as a perverted writer. I mean, he's a De Sade pervert. Dirty old man. And I'm no prude. But I don't want to pick up a decent seeming sci fi book only to find it full of nothing more than gratuitous sex and little else, likely designed to shock and titillate. It's stupid and, frankly, boring. I think Heinlein has written a couple of decent books I've liked over the years, but generally he's very overrated and he's really a disgusting person. So I can't explain what made me stop in the bookstore this weekend while browsing through the shelves and pick this book up and look at the back cover. But the synopsis made it sound interesting and since it was a decent used price, I thought why not. So I did. And regretted it.

The book is about Dr. Richard Ames, who is a resident of Golden Rule habitat, which is a space colony near the moon. One night, he is out to dinner with his soon-to-be wife Gwen Novak when a strange man is killed directly in front of him at his table. Before he knows it, he's running for his life from an unknown enemy or group of enemies. The thing that made me want to stop reading this book, which I did, was that so many unlikely things happened to Ames and Gwen in a 20 hour period, that it was completely unbelievable. The murder, the three minute cleanup and disappearance of the corpse, the assassination attempt, the evictions, the other murder, the murder frame up, the chase, the rip offs, the sabotaged space ship which crash lands, etc. It's just too damn much. If half of this stuff would happen to anyone in a 20 hour period, they'd have a nervous breakdown. It's not believable. To make matters worse, the dialogue is so damned "proper" and so, frankly, stilted, it's not to be believed either. Gwen takes the assassin under care to turn him into a proper person by educating him in his speech patterns, because one needs to learn how to speak properly if one wants to get ahead in life. Seriously? He just tried to kill your husband. WTF? That's beyond stupid. And their dialogues and "witticisms" (if you can actually call them that) during their stressful flight from authority stretches imagination. No one talks like that. At all. Ever. No one. It's beyond stupid. And so I stopped reading. Bear in mind my comment that Heinlein is a perv. So I read some reviews of this book after I stopped reading and to my total lack of surprise, this book turns into a giant Penthouse jerkoff complete with orgies and incest and tons of naked women throwing themselves at Ames throughout the book and why am I not surprised? I know a lot of sci fi writer geeks are a little sex obsessed, probably because they never got any growing up, but damn, what the HELL is wrong with Heinlein? He's a sick bastard. OK, I learned my lesson. I should have stuck to my guns. No matter how good the back cover sounded, it was Heinlein and bound to be bad, so this was definitely my last Heinlein book ever and he can kiss my ass. What an overrated writer. What a bad excuse for a sci fi author. What a freak. Definitely not recommended, both for the plot and the porn.

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Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Naked Sun

The Naked Sun (Robot, #2)The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Naked Sun is really not a bad follow up to The Caves of Steel, both of The Robot series. The book features Earth and New York City detective Elijah Baley and Aurora humanoid robot, friend, and detective R. Daneel Olivaw traveling to Outer World Solaria to solve a murder. Solaria is a very odd world that has essentially no crime at all. It's a world of 20,000 people and 200 million robots spread out on several thousand gigantic estates around the planet. People are hermits and refuse to "see" anyone else at all, instead "viewing" them holographically when they need to interact. The only time there are human interactions are basically when children are growing up and even though they are cared for by robots, there are occasional times they are needed by people and although these caretakers are disgusted by this, they do their duty. Additionally, most people are married, though not all. Some of these people live together, but in sprawling estates in their own areas so that they don't encounter each other ever -- except on rare occasion when "intimacy" is allowed and required. Finally, rare medical attention, when not being given by "viewing," is administered by seeing, although it can be traumatic. There's one doctor, one sociologist, two fetalogists (child caretakers), 10 roboticists, and just not too many of any one type of profession. There's one or two policemen, but I'm not sure why.

So a leading scientist described as a "good Solarian" was murdered in his estate. The problem was, who could have done it. He was with his robots, but everyone knows that the First Law of Robotics won't permit robots to harm humans. The only other option was his wife, Gladia Delmarre, who he never would have allowed into his presence in his laboratory, but as she was the only human with access, she's the guilty party as far as Solaria is concerned. Unfortunately, there's no murder weapon, no motive, no confession, nothing. So, since Baley (and Olivaw) did such a great job solving the Spacer murder on Earth the previous year, he was requested to come try to solve this murder. And he goes against his wishes. Because like all Earthmen, he's terrified of open spaces and of light, such as sunlight. Remember that he lives in a giant city under ground full of people and going to a planet where everything is on the surface and there are so few people and so many hated robots is hideous to him. But it's his duty, so he does it. And in the process, the lead investigator who invited him to Solaria is murdered in his presence while viewing and he himself is attacked with an assassination attempt, so it becomes quite personal. And as he investigates, the obvious murderer to everyone becomes the less obvious person to him, as he looks at other possibilities. To be perfectly honest, this isn't the hardest mystery to solve. I had it figured out about halfway through the book, but it was still enjoyable to see how things played out and besides, that wasn't what this book was about. This book's strengths lie in its look at sociological views of human evolution and technology, in this case, robots. The Solarian sociologist who is the acknowledged expert knows nothing. He is self taught and doesn't care to study anything by anyone on any other worlds, no matter how advanced or helpful their work may be. The physician, too, seems woeful in his abilities. Solaria, in its efforts to become the perfect human world and society, is freaking falling apart and disintegrating and they don't even realize it. But Baley does. He sees and understands. The only humans left on Solaria are admittedly the "leisure" class and they are practically useless and helpless. This is what we'll come to with the aid of robots? Hopefully not. The sociologist shocks Baley by telling him Solaria is based on Earth, but he's right to a certain degree. They are simply opposite extremes of each other. As in the last book, Baley had become convinced that in order for Earth to survive its population explosion and diminishing resources, it had to once again advance into outer space and again colonize new planets, he's now further convinced of the necessity for that and when he returns to New York, he makes a point of expressing that to the powers that be, hoping that someone, somewhere will see the light.

The actual solving of the murder is pretty dramatic and somewhat satisfying, if also fairly simplistic and to a minimal degree, somewhat predictable in terms of who the culprit is. My two main complaints about this book are we don't see as much of Daneel Olivaw as we did in the preceding book, and that's a shame, and I also find it very hard to believe that Solaria has devolved so much in the 200 years of its colonization so that people are now so disgusted with human contact that they can't even tolerate it at all and can't even say the word, "children," for instance, and can barely tolerate the notion of intimacy with anyone, including a spouse. How can people, in 200 years, grow to despise being in contact with each other so much that some, this happens, would rather commit suicide? It stretches the imagination and I find it somewhat unbelievable. But whatever the case, it is what it is, so I guess you have to go with it.

I thought hard about giving this book five stars because I thought it was pretty original and quite enjoyable, but I'm giving it four because the actual mystery is rather simplistic, as I said, and because there are some elements of the book, as noted, that seem rather unbelievable. It's not bad though and I certainly recommend it to anyone in search of a decent sci fi mystery to read. And it's not essential that one have read the first robot book to read this either; it can be read as a stand alone novel. Recommended.

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Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Sirens of Titan

The Sirens of TitanThe Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Aside from perhaps some of the existential novels I read in college which I really enjoyed as I felt as I could really relate to them, Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan has to be one of the saddest novels I have ever read. I came close to crying several times while reading through it. It’s very, very bleak. Of course, there’s the satire and usual black humor and of course there’s the layers of meaning one can extract from a Vonnegut novel, but just reading it at its base layer, it’s damned cold.

The book is about two main characters -- Winston Niles Rumsfoord and Malachi Constant. Rumsfoord and his dog took a spaceship out to explore the galaxy and became “chrono-synclastic-infundibulated,” which means they became scattered in time and space and materialize throughout both at various points in time, witnessing the past and future. He’s viewed as a type of prophet by the masses and his materializations are looked forward to by all. Constant is the world’s richest man, having inherited a good bit of his billions from his father and having earned the rest through an odd investment scheme his father invented. He is lazy and decadent and a bit of a Hollywood playboy. This book is about their lives and how they intertwine, as well as Rumsfoord’s wife, Beatrice.

In my opinion, Rumsfoord takes on the role of Satan in this novel. He uses and abuses, tortures and slaughters, destroys and deceives. He’s a ruthless bastard and I grew to hate his guts. Constant comes to be known as Unk while living on Mars as Unk. He loses everything. He can be viewed as the Biblical Job, but without the happy ending. He and Beatrice, who Rumsfoord also attempts to destroy, wind up together ultimately on Titan with a son who is psychotic. There are also aliens, one of whom is pretty cool – Salo, the Tralfamadorian. Turns out the Tralfamadorians have been manipulating humanity for all of our history.

While Vonnegut skewers the military and organized religion, he sets his sights on the notion of God, or a kind, benevolent god. In his view, if there is any god, if he’s not totally cruel, he’s at best a being who doesn’t give a shit about humanity. Ruumsfoord drives that idea home when he creates a world religion he calls The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. The “luckiest” people in the church have to wear heavy weights on their bodies or do something to make themselves suffer in some way.

When Ruumsfoord and Constant first meet, Ruumsfoord tells him that he’s going to go to Mars, Mercury, back to Earth, and ultimately to Titan, and he’s also going to marry Beatrice and have a son with her and he’ll be very, very happy. He’s right about some of it and a lying bastard about some of it. The thing I never figured out was why he decided to pick Constant out to completely destroy. Was it simply because he was the “luckiest” man in the world and Ruumsfoord resented it? Was it really that simple? Is that good motivation? Cause Ruumsfoord went through a hell of a lot of trouble and killed tens of thousands of people just to destroy Constant and Beatrice. It doesn’t make much sense to me. What’s his motivation? Is he just jealous and, if so, why? He’s pretty damn lucky himself. He’s got a huge estate, has the only spaceship in the world, a lovely if cold wife, a good job, lots of money himself. So he decides to pick one man, the luckiest man in the world, to personally destroy just for the hell of it. Sounds like a royally evil bastard to me. This is probably a five star book because it’s so damned original and I did enjoy some of it, but I thought the section about Mars and the Army of Mars was somewhat weak and I really ended up not enjoying the book as much as I thought I would, so I’m giving it four stars. Still, recommended.



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Friday, November 6, 2015

Second Foundation

Second Foundation (Foundation, #3)Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, what do you know? Asimov CAN actually write a decent book! I'm literally shocked! After reading the absolute disasters that the first two Foundation books were in terms of both plot and writing (the writing was atrocious, along the lines of a young high schooler with a couple of years of English classes under his belt at best), I was convinced that Asimov's incredible reputation was completely fraudulent and I was curious how he or his publishers had pulled it off. This book helped repair that image to a certain degree in my eyes. In this book, it's apparent that Asimov might have actually taken a college English class or two, maybe even a writing class, in between writing the previous Foundation books and this one, because he has now learned the meaning of the word "transitions," something he had previously never heard of. It's still not his strong point and I suspect it never will be, but at least he can now string a few sentences and paragraphs together in English without sounding like a total idiot. He's also learned a little bit more about character development, not enough, but much more than he ever displayed in the previous Foundation books. That's a bit of a relief. Furthermore, after almost completely ignoring women as characters in the previous books, particularly the first one, a couple play prominent roles in this book, particularly one young teenage girl who plays a very strong role in the second half of this novel. Refreshing. Maybe he's not a total chauvinist pig after all. I suspect he is, but maybe he's trying to overcome that to some small degree.

Second Foundation is the third book in the original Foundation trilogy, given the one time Hugo award for the best sci fi/fantasy trilogy series of all time, beating out Lord of the Rings, among others. That continues to astound me, as I can find no rational explanation for that. Nonetheless, the series is held in high regard by many. The first book centered around one Hari Seldon, a psychohistorian in the far distant Galactic Empire which is crumbling and he knows it, so he sets about mathematically sort of telling the future and developing a plan to put together a second Empire within 1,000 years and to do so, he establishes two Foundation worlds on opposite ends of the galaxy to prepare for this. The first Foundation is comprised of physical scientists who deal mostly with nuclear energy and who go on to dominate the worlds around them, creating their own small empire. They are destroyed by a mutant called the "Mule" in the second novel. The second Foundation is made up of psychologists who have developed mind control techniques similar to the Mule's own abilities and who are determined to remain hidden and follow the Seldon Plan no matter what.

This book is divided into two halves. In the first half, five years after the Mule has conquered the first Foundation, he is ready to seek out and find and conquer the second Foundation and for that he sends his general Hans Pritcher with an accomplice in search of it. And it seems they find it. And the Mule shows up hot on their tail, seeking to confront the First Speaker of the Second Foundation, only to find more than he bargains for. It's a pretty cool scene. In the second half of the book, 50 years have gone by and the First Foundation has now become convinced that the Second Foundation is their real enemy, for some bizarre reason, so they're paranoid and groups of them are searching for the location of the Second Foundation. Meanwhile, the Mule's replacement warlord on a nearby planet decides he wants to conquer the first Foundation and prepares to attack. A 14 year old Foundation girl, Arcadia Darell, stows away on a ship bound for his planet with a family friend being sent there presumably to study the Mule for academic purposes, but actually to spy for Second Foundation evidence. Arkady becomes friendly with the leader's mistress, who helps her escape when war is imminent, and she leaves for Trantor, where she is "saved" by a farmer and his wife, who take her in and take care of her, particularly after they find out about the war between Kalgan and Foundation. Her father, and some friends, are leading the war effort, but they've also been leading in the secret fight against the Second Foundation, so when Arkady finds out the location of the Second Foundation, somehow, somewhat miraculously, she convinces her farmer protector to fly to Foundation and take food to aid the Foundation people and to tell her father five words that he would be able to interpret and would enable him to know where the Second Foundation is located. The things that follow are enough to make anyone's head spin, because there are so many twists and turns and stops and starts and crazy things happen and you get to what you think is a happy conclusion, only to find there's one more chapter, and with it, perhaps an even better conclusion. Great ending to a meh series. This is probably a five star book, but I can't bring myself to give it five stars because I'm still so ticked off at how utterly bad and horrible the preceding book was, a one star book, and at how fairly bad the first book was, and at how overrated this whole series is. I'm also astonished at what I think is Asimov's lack of sci fi foresight. Even writing as far back as he did, he still should have been able to predict some technology advances better than he did. Philip K. Dick was writing at the same time and did a much better job, on the whole, than Asimov did. For instance, this is what, 30,000, 50,000 years in the future, and people are still reading hard copy newspapers when they get out of their space ships? Seriously? In his books, microfilm is about as high tech as digital storage gets. Nuclear energy and power 50,000 years in the future is the pinnacle of scientific advancement and civilization. Obviously, it never occurred to Asimov that maybe, just maybe, humanity might have advanced beyond the nuclear era sometime over the next 50,000 years. It's utterly mind boggling how devoid of sci fi ideas he was. And he was a scientist. That's the thing that really gets me. I've got to say that in my opinion, he's got to be the most overrated writer in the history of humanity, with 500 books to his credit, yet displaying very little imagination on the whole, total male chauvinism throughout his career, complete lack of sci fi technological foresight, his total obsession with Multivac in his short stories, the one and only world wide computer that is hundreds of miles big. He can't even comprehend desktop computers. He takes a stab at palmtops, but can't even come up with laptops or cell phones or email or the Internet or anything cooler than that that might turn up 100, 1,000, 10,000 years from now. No imagination. Where did he get his reputation from? He was pretty original with his robots, but after his first robot story or two, it got pretty repetitive and he spent half of his future stories rehashing the Laws and everything they implied. Boring. This book was good and I enjoyed it and for that I was glad. I'd like to give it a higher score, but in my opinion, the Foundation series is at best a three star trilogy, so at best, this is a four star book. Whatever the case, this book, at least, is recommended, unlike the others.

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Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Fugitive Game

The Fugitive Game: Online with Kevin MitnickThe Fugitive Game: Online with Kevin Mitnick by Jonathan Littman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I realized as I was reading this that I had read this before -- 20 years ago when it was first published. I had forgotten that, but it came back to me as I read it again. And I really enjoyed reading it again, even though so much about technology and the Internet has changed since then. Littman wrote so that the information still seems relevant all this time later.

The book is, of course, about the world's most famous hacker, Kevin Mitnick, and about the government's insane obsession to catch him and bring him to their form of "justice" back in the mid-90s when he was a fugitive. Littman interviewed tons of people for this book and spent over 50 hours interviewing Mitnick himself, so I take Littman's word over anyone else's aside from Mitnick's himself in his own autobiography of a couple of years ago (which was excellent), particularly those of John Markoff and Tsutomu Shimomura, the author/New York Times reporter and the NSA spook and super security expert/hacker who "helped" the FBI track and catch Mitnick.

The book details Mitnick's unhappy childhood, his beginnings in ham radio and then computing and phone phreaking, his growth in social engineering and his troubles with the law as a teenager. It started early. And hacking became an obsession. However, Mitnick was an "old school" hacker. He didn't do it for money or profit. He did it for the challenge and for information. He liked breaking into systems and finding out information and he liked breaking into phone systems. As a young adult, he was once again caught and sentenced to a fairly short term in prison, but he was put in solitary for eight months and it scarred him, permanently. He was allowed outside for one hour a day -- with murderers. He wasn't allowed access to computers, of course, or even to telephones, as the prosecutor had convinced the judge he could start World War Three by using the phone to launch our nuclear missiles, as insane as that sounds, and the judge bought it. When he got out of prison, he tried to get a legitimate job, but his probation officer would call these companies and tell them Mitnick couldn't be allowed near money or anything secure, so he couldn't get work. He grew even more bitter. He and his hacker best friend Lewis DePayne started doing some black stuff again.

Meanwhile, much to my initial confusion, Littman's book actually pretty much starts off with the story of a different hacker, Eric Heinz, aka Agent Steal. Aka quite a few names actually. And one who is actually an FBI informant. And one who sets up Mitnick for a sting which the FBI will use to arrest Kevin again so they can put him away for a good, long time. Why? Don't know. He had already done his time. He was doing no real harm. He was trying to live a decent life. So the FBI was trying to screw him over from day one. Nice. Great government watching over us. Mitnick and his buddy caught on, however, and started tapping the phones of the FBI agents watching them. Kevin was working for a detective agency at the time and found out its lines were tapped, as well as his father's, so he knew what was going on. At some point, though, Heinz started screwing the FBI by doing some black hat hacking and when they went to arrest him, he went on the run, so their informant was a bust. Littman actually interviewed him over the phone a number of times.

Around this time, Kevin's probation was about to run out. However, literally as that was about to happen, he screwed up and was almost arrested and he fled. All of a sudden, he was a fugitive on the run. And so it really began. Mitnick disappeared, although he apparently later went to Seattle because he narrowly escaped arrest there some time later. He and Littman got in touch through Lewis and the telephone calls began. Littman paints a fairly sympathetic picture of Mitnick, although not always. For instance, he wasn't thrilled when he discovered that Kevin was reading his email on The Well, an ISP I used to use at the same time. When Littman told The Well's tech support staff that a hacker had root access on their system, they said it was impossible, their system was impregnable, and they wouldn't believe him. But Kevin had hacked their system and was not only reading email, but dumping huge files on their system, stolen source code he had hacked from corporations such as Motorola, Qualcomm, perhaps DEC, and ultimately over 21,000 credit card numbers he stole from Netcom, another ISP. Ultimately, the FBI would accuse him of stealing credit card numbers from computers all over the country, which wasn't true, but they never accused him of actually USING any, as he never did, so he never gained anything monetarily from them. Furthermore, with all of his hacks of source code and programs, they claimed he stole $80,000,000 worth of stuff. But he never sold any of this source code, never profited from it in any way, never deleted the original source code from the companies he made COPIES from, never actually hurt them. So the FBI was clearly out to screw him. And when they ultimately got him, he was facing over 200 years in prison.

Meanwhile, the self described Kevin Mitnick "expert," John Markoff, a New York Times reporter who had written a book on hackers a few years before, about a third of which featured Mitnick, was busy writing front page articles on Mitnick and the dangers he presented to the world. He wrote old allegations and myths that Mitnick had hacked into NORAD, inspiring the movie Wargames with Matthew Broderick, that he had hacked into numerous secure sites that endangered the safety of our country, that he was stealing phone companies' software worth billions, etc. Markoff hadn't even talked to Mitnick. Littman had. A lot. Markoff and Littman knew each other as journalists. They even had lunch together a few times. Littman never told him he was in contact with Mitnick, even as Markoff stated that he wanted to catch Mitnick himself. Littman was a little shocked by that.

So Kevin was on the run all over the country and kept calling Littman. Meanwhile, on Christmas day in 1995, I believe, Tsutomu Shimomura, a quietly well known NSA "spook" and super security expert had his personal computer broken into and everything in his computer stolen, which included a number of custom built "tools" which would enable someone to basically break the damn Internet and also cell phone code that would enable anyone to eavesdrop and trace calls without a warrant, among many other things. It made huge news and within hours, Markhoff reported it on the front page of the New York Times. At the same time, Mitnick called Littman, gleefully giving him a detailed account of how the hack attack took place, what happened, what was stolen, what happened to it, etc. Obviously, Littman was left to conclude that Mitnick did it, and everyone else concluded the same thing, based on Markoff's article. Shimomura was mega-pissed and vowed to catch the person responsible as a matter of honor and immediately set about doing so. With Markoff at his side. Which was odd. What was an NSA spook and a journalist doing going about pursuing a federal fugitive with or without the FBI's help? Were they deputized? No. Nonetheless, they flew to San Francisco, where the US Attorney and FBI agent in charge essentially put Shimomura in charge of things. He brought his own equipment with him and using it, as well as, perhaps, the equipment of the cell phone companies and the FBI, he was able to determine that Mitnick was in Raleigh NC, so he flew there immediately and joined a Sprint technician with scanning equipment. Where they were joined by an unidentified Markoff. And a couple of FBI agents. The Sprint guy and Shimomura located Mitnick's apartment in 30 minutes. They then returned with Markoff holding the equipment for another look. A journalist playing the active role of law enforcement. Littman pulls no punches in how he views this. And when the FBI finds out about this, they lose it. Shimomura tries to throw his weight around, but they dump Markoff. Nonetheless, Shimomura still has enough weight to accompany the FBI to Mitnick's apartment the next day to arrest him. As Mitnick is being handcuffed, he tells Shimomura that he respects his skills and Shimomura just stares at him.

But it doesn't end there. Mitnick is eventually flown from North Carolina to California after being jailed there for far too long and after Markoff's articles have made Shimomura a superstar. And surprise, surprise, Markoff and Shimomura sign a $750,000 book deal for a book on their tale of tracking down and capturing Mitnick. Then they sign a movie deal based on the book for a whole lot more money. It's truly disgusting. Mitnick hires a good attorney, but the US Attorney hates this man and sets out to screw Kevin by indicting his buddy, Lewis. Mitnick's attorney already represents him and can't then represent Kevin too, so Kevin is left without a lawyer and the public defender says they have no one to take his case. He's truly screwed and looking at 200 years in prison. But something happens. Magazines and newspapers start looking at and questioning Markoff and Shimomura's roles in this event. It seems suspicious. For everything that happened in this case, Markhoff was prepared with a front page story within several hours, like he had written them ahead of when they actually occurred. Almost like Mitnick was entrapped by Shimomura on the Christmas day attack. And then there was the rumor circulating that an elite Israli hacker had actually been the one behind the attack on Shimomura's computer and that, moreover, it wasn't the first time his computer had been penetrated and that, moreover, a number of people had his files and programs. Kevin was just one of them. So was Kevin set up by the government and Markoff/Shimomura? They certainly appear to have used unauthorized wiretaps, illegal hacking actions, illegal hacking/phreaking tools and actions for which Shimomura had had to get immunity to display to Congress two years before, but which was still illegal, etc. There were a lot of irregularities with this case. And of the 24+ indictments, not too many made sense. There weren't many that were absolute and provable. In fact, the only one that seemed solid was his probation violation. That's it. He never actually broke anything. He never used anything. He never made any money. He never really did anything evil, unless you think tapping FBI agents' lines who are tracking you is evil or reading the occasional illicit email. Really, this deserves 200 years?

The book ends before Mitnick is sentenced. The good thing is the book is old, so you can find out that Mitnick only had to serve five years in prison and is out and reformed and has his own security company now and seems to be doing well, so more power to him. Meanwhile, Shimomura lost his fame almost as soon as the media started questioning his actual role in things and Markoff's legitimacy took a hit too. And they lost their movie deal. Boo hoo. Frankly, I think they were vindictive assholes, plotting to take down the world's most famous hacker for no other reason than pure fame and profit on their part. I think they were mega-dicks. I'm pretty sure Markoff is still around. I don't know what became of Shimomura. I assume he's still at it, but if so, I hope he's keeping a low profile and isn't doing what he very obviously was doing then -- illegal hacking and phreaking -- for the feds. Fascinating book, even after all these years. Definitely recommended.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Last Legion

The Last Legion (The Last Legion, #1)The Last Legion by Chris Bunch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not bad military sci fi, but not great military sci fi. For me, David Weber is the standard for all military sci fi writers and books and this author and this book don't even come close. Not remotely. However, that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable to a certain degree. The book is about two characters -- Garvin Jaansma and Njangu Yoshitaro -- who join the Confederation's military Force out of desperation and are shipped to the galaxy's outer planet of Cumbre. On their way, the ship is hijacked by pirates and they escape with a third man and make their way to the planet where they join their new military mates in Strike Force Swift Lance. The book is about their adventures with aliens, pirates, local rich people, murderous rebels who they get into a violent war with, etc. There's a lot of action, although it's not as good or as detailed as Weber. And there's a lot of sex too, although not too graphic. Which was sometimes distracting. The Confederation presumably falls apart, or at least they lose contact with it, and with that any chance for new troops and supplies, and find themselves surrounded by enemies. What will happen? Well, there's a minimal sense of closure in this book, but not much, as this is merely the first book of a new series. As far as "sci fi" goes, there's not much science. There is some effort at character development though, so I give the author credit for that. Some of the battles are hair brained, though, and I've got to wonder how the hell he came up with them. I wonder what branch of the military he served in and in what capacity? Whatever the case, it's a fairly light, quick read and cautiously recommended, although not highly. Decent book. Not great, not good, but decent.



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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Shadow of Freedom

Shadow of FreedomShadow of Freedom by David Weber
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In a word: disappointing. In another word: lame. Frankly, this book sucked. I have given every Honor Harrington book except one five stars, but this barely deserves two. And I feel betrayed. First of all, as I was finishing Honor #13 not too long ago, I was reading reviews of it and a number of them mentioned Shadow of Freedom as being Honor #14, so I immediately ordered it. Lots of people referred to it as Honor #14. People reviewing THIS book -- Shadow of Freedom -- even refer to it as Honor #14. But it's not. At all. All Honor books come with the words "an Honor Harrington novel," or something to that effect, on the cover. This book says it's part of the "Honorverse." And when I listed it in Goodreads, it comes up as Saganami #3, an Honor sub-series that I haven't read, one of at least two such sub-series'. So, imagine my shock when Honor herself doesn't even appear in this book at all! She's quoted a couple of times, I guess to make it an Honor-related book, but she's nowhere to be found. Indeed, only one main character from the Honor series is in this book -- Michelle Henke, who has her fleet in the Talbot Quadrant on the edges of the Solarian League. And this book is about her adventures, and the adventures of "independent" world rebels trying to throw off the yoke of Solarian sponsored oppression. The thing that makes it tricky is they're contacted and given weapons by an agent who claims to represent Manticore, so they naturally assume the Manticorian Navy will come to their aid, all of them. However, he's a Mesan Alliance agent and is trying to screw Manticore. There are a couple of mildly interesting scenes in the book, but it's a short book and not too much happens, aside from the usual ungodly amounts of dialogue Weber throws into his books cause he's apparently paid by the word count. He likes to double his books' lengths by going dialogue-heavy. All that said, as others have pointed out, the truly damning thing about this book is that at least two chapters are literal total cut and paste chapters from previous Honor books, and that's unforgivable. Weber doesn't even have the decency to try and mix them up just a little; he holds his readers in that much disdain. What an asshole. Honestly, Weber can write awesome stories and great battle scenes, but I've decided that he must be a royal asshole as a person and I truly don't like him at all, even as I eagerly await all of his new Honor and Safehold novels. And I hate myself for it. This book is most definitely NOT recommended.

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