Return of the missing

And here I am Ladies and Gentlemen ! After some four weeks of being absent. Let me paraphrase the writer of Tom Sawyer:” The news of my early death are somewhat exaggerated.” – though I do know people who would rejoice if they weren`t; but then again, who doesn´t. The truth be told, this short period of my disappearance from the “ether” did sometimes feel like an experience close to death. As it was an absence not only from my blog, but from internet access at all. My whole usual routine and the communication lines were shattered ( a bit of an exaggeration is allowed here, I think ). It does sound dramatic, but it wasn´t half as bad as it sounds. There are sometimes changes in peoples lives that tend to do this.

But let me start from the beginning. In the middle of July I got a job offer I couldn´t refuse. And this job offer went with geographic relocation. But not only that, It also called for quite a number of bureaucratic actions too, not to mention the need for urgency.  I had ten days to wrap up the things in Hungary and to travel to Germany and take up the job. Luckily I had help in Germany to find accommodations, but those didn´t include a computer and internet access. But here I am now typing on my own notebook.

Though I have relocated to Germany, it is not a quite unknown country for me. I have spent some time here earlier. And I also happen to have some family members too living in Germany. So I enlisted their help. And among other accessories my brother in law did lease me a notebook that was standing in his storage. So, one problem solved. But that doesn´t mean that all the problems are solved. I still don´t have a stable internet connection. For the time being I´m hunting for wi-fi hot spots, and occasionally if needed I use an internet caffe to do what is urgent. And though it helps, it´s still not ideal: the wi-fi hot spots I found are at such places I cannot connect the notebook to a source of electricity, so my time there is limited by the capacity of the batteries, and the internet caffé is at a remote place and opens only at noon to be visited regularly.

So I will have to arrange for something with an ISP. Though, my choices are somewhat limited. I´m in the city of Kempten, in Bavaria. For the time being I live on the western slopes above the city. The owner of the flat I´m renting now doesn´t want to connect any landline internet connection, so I will have to go with a mobile-access. That will be enough for the everyday communication needs, and uploading the occasional blog posts ( as I can type the text offline in any text editor/processor and the copy and paste it – like I´m doing it right now ). Though it will still impose some limits to some other ventures of mine. But well, that´s Life for me now.

With time even these things will sort themselves out. The most important thing – that the regular communication channels are restored – is achieved. I´m back, and continuing my regular activities. I am soon going to post the new installment of the Black Company (re)read project: I not only finished reading the Bleak seasons, but due to lack of any other reasonable possibilities I read further on and finished also She is the Darkness. And not only that, but I also managed to read The Guns of August from Barbara Tuchman also. And I just started reading an anthology of early science fiction compiled by Isaac Asimov, titled. Before the Golden Age ( vol. 3). So there is going to be plenty of material up soon.

Some of my other projects are put on a halt for now. Like for example the Fantasy General replay, or the different Dune computer games replays as this notebook and other current accommodations are not suitable, or at least are not ideal for these projects. Maybe I will find a solution for it later this year, or maybe these projects will be discarded entirely, we will see what brings the season. I´m not ready to let go of these projects yet so, I will try my best to find some solution, and keep them on schedule too, but I can´t guarantee anything.

So for now welcome back on the I.S.S. Rover, and wish you further joyful journeys with the crew ! This was the captain speaking. Over, and out.

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The Silver Spike – The Black Company (re)read part 6

Mesdames et Messieurs ! Ladies and Gentlemen ! I greet you on board of I.S.S. Rover ! I see that there are returning visitors among you, but I can see some new faces too. If it’s the heat that you want to escape, or the whole ruckus that follows in the wake of the World Cup ( What World Cup, you ask ? Well of course I’m talking about football – or with other word: soccer – world cup ) you have come to the right place, as we are just about to depart for the northern continent of a world I called Khatovar, though it might be that it is only the name of a single city. Whatever ! Lets go to Forsberg where we have left Raven, Darling and Silent – and well, some less entertaining entities as well. It’s time to look up what offers The Silver Spike. But before I get into the details let me repeat the rules of this project.

This is a (re)read of the series that will encompass the better part of the year as I will be reading one book per month. I will be exploring the world of Khatovar, and as this is at least partly a reread there might be spoilers, so continue reading at your own risk, I did warn you. For the previous posts look up the links included at the end of this one.

Tor Fantasy (1989)

Tor Fantasy (1989)

And now that we are clear with the rules – once again – lets get down to business. At this point I have mixed feelings about this book. To be more precise these emotions concern mainly the place of this novel in the greater narrative arc of the whole series. If you have read the previous installments – but at least the last two – of the (re)read project, you remember how pissed I was at first of how the Shadow Games ended: it came to an abrupt stop leaving everything hanging in the middle of nothing, dozens of questions and almost no answers. And you also remember that Dreams of Steel managed to appease me somewhat with some masterful strokes like making the Lady the narrator – and thus showing more of her than ever before – and accelerating the storytelling, revealing far more information on the past of the Black Company than I expected and what seemed preferable ( but then again, I read these two books of the series for the first time so I don’t really know what Cook is trying to do exactly ). And now that there are new actors and new developments in the whole quest that Croaker took up, I am eager to get on with it and start reading the Bleak Seasons, and yet I have to take  step back and read first The Silver Spike. Why ?

The events described in The Silver Spike happen at the same time as those of Shadow Games and deal with the aftermath of the great battle at the Barrowland – desccribed in The White Rose - and also gives a much needed closure to some characters we left in the north. This is the story of Raven and Darling, or so it seems at first. And seeing this ( and actually suspecting it already earlier ) I felt that I wanted to read this book after The White Rose, but again there is the Shadow Games too, that is happening at the same time and I was more interested in Croaker’s and Lady’s fate. So I feel something akin to remorse for not being able to read the two books at the same time. That would be the right way to do it, as after reading The Silver Spike it is clear that it wouldn’t make sense to read it first and only then The Shadow Games. And after finishing The Shadow Games it doesn’t make much sense to read The Silver Spike before one starts the Dreams of Steel. So the only option was to make a small pause in the series after the Dreams of Steel and catch up on the events in the north before one continues with the actual story of the Black Company. Not to mention that this is also the sequence of the books in the Tor’s omnibus edition ( The Books of the South ) which i am using for the purposes of the (re)read. Please tell me if you have a better solution to this problem, I’m awaiting answers in the comments.

And now that I have given voice to my geek worries lets talk about the book itself. The book can be generally divided into two parts: one discussing the sorry life of a now sorry character: Raven; and the other part discussing the fate of the seemingly sorry Smeds Stahl and his gang, but about that later. Like in all previous books we have one main narrator who is writing a sort of a journal. This time it’s Case, an imperial guard who became Raven’s friend and is now travelling with him.

The first part, dealing with Raven and his new and old companions: Case, Darling, Silent and Bomanz – Do I hear you all say: “What ?! Didn’t he die in The White Rose ?” Well, apparently he didn’t. It looks like this is the season of wizards returning from the dead, and not like zombies or vampires. It might be that the magic is more about showmanship than what we conceive as taumaturgy. But still, boy it gets old that every single “noteworthy” wizard reappears when it seems the most convenient for the writer. But whatevs, as I cried about this in the previous two posts - is kind of a disappointment. Why ? Well for the better part it’s a sort of a pointless Cannonball race through the endless lands of the Empire: the partly restored Limper ( I told you that it’s the season of wizards returning from the dead. They should have really searched for his head. ) chasing after Croaker and the remnants of the Black Company, not knowing that Raven is riding ahead of him also chasing Croaker, trying to reach them and ask for their help to put him down once and for all, and then we have Darling and Co. chasing after the Limper. It’s just like watching an episode of the Wacky Races, especialy when Limper decides to return to the north and stumbles from one trap to the other all the way.

The only good part of this first half is the moment when Raven is forced to meet his son and daughter whom he abandoned years earlier. Darling explains to the baffled children what was the reason behind Raven’s departure and how she benefited from meeting him. At the end Raven’s daughter seems to have come to terms with her father:

Just before the girl went over the side she turned and told me, “If my father was alive today he wouldn’t have to fear that he would be unwelcome in his daughter’s house.” Then she went.

Yet, Raven broken as he is cannot find the strength in himself to accept a way back into his children’s life. A sad moment, but that’s it, I didn’t have any sympathy left for him after the second book ( Shadows Linger ). That’s what you get when you fuck around with the feelings of people who matter to you.

But let me talk now a bit about the second half of the book. While everyone who counted was concentrating on subduing the Limper Smeds and his motley crew ( Tuly, Timmy Locan and Old Man Fish ) went and with a small trick they successfully retrieved the silver spike from the tree in which it was buried. ( Why no one thought that this might happen is beyond me, and is a serious omission on part of the Lady and the Black Company, but that is an issue I don’t want to tackle now.)  I think this book is actually their story. And this story is what redeems this whole book, it does something we have last seen in Shadows Linger. Their story feels like the one of Marron Shed: a story born from the depths of debauchery and desperation. Once again we get to see the dark side of the world: zoom down to the ground level where the common people dwell and you don’t find much happiness there. Those people struggle not only during the times of war, but often even after the war has ended. And this is one such period: the war has ended, The White Rose and the Lady are gone, the empire is trying to adjust itself to peacetime, but it’s not to everyone’s tastes.

And it is in such times that some commoners try their luck to found their future. The true stars of this story are Smeds and Fish. They are being chased by imperial officials who have at their disposal whole army regiments, by Darling and her rebel cohorts with such renowned figures like Silent, Bomanz and Raven, and not to mention all the other unnamed rogue wizards and criminals who are after money and fame – and yet they successfully ellude them. OK, as it turns out Old Man Fish is a veteran of the olden days. He has been in the army at the time the Black Company served the Lady, and also was there at Queen’s Bridge where the imperial forces ambushed and humiliated the Black Company – that abandoned Lady’s service – for the first time since they came to north some ten years earlier.

The town of Oar is in lockdown. And amidst the growing pressure and rampant paranoia that everybody is after them, or to be more precise after what they have – Fish and Smeds team up and are more than a match to such veterans of unorthodox tactics and hand to hand combat like Raven – who is known to be more than badass – or Silent and Bomanz, who are also more than apt practicioners of magic. Raven gets hoodwinked twice by Fish and once by Smeds. And all this to no avail, as in this world there is no justice, and Smeds finds it out the hard way. After they have played the imperials and Darling with her rebels both and got what they wanted, after they pulled through the apocalyptic siege of Oar mounted by the returning Limper, after they have left the ruined city, Fish succumbs to illness contracted there:

It was not right that Fish should have fallen to cholera after taking the worst that could be thrown by the world’s nastiest villains. But there was no justice in this existence.

You can be on top of your game, you might deserve better, but it doesn’t matter, in Death everyone is equal. And we see quite a number of deaths in the clymactic battle at the end of the novel. The hope of the empire, an able governor is betrayed and assassinated by his subordinates, Silent and Bomanz sacrifice themselves trying to stop the Limper and Raven dies when he is overtaken by the power emanating from the silver spike. It’s only Case and Darling who get to have a peaceful life thereafter. Or do they ? Maybe we will get to see them in the eleventh and tvefth books that are not yet published ( Just found out about them last week, and have been frustrated since that I won’t be able to finish the series this year, as the 11th novel comes next year: Frack ! )

At the end the silver spike and what is left of Limper is being thrown into another dimension where they are meant to be out of reach for anyone of this world, but after all the returning dead wizards, and other shocking revelations of the last three books I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Limper returning once again.

And that’s it for this month. I hope you enjoyed this short ride. And now that I have cleared this out of the way, time for me to return to Croaker and Lady, to see what they are scheming in the south. See you all in about a month with further chronicles of my – and their – adventures on the way to Khatovar. Take care and have fun ! Captain of I.S.S. Rover over and out !

                                                                                                               

Introduction: the plan

Black Company – The Black Company reread part 1

Shadows Linger – The Black Company reread part 2

The White Rose – The Black Company reread part 3

Shadow Games – The Black Company reread part 4

Dreams of Steel – The Black Company reread part 5

Song battle 2 – battle of the voices

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen ! Bonjour Mesdames et Messieurs ! Welcome or welcome back ! In the past three weeks I was busy trying to find a job and there were also some duties around the Hungarian Boardame Award selection process I had to fulfill, not to mention I was reading. Which means I was bound to omit something and here I am now to make up for it.

After the November 28. session finally happened yet another Song Battle. This time around my fellow “combatant” – or should I say dance partner ? – was Kasia, over from The Overemotional Columnist. ( If you haven’t started reading her blog yet, now is the right time for it ). Only this time the battle didn’t happen on any chat platforms, rather in Facebook comments.

And here is the transcript. It all happened on June 06 2014. And to avoid any confusion K will stand for Keshik (me again, obviously ) and OC for Overemotional Columnist. Have fun !

All started with the following song being posted on the FB page of The Overemotional Columnist:

To which I posted:

[18:35] K: Hit the road … :)

[18:38]OC: Ahh, love this song! I am drinking beer and listening to awesome music . :) Before you posted Ray, there was Dropkick Murphys playing!

[18:39] K: Song battle ? And which Dropkick number ? They are coming to Budapest this month :P

[18:45] OC: sure, let’s play! afterall… the show must go on! – And the actual “battle” has begun !

[18:48] K: Well it’s kinda magic …

[18:49] OC: Yes, I’ve got the magic in me !

( And here the battle takes a turn, hence the sub-title Battle of the voices )

[18:57] K: And if it’s making magic with as few people as possible, my favourites are Pomplamoose. And I must say I feel god !

[18:49] OC: And here is being happy with more people:

[19:08] K: Cool, I kinda want to jump !

[19:14] OC: And i want to fly! I’ve got to start learning. :)

[19:19] K: To be frank: I belive I can fly !

( And the actual battle ends here. Maybe somewhat abruptly, maybe undecided. If you have an opinion on who won, please post it in the comments. And as a goodbye, we still have two songs )

[19:34] OC: :):):) It was great! But now i’m off to the pub!

[19:38] K: OK, and don’t forget to stay till morning .

And that’s it folks ! This was the special broadcast of the interstellar entertainment mission of ISS Rover. Have a good day ! And don’t forget to have fun ! After all it’s summertime, and it doesn’t matter which one do you prefer, the Mungo Jerry kind:

or DJ Jazzy Jeff & and the Fresh Prince ( aka Will Smith ):

Captain of the ship over and out !

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Dreams of Steel – the Black Company (re)read part 5

Ladies and Gentlemen ! Mesdames et Messieurs ! This is your captain speaking ( again ). Now that the month beginning remembrance  shows  are over, time to get back to business as usual ( not that this remembrance was non-standard issue blog-business ). Outside it’s scorching 31 °C with virtually no wind, and about the same can be expected at our next destination. Strap in, as there might be some heavy turbulence on our transition from Culture space to Khatovar. We will be shortly  joining the Black Company at Dejagore where we have left them about a month ago. Yes, it’s time for the next installment of the Black company (re)read project. And before I get down to discussing the details of the next book in series, the Dreams of Steel, I will repeat the usual disclamer.

This is a (re)read  of the series that will encompass the better part of the year as I will  be reading one book per month. I will be exploring the world of Khatovar, and as this is at least partly a reread there might be spoilers, so continue reading at your own risk, I did warn you. For the previous posts look up the links included at the end of this one.

Tor Fantasy (1990)

Tor Fantasy (1990)

One month has passed, and those who read the previous installment of the article series do know that I was fairly angry abut how it ended, or rather how Mr. Cook chose to leave the threads loose. Since then I have calmed down, but it’s only due to the fact that just as I predicted I couldn’t wait and almost right away after finishing the previous Black Company post I picked up the sequel and flew through it in some two or three days stopping only to make some notes so I wouldn’t have trouble when writing this post.

And before I dive into the fifth book let me recapture some of the things that frustrated me in the previous one. First there was the lack of information about the Black Company’s past, practically no one spoke of it, not even those who were their descendants. Secondly there was a massive cliffhanger at the end of Shadow Games: Lady and Croaker presumed dead and Soulcatcher returning from the dead. Soulcatchers return even though partly being foreshadowed by the earlier appearance of other Taken also believed to be dead still seems to me to be a convenient excuse to bring in a “non-affiliated” player into the game of shadows. I mean why would she wait till this point ? If she wants revenge she would have probably started it earlier. Wasn’t it something along that line why she rebelled in the first place in the first book ? Well lets see if there is an answer to this ? And then what about the presumed death of Lady and Croaker. Being a veteran fiction reader I was sure that we will see their return in Dreams of Steel, but it didn’t help feeling that the writer is using such an inelegant contraption to heighten the tensions that already run high.

And then comes the first chapter of the fifth book, an quite big changes await us right from the start:

“I am no historian nor even much of a writer. Certainly I don’t have Croaker’s eye or ear or wit…

With that apologia, herewith, this addition to the annals of the Black Company, in the tradition of Annalists before me, the Book of Lady.”

–Lady, Annalist, Captain

The first change being the person of the narrator. This was inevitable as Croaker is believed dead, but even if not, still kidnapped by Soulcatcher. This is quite an interesting turn. We know quite much about the Lady, but that is all from Croakers perspective. Now we will get to see a bit more of her, with quite an insight on her present situation, thoughts, and her past. I approve of this. And as a kind of a collateral effect the Lady also assumes the command of the remnant forces of Taglios and heads northward to reorganise and build up the forces, as she has decided to revenge Croaker and destroy the Shadowmasters. Here I have let out a small scream of delight, as this means that she has decided to return to her old self. She will use all her knowledge and experiences she used to build a vast empire – and to defeat her husband later – to bring down a new/old menace. The Lady is back in the Game.

Just after the Lady has decided on her future course we go over to Soulcatcher. Croaker is alive, though badly hurt, but he will survive. The bad part in him surviving is that he is coerced to assist with Soulcatcher’s plans, the primary goal being the destruction of her sisters happiness, and the secondary that to thwart the design of the Shadowmasters. Teasingly she also reveals to Croaker some of her knowledge of the Black Company’s past, and that the Taglios wizard Smoke has hidden the  early records he was so adamantly searching for. And from here the events suddenly speed up.

Suddenly all the information I was missing from the previous book starts pouring in from all sides. Radisha suddenly tells the whole story about Kina, the god of death and destruction, and her followers the Stranglers, who were just briefly mentioned in the Shadow Games, but will have a prominent role here. At this point it’s just slightly annoying that Radisha is sharing vital information with someone whom she perceives as a rival, if not outright enemy, the context being the unconcealed showing of Strangler allegiance on part of some members of the remnant army and that the Lady – though unknowingly – also shows it.

And the Stranglers contribute to the torrent of new information quite remarkably. They disclose their identity, that of being Kina worshipers. They are organised in small groups, so called hunting bands and one of the groups dignitaries, the priest keeps the deeds of the band recorded in a journal.

To support his decisions in the event of dispute, the priest keeps a detailed chronicle of the band’s activities.

Where have we seen this before ? Right, Black Company. ( Pay attention, further hints on collision course ! ) And it is no surprise to see that the Lady tries to use the power and the skills of the Stranglers to achieve her goals.

This shell is a mask Narayan. I entered this world before the Black Company passed this way the first time. I’ve done things no-one would believe. I know evil, intrigue and war like they’re my children. I nurtured them for centuries… I’m going to rebuild Narayan. It may wear another name for a while but behind the domino it will be the Black Company. And it will be the instrument of my will.

But it’s no surprise either that the Stranglers try to use the Lady to their own ends too. And did I mention that the other name of this cult is the Deceivers ? They lead us to believe that their interests lie with the Lady. Seeing her arcane powers returning, and her masterful command, we think that they want to reestablish their religion under the guise of her leadership, but it will be too late when their real intentions become obvious.

And then there are the Shadowmasters, though the only real danger comes from Longshadow, who allies himself in the meantime with the Howler. And it’s Longshadow who reveals to us that the standard of the Black Company is not an every day object, it is an ancient artifact made of body parts of ancient gods and shards of their weapons. And the banner seems to have a role in the coming of what is called the Year of the skulls, and which event is associated with the awakening of the god Kina etc. But the way this information has been shared with us, the readers bothers me. Longshadow was alone in his chamber when he contemplated the presence of the banner, as all the other banners, that have similar qualities and have been returned to the city of Khatovar since the free Companies initial outing into the world. There were not even crows, or the imp present, who we know are agents of Soulcatcher. Why is Longshadow a point of view character if he is not even remotely associated with any of the other point of view characters ? This was an annoyance, though not that big as the volume of new information, or rather the piecing together of all the scattered hints kept me busy enough not to concern myself too much with the fact how shabby, sloppy this design is on the part of our dear  writer, Mr. Cook.

And as we proceed toward the end of the book, the main narrative is pretty straightforward: Lady reorganises the Taglios forces and kicks some ass, and this is not that much interesting and neither impressing. But beside this the games of shadows are continued too. Radisha is trying to politically outmanoeuvre the priests of Taglios and stave off a foreign invasion. Lady trying to outmanoeuvre everyone so she could get on with her revenge business. And here shows the main difference between the Lady and Croaker: while Croaker attempts to work through the dense political fog of Taglios, Lady gets all the priests in one place and has her soldiers fill them full of arrows. And if that isn’t enough, she cuts the throats of the survivors. Longshadow is having plans for the Black Company as he is heavily invested and involved with the glittering plain ( of which we caught a glance at the end of Shadow Games ), which seems to be the locale of Khatovar. Though I am not sure he needs the Black Company to do something, or rather abstain from doing something, whether it’s in his interest for the standard to get back to it’s “rightly” place, or would it be better for him and maybe even for the rest of the world if it doesn’t get there. But it is sure that he is in need of the knowledge that Lady is in possesion of. He even tried to abduct her, but actually getting Soulcatcher, which had some unpleasant consequences, leading to actions that might cause at least many bad memories, if not outright downfall of his, which again might spell the doom of the rest of the world as something is lurking in the shadows of Khatovar. And if I already mentioned Soulcatcher, she is seemingly rampaging, thwarting the designs of others, just for the sake of having fun, or at least that’s what she says and yet also seems interested in the past and possible future of the Black Company. She is a wild card, maybe even more so than like at the beginning of this book. And then there are the Stranglers, who seemingly try to stay close to the Lady, and are believed to be trying to recruit her into their ranks.

And there are the Nar and the rest of the Black Company who got stuck in Dejagore. They didn’t play a significant role this time, but they did earn some respect for pinning down the Shadowspinners forces. Nearing the end Strangler agents, and later even some members of the Black Company inform both Lady and Croaker that the Nar are practitioners of the old faith, that they are Kina worshipers, or at least part of them. The Stranglers consider them heretics. At the end Croaker meets their leader who assumed the command of the forces stuck in Dejagore, and in a bloodless stand off takes back his own command. The leader of the Nar leaves with three other loyal soldiers. Will this have an impact on the later events ? We will see. So I got my cultural conflict between the old and new members of the Black Company however brief it was. But there might be more in the store in the sequels.

In the end this is the story as the Lady saw it, and is very much involving thanks to a different point of view than what we are used to. Glen Cook uses cleverly this fact and the ensuing chaos due to the emergence of all the new information after darting around so much from one place to another to keep us guessing whether it will be  Lady who enlists the Stranglers, or whether it will be the other way around. There is definitely an air of mutual reliance from both parties and Lady knows that her new allies are hiding something. Was it her overconfidence in her own skills that made it possible for the Stranglers to deceive her ? Or was it rather that she was used to looking at the big picture that she missed the intention of people who were having a much more specific, so to say narrow focus ? Whichever, it is a hell of a twist in the story. And a game changer at that. We are lead to believe over an entire book, that the Stranglers want Lady. And then in the last moment you – and Lady herself – realise that they were after her child all along. And when you would turn the page to continue, instead you find it that the book ends there.

Kablam ! BANG ! Once again a cliffhanger. Although this time it doesn’t leave a bad taste behind. But it sure ratchets up the tension and the expectations. We have seen what the Lady was capable of  when she set out to exact revenge on behalf of her beloved man, and she wasn’t even commanding the full spectrum of her martial and arcane skills. But now, they took her child, her powers seem to be restored, and even her beloved man is there with all the might and support of the Black Company. Fuck me ! I wouldn’t like to be in the place of the Stranglers or that of Longshadow. They are having some heavy “shitstorm” coming their way. And factor in the chaotic presence of the also fully restored Soulcatcher. The riders of Apocalypse have arrived Ladies and Gentlemen ! Yeeeee-haaaawww !

And that would be it for this month folks ! Next time we are going to visit a side theater, a show that will reunite us with some old acquaintances from the north, just so we could return with a bigger momentum to the main theater. Till then take care and have fun ! But do feel free to come by in the meantime as there will be other delicacies also served  in the canteen of the ship. Captain of I. S. S. Rover over and out !

                                                                                                           

Introduction: the plan

Black Company – The Black Company reread part 1

Shadows Linger – The Black Company reread part 2

The White Rose – The Black Company reread part 3

Shadow Games – The Black Company reread part 4

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Mistake not … or Passing By And Thought I’d Drop In

She’d asked him what it was like to be in there, doing nothing but then being woken up to speak to somebody you couldn’t see. He’d said that it was like being woken from a deep and satisfying sleep, to be asked questions while you kept your eyes closed. He was quite happy. Sight was over-rated anyway.

Iain M. Banks – The Hydrogen Sonata

Mesdames et Messieurs ! Bonsoir ! Ladies and Gentlemen ! Good evening ! It is a hot and damp night, it’s some 30°C, no wind. One would like to retreat to some colder place. And though it’s a hot night, I shiver as the cold memories of last years June 09 creep back. I struggle to find the right words here. Seemingly I can’t formulate the sentences that would do justice to the remembrance of my favourite contemporary ( but might even prove all time ) sci-fi writer: Iain Menzies Banks.

Agave (2003)

Agave (2003)

I clearly remember the day I first stumbled upon him, or rather his work. It was the early 2003. I just ran out of Asimovs and A. C. Clarkes – or rather reading material written by them, as they were at my focus at that time – and though there was a steady stream of P. K. Dicks coming my way I was searching for something new, a new voice. And on one sunny (?) April day I found myself  at my local bookstore looking at a book cover which was dominated by a couple of chess pieces in front of what seems to be a rising Sun and paired with an accented crimson background, and the title in white saying: Iain M. Banks: Player of Games in hungarian: A Játékmester ). I was mesmerized. The cover art does matter, especially if you are trying to introduce something, someone new on the market, and this was the first Banks book published in Hungary. And this set up worked for me, I bought the book, went home and I was spirited away. There were many of the familiar space opera tropes, but it was fresh at the same time. It introduced the Culture, a society where biological and artificial lifeforms coexist as “equals” and with limitless material wealth and comforts. There is no formal government, institutions or whatsoever, everything is informal, a functioning anarcho-socialist utopia. A peaceful civilization, with no military or whatsoever, yet managing to interfere with, and to manipulate foreign civilisations to it’s liking.

And that’s how it all began. Since than I am not only a fan, but also a propagator of Mr. Banks and his work. Some might even think that my affection bordered on religious piety, so strong was this “new” voice. After The Player of Games I was ready to blindly commit to any of Banks’ future books: “New Banks arrived ? Off to purchase it !” And now, I find myself in a tight spot, as I am slowly running out of Banks, and once again I have to embark on a journey to find yet another “new voice”. But that’s for another day.

Orbit ( 2013 )

Orbit ( 2013 )

Today, or rather tonight I invite you to join me on the excursion to the Gzilt space to hear the famed, or maybe better said notorious Hydrogen Sonata. It is the ninth book in what is called Culture series, but actually each and every novel is a stand alone piece. Sometimes there are references to events from the other novels, but nothing that would detract from the story, it’s just expanding the universe, connecting the dots. And till now there was only one case of a single character turning up in two separate Culture stories – Diziet Sma from Use of Weapons - and even then I would argue that this is not a proper sighting, as the other story is just a novelette, and her appearance is not of big significance there, it’s more along the line: “Hey, I know this girl ! There is someone at this party I have already met once. Hy there !” But back to the Sonata now.

The last Culture novel I read was the Matter. It was different from earlier books in the term that even though it’s a Culture story we hardly see any presence of it’s citizens and or agents, we get to see more of the “others”, and almost only them. And though the Culture agent has quite a big impact in the final events of the book, it could only be so because she is ain’t a true-born member of Culture. She returned to the planet she once called home, and which shaped her in her early years, but in the end this aspect didn’t have any role in the story, she didn’t get to interact with other natives much, and that was partly a disappointment for me. Yes, here the Culture was set in what might be the “right” perspective. In the previous books it always seemed like we have The Culture in one corner, and everyone else in the other, even though other similarly advanced civilisations were mentioned now and then.

And now we got to see some of the other actors of this interesting universe. This made for an interesting and new “Culture” experience and at the same time left me wanting. I mean it’s a Culture story, yet it, the Culture is kinda not there playing a secondary, maybe even tertiary role. I want my Culture ! Where are the ships, with their funny, sarcastic names, their witty verbal, textual exchanges ? Bring back the James Bonds of the Culture, the drones. But all apart it is a good book, and a good sci-fi novel, and yes it is a Culture novel in the end, only somehow oddly such and I somehow feel begrudged because of this ( but maybe it is just my misplaced  anger I feel toward the “Universe” or toward Banks himself because of the loss of a great inspiration source – I will have to work around this ). But I have to admit that there is a significant merit in the expansion of the Culture universe and lore, and that it was a marvelous stroke on Banks’ account, but the feelings are not something rational, especialy when one expects one thing, and gets another.

But hey, it’s not the time for psychotherapy now. I am here to remember him, for what he was, for what he brought to my life, a bit, maybe more of Culture. “All hands on ship brace for impact, we are making a sharp turn for the Zyse system in the heart of Gzilt space.” So let us watch, read or listen to The Hydrogen Sonata.

Once again we have a story not revolving around the Culture, but this time they are heavily involved, as the Gzilt are considered a cousin civilisation for participating in the forming of  and almost joining the Culture. But this time with the expanded universe come the elements I so loved in the Excession: the ships, the great Minds and their hobbies, interests surface once again. The Gzilt are a society as old as the Culture and are getting ready to sublime. There are only days left for them in the real when a message arrives that might disturb the preparations and even delay the transition. This triggers a chain of events, that threatens to escalate to open hostilities, if not outright war, not to mention that this might be a separate cause that might lead to delay or even cancellation of the whole “sublimation business”. And the Minds of Culture join the fray as they are also interested in the sublime ( as they are eligible for it too, but are not sufficiently convinced it would benefit them much ). This means that an “interest” group forms of like minded sentient ships bent on investigating the incident and it’s background, which also happens to involve a person that is believed to have been present and involved in forming what is now known as Culture. And you who haven’t read a Culture novel yet are asking what is this sublimation thing ? And rightly so. So let me quote one of the “great Minds” of the book:

The Sublime. The almost tangible, entirely believable, mathematically verifiable nirvana just a few right-angle turns away from dear boring old reality: a vast, infinite, better-than-virtual ultra-existence with no Off switch, to which species and civilizations had been hauling their sorry tired-with-it-all behinds off to since – the story went – the galaxy had still been in metaphorical knee socks.

I hope this is a clear enough answer, if not well go and read some Culture novels. So. There is a lot of dashing, a bit of shooting and exploding. And of course there is a lot of contemplation. Is it worth it ? Mainly finding the answer to what the message that caused the disturbance was. And does it even matter what’s the message ? And if the message gets out in the public, will it matter ? Should the answer be released to the wider public ? Will it matter if it’s true what it says ? Will it influence the outcome, the process of transition of Gzilt into the sublime ? Apparently not, but it might have had. This is one of those stories where the life just goes on, and it feels right so. And the title giving Hydrogen sonata is a symbol of this. It is a piece of atonal music that is nigh impossible to perform – yet it is the ambition of a character who gets to play a significant part ( albeit not willingly ) in this whole upheaval – and which by some opinions should be played in vacuum so that no one can hear it. And this I think conveys perfectly what I perceived as the message of the book: that personal fulfillment, in whatever form that takes, is rare and to be treasured.

This book might not be as good as The Player of Games or Use of Weapons - which has a unique narrative structure – but is as good as The Excession. A good entry level Culture novel. And it certainly has the best ship name ever to be used in a Culture novel ( which makes it also the best ship name ever in all of science fiction ): Mistake Not My Current State Of Joshing General Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Mere Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath, abbreviated to Mistake Not … until someone really needs impressing upon them exactly the nature of the mistake they are making.

Oh, adjust yourself. You people have spent ten millennia playing at soldiers while becoming ever more dedicated civilians. We’ve spent the last thousand years trying hard to stay civilian while refining the legacy of a won galactic war.

Iain M. Banks – The Hydrogen Sonata

And there are quite a few quotes like the one here above that will be staying with me, most of them being on the sarcastic and cynical end of humor’s spectrum. And that is quite a good approximation on what Banks thought the Minds, the AIs of future might be. And if you want to have a better grasp of this weirdly skewerd humor, even before reading any of the Culture novels, just look up some of the other ship names used in them here.

And so I arrive to the end of tonight’s trip. And before I close this session with one final quatation I feel like I have to say -or rather explain myself – that there was an uncertainty for a while whether this post will be about The Hydrogen Sonata or the Feersum Endjinn. It stood in the favor of Feersum Endjinn that it represents something totally new, different in Banksian sci-fi, as it is not a Culture novel, and I did declare that I will be pursuing new experiences. But then it came to my mind that Iain expressed regret that the last book he wrote wasn’t a Culture novel, so it only seemed appropriate to commemorate him today ( on the first “anniversary” oh his sublimation ) with his last Culture novel, and that is: The Hydrogen Sonata.

I wish you all good night and good luck ! May the sublimation wait for a long time. We will keep your memory Iain.

Keshik – I. M. Banks-remnanter

“So basically you’re sticking around to watch us all fuck up ?”
“Yes. It’s one of life’s few guaranteed constants.” 

Iain M. Banks – The Hydrogen Sonata

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Dusty chronicles

Ladies and Gentlemen ! Mesdames et Messieurs ! Welcome back ! It is already June, time for some new adventures. May was a good month: I managed to write and put out 10 posts on this blog, and that is something I have never done before, I have reached a new mark and I am not sure I will be able to keep up with this tempo, but that is a worry for some other time. Let me return to present, to the month of June, the month that is mostly being hailed as the beginning of summer, but for me in recent years became a mark of ending. First there was June 10, 1999, end of the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia ( the country of my birth ), and this event marked the end, the disappearance of the young, naive idealist I used to be1. Secondly there is the time period between June 05, 2012 and June 09, 2013, just a few days more than a year marking the deaths of two great writers: Ray Bradbury and Iain M. Banks.

 I considered the later to be the kind of a spiritual successor to the former, and by far my favourite contemporary sci-fi author. And I did point out at the start of this blog that I am kind of a “book person”. Besides having my own life, I do submerge myself in the different real, or fictional worlds of books I read, and as a consequence I do share my life with the characters inhabiting those worlds. Some worlds are more captivating than others, in some I just dabble, but some take me in wholly, and completely. Ray and Iain succeeded each and every time to put me under their spells and spirit me away. So I hope you can imagine the sorrow I felt when I realised that the Wizard and his Apprentice both have passed away in such a quick succession, leaving me, leaving us stranded in this world. But I will not forget them. And today especially, I remember the Great Wizard of Words: Ray Bradbury.

Simon & Schuster ( 2012 )

Simon & Schuster ( 2012 )

This year in remembrance of Bradbury I chose to read his Martian Chronicles, a title that is long overdue on my to read list. So let’s see what it is about. It is a collection of short stories that chronicles the colonisation of Mars in the early 21st century, first published in 1950, though most of the short stories were originally published in various science fiction magazines during the 1940s. The short stories are complete in themselves but are arranged – and connected with some interstitial scenes – into a larger sequential narrative framework to feature a cohesive fictional history. The “greater” story can be be divided into three parts, here the transitions are marked by two catastrophes: first the near-extinction of the Martians, and the second being the near-extinction of humankind – but I will go with a different explanation, as I have never read this book before, so my approach is also that of a newcomer, of a kind of a sightseeing tourist, I drifted together with the stream of Bradbury’s storytelling.

This book is something like the cycle of Life. First there was just a faint idea: the surreal summer moment in the middle of a winter due to the immense heat emission from the gasses of a rocket launch ( January 1999: Rocket Summer ), an idea that grew and became first just lucid dream of a young and lonely martian woman ( February 1999: Ylla ) soon to infest the whole planet ( August 1999: The Summer  Night ). A dream that turned into the reality of the mankind, resulting in the first attempts of mankind to reach Mars and contact the martians, which prompted numerous expeditions, of which the first three were unsuccessful and fatal for the crews of those first expeditions, and in the long run fatal for the martians as they got infected by a disease brought by humans and their immune systems couldn’t cope with it ( August 1999: The Earth Men; April 2000: The Third Expedition ).

And as the era of the native martians ended so started the era of Humankind on Mars. This second part of the book is where the true magic of Ray Bradbury unravels. Lets take for example the short interconnecting story August 2001: The Settlers:

They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims.

This one sentence at first looks and sounds so banal, “yes” and “no” answers are repeated. The structure of sentence seems so easy and obvious that you feel like it could have been you yourself that wrote it. But you didn’t, it was Ray Bradbury. In it’s simplicity this sentence is a strike of a genius. It took one Ray “frackin” Bradbury to recognise the beauty of this simple sentence, where it feels like the alternating answers, the “yeses” and “nos” are racing each other. So many feelings contained in a single sentence: simple and compact. It’s pure magic. Though there is the notion of Arthur C. Clarke that: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Though in case of Bradbury it might be proper to use the word imagination instead of technology.

And this second section contains my favourite stories of the book, like for example the April 2005: Usher II, a story that reminded me of the original Edgar Allan Poe short The Fall of the House of Usher. It doesn’t seem like a simple tribute toward one of the writers who inspired him (Bradbury ), it seems so much more like that. The style almost perfectly emulates the mood, the tone of Poe’s story, which makes it even more scary than it is. It’s almost like Bradbury transformed into Poe, and that takes the scary to an even higher level, and it all just keeps ramping up all the way to the end. Not to mention that while I read this story another two stories of Bradbury resounded in my memory: The Kilimanjaro Device and Any Friend of Nicholas Nickelby is a Friend of Mine (both featured in the book I Sing the Body Electric ), in both of which we see the “return” of another two legendary writers – Ernest Hemingway and Charles Dickens respectively – who probably also inspired Bradbury. So the new experience is enriched with the memories of the old ones. Quite an exceptional feeling.

And there is also the August 2002: Night Meeting where the past and the present of the Mars meets: a human meets an echo of the past, a martian from couple hundred years back, and here I also heard the resounding of the aforementioned The Kilimanjaro Device. And the magic doesn’t stop here, it continues all to the end of the third act which deals with the aftermath of the global nuclear war on Earth and with the prospective of the few surviving humans becoming the new Martians.

The Martian Chronicles is a superb example of Bradbury’s wizardry, not that I had ever encountered any work of his that wasn’t such. Reading his works is equal to time travel; to me at least. Many of the ideas, thoughts and other elements are familiar to me, but at the same time seem displaced in time. It reminded me of the feeling that I had when I entered the bed chamber of my grandparents: it was a familiar place as we lived together and I spent quite some time in that room too playing, or sleeping, but it was full of artifacts, memories that were alien to, as they were not of “my time”, they were of the past. And what is this feeling if not time travel ? Young boy meets the past. Thank you Mr. Bradbury ! We will not forget you.

And that’s it Ladies and Gentlemen ! Let us celebrate this great wizard of Green Town. If you don’t have a book of Bradbury at hand don’t despair, you can find one of his short stories here. Take care and don’t forget to have fun ! Now I will retreat, just to come back shortly in the company of another magician. Good night !

                                                                                                   

  1. Yes, that means that the new, the today’s me was born more or less, but that is for some other time to discuss. I still commemorate anualy this death-birth, but the commemoration is biased toward the vanishing side. He was a fine young man, and sometimes I miss him, but oh, old man tend to miss old times, and persons lost in it.
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The Human Division – Fourteenth week

Ladies and Gentlemen ! Mesdames et Messieurs ! This is your captain speaking ! We have a nice starlit night ahead of us. The last one on this trip. I hope you will enjoy this banquet we organised as a farewell party. I thank you for your patience and tolerance, for suffering through the inconveniences me and my ship may have caused you. I hope you bear more good memories than bad ones, and that you will join us sometime again on one of our next outings. Thank you ! And now let us have some fun !

Tor (2014)

Tor (2014)

Here I am, back again, for one last foray into The Human Division written by John Scalzi. I promised to return one more time, as there are two additional chapters. Well to be more exact, those are two separate short stories, extras thrown in for fun. So to answer my question from last week: “No, I didn’t find the answers I were looking for.” To paraphrase a well known Star Wars quote: “These are not the Answers you are looking for.”  So what did I get then ? Let me tell you. You are here for it anyway, aren’t you ?!

Let me first spend couple of words on the two short stories, and then I will turn to the missing and, or found answers. The first short story is the: After the Coup, a tale that introduced the Harry Willson – Hart Schmidt buddy pair to the world in the long gone 2008, when the Tor.com debuted. It is a lighthearted story in the vein of the Dog King, or the first half of the B-Team. It is a fun depiction of the work that Abumwe’s team does, with all the snarky, sarcastic comments you can expect from Harry, followed by a slightly bit more shy Schmidt than what we have come to know him like, and of course we can glimpse a bit of Abumwe herself too. So the usual fare of witty Old Man’s War style chatter with some combat action, but purely of recreational nature. And that saves the day once again.

The other story is that of Hafte Sorvalh, an event taking place after the demise of the Earth station. This might let you think that there might be at least a small answer to at least one of many questions I have, only to have all hopes vanquished when you see the title: Hafte Sorvalh eats a churro and speaks to the Youth of today. Basically we have an alien talking to a bunch of eight year old kids on a school trip. It is a nice feat. Scalzi handles the problem superbly. The kids behave just like kids tend to: they ask questions thought by grown ups to be rude, but actually being curious, and Sorvalh does engage her diplomatic skills to defuse the possibly awkward and insulting questions and situations. The ultimate message being there is still hope for humanity. Hell yeah !

But now back to the answers I did or didn’t find. As I didn’t find any obvious answer last week in the book I read, I tried looking for them somewhere else. And I had partly succed. I looked up the Human division readalong at the Tor.com, and there in the last installment I found some answers.

Firstly there is the big question of the conspiracy that moved the events forward. Scalzi did confess that the explanation, or part of it was not deliberatately left out, but merely as he progressed with the writing of episodes it just didn’t fit in, or at least it’s inclusion would have interfered with his main goal, which as he stated is:

It’s primarily about Harry Wilson and Hart Schmidt and Ode Abumwe and the crew of the Clarke, and their transition from clinging from the bottom of the diplomatic ladder to becoming essential components of the Colonial Union’s continuing struggle for survival. That’s the arc of the novel right there.

The conspiracy is an important element, but to focus on that at the expense of the characters’ journeys would be putting the cart before the horse. I knew what—and who—my story was about.

John Scalzi – The Human Division Read-Along, Episode 13: “Earth Below, Sky Above”

And that’s it. No matter how much I don’t like it ending this way, I do accept this answer. The things don’t always shape as we would want or like them. Get over it ! So I will. But however satisfying this answer it won’t calm me down, at least not that fast. Especially that Scalzi prided himself that all of the previous novels in the series were enjoyable on their own. But in case of The Human Division I don’t feel that this opinion sits well. And my suspicion is partly reinforced by what he said in that same readalong piece :

Commercially, it seems indisputable that the experiment was a success as well: Each of the episodes to date has landed on the USA Today bestseller list and has been in the top five in sales on Amazon’s science fiction list.

And then saying:

I was pretty sure Tor would be happy to keep things going, because it’s in the nature of commercial publishing to continue successful things.

These two notions do say to me that he was planning from start to have this story be just a start  to a new series, where his signature mark was pushed into background from the start, where the story would be a whole on it’s own only if there would be no possibility to continue it in a similar way sometime in the future. I quote Ron Hogan’s words here:

Scalzi was prepared to write a novella that would wrap up some of the major unanswered questions, which he’d release through a smaller publisher… or even independently, if need be.

And that was followed by Scalzi’s words which again enraged me a bit:

Either way, I wouldn’t leave readers and fans hanging,” he said. “Because that would be a dick move.

Well my dear Mr Scalzi whether you realise it, or not you left us ( but at least me ) hanging. So yes, you made a dick move whether intended or not. I will cut you a little slack here, and I will assume it was unintended ( at least it was not a deliberately dick move ), but you still succeded at it, as it seems to me that you have aimed from the start to have the story run for “multiple seasons” and not wrap it up properly as you did with the previous stories. I don’t mind it – as I stated in the previous post, I do understand that you are doing this for living – but then don’t go around saying that it was not your original intention. That is an insult toward your fans, and they don’t deserve it, you live off them, and that is a fact that you are well aware of.

And the rant ends here. In general I enjoyed the story, it was a fun experience. It had its ups and downs, but it was good to have something to return to every week. This will be a feature I will be missing, so I thought about starting a new project: finding another book, or sets of books – probably anthologies – that I can read in the same fashion, and of which I can write also in a similar fashion. It will be good for me too, having to post regularly, it will help not getting too lazy.

On the other side, there is the notion that in the future I will probably refuse shelf space to Mr. Scalzi. I will continue reading his fiction, but this experience strengthened my resolve to procure an e-book reader as soon as possible. The shelves will be reserved for more worthy readings. There is nothing wrong with Scalzi’s works, he is a decent practitioner of his craft, but at this point it seems to me that he doesn’t aspire to be more. And after all, can’t everone be a Ray Bradbury, or Iain M. Banks. So I continue my search for their spiritual successors. But I am not that worried about this predicament, as there is still plenty of their works I hadn’t had the chance to read yet.

And that wraps up the Human Division reading project. Thanks for tagging along ! Hope you had fun. Good night and good luck ! See you next time.

                                                                                                                         

Week  one – The B-Team                                     Week eight – The Sound of Rebellion

Week two – Walk the plank                                  Week nine – The Observers

Week three – We only need the heads                  Week ten – This must be the place

Week four – A voice in the wilderness                    Week eleven – A problem of proportion

Week five – Tales from the Clarke                          Week twelve – The gentle art of cracking heads

Week six – The back channel                                Week thirteen – Earth below, Sky above

Week seven – The Dog King

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Set europe ablaze !

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen ! Bonsoir Mesdames et Messieurs ! It’s 14 °C, and grey clouds hang in the air. The wind brings the smell of rain. A fine weather to seclude ourselves in our rooms beside a crackling fire with a fine book and a hot beverage like: tea, or mulled wine. But wine on it’s own is fine too. And if I’m already mentioning fire, let me write a bit about the book I just finished. It’s Finest Years: Churchill as warlord 1940-45 by Max Hastings. Yeah, non-fiction for the change.

Harper Collins (2010)

Harper Collins (2010)

At the end of April there was a book fair here in Budapest. I take pride in the fact that I haven’t missed one since I live here ( except in 2012, when I was obstructed, as I was serving my sentence ). All the significant hungarian publishers and retailers show up, and there are quite big discounts on most of the books, even on the new releases that were scheduled for the fair. And there I stumbled on a bargain bucket of sorts, full with non hungarian books. And there I chanced upon the aforementioned book, one that is usually sold for £10, and now here it is sold for 500 HUF, less than 2 €. “It’s a treasure, don’t put it down, don’t let go of it !” – bellowed a voice in my head, and rightly so. And I listened to it. And what a good decision it was. I longed to read about Winston Churchill for quite some time ( some ten years ), but till now I didn’t find anything that seemed suitable. And then when I wasn’t expecting it, there it was, a book that looks like a fine starting point, as it covers what is widely perceived as the most significant period of Churchill’s life.

And the “story” begins with Neville Chamberlaine resigning as PM ( prime minister ), and Winston Churchill being the only plausible candidate to supersede him. The first chapters show us the magnificent Man, the politician who reads the mood well, and who has enough fire to keep Britain in the game after a sequence of battlefield disasters. For quite some time Britain fought alone against the germans – though there was not much actual fighting done – and as described by Max Hastings in Britain it did seem that only Churchill was ready to fight it out. Every advisor, figure of authority except Winston thought prudent to make peace with the germans.

But Winston didn’t let them. He put different plans in motion to keep the people busy, and that way heighten their spirits. As Britain lost a substantial part of it’s arms during the early 1940 military operations in France, it was impeded to perform any large scale operations against german armed forces. So Churchill looked for other options, which kept the appearance of fighting the war, but were less materially demanding. And thus SOE ( Special Operations Executive ) was born, an organisation whose mission was sabotage and subversion behind enemy lines – sabotage meaning blowing up communication and transport lines ( bridges, rail tracks, roads etc. ), factories; and subversion meaning the fostering of “popular” revolts, and guerilla warfare in countries occupied by german forces. And this might prove to be one of the biggest inspirations for the pop culture of the twentieth century’s second half. Why ? Have you not read, or watched Guns of NavarroneThe dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare ? Can you imagine the artistic popular narrative of second world war without these works ? Well I can’t. And they were all inspired by the deeds of the brave men and women of SOE. A bit of dashing and adventure sought by the prime minister. Maybe not the best way to win the war, but by far the most entertaining. And this all singlehandedly achieved by Winston S. Churchill. I salute and thank you Sir ! Time for a musical intermezzo:

And now back to some serious business. Churchill was a remarkable person, that no one can deny. But even giants have their fallacies. Winston was dismayed that there was no one around him who could match his visions, the military leaders – many of whom valiantly served in the First World War – being too cautious and more of a bureaucrats, than soldiers, not having what it takes to go out and fight the enemy. The british forces too often surrendered even before trying to put up some real fight. Partly this is understandable if you take into consideration the horrors of the first world war, and that during the nineteen-twenties and thirties the army was more of a police force, than a military force trained to confront aggressive, hostile expansionist armed forces. And to this effect they weren’t even equipped adequately. But this attitude persisted all the way through the war, which shows the lack of inspiring leadership. And even though one person alone can’t win a war, but the lack of one  ( capable, or inspiring ) man can easily lead to losing it, and Churchill did marvelously perform in averting this.

But the lack of capable leaders was only one handicap the prime minister suffered. The other being the lack of strategic wisdom. As much as he was good in perceiving the mood of the people, so badly did he misinterpret sometimes the capabilities of his own forces, which coupled with the aforementioned leaders, and lack of adequate planing and logistics tended to end in disasters: take for instance the botched 1943 Dodecanese campaign. The different special forces units, lacking united command structure, supported by inadequate air forces,. unused to the grinding nature of enduring combat situations, fought valiantly just to lose a battle that many advisors have seen from the start as unwinnable.

And there was also another shadowy side to Churchills personality. All while he asserted himself for the freedom of “white Europe”, he wasn’t ready to grant this to all of british subjects. He couldn’t deny himself, he was a romantic Victorian Tory imperialist all through to the end. And he also neglected the perceived need for change expressed by the people of british isles. This might displease those who cling to myths, but actually makes the story that much more interesting. And in my eyes this all reinforces the respect I have for the man, and for the leader, as he was able to rise to the challenges presented, and which no one else wanted , nor could have tackle. He found strength to lead a nation and to appoint advisors who could efficiently help and implement his design.

Max Hasting performed superbly in dismantling the myths and then putting them together to show us some new aspects. It is a captivating and engaging reading material. I recommend it to everyone who is interested in details of every day decision making in war time, how a world war is to be managed. There are lessons here to be learned or relearned, especially now when numerous “foreign wars” are being mismanaged, and not only about leadership, but also about relationship between soldiers and civil society. Definitely worth the buck I payed for it.

And now that I have finished rambling here, I wish you all nice dreams Take care and have fun till our next excursion. Captain of I. S. S. Rover over and out !

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The Human Division – Thirteenth week

Ladies and Gentlemen ! Mesdames et Messieurs ! This is your captain speaking. It’s 28 °C outside, and there are no clouds. To be blunt about it: it’s sunny and hot. Too hot and no beaches in the sight, so I will be staying inside with a bottle of cold beer, and enjoying the live coverage of today’s Giro d’Italia stage, and maybe later I will sip a bit of iced tea while reading a book. Or if you are in the mood for it come and join me, lets swing over and watch how the things develop between the Colonial Union and Earth, and what these have in store for our friends: Harry Willson, Hart Schmidt, Abumwe etc. Yes, it’s that time of the week again, which means hat I will be inserting here the usual disclaimer before we plunge into Earth atmosphere, err sorry, into the depths … Oh whatever ! Before we begin.

Last year John Scalzi’s The Human Division was published as a kind of a serialized novel, totaling thirteen chapters that were released in a weekly fashion from 15th January to 9th April. And I am trying to recreate this experience by reading the book in the same tempo: one chapter a week. I am curious how this works out, how does the story and the reading experience evolve, as in case of earlier Scalzi novels I couldn’t stop reading, I finished the books almost in one sitting, running from cover to cover in less then twenty-four hours. If you haven’t read the previous installments of the series, you can find the links to them at the bottom of this post.

April 09, 2013

April 09, 2013

And here we are, the final chapter of the normal run of The Human Division. Episode thirteen was originally released April 9, 2013, the title being: Earth below, Sky Above.The background of the cover art still reminds me of being under water, though maybe deeper, than last week this time around. The colour of the title’s fonts are bleaker than usual, being closer to the shade of human skin, which is an interesting choice, but there is something more intriguing there. A picture of a shattered space station plunging down towards a planet’s surface ( not mentioning the stylish purple background ). After last weeks reading I did skim the first page of this next chapter. I was curious, and could hardly keep away myself from reading it. I have read the title nonetheless, and I knew something big would happen. I mean, there was so much left hanging up there, and only one chapter left, even though it is twice as long as the usual episodes, just like the introductory chapter. I was expecting action, to be more exact: shooting and exploding, but a space station ? At this point I am frowning a bit, but yeah I could say, that could be easily expected too, if you are playing cowboys and indians in the space. And now that I am over my initial surprise time to insert the advertising blurb:

At last, the Earth and the Colonial Union have begun formal discussions about their relationship in the future—a chance for the divisions in humanity to be repaired. The diplomats and crew of the Clarke are on hand to help with the process, including Ambassador Ode Abumwe and CDF Lieutenant Harry Wilson, both of whom were born on Earth. But not everyone wants The Human Division to be repaired…and they will go to great length to make sure it isn’t.

After the tensions have been driven high into the starry skies in the last few chapters, the thirteenth is taking it’s time to kick in. First we see the usual briefieng, Abumwe sorting out the tasks between her subordinates, with a sarcastic, even maybe friendly chat between her and Harry Willson at the end, him getting Hart Schmidt as assistant once again. Colonels Egan and Rigney discuss the beginning summit between the CU and Earth representatives over an italian dinner. We get to laugh and relax with them together. It’s only captain Coloma who is sharp from the start, as she receives an encrypted message from the headquarters at Phoenix.

And then finally things start moving, or actually jumping. In rapid succession some dozen unidentified CDF design ships arrive in the near Earth orbit – all being those which went missing during the couple of last months – and start shooting missiles at the Earth space station where the summit is being held. The space station is destroyed, many diplomats die – almost all of the Earth’s diplomats, and many of the Colonial Union too – but our friends survive, all but one: captain Coloma died performing her duty.

It is befitting to have a firework for celebration as a culmination, but I think that Scalzi has overshot the mark here. There is much drama behind death, but beside captain COloma nobody who matters to us dies. Maybe it would have worked better if Hart Schmidt died, which would motivate Harry Willson to take steps – maybe even go partly rogue – to avenge his friend, or Abumwe sacrificing herself while trying to save her subordinates, or even maybe Earthlings, which might motivate Hart Schmidt to step up in the future. I am sure that we will be seeing first officer Neva Balla returning as a captain of a ship of her own, and hopefully with a taste for vengeance. I am sure that our dear colonels Egan and Rigney will be returning in future to, just as will general Tarsem Gau and his right hand man Hafte Sorvahl. I am even mentally preparing for the return of John Perry. I am not expecting him to have a major role, but it seems plausible that his presence will be needed in the future. Especially now, that the rift between Earh and CU seems to be bigger than ever before, and the gape just keeps growing.

All in all, I enjoyed this novel. Scalzi I congratulate you, you did it once again. You tried something new, and it worked just fine. The storytelling is almost as good as ever, except for the intended trappings of the serialised form of the media. Those did irk me, sometimes more, sometimes less. But there is also a sense of dissapointment, quite big at the moment. Unusual to your style, there are quite a lot of unanswered questions. When I started reading, I was aware of the fact that there will be a second season to this, that a sequel will be coming. But you prided yourself that all the previous books in the series stand on their own quite good. It doesn’t take away from the experience if you haven’t read the previous, or subsequent volumes. Alas here, we have the protagonists coming from A to B, and to state it rudely, nothing really happened, not much changed. There was some swashbucklin adventure, there is a set-up of a great conspiracy, but nothing gets resolved. Abumwe’s B-Team gets to be Team A in future, the hostilities between Earth and CU got slightly worse. We the readers are anticipating the conspiracy that was shaping the events behind the curtains, but none of the conspirators got revealed, not for the actors of the story, not for us readers. So we actually got a first volume to a new trilogy, or something. The feeling here at the end is similar to a TV show: it is full of great ideas, the pilot ( the first episode ) shows a promise of a great story, and then at the end of the season we get a cliffhanger, while all the actors are smiling into the camera.

Fuck yeah ! What happend John ? You don’t mind me calling you John, right ?! I know that you are not in for the writing, just for telling a story, this pays your bills. But suddenly going against your own policies ? I don’t understand it. I will be brooding over this the whole coming week, till I get to read the extra two chapters. Maybe that will change my mind. Maybe those contain some of the answers that are left unanswered here. Maybe. Again maybe not. Whatever comes I will be reading the sequels, I am a sucker for Mr. Scalzi’s style as I stated at least once earlier ( but probably more than one time ). But the high esteem I held him till now just dropped, it’s still pretty high, but took quite a nose dive.

That’s it folks, stage one cleared. Next week I will be back to share the thoughts on the additional chapters, and with some final thoughts about the whole thing. Till then take care and have fun ! Captain out and over !

                                                                                               

Week  one – The B-Team                                     Week eight – The Sound of Rebellion

Week two – Walk the plank                                  Week nine – The Observers

Week three – We only need the heads                  Week ten – This must be the place

Week four – A voice in the wilderness                     Week eleven – A problem of proportion

Week five – Tales from the Clarke                          Week twelve – The gentle art of cracking heads

Week six – The back channel

Week seven – The Dog King

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221/b – 155

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen ! Bonsoir Mesdames et Messieurs ! I welcome you on board of I. S. S. Rover once again ! Today is one of those rare occasions when I revisit some pleasures of old. As it happens today marks the 155th birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And so came the idea to read one of his works. One would naturally opt for one of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, as there are numerous short stories and it makes it perfect for a one day read. But there is one particularly notorious notion of his:

If in 100 years I am only known as the man who invented Sherlock Holmes then I will have considered my life a failure.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I do understand hist sentiment behind this opinion, but I can’t agree with him. Observing how ingrained Sherlock Holmes’ character is in today’s pop culture, I cannot forgo the recognition that he is an icon still looming around some hundred years later – just like does so Alexandre Dumas – and that he will be still hanging around long after our death. And even if I do not agree with this verdict of himself, I would be prompted to respect it, and also in accordance with the proclaimed goals of this blog I would try to hunt down one of his historical fictions. Alas, I took notice of this anniversary only today, so there was no time to act upon it, and decided to go with my favourite consulting detective.

When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Sherlock Holmes – The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes 

And as we are celebrating a birthday it would befit to celebrate it with the birth of Sherlock Holmes. That would A Study in Scarlet, unfortunately that is a novel ( and also not available to me at the moment ) so it would be a bit hard for me to finish it today, not to mention that then I wouldn’t be writing about it today, which is more or less the point here, but at least as important for me. What can I do ? The answer is obvious. You remember the Reichenbach falls ? Oh, yes ! Sherlock did die once. Or at least many believed it to be the case. Which points us to the moment of his rebirth, the short story The Adventure of the Empty House - first published in 1903 and part of the cycle titled The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

The story starts with an 1894 mystery murder of a young honourable man: Ronald Adair. A case of a closed room murder, or at least a sort of, as in the victim’s room that is located on the second floor, only the window was open and the door was locked from inside. No signs were found that anyone else was in the room, the money on the table undisturbed, no tracks in the flower bed beneath the window, but neither was found the weapon which might have caused the death.

And though the crimes are the main attraction of Sherlock Holmes stories, this time it is only of secondary importance. More time is devoted to explaining how Sherlock survived the supposed fall from the cliffs of Reichenbach falls, and what he did subsequently. In the course of explaining Sherlock reveals to Watson that Moriarty was not working alone, that he had accomplices, of which he identified three who posed danger to his life. To Sherlock’s dismay one of those helpers was there at Reichenbach falls, so it was unsafe for Holmes to return to London right away, and ultimately that was why he decided to fake his death, informing about the truth only his brother Mycroft.

And this is where the two cases converge. Holmes recognised Moriarty’s companion, and waited for a suitable opportunity to lay him a trap. When he caught wind of the Adair murder, and it’s mysterious circumstances, he deduced right away that it was carried out with a weapon he remembered being manufactured for Moriarty’s gang, and prompted his return to London. After short preparation, and a swift reunion with Watson the unsuspecting suspect walks into the trap, and is apprehended with the help of Scotland Yard. Yes, Holmes’ favourite detective, Lestrade is there too, who gets to claim all the merits.

And that’s it shortly. I enjoyed the story just the same as I did some twenty years ago when I first read it. Sherlock Holmes didn’t change much, he is still theatrical, and still doesn’t hold the Scotland Yard detectives in high esteem, though he might have softened a bit:

Three undetected murders in one year won’t do, Lestrade. But you handled the Molesey Mystery with less than your usual — that’s to say, you handled it fairly well.

And all the time I was reading I had the image of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes and David Burke as John Watson in my mind. For me it the Granada studio’s adaptation will always be the ultimate one. Jeremy Brett is the ultimate Sherlock, his manners, his speach, the body language. I am fond of Robert Downey Jr.’s reiteration of Holmes’ character, and even more so of the Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern Sherlock. These are much needed additional points of view to the much known and beloved character, so that he can continue to flourish and fascinate the old and possible new fans.

And that’s it for the Sherlock – Conan Doyle day; if you like his fiction than go and enjoy it some more, but if you haven’t experienced it yet, go and try it. It is good to try out new things, that is the way to learn, to find new passions, to expand our horizons. Take care and have fun ! And here is one more Sherlock Holmes/Conan Doyle quote as a parting gift:

 Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius.

The Valley of Fear

 

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