February 27, 2013

Book Review: This Honest Man

First, full disclosure:

I read This Honest Man because the writer contacted me through Amazon.com and asked for a review. The writer offered to send me a free Kindle copy but I declined because I could not promise I would find the time to either read the book or review it. Well, I bought my copy for $1.99 or so and let it stew on my Kindle for a few months until I finally found time to read it.

Here is my review:

With the creation of the Sam Dane series Robert J. Sullivan has set for himself some very lofty goals. Both science fiction and hard-boiled private detective fiction have legions of loyal fans with high expectations. I am one of them. I have been reading both genres ever since I set aside Golden Books from my parents and began choosing my own reading material. Hundreds of books by dozens of writers, including some hybrids like the Sam Dane series, have passed through my hands. Despite its flaws, This Honest Man is one of the better modern examples of both science fiction and detective fiction.

Sam Dane is a sane, level-headed character. Although he lacks the spunk of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, he has much in common with hundreds of science fiction protagonists who despite only a limited scientific background launch themselves into time travel, space travel, or other endeavors far beyond their local horizons. What Sam Dane lacks in color he makes up for with reasoned logic and a sympathetic understanding of the fictional reality he walks through. As a character he is easy to like. As a detective is more than competent.

The plot starts out with a brief explanation of the planet Gollveig and a species of sentient aliens known as "Bluejays". Gold is the primary export of the planet, Bluejays are the labor force that extracts it, and drug addiction is the method used by the planet's human political class to oppress and control the local population. There are shades here of revisionist history and it's approach to analyzing colonization. An evil corporation commanded by greedy humans first finds out how to get the locals addicted to drugs then uses that addiction as a tool for oppression and control. Marxist themes of class conflict, oppression, and exploitation run throughout the book casting a dreary political shadow over the story and the characters.

That story is reasonably laid out. Sam Dane is hired by a rich widow to look into her husband's death. The police have ruled it as a mugging gone bad, the widow is convinced it was a deliberate murder of some kind but cannot imagine anyone wanting her honest, hardworking husband dead. As the story unfolds there is a brief flame of romance that flares up between Sam Dane and the widow and there are a variety of working class aliens that provide clues and hints. Sam also makes trips to three different worlds in an effort to untangle the spiderweb of lies, deceit, and oppressive capitalists that resulted in an honest man becoming a sacrificial pawn in interstellar politics. The web is unwound, but only after Sam Dane is dragged through a world of super wealth and perversity that results in another brief flame of romance. Unfortunately for poor Sam Dane, neither of his romances end well and by the end of the book he's just as single and lonely as he was at the beginning.

This Honest Man is a pretty good story. The pieces fit together well, the characters are reasonable, and the ending is satisfying. The overriding Marxist themes, however, made the book a chore to get through. Stereotypes about wealth, capitalist oppression, and corrupt politicians left me shaking my head in annoyance every thirty or forty pages. It is ironic that the only honest person in the book appears to be the dead man and even he is shown to have knowingly compromised his principles in order to pay his mortgage and keep his wife draped in expensive clothes.

Yes, Robert Sullivan succeeds in combining science fiction with hard-boiled detective fiction and he does so competently enough to keep a reader turning pages. No, he does not come close to the luminaries of either genre and the main reason he doesn't is his reliance on stereotypes originally derived from Marxist writers who were convinced capitalists are nothing more than modern robber barons.

February 07, 2013

Common sense, violent crime, and personal firearms

From Fox News:
Own a gun? Buy violence liability insurance
Gun control hearing draws hundreds to Annapolis
Gun control misfire in Georgia will cost lives
Chicago buyback funds used by pro-gun group for NRA shooting safety camp
Los Angeles buyback offers groceries for guns
Seattle police tracing missile tube collected at gun buyback event
Universal background check debate gets heated at Congressional hearing

From CNN:
Special page for gun debate in the news
Death of Chris Kyle highlights divisions in gun debate
Loaded language poisons gun debate
How the violent mentally ill get their guns
Newtown calls on Connecticut to lead the way on gun control
Gabby and Mark Giffords are the new Bradys of gun control
January 2013 FBI background checks are second highest ever

In all of these articles, op-eds and supposed analysis of how dangerous America has become due to the Second Amendment there is not a single mention of either the three legal precepts that created the issue in the first place or the three most important scientific studies related to this issue:

ATF: National Firearms Act of 1934
Wikipedia: United States vs. Miller, 1939
Wikipedia: 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban
Koper, Woods, and Roth (PDF): An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban
John Longenecker: Safe Streets in the Nationwide Concealed Carry of Handguns
John R. Lott, Jr.: More Guns, Less Crime; Third Edition

I could sit here and waste time writing a long summary of all these articles. Sadly, I know for a fact it would not make a difference. For anyone who takes the time to actually read the legal precepts and the science, there can be only one conclusion: America is one of the safest countries in the world and the reason we are safe is because we own firearms. Unfortunately, this debate has never been about science and law. Nor has reality been a major factor in the way either side approaches this debate. For some reason the core argument of both positions has always been and still remains an emotional call to utopian thinking. The anti-gun crowd swears by all that is holy that "common sense" clearly demonstrates that if we had no guns in America we would have less violence. The pro-gun crowd, on the other hand, swears by all that is holy that "common sense" clearly demonstrates that because we have guns in America we already have less violence.

The Twentieth Century is rife with examples of tyrants and dictators who destroyed their own people by the millions. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot, are household names everywhere in the world where education and mass media are both available. Every single one of these men based their power on the exclusive control of firearms and other weapons. It was only by removing from the general population the tools of self-defense that they were able to both rise to power and consolidate it. Disarming the general population was the key centerpiece to their theory of power and control. It was the one thing they all agreed on. Every tyrant down through history has operated the same way. For example, after the samurai disarmed the farmers in Japan in the Tenth Century for nearly a thousand years there existed two clearly distinct social classes, an armed political class and the disarmed peasant class. Also in Asia, every time a new family gained control of the Imperial throne in China their first act was to disarm the opposition. Here in the United States we have the example of the end of the Civil War when the Union moved to disarm the southerners, driving many of them into the still untamed western territories where they not only kept their firearms they used them to became sheriffs, outlaws, saloon owners, cattlemen, miners, and merchants. As the south broke free of the shackles imposed on them by the Reconstruction Era one of the first things every state did was seek to disarm the former slaves in an effort to insure they could not oppose the imposition of new legal structures designed to keep them second class citizens. History is very, very clear on this lesson: disarming the peasants is the key to restricting power to a small elite.

There has been very little genuine scientific study on what links exist (if any) between violence in America and American ownership of firearms. However, international studies conducted by scholars in Finland, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and others consistently point to the United States as one of the safest countries in the world. We are never at the very top, and seldom in the top ten, but there are around 300 sovereign nations in the world so when they rank the United States 26 out of 300, that is more than high enough to meet my standard as "one of the safest". It is also worth noting that over at the Guardian website they have put together a very interesting world map comparing gun ownership and gun homicides. Some of the data is suspect. Nonetheless, one important point illustrated by this map is that even though the United States has the highest personal firearm ownership in the world their firearm-related homicide rate falls far below many other countries. When flipping through the three versions of the map notice especially Brazil, Columbia, and Ecuador. These three nations form a prominent arc of extremely high firearm-related homicides despite falling into the lowest personal firearm ownership category. The relationship between limited firearm ownership and firearm-related homicide is not as easy to demonstrate as the anti-gun crowd would like us to believe. (As an aside, another interesting tidbit is that even though over the past decade both Britain and Australia have taken legal measures to severely restrict personal firearm ownership they both now have extremely high per capita violent crime rates. Severely restricting personal firearm ownership has not helped these two countries reduce their overall violent crime rate.)

If we take all of this raw data into consideration, what is the "common sense" solution to preventing another incident like the Newtown massacre, the Columbine massacre, the Virginia Tech massacre, the Beslan massacre, and the Dunblane massacre? Every time one of these horrific tragedies occurs, and there most certainly will be more of them, innocent lives are destroyed and the entire future of our world is endangered. After all, everyone agrees that our children are our future. Despite this agreement, abortion kills millions of American children every single year. How is it that the same people who are outraged by Sandy Hook are staunch, vocal defenders of abortion? How is it that the same people who are outraged by abortion are also staunch, vocal defenders of the individual right to own semi-automatic rifles and handguns with high capacity magazines? Apparently "common sense" has two completely different meanings for people on both sides of this debate. With this in mind, it seems to me that the only "common sense" conclusion that can be reached is that "common sense" has little or nothing to do with any of it.

February 01, 2013

Book Review: Silver Borne, A Mercy Thompson Novel

I remember clearly the first time I saw a Mercy Thompson book sitting on a bookstore shelf. I was looking for the next episode of the "Wheel of Time" and wondering why it wasn't out yet. What I didn't know at the time was that Robert Jordan was very ill and would die later that month, delaying the last episode in his epic series until his son could find the courage to finish it. The cover of "Blood Bound" showed an attractive young woman covered in tattoos wearing work coveralls and holding a crescent wrench. Having a passion for both beautiful women and automotive technology, the combination of the two on the cover of a fantasy novel immediately grabbed my attention. The book seemed to be standard urban fantasy fare, a shapeshifting coyote woman with a flair for the mechanical, a gremlin assistant mechanic, and a werewolf boyfriend must work together to overcome an evil demon bent on destroying the world. I flipped through the book, found a couple of really awkward dialogues, competent prose, and reasonably well developed characters. Mercy Thompson got added to my mental list of "one of these days I'll read one" fiction series. Over the next few years I kept an eye on the how the series developed by scanning the books as they appeared on bookstore shelves in airports, Barnes and Noble branches in a dozen cities, and the "Times Square" Kinokuniya bookstore in Tokyo.

Then one day last summer I went to Amazon.com to pre-order Mark Levin's "Ameritopia: the Unmaking of America". I wanted to get my copy within a couple days of its release, and I didn't want to pay as much for shipping as the cover cost of the book, so I needed another $10 or so in books in order to qualify for free two-day shipping. After scrounging through all the normal genres and styles, I stumbled across Amazon.com's "bargain books" page for the first time. I had no idea Amazon even offered such deals. I knew regular bookstores did, and I knew the Kindle books of famous authors will often be temporarily free or nearly free in the month or so before a new release, but an actual "bargain bin" at Amazon.com was a novelty for me. So I went plowing through the hundred or so heavily discounted titles looking for items I would normally not buy. One of the titles that immediately jumped to the head of my list was "Silver Borne", a recent Mercy Thompson novel that was being cleared out to make way for "River Marked", which came out in December of last year. This seemed like as good a time as any to grab up an example of the series and read it more thoroughly.

Now, many people will cry "foul" and tell me the only way to truly appreciate a series is to start at the beginning and work my way through. Not an impossible task with a six volume series like this one, but still not a plan convenient for my limited time schedule. Jumping in at number five (Silver Borne) would allow me to see several things that would not be apparent if I read the first book by itself (since I really didn't want to take the time to read the entire series). For example, I could easily get a feel for how her characters developed over time, how she wove in experiences and memories from the earlier books, and how well she balanced the need to both maintain continuity and tell a story that could stand all on its own. Very few writers are able to maintain that delicate balance with any degree of success. The most common flaw is having the characters in later books not bother mentioning, remembering, or referring back to the earlier events in the overall timeline, a timeline that a devoted fan will know by heart. The second most common flaw is opening with a chapter (or two, or three!) of flashbacks and/or summaries to remind the fan and update the new reader, hopefully providing a larger context that will illuminate the depths of each main character's personality. Neither of these techniques works. Both styles leave me as a reader feeling disappointed and quickly disillusioned.

The Mercy Thompson series (at least in book five) falls into neither of those categories. Instead of a long review or a complete absence of memory, Patricia Briggs looks for and finds numerous opportunities to refer back to the earlier books in a very natural way. When Mercy Thompson encounters a familiar scent in her coyote form, she immediately "remembers" where she encountered that same scent in an earlier book and how the final result of that encounter turned out. When one member of the wolfpack that has taken her under their wing expresses strong, polarizing objections to the presence of a coyote in a wolfpack, that wolf does so by directly referring to multiple crisis and damages experienced in the earlier books. As the story in book five unfolds, a new reader such as myself is gradually and naturally caught up on all of the earlier books and how those storylines did or did not resolve themselves. Most interesting to me was how she wove in the histories of the relationships between the main characters as a natural development that could easily be understood. Every primary relationship is reviewed using a variety of small snippets remembered or talked about in the same way that you and I might reminisce about how we first met and how we came to learn each other's strengths and weaknesses. Patricia Briggs strongest literary skill (at least as evidenced here) is in her ability to seamlessly weave the earlier storylines into this one in a way that is both entertaining and enlightening. I was quite impressed with how easy she made it look!

Unfortunately, that same mastery is not reflected everywhere. While her characters are more solid and realistic than most fantasy characters, they still fall far short of the depth and profoundness of characters like Bilbo Baggins or Harry Potter. While Mercy Thompson, Adam Hauptman, Samuel Cornick, and the rest of the cast display their flaws like trophies and their normalcy like the thin disguise it is, they never really rise to the level of tragedy or heroism that makes characters like Hermione Granger and Gandalf the Grey so very real to us that we find ourselves expecting them to come knocking on our front door to invite us on some grand adventure, or perhaps just to lend them what little aid we can in the midst of their deepest trials and tribulations. The differentiation between each character is also shallow and not well developed at all. Every time a complex three-way dialogue takes place between Mercy, Adam, and Samuel, it gets frustratingly difficult to figure who is talking to whom, who is listening, and whose attention has wandered off. In one scene Mercy is reprimanding a character named Mary Jo for taking actions that endanger not only Adam and Mercy, but the health and welfare of the entire pack. As the chapter-long dialogue unfolds the two women's personalities become so intertwined that this potentially suspenseful and powerful scene becomes little more than Mercy talking to herself in a mirror.

Patricia Briggs also seems to come under the Hemingway school of narrative description, attempting to use a word here or there to cast an entire scene into vivid reality. Unfortunately, she lacks Hemingway's mastery of descriptive verbs and visual nouns. Throwing in an adjective here and there is certainly more succinct than Faulkner's rambling multiple page descriptions so rich in detail that the theater of our mind comes alive in color and form, but it also left me as a reader wondering about the most basic details of wardrobe and equipment. For example, Mercy Thompson owns a yellow Volkswagen bug, but it is never clear if her "beat-up old car" features a few dents in the doors, broken windows, failed wipers, rust in the floor panels, a malfunctioning heater, etc. What exactly does her "beat-up yellow Volkswagen bug" look like and how is it any different than the same car driven by Barry Osgathorpe or Mr. Pucci or any of a hundred other fictional characters who from time to time find themselves driving the quaint, iconic German people's car in a faded sunshine yellow?

I don't mean to say Silver Borne is poorly written. Patricia Briggs is a competent, experienced writer who tells an entertaining story that starts slowly, picks up speed in the middle, and has a powerful ending. From a missing bookstore owner to a mysterious fairy queen's lethal interest in an ancient book, every plot line is resolved. The bookstore owner is rescued, the fairy queen defeated, and the book restored to its rightful owner. Along the way Mercy Thompson's Alpha werewolf lover is badly burnt trying to rescue her from a burning trailer that she is not even in, right before getting into a fight for dominance necessary to bring peace to his pack, and finally in the end the two of them get past old scars and misunderstandings to fall into bed together. Silver Borne is a satisfying story, but it falls far short of the epic heights that fantasy is so well suited to achieve.