Book Review: The Shadow of Saganami by David Weber

Diane Morrison

The Shadow of Saganami (Honorverse: Saganami Island, #1)The Shadow of Saganami by David Weber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read for the I Just Have to Read More of That Author Reading Challenge, the Military Spec-Fic Reading Challenge, the Giants of Genre: A Long Book Challenge, the Read the Sequel Reading Challenge, and the Space Opera Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

Length of book: 897 pages (pocket-book paperback,) not including appendices.

Ah, the enigma of David Weber. This man is never going to win a Hugo or a Nebula, a Locus or a PKD Award. His writing is too all over the place, and he’s not really doing anything that no one else has done before. It’s space opera. I don’t think anyone’s won an award for actual space opera in decades.

But everyone who reads science fiction has read him at least once. It’s damn good space opera, for one…

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Lightyear FM

Want a perspective on what flying through space might actually look like?  Here’s one project to give you an idea.  Working on the knowledge that radio waves travel at the speed of light, this simulation shows you the local neighbourhood near Earth (excluding exoplanets) up to the limit of the first Earth radio broadcasts; up to 110 years ago (as of 2015).

Things I learned from this:

  • In general, stars don’t float randomly by themselves.  They appear in clusters.  We’re part of a pretty little cluster of mostly much tinier, dimmer stars than our own, that might look like the Pleiades with a red-shift in someone else’s perspective.
  • We can infer that most of the stars near us are smaller/dimmer than our own because most of them have alpha-numeric names (more on that in a minute).  Also, stars progress from red to orange to yellow to white to blue in terms of brightness and most of the stars around us are more orange than we are.
  • Every once in a while you do get singular stars just floating in a void, but it’s the exception, not the rule.
  • There are two nebulae relatively near to us.  One’s about 40 light years away and the other is about 80 light years away.  Each is about 10 light years across.

Naming conventions of stars:

  • The oldest stars we know about have proper names.  Those tend to be the brightest from our perspective and are typically the ones visible with the naked eye.  Most such names are derived from the Arabic language.  You’ll see relatively few of them in our local neighbourhood (Sirius, Fomalhaut, Pollux, etc.)
  • Sometimes stars are named for astronomers or the people who discovered them.  You’ll see a couple of those in this simulation.  One of them, Barnard’s Star, which you’ll see right after the Centauri stars that are our closest neighbours, blasted right through the edge of our solar system only 70,000 years ago!  Talk about a near-miss!
  • Some stars are catalogued.  The Bayer Designation names stars by a lower case Greek letter generally representing its corresponding number, plus the constellation it appears in. (ie. Sigma Sagittarii).  Once all 26 Greek letters have been assigned, letters of the Arabic-derived alphabet are used (ie. G Scorpii).  Sometimes when concurrent stars were discovered (like, say the smaller star in the Alpha Centauri binary) it was designated with a superscript.  The Flamsteed Designation is used when no Bayer Designation exists or when the Bayer designation uses numeric superscripts, because it’s less awkward.  (ie. 61 Cygni).  These stars are usually visible with a decent telescope.
  • The most recently discovered stars, visible with ultra high resolution or space telescopes and tracked by computers, are named with an alpha-numeric designation based on their position in the sky.  Over 990 million such objects exist.
  • Special cases: Pulsars are designated by the prefix PSR, with a series of hyphenated numbers in which the first indicates its right ascension and the second its degree of inclination.  Supernovae are designated by the prefix SN, plus the year they were discovered in, and if there was more than one, a letter indicating the order of discovery (ie. SN 1987A.)  A few supernovae are known by the year they occurred in (ie. SN 1604, also known as Kepler’s Star).  Novae are usually given a name according to the naming convention of the General Catalogue of Variable Stars, which includes a number or letter designation and the constellation it’s from (ie. V841 Ophiuchi, SZ Persei, T Bootis.)

Here’s a preview to show you what it looks like: you can find the simulation itself at  Note that if you hover your cursor over each celestial body (save the Earth, the Moon and the Sun) it will tell you what it is and how far away from Earth it is.  Enjoy the simulation! – An interactive journey through space, time, & music from chris baker on Vimeo.

Book Review: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

Starship TroopersStarship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Space Opera 2016 Reading Challenge and the 12 Awards in 12 Months Reading Challenge.

This is one of Heinlein’s most controversial novels. Along with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, this is the novel that invented the space marine and military science fiction. If you look around you can see its influence in so many works of sci-fi that it’s become a trope: Halo, Warhammer 40000, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, even Mechwarrior. Master Chief and the Spartans wear Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry suits.

The first thing I will tell you is this: do you remember the big-budget film made a few years back with Denise Richards playing Carmen Ibanez? Yeah, well; don’t waste your time. The director admitted to having only read the first couple of pages and it shows. If you’re going to claim that a movie is an adaptation of a famous novel, then tell the story the novel tells, dammit! Don’t slap a famous name on it, borrow a couple of character names, and then claim you’ve made an adaptation. How people get away with this without lawsuits I will never know. It was such a far cry from the actual novel that I don’t know why they bothered to connect it at all. Grrrrrr!

Okay, now that I have gotten that out of my system: Starship Troopers is controversial because it has a reputation as being an ode to fascism. Having re-read it now for the first time since I was a pre-teen, I think that this reputation must be due to one of two things: either people do not understand the novel, or people do not understand what fascism is. I am willing to concede the latter after overhearing some man confirm his wife’s belief, when they were passing through the biography section in the bookstore where I work, that Stalin was “Hitler’s right hand man.” A similar confusion has occurred here: if anything, the philosophy outlined by the characters in Starship Troopers is an extreme of communism, which, of course, is fascism’s polar opposite.

I can see how someone who didn’t read it thoughtfully might have gotten this idea. In the society of Starship Troopers, only citizens have the right to vote, and the only way to become a citizen is to offer two years of service (more if required) to the state. This service is up to the state’s discretion, with some weight given to a person’s preferences. And it doesn’t necessarily mean military service; you might be a bureaucrat in an office. But Juan Rico (whose native tongue is Tagalog; how director Paul Verhoeven and scriptwriter Edward Neumeier got their Aryan Nation Nazi fantasy out of a cast of Filipino and Hispanic characters I will never know) is assigned to the Mobile Infantry; space marines.

The Mobile Infantry is a brutal place, where occasionally bones are broken and people are even killed as a normal part of basic training. However, you can leave at any time, and the only penalty for leaving is that you aren’t allowed to come back and you won’t ever be given the right to vote. In one passage, one of the instructors informs Rico that this is so that only those who really give a damn about duty to others before themselves will actually make it through, and so that only those who are willing to defend that at any cost make it. It sounds like a “the few, the proud” speech, so I suppose you could take that as fascism if you weren’t paying attention. Except that it’s really the extreme of socialism; though of course, in the spirit of the time, it denounces Communism as being more suited to the evolution of the insectoid species the human characters are fighting against.

You see, fascism is all about a “superior” elite distinguishing themselves from common people and thus, proving their “right to rule” over everyone else, applying Darwin’s theories to social behaviour. Socialism is about believing that the group is more important than any one individual; which, in its extremes (such as Communist Russia) can be brutal, compassionless and dehumanizing. In this case, the welfare of the group must be more important to a person than their own life or limb, and this is the qualifier for the right to vote. I’m not sure this is a bad idea. Wouldn’t it be great if only those who have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are not interested in selfish motives could have a voice in politics? Of course I can’t think of any real-life way to establish this without creating the very “elitist” class that it would be intended to avoid, but this is a novel, and who is to say that the society of the future looks anything like the society we have now?

Another passage which might support the fascism theory is in support of spanking a child and of corporal punishment, which are accepted parts of this future society. This is not a popular idea in our time, but do remember that this book was written in 1959. Keeping that in mind, the fact that Heinlein includes female pilots and ship’s crews in his future military is impressive, based in the idea that, on average, women have faster reflexes and reaction times and, on average, men are physically stronger. There are always exceptions of course, and Heinlein’s military allows for them, but Carmenica (not even just Carmen, for crying out loud!) Ibanez becomes a pilot and not a trooper. Since women were denied the right to join the Apollo missions a decade later, this is downright revolutionarily feminist in 1959. And Heinlein’s women are no less brave and heroic than their male counterparts. The pilot of Rico’s ship flies directly into an overwhelmed fire zone to do a pickup, and then makes an impossible landing, giving Rico hell for risking all their lives by delaying the pickup all the while.

Now that I’m done arguing against the critics, I’ll address the book itself. Heinlein starts in media res and the rest of the book is excellently paced between philosophy and action. You never find out who won the war, or whether or not Rico even lived through the experience, but that’s not what the story is about. It’s about a boy growing up by finding himself in the military and creating an identity for himself as a soldier. It’s an old story; one not currently popular, but one that’s nonetheless true for many people and has been for centuries.

It’s worth contrasting Paul Mandela’s experience in The Forever War with Juan Rico’s experience. Both books have a lot of valuable things to say about war. In The Forever War, Mandela is drafted into a war he doesn’t understand or believe in, and he finds the space marines to be an alienating, dehumanizing experience of horror and misery. In Starship Troopers, Rico volunteers during peacetime, before the war begins, and he finds himself and his personal identity as a soldier, putting his life on the line for the sake of others, and it fits him well. If you’ve known any soldiers, you know that one of the ways they see themselves is as sheepdogs, who protect the flock from the wolves. It may well have been Heinlein who gave us this reference. Starship Troopers was once on the U.S. Marines’ recommended reading list, only recently replaced by Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

And speaking of Ender’s Game: the alien Bugs that Heinlein’s troopers are fighting are incomprehensible to human beings, and were probably Bugs in order to make them incomprehensible, because the plot isn’t really about them. Humanity and the Bugs are competing for the same ecological niche; and in Heinlein’s novel, this competition is what creates the conditions for war in the first place; population pressure. It’s suggested that the technology might be available to just outright destroy the Bug planets, but they don’t do that because “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” The idea is to force the other side to do what they want; destroying them isn’t going to do that. More than a little, Ender’s Game was an answer to Starship Troopers, in which Card suggests that humanity, if it possesses the technology to commit genocide, will do so; and that this is wrong because all life is precious, even those of Bugs. And that, too, is something important to be said about war.

A lot to think about in a little 208 page novel! But I suppose that’s why it won the 1960 Hugo award and is considered one of the defining books of science fiction. I chewed through it quickly and would have done it even faster if I hadn’t been spending those four days mostly driving. I’m sure I’ll read it again, maybe with a completely different viewpoint. But in any case, it’s certainly food for thought, and is definitely a must-read for anyone with even a casual interest in science fiction.

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La Sphère de Rubicon

Les voyages de Deryn Naythas

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L’orbe écarlate de Flamboyance, plus généralément désignée aujourd’hui sous le nom de Sphère de Rubicon, possède une étonnante épaisseur, nécessitant plusieurs jours avant d’atteindre les Confins du système atypique. Plusieurs passages permanents existent, baptisés en hommage aux premiers héros et héroïnes olanriens et permettent à une faune importante de transiter de l’Espace sauvage vers le Phlogiston.

La face intérieure de cette Sphère dégage une chaleur intense et se voit nimbée d’amas de gaz volatiles s’embrasant régulièrement pour illuminer les cieux des mondes de Rubicon. Un très grand nombre d’étoiles restent immobiles dans le Vide, comme autant de minuscules soleils rougeoyant, et servent de repères pour les navigateurs. Leur nombre contraint cependant les nefs spatiomantiques à immédiatement adopter de plus prudentes distances dès leur entrée dans le système, les collisions avec ces astres n’étant pas rares.

Magdalène est le nom du soleil rouge de cette Sphère, il orbite à l’extérieur du…

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Book Review: The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian

The Mauritius Command (Aubrey/Maturin, #4)The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Vernon Library Summer Reading Challenge.

I have been a Patrick O’Brain fan for some time, so I was perhaps primed to appreciate this book more than I otherwise might have been. But the exploits of Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin, who seem a very unlikely pair of friends, are among my favourites. In Canada it seems a rare thing to encounter others who share my joy, and I am told that aside from me, only “old guys” read O’Brian’s nautical classics at the bookstore where I work. If that’s true, I’d like to contribute to a revival. These excellent nautical tales have received international acclaim for their historic accuracy, and they have directly contributed to the development of modern space opera. Many of the giants of that genre, such as David Weber, have acknowledged their debt to O’Brian, C.S. Forester and Joseph Conrad, the Grand Triumvirate of nautical adventure stories.

In The Mauritius Command, Jack Aubrey is appointed Commodore in command of the British Royal Navy’s fleet at Mauritius, which is an island very near to Cape Town that is occupied by the French. O’Brian based most of the events of the story on a real-life navy campaign during the Napoleonic Wars, including the outcome of battles, the ships involved, and many of the details. The small fleet is to blockade the French ships and protect England’s vital merchant marine. This mission is extremely challenging – Jack must proceed badly outnumbered, with outdated and smaller ships, and England’s closest supply port is almost a thousand miles’ sail away, while the French, of course, have the islands. This is Aubrey’s first fleet command and he struggles with his lack of experience in ways that directly complicate the plot. The task is made even more difficult and dangerous by the dangerous, notoriously stormy seas, and by the undermanned army garrison that is to support him in these aims, which is waiting for desperately-needed reinforcements. Jack’s command is fraught with great responsibility and little privilege, but his career might be made or broken on it, provided he survives. To up the stakes, Jack’s rather large immediate family, including wife and small twin girls, are entirely dependent upon his fortunes; and also thousands of miles away in England. The fleet’s brave and ingenious solutions form this novel’s riveting plotline.

One of the best parts about O’Brian’s series is that Aubrey and Maturin share equal billing as protagonists, and O’Brian successfully writes accordingly. In this novel Maturin plays an essential but mostly supporting role, having maneuvered to land his friend this command in the first place, and putting his considerable skills as a spy and a propagandist to work on Aubrey’s (and England’s) behalf.

I found this book to be one of the best of the series, filled with action, dramatic tension, sudden reversals, glorious triumphs and crushing defeats. If you enjoy military fiction, adventure, politics, historical fiction or even space opera, you really should put it on your list.

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Video: Okanagan Library Summer Reading Challenge Update August 20 #ORL

Update on my Vernon Library Summer Reading Challenge and my Worlds Without End reading challenges, including a short review of “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart and of “The Mauritius Command” by Patrick O’Brian. Also, what to expect in the next couple of weeks and the rest of my reading list for the challenge!

Source: Video: Okanagan Library Summer Reading Challenge Update August 20 #ORL