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 This mission is extremely challenging – Jack must proceed badly outnumbered, with outdated and smaller ships, and England’s closest supply port is almost a thousand miles’ sail away, while the French, of course, have the islands.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

Book Review: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

Gateway (Heechee Saga, #1)Gateway by Frederik Pohl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes, I really did devour this book in a single day. Part of the reason is that I was down with a cold, so really couldn’t do anything else and thus had the time to do so, to be fair; but mostly it was because I thought this was an amazing book and once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.

The basic plot, in case you missed it from other reviews: near Venus and Mercury, in a perpendicular orbit to the elliptic, is an asteroid covered with ships created by an ancient alien race that they call the Henchee (though they don’t tell you where the name comes from). It was discovered when alien ruins, created before we climbed down from the trees, were found on Venus, and one of the ships was found there. The person who found it accidentally piloted it to the asteroid base, where he eventually died of dehydration and starvation, or would have if he hadn’t blown himself up in an attempt to alert Earth as to where he was. This sets the tone for the casual acquaintance with death that is part of the mood and setting of the novel.

Now the asteroid, called Gateway, is inhabited by a gold-rush style community of “prospectors.” Each of these ships seems to be capable of going to a location pre-set by the Henchee with some sort of FTL drive, and returning via an automatic piloting system. But no one understands exactly how to set that location. No one knows how long each trip is going to take, and no one knows how long it’s going to take to get back, so you might starve to death on the trip. A system of drawing lots to suicide and even survival cannibalism has been worked out by the prospectors. Because the Henchee systems seem to be integrated you can’t remove any of the Henchee equipment without destroying the ships, so you must cram human survival gear in next to all of the equipment. The ships are able to support one, three, or five people with extreme difficulty and in close enough quarters to literally be in each others’ armpits. The Henchee may have had some other way of picking up nourishment on the way; humans do not.

Even if you do survive the trip that way, because the Henchee built all this stuff maybe millions of years ago, whatever it was that was in the location they went to that they were interested in might be gone. Planets might have been eaten by suns going supernova. Stars might be white dwarves by now. You might end up literally in the middle of nowhere, or you might end up in the cornea of a star or cooked by coming out too close to a blue star by radiation. The risks and the odds are astronomical. There are many, many ways to die, many of them indicated by “mission reports” that Pohl includes intermingled in the text, along with classified ads, letters home, and various other dribs and drabs that give you a really clear picture of prospector life and the surrounding community that has developed. As an aside, some reviewers have been critical of what they see as trademark 1970s liberalism in the society so described, but I think those reviewers probably haven’t read as much as I have about frontier towns and communities that grow up around other dangerous professions, such as soldiering. It seems pretty typical of such communities to me. Not a lot of children present, sex and drugs (at least soft ones) available everywhere, and some really great intellectual and artistic stuff going on alongside all that.

So why would anyone do this? For the same reason people left everything to follow the gold rush; the potential for the big payoff. If you find something of scientific value on your mission, they pay you a science bonus in the millions of dollars. They pay you a multi-million dollar danger bonus if you survive something extremely dangerous. They pay you royalties in the thousands if your discovery can be used by future generations (such as discovering a new world full of Henchee ruins, or a faster route to something of significance.) In order to get this, you’re basically owned by the Gateway Corporation until you do. You don’t have to leave on missions once you get to Gateway, but there’s a life support systems tax and everything, as it often is in frontier gold rush towns, is extremely expensive, so you either get a shoveling-shit kind of job for a subsistence existence or you dare the runs.

And why would you go there and take this risk? Because society is basically a corporatist, overpopulated dystopia, in which there are so many people competing for so few resources that oil shale must be mined to grow food in bacterial and mold cultures. That’s where our protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, comes from, one of these food mines. His father was killed in a mining accident when he was young and his mother died of lung cancer from exposure to mining chemicals; she might have lived, but she didn’t tell Bob that she was sick because he had suffered a psychotic episode and was undergoing psychiatric care, and she didn’t have the money to pay for treatment for both of them. In many ways this is a 1970s sci-fi trope — overpopulation causing widespread famine — but Pohl treats it as an impetus for the story and not the story point itself, and honestly, with the risk of climate change and current economics, it’s not an unrealistic view of the future, I’m sorry to say.

The story is told in the form of flashbacks that come from Bob seeking psychiatric treatment after he has struck it rich at Gateway and returned to Earth, where he now lives a multi-millionaire’s lifestyle. He’s suffering from severe PTSD and is trying to get his life back in order.

I’ve seen more than one review that describes Bob as a “whiner” or an “asshole.” I think that these reviewers don’t understand PTSD. Pohl’s depiction of the disorder, which I happen to know a great deal about both from research and experience, is spot on. A person acquires PTSD not necessarily from experiencing a dangerous situation (though certainly they can,) but also from living with fear for a very long time. Children with abusive parents acquire it because they never know when they’re going to be attacked next, as do abused spouses (both male and female,) and soldiers acquire it because they never know when the next assault is going to come.

Bob expresses much of his post-traumatic stress in the form of suppressed rage. Perhaps other reviewers haven’t realized it but his trauma began long before Gateway; it began in the dangerous mines, where he grew up knowing that his father was killed by an accident and knowing his mother died of chemical exposure; and the same would inevitably be his fate if he remained, but he had nowhere else to go. That, I think, certainly qualifies as a trauma-inducing situation. So when he won the lottery, and it was enough to take him to Gateway, he went.

But this was just going from the frying pan into the fire. Many people are driven by desperate poverty into, say, the military, even though they’d rather not do it; or more commonly, petty crime with considerable risk (like gangs or the drug scene). And if anyone says they had a choice not to do that, I say that such a person has never experienced that kind of desperate, crippling poverty. I have, and there have been times in my life when I have seriously considered such things.

Bob spends a lot time dithering on Gateway before taking his first run. Many people see that as cowardice, and he describes it as such when he is in therapy, but Bob is an unreliable narrator suffering from a great deal of survivor’s guilt and self-loathing. Since one of the first things he experienced was the smell of cooked bodies when a cleaning crew opened up an ill-fated returned ship, I think it’s rational fear. He didn’t want to risk his life like that, but he felt he had no choice if he wanted to live. Scary stuff and I would hope the reader would imagine oneself in that situation. Unless you’ve been faced with the choice of such odds, I don’t think you have any idea how you’d react. I think that people who failed to empathize with Bob’s plight probably spend too much time playing video games. He’s a normal guy, an anti-hero, not an action hero.

A spoiler follows:

(view spoiler)

Now many people will instantly condemn Bob because he hit a woman who was his girlfriend. That makes him an abuser. Yes, it does. But I also think this has to do with a lack of understanding about PTSD and a lack of understanding of Bob’s situation. Bob ended up breaking up with his first girlfriend because he was too scared to go on that first mission. So the million-dollar payoff could have been his, and then he would be out of this situation in which he must risk his life and live with fear as a constant companion. Or he might be dead. His current girlfriend also avoided going out on runs due to fear. So there was a lot of misplaced self-loathing involved in the situation, and when Bob struck her, he was really striking himself. It doesn’t make it okay, but it does make it *understandable.* He would not be the first person suffering from PTSD to do something similar. (hide spoiler)]

There is also a brief exploration of LGBTQ themes in this book, in that slightly-awkward way that the 1970s has of presenting LGBTQ characters. Gay and lesbian characters are presented as a matter of course in the people that the protagonist encounters, and Bob himself has a brief fling with a character who identifies as bisexual. But Bob struggles with that and feels a certain degree of shame and embarrassment about it in therapy, and there’s also a suggestion (subtle, but there) that Bob’s brief homosexual fling has something to do with his psychological issues. This is a problematic element that you find in 1970s fiction, representing the prejudices of the time. But it’s possible that someone who is unaware of the prejudices of the time might not even notice this issue.

After that, Bob tears off on a spree of self-destruction, and this eventually culminates in a really terrible situation which he survives. I won’t spoil it for you because this is the climax of the book we’re talking about, but if you could survive such a horror without having nightmares you either fail to grasp the horror of it, or you’re a sociopath.

Gripping, moving, outstanding sci-fi novel about the risks of discovery, the bravery of humanity, and about ordinary people doing the best (and sometimes less than the best) they can in terrible situations. It won pretty much every award available in science fiction there is and it deserves it. Seriously, read it.

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Oriental Adventures and Spelljammer: A Guide

Paul Westermeyer (aka GMWestermeyer) has given us permission to bring you a Spelljammer netbook he has been working on called Oriental Adventures and Spelljammer: A Guide.

Here is what he told us about his guide:

This summarizes oriental cultures in each of the major D&D settings, as well as in Hackjammer, it also includes an OA only SJ timeline, and my Kara-tur timeline. It includes original material on many of the worlds, especially Forgotten Realms, and a reasonably complete bibliography.

I’ve only quickly skimmed through the 67 page netbook, but there are all sorts of useful information including:

  • 8 sections giving you information on Asian content that can be used in Realmspace,
  • 4 sections giving you information on Asian content that can be used in Greyspace,
  • A section giving you information on Asian content that can be used in Mystaraspace,
  • A section giving you information on Asian content that can be used in the Hackjammer crystal sphere,
  • 3 sections giving you information on Asian content within the Spelljammer product line,
  • A section about the Asian D&D content located on the Mythic Earth,
  • A Spelljammer Oriental Adventures Timeline,
  • A detailed bibliography, with details of 12 different types of sources that can improve your Oriental Adventures/Spelljammer crossover gaming experience and
  • A timeline of Kara-Tur

Being a Paul Westermeyer document, the citations and bibliography are a major part of this, allowing you to follow his research back to all the original sources and formulate opinions based on his research, as well as his conclusions.

This is a must-have PDF for any Spelljammer campaign.

There is a discussion topic over at the Spelljammer forum at The Piazza, where you can discuss Oriental Adventures and Spelljammer: A Guide with other fans and the author himself.

Book Review: Cities in Flight by James Blish

Cities in Flight (Cities in Flight, #1-4)Cities in Flight by James Blish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cities in Flight is an omnibus edition of four related books written by James Blish in the 1950s and 60s. Each one is a stand-alone story but they interconnect. The essential premise of the plot is that three factors — the Cold War, the discovery of anti-aging drugs, and the invention of anti-gravity technology — results in a mass exodus of entire cities from Earth, who then spread out among the stars as independent city-states. Some colonize planets; others, called “Okies,” wander from planet to planet doing odd jobs for pay, which sustains their civilizations; but just like hobos throughout history, they are routinely harassed by the police and seen as ne’er-do-wells. It is about one such Okie city, New York, New York, that Blish writes.

The first story, “They Shall Have Stars”, is not really about the characters, but it introduces the necessary technology and geopolitical pressures that create his world. “A Life for the Stars” is a twisted bildungsroman in this unique sociopolitical landscape that Blish has created (which is a wonderful thing in and of itself; considering the sociopolitical consequences of new technologies!). “Earthman, Come Home” is arguably the most character driven book of the series. And “The Triumph of Time” is ultimately about how we human beings confront mortality; but, more than that, how we confront inevitable oblivion.

My favourite character is John Amalfi. And I love how utterly ordinary Blish’s characters are. No chiseled jaws and rippling pectorals here; just ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations in a cavalier, almost Wild West pioneer spirit. That Wild West aspect was intentional on Blish’s part. Reading the appendix you discover that Blish was directly inspired by Spengler’s “Decline of the West.”

However, there were some flaws in the characterization as well, and some characters were better realized than others. Chris, the viewpoint character of “A Life for the Stars,” was terribly undeveloped. He existed for the sole purpose of exposing Blish’s politics and science. I could have taken him or left him. And I do have to say that I find it tiresome that these men writing classic science fiction, who were so progressive in terms of many of their ideas and technology, never seemed to anticipate that women would eventually be just as likely to be in positions of political and military leadership as men. Blish even pointed out how women never end up getting selected to serve as “Mayor” (which in this story is actually a eugenically-democratically elected Emperor of a city-state) by the computers that do that selecting. I guess it was really hard for men in the 1960s to accept that their skills in this department were not genetically superior to those of women. 😉 I have to give that a pass, though, because it is ridiculous to expect works of previous time periods to conform to the standards of the present day.

I like how the events of one book have effects that ripple into the others while, at the same time, being entirely stand-alone works (though “They Shall Have Stars” might have looked better as a story in Analog or Asimov instead of as a book.)

Some of the other readers in my book club were baffled and irritated by some of the science, which reduced their enjoyment of the book. I can see their point. The anti-aging drugs weren’t that terribly well developed and probably drew back to what was cutting edge science when the book was written, which of course is now completely obsolete. And it didn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense to me either; it was just discovered that some chemical compounds prevented come kinds of cellular degeneration, and the ones discovered later were also effective at eliminating mistakes in cellular regeneration because they were able to cure cancer while the earlier ones were not (but the cancer still didn’t kill you, which is interesting.) But I was okay with the McGuffin personally; largely I think because I also read a lot of fantasy. I don’t really care how it works, to be honest. I accept that in this universe that’s the way it works, and on I go.

In the middle of the Space Race there were thought to be two major obstacles to interstellar flight; a way to overcome and/or create gravity, and the amount of time it takes to get between places in such a vast universe. Blish’s solution was people who don’t age and spindizzies. Which also inadvertently solved the radiation problem, which is one of the big concerns that is currently delaying a manned mission to Mars; apparently outside of the Earth and Moon’s magnetic field there’s a whole slew of radiation from the sun that’s really harmful to us. I’m not even sure they were aware of all that in the 1960s, when those two books were written, but that problem is solved at any rate.

I’ve also read some arguments against some other aspects of the technology being obsolete, such as the use of vacuum tubes, but here I don’t agree because there’s some very good arguments for using vacuum tubes in deep space. Consider how computers and satellites malfunction when there’s a major solar flare; do you want that happening to the computers upon which your life depends in deep space? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Still, to some extent I feel we must accept that classic sci-fi is often, by nature, going to have bad science, because our knowledge of how things actually work has increased considerably over the past two hundred years, and in exponential ways. Let’s not forget that Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells were writing perfectly acceptable science fiction for their time.

However, as I said, I can see why that lack of explanation about the anti-aging drugs could diminish enjoyment of the books and I think that’s perfectly reasonable. Especially when the physics and quantum physics were so excellently done! Blish’s explanation for anti-gravity, and dealing with anti-matter, stands the test of time even today, even after all we’ve discovered about those subjects since.

The conclusion was fascinating, and also how the characters reacted to it was great. Overall, despite some significant literary flaws, mostly I think in the inconsistency in styles between the stories, I really enjoyed these books, and I see why they are considered to be classics of science fiction. Highly recommended!

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