Sunday, June 24, 2018

Looking at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

This isn’t going to be a conventional book review.  In terms of how great a work of speculative fiction The Handmaid’s Tale is, too much has already been said that I really can’t add to it.  Published in 1985, the novel has gone on to be ranked with other classics of dystopian fiction, including Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and It Can’t Happen Here.

Think of this as more of a meditation on The Handmaid’s Tale in The Age of Trump.

Most people know the basics of the plot.  The Handmaid's Tale takes place in a near-future America, where, thanks to series of environmental disasters, the birthrate has crashed. A group of religious fundamentalists, the Sons of Jacob, have staged a coup and have assassinated the president and much of Congress and replaced the Constitution with the dictatorial Christian theocratic state, the Republic of Gilead. Civil rights are heavily curtailed, and you're out of luck if you're a woman.

Offred, a young woman, is the protagonist.  She is the titular handmaid to a Commander, a high-ranking member of Gilead’s elite. Because of the decline in the birth rate, Handmaids are tasked with producing the offspring for the higher-ups. We know she was married with a child in The Before Times, but after she was intercepted at the border with her family, trying to escape to Canada, and she lost all contact with them, not even knowing if they are still alive.

So, what do we make of The Handmaid’s Tale? Certainly, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump in 2016, it was tempting to use the book and the television series to mirror then-current events. The election in November 2016 and the subsequent swearing in of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States seemed to grant The Handmaid's Tale added relevancy. I think what was perhaps most shocking was how suddenly it turned, from The Before Times, and the logic and sobriety of Barack Obama, to the Long Present, and the willful autocracy of Donald Trump.

Should we have been surprised? Not really. The autocrats have been on the march for a long time. Most famously in Russia, where Vladimir Putin has established a kleptocracy, bent on enriching himself and crushing his opponents.  It is all but certain that Putin meddled in the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, which brought Donald Trump to power. The great divide and stalemate in U.S. politics – red states vs. blue states and a gridlocked Congress – is a logical outcome of the U.S. two-party system. Putin and others took advantage of that, gaming a broken system.

So, what’s that got to do with The Handmaid’s Tale?


I’m getting to that. Whenever there is a time of perceived uncertainty, people look for an individual on a white horse offering simple solutions to complex problems. In the universe of The Handmaid’s Tale, the solution was the false comfort of prepackaged religious fundamentalism. In our history, much the same thing has happened. In the 1930s, as the Depression took its toll, people turned to men like Hitler and Mussolini to provide those easy answers. (It almost happened then in the U.S., as per my novel, War Plan Crimson.) Flash forward a few decades: many Americans, frustrated by government gridlock, the loss of good-paying jobs, and the feeling that somehow their country has lost its way, have turned to a man on a white horse. This time, he is a man who played a billionaire on television and claims he can make their country great again.  

No authoritarian would be without their scapegoats, their outsiders.  In The Handmaid’s Tale, “unwomen,” and other undesirables are scapegoated and brutalized by the state and either are exiled, executed, or sent to be worked to death in the Colonies. In the America of Donald Trump, the scapegoats and outsiders are mostly Latino migrants who are illegally crossing the border. I don’t deny for a moment this is a problem, and nations must be able to enforce their immigration laws. But there are ways and then there are ways of doing things. And surely separating migrant children – some as young as only months old – from their parents and putting them into camps is not the way to do it. It is inhumane and brutal. Donald Trump’s partial climb-down earlier this month only leaves this ghastly spectre hanging over our heads without resolution in sight.

We are nowhere near the universe of The Handmaid’s Tale, thank God. So perhaps we should be grateful to Margaret Atwood for providing us with both a mirror and a warning. Hopefully, we got the warning in time.

What’s Next?
I will be working on few things over the next couple of months. First, I will review Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth, which was discovered and published after his death. Second, I will follow up with the latest paperback edition in Taylor Anderson’s long-running Destroyermen series, Devil’s Due. Third, I am also looking forward to reviewing Mecha Samurai Empire, a novel by Peter Tieryas, set in the same alternate universe as his earlier United States of Japan, which I reviewed earlier in this space.

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Book Review: Gestapo Mars, by Victor Gischler


As a novel, Gestapo Mars doesn’t try to take itself too seriously. And that’s a probably a good thing, given that it takes place in a distant future of a parallel universe where the Nazis somehow emerged supreme. And that’s also likely a very good thing because such an explanation would likely make your brain hurt. 

I won’t even try to figure out when and where the histories diverged.  For example, there's a city on the moon called St. Armstrong,  plus numerous other historical and pop-cultural references to keep your head happily spinning.

But that's not the point here. Gestapo Mars is one helluva fun read.  It’s got space Nazis, beautiful women, dinosaur Nazis, plots and counterplots, cyborg Nazis, aliens, and did I mention, Nazis? 

The protagonist, one Carter Sloan, is a secret agent/troubleshooter for the Third Reich, which is since spread off-world, across the solar system and beyond.  He has spent the last 258 years in suspended animation. Like some high-priced fire extinguisher, Sloan is only brought out in case of emergency, which in this case, is a biggie. The Reich is threatened not only within by rebels but also without by the Coriandons, who as much resemble giant blobs of protoplasm.  Sloan’s mission is simple: track down the leader of the rebels, the Daughter of the Brass Dragon.  Whether he has to kill her or rescue her remains the big question. 

This book clips along. The author writes at a brisk pace, daring the reader to keep up with him. Gestapo Mars is character-driven with Gischler making Sloan a cynical protagonist we actually can care about.  By turns, Gestapo Mars is broadly satiric and action-packed, with a lot of nice plot twists that keep you glued right to the very end.


Highly recommended.

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Book Review: The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter


“…And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us…”  H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds.

Immediately after The War of the Worlds was first published as a serial in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897, the first of many sequels were published, starting with the quixotic Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss, in which Thomas Edison leads an invasion fleet to counter-attack the Martians. Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of authors have written sequels that have tried to shoehorn The War of the Worlds into the alternate history genre. Some have worked out quite well, and some have not.  The Great Martian War, a 2013 coproduction of the BBC and The History Channel, for example, is one the former, is an alternate history documentary that had the Martians land in a Europe on the eve of the First World War. 

The War of the Worlds is not just a favourite science fiction novel of mine. It was my gateway to the literature.  So, anyone who came along better with an alternate history sequel, better get it right. Fortunately, I can report that Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind, as both a sequel and a work of alternate history, works on both those of levels and more.

Without giving too much away the novel begins in 1920. It’s been 17 years since the first Martian assault on England in 1907, which failed, as we all know, because of the invaders’ exposure to earthly bacteria.  Since then, the earth has become an armed camp, watching the skies at each direct opposition of Mars to the Earth for the firing of the massive gun that would signal the renewed onslaught.  The British Isles are ruled by a military government, while in Europe something resembling World War One has happened. France is under German occupation and a protracted war with Imperial Russia drags on in the east. While humanity’s technological level may have benefited from the reverse-engineering of what the Martians left behind, the Martians themselves have been learning from their mistakes and have also been adapting.

The initial Martian landing in England in 1920 is followed by a second wave which straddles the world. A true war of the worlds then begins, with Baxter not only giving sly but affectionate nods to Orson Welles’ radio broadcast, the 1953 George Pal movie, and a couple of other literary sequels. The book is also a great spot-the-H.G. Wells-reference game as Baxter gleefully slides in references to other works by Wells.

Baxter’s novel, “authorized by the estate of H.G. Wells” benefits from his brilliantly-executed plot, its prose, and its cast of characters. While several characters from the first novel are present, such as the “unreliable narrator” of the first novel, now identified as Walter Jenkins, and the darkly pragmatic cockney artilleryman, it's Jenkins’ sister-in-law, Julie Elphinstone, plucky girl reporter, who provides the main narrative focus with a decided 21st Century point of view. 

This is an excellent novel.  Not only is The Massacre of Mankind a worthy and careful sequel to H.G. Wells’ original, touching on many of its themes, while adding a couple of its own, it also stands a superior example of the alternate-history genre.  Most highly recommended.

Up Next:

I will be reviewing the delightfully zany Gestapo Mars, by Victor Gischler, which is exactly like it sounds.
  
In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book Review: The Berlin Project, by Gregory Benford

It's not always that I get to read a book like this, by that I mean a plausible and well-told alternate history tale, written by a real scientist, no less.


Karl Cohen in 1939
Such is Gregory Benford's The Berlin Project.  Benford is both an established SF writer, best known for his Galactic Center novels, and an astrophysicist and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, where he was a Professor of Physics, so he definitely knows of what he speaks here. Benford deftly tells a story of a world where the Manhattan Project produced a viable nuclear weapon one year earlier than in our own timeline, due to the insistence of a real-life chemist and Project participant, Karl Cohen, who proposed a vastly simpler approach to refining uranium than was actually used. In our timeline his approach - the use of centrifuges to separate out the weapons-grade material - was discarded in favor of the much slower gaseous diffusion process. 

That's just a taste of the novel, which contains enough real-life science for a dozen other books. It is also populated by other just as real scientific luminaries such as Edward Teller and Leo Szilard, whom Benford knew later in life, that gives The Berlin Project that added reality.  Benford shows what type of world might have resulted had, in fact, the atomic bomb been available for use a year earlier than it was in our history. I won't go into spoilers here, but the title of the book and the large mushroom cloud on the front cover should provide a fairly good hint of what's in store.

I will point out where there are a couple of picky examples of poor editing that mar an otherwise excellent book. One of these - and I self-identify as an aviation geek - is when the author gets certain aircraft wrong - what's more jarring is that he refers to them correctly earlier in the book and then somehow messes them up later. Similar where to he refers to in the altered history of the book first that Fermi's first reactor is set up on the east coast in New Jersey, rather in Chicago, where it was in our timeline, but later his main character states that Fermi's reactor is in Chicago. It's little slips like this - and God knows I'm guilty of them myself, trust me - that the reader notices.

As I said, these things are only minor glitches in an otherwise superlative tale by excellent writer and scientist. Do I recommend the book? Of course: Alternate history doesn't get much better than this. The Berlin Project is a treat to read and a feast for the imagination.

Up Next:
I'm beginning to read Stephen Baxter's The Massacre of Mankind. I hope to have a review of it for next month, but, we'll have to see. Things have been a little busy around the old blog. 

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

If You've Got Nothing, You Might as Well Go Back to the Future…


It's January, and we've all made it this far into 2018. Let's congratulate ourselves.

I'm settling into my new home, but things have still been too chaotic for me to put together a blog posting. Sure, on TV, after a sub-par start, Star Trek: Discovery has finally roped me into watching it by voyaging into the Mirror Universe and the heart of the Terran Empire. But that's not what I'd call true alternative history - it's an interesting genre sideline, that's all.

I've purchased a new book, The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter.   The dust jacket notes that it's the sequel to The War of the Worlds, "authorized" by author's estate.   I'm not sure about that; there have been a number of sequels to Wells' book since it was first published well over a century ago.  The book takes place in a parallel 1920s after the Martians tried to unsuccessfully invade England in 1907. A number of other books have also tried to shoehorn the original Wells novel into alternate history. But to be fair, I like Baxter's work and I have reviewed his stuff on this blog, alone and in conjunction with Terry Pratchett (The Long Universe series). The War of the Worlds is also one of my all-time favourite books, so with that combination, I am looking forward reading Baxter's book - which is a rather hefty 482 pages in hardcover - and reviewing it for you later in this space.

It's also occurred to me, with some apologies, that besides what I've already written, I don't have anything else to offer this month. Except, that is, maybe for some pictures of some of the pretty space-age concept cars from the '60s, that harken to some alternate, more optimistic future. I've done this before in this space, and I found it fun to share them with you. So here we go:

1969 Chevy Astro III








AMC Amitron, Electric car prototype, 1967


1964 GM Bison Truck Concept

1961 Chrysler Turboflyte
















Up Next:

I'll try to get my act together, I promise. Thanks.

Meanwhile, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

From My Bookshelf: A Choice of Destinies, by Melissa Scott

First, I’ll say I’m sorry about missing last month’s post. It’s been one of those months around the old blog, I’m afraid to say. I’ve packed up home and hearth into storage yet again and have moved in with an old friend to save money while I look for work.  After what can only be truly termed a Move from Hell, I am now situated fairly well enough to pick up the blog from where I left off.   


That being said, I now turn to the subject of this month’s post, a book by Melissa Scott, A Choice of Destinies (1986). Its subject is an intriguing alternative take on the life of Alexander of Macedon, more commonly known as Alexander the Great.  Considered one of the greatest military commanders in history, Alexander was born in Macedonia in 356 BC. He succeeded his father Phillip II to the throne at age 20. Over the course of the next ten years, he went on to build an empire stretching from Egypt to the Indus River, only stopping when his homesick troops refused to go further. History records that Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BC, without leaving an heir. Afterwards, a series of civil wars tore the Empire apart, leaving the road clear for the rise of Rome.


Make Alexander Great Again
In A Choice of Destinies, Scott asks what if Alexander didn’t go into India, but turned back west, to firm up his Empire and take on and conquer Rome?  The result is a world-spanning Alexandrian Empire that continues to the modern day, which is probably a more than a little unrealistic.  It’s yet another example of the space filling empire trope where a given alternate history country or empire spreads out to cover the world, and then the stars.  We’ve seen a more than a few of these in the genre literature, so while it’s a little unimaginative, we wink at the conceit and go along for the ride.

Now is A Choice of Destinies a good book?  Ultimately, it is, warts and all.  Author Scott kept me sufficiently engaged with a series of flashbacks that move in and out of the main narrative of how Alexander built his alternate empire. It’s definitely worthwhile keeping your eye out for on your next trip to your local used bookstore.

Up Next:

The holiday season is upon on us, so I hope to stock up on a few genre books that I can review for you in the New Year. The New Year also brings the promise of Season Three of The Man in the High Castle, so watch this space for further developments in that area. In the meantime, may I extend to you and your loved ones my best wishes for the holidays and a safe and prosperous New Year. 

Meanwhile, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Amazon Previews Season Three of The Man In the High Castle


Amazon recently let slip its teaser trailer for the third season of its critically-acclaimed The Man In the High Castle.  And what a teaser it is. 



In this one scene, we see SS Obergruppenf├╝hrer Smith meeting with the Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele. Mengele is showing Smith an unfortunate woman whom he has strapped to a table.   According to Mengele, she has the ability to travel between the worlds of the multiverse. Mengele is cold and clinical, while Smith seems awestruck and perhaps a little afraid. Smith is also told by Mengele, almost as an aside, that the SS is also working on a means of traveling between worlds. 

The apparently natural ability to move between worlds has been already been established as both Trade Minister Tagomi and Juliana Crain have traveled across the time stream, with Juliana seemingly meeting an alternate version of her dead sister Trudy in the last minutes of the second season's final episode, and Tagomi making several transits over the course of the first season and second seasons. Tagomi's assistant,  Kotomichi, is also revealed in the second season to have come from a world where presumably the Americans A-bombed Hiroshima.

In a way, the teaser mirrors one of two chapters Philip K. Dick wrote for an unnamed and unpublished sequel to The Man In the High Castle (published in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, 1995 Vintage Books), where  the senior Nazi leadership is discussing the return of an expedition to the Nebenwelt, which is a parallel world where the Allies won the Second World War, and is in fact clearly stated as our world, and not of the-book-in-the-book of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.

However, what we are presented only whets our appetite as many questions remain to be answered. What will happen to Smith’s son, Thomas, who has a form of muscular dystrophy?  Smith has already taken great pains to hide his son’s condition, including murder, and betraying his SS oath, from a system that would classify his son as unfit and would destroy him. What is really happening when Juliana meets Trudy?  And although the situation between Germany and Japan seems to have settled out – for the moment – how long will this last? And if indeed the Nazi scientists led by Josef Mengele are working on a way to travel the multiverse, what will be the results of their experiments?


We shall see.

Up Next:

We’ll raid my bookshelves for a look at more of my favorite alternate history fiction. Promise. 

Meanwhile, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.