Sunday, September 29, 2019

Sauron Defeated

JRR Tolkien
Completed 9/28/2019, Reviewed 9/29/2019
3 stars

I have to admit book nine is the first History of Middle Earth (HoME) book that I haven’t finished.  I read about 385 pages out of about 440.  The last fifty odd pages were very dry, almost textbook-ish, reading.  I skimmed through it and got the general idea of what it was about.  In general, the book was very dry compared to the other books in the series.  It was in three parts: the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings, the Norton Club Papers, and the Fall of Numenor.  The Norton Club Papers was particularly difficult to read, it being different than anything else Tolkien or his son Christopher published so far.  Thank goodness for the Tolkien Professor’s podcast on this book.  While I haven’t finished all seventeen episodes yet, it really helped me a lot in understanding the Norton Club papers.  I found the majority of the book to be dry and not as interesting as the first eight in the series.  Even though I’ve been a big fanboy of these books, this one nearly had me stopped in my tracks. 

The Tolkien Professor is Corey Olsen, founder of Mythgard Institute and Signum University which is on its way to becoming an accredited on-line institution of learning of Tolkien studies, Anglo-Saxon and Norse studies, and Fantasy and Science Fiction.  His excitement for and knowledge of these HoME books made the reading of this book much more tolerable.  He does textual analysis of these books as well as other science fiction and fantasy novels as part of his free Mythgard Academy.  The podcasts are also available on youtube or you can login to his live shows and follow along each week.  These podcasts have made reading the HoME series very enjoyable.

The first part of this book was the last of the History of The Lord of the Rings.  You can tell it was the ending because most of the documents were very similar to the published LOTR.  There were only some minor differences.  I found the most interesting part to be an epilogue which was never published.  It features Sam with his children, finishing the red book and recapping everyone’s lives up to that point.  It’s a very sweet story and would have been an interesting though not quite as dramatic conclusion to LOTR. 

The next section is the Norton Club Papers.  It is a thinly disguised take on the Inklings, the little society of Oxford professors which included Tolkien and CS Lewis, who met and read each other’s writings and offered support and academic criticism.  This Club first has a conversation about Lewis’ Space series, particularly the second book, Perelandra, and the problems with space travel.  The conversation then moves into time travel through dreams and the strange communications members of the group seem to be receiving from a distant past.  This past concerns Numenor, the island where Men lived between Middle Earth and the undying lands.  The group members are getting information as well as language details.  

The last section of the book reviews the fall of Numenor, which is an extension of the Norton Club Papers.  It begins with the creation of Numenor, the emigration of Men to it, the coming of Sauron to taint the goodness of the place, followed by its Atlantean destruction.  It’s very interesting at first, but Christopher Tolkien gives three different texts of the story, each with more detail, followed by a fourth which just contains lines in the third text that were changed.  It’s then followed by analysis of the documents and lastly, one member of the Norton Club’s writings of the languages of Numenor he received in his dreams.  This was the part of the book where I stopped reading.  The writings about the languages were simply too dry and complicated for me to follow with any semblance of understanding.  I am looking forward to Corey Olsen’s lectures on that section to better appreciate it.  As much as I love learning about languages, this section was the driest of the book. 

I give this book only three stars out of five.  It’s jam-packed with information, but I found it not as interesting as the first eight.  The section concluding the LOTR did not have the magic of the first books, where Frodo was named Bingo and Aragorn was a wooden shoe wearing Hobbit named Trotter.  I found the Norton Club Papers to be very complex, with too many professors to really follow the conversation well.   A literary mystery examined by a group of Oxford dons may sound like fun, but I found it simply to be very tough to follow.  And lastly, the multiple drafts of the Numenorean story became boring quickly.  I still have three more books to go in the HoME series and I hope that they are more interesting than this one was.

Thursday, September 26, 2019


Tade Thompson
Completed 9/10/2019, Reviewed 9/10/2019
4 stars

I enjoyed this book immensely.  It takes place in Nigeria and deals with aliens and psychic abilities.  The location is unusual for science fiction as most of the books I’ve read, and in general what we have here in the U.S., have American and Euro-centric locales.  This provided a different point of view with different values and mores.  It’s the first book in a trilogy.  It has some loose ends but ends well enough that I didn’t feel like I was completely hanging.  It’s well written and pretty fast paced.  It was nominated for four awards, winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award, considered Britain’s most prestigious SF award.

The plot revolves around Kaaro, a sensitive who can read people’s minds in some form.  He begins life as a thief, stealing things that people value the most, figuring out where to find it and how to steal it by sensing it.  Over time, he abandons his thieving ways, for the most part, and is recruited to work for a government agency, Section 45.  His first mission is to try to find a dissident known as the Bicycle Girl.  All his work is done in the backdrop of a city known as Rosewater which surrounds a biodome placed there by aliens.  In the meantime, he meets a man who can fly and occasionally bursts into flames, alien floaters that want to devour him, and a woman posing as a butterfly who wants to have sex with him every time he enters the xenosphere.  It may sound complicated, but it makes perfect sense in the course of the book.

Kaaro is an interesting character.  He’s neither a hero nor an anti-hero.  He primarily has an ambivalent attitude toward work and life that keeps him doing what he does.  Towards the end however, he starts to stand up for himself, making decisions that may anger the S45, but finally coming to grips with his own wants and needs, and gaining a bigger perspective on the aliens. 

The book is told in first person from Kaaro’s point of view.  The narrative is told in two time lines, now, which is 2066, and then, which is his life as a youth up to 2055 when the alien biodome emerges, Rosewater develops as a city, and he is recruited by S45.  I found this switching of timelines confusing at times, particularly near the end.  Normally I can follow shifting timelines, but this time, I lost track a bit.

I really liked most of the secondary characters, most notably his boss at S45 and his love interest.  His boss is one dimensional for most of the book, but becomes more multi-dimensional towards the end.  She’s brassy and bossy, and Kaaro takes none of it, though he still does as she commands.  His love interest is the sister of the young man who flies and burst into flames.  I can’t go into too much detail on her, but suffice it to say, I thought she was very interesting.

I give this book four stars out of five.  The prose is great, but does not overwhelm the dialogue or the action.  The world building is also great, creating a near future Nigeria which suffers from superstitions, prejudice, and group hysteria.  I don’t know when I’ll get around to them, but I look forward to the rest of the trilogy. 

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Time is the Simplest Thing

Clifford D Simak
Completed 9/2/2019, Reviewed 9/11/2019
3 stars

Not quite his best, but I still enjoyed this short novel by Simak.  Written in 1961, it’s a novel about intolerance and fear of the other, couched in a story about some people who have psychic abilities.  They are called witches and werewolves and strike fear and loathing in the people of the heartland of the U.S., a typical setting for many of Simak’s works.  It still has its relevance today; whereas when written, this was a metaphor for the racial issues of the day, it could be seen as representative of the many forms of intolerance and xenophobia present today.  Simak is one of my favorite authors, and this book confirms that, even though it is a little weaker than the others of his I’ve read.  It was nominated for a Hugo in 1962.

Shepherd Blaine works for the Fishhook company as a psychic astronaut, traveling to distant planets not with spaceships but with his mind.  It turns out that humans are too fragile to travel in space, being affected by the radiation belt around Earth.  But with psychics, humans can travel to distant planets in the galaxy, meeting aliens and bringing back alien technology.  On one mission, Blaine encounters an alien which mind melds with him.  So now he is more than human.  Fearing being discovered by Fishhook, he escapes and hitches a ride to South Dakota.  Along the way, he meets others like him, as well as people who are terrified of psychics.  He is nearly lynched in one town.  His journey brings him face to face with an evil preacher who was also a psychic employee of Fishhook, but now travels the country spreading his gospel of fear, hate, and violence.

Blaine is a decent character, although I felt that most of the characters were a little one dimensional.  He being the main character and the book being told from his point of view, we get to know the most about him.   My favorite sequence is when Blaine hitches a ride with a trucker who is so terrified of psychics he carries a gun with him and won’t travel at night for fear of the “witches and werewolves”.  Blaine handles him expertly, balancing his own fear of being found out with his need to get to South Dakota.  Along the way, they encounter a group of teens who are telekinetic and can fly, so of course the trucker is terrified of the witches and almost kills them.  Blaine prevents anything too major from happening, and makes a contact that can help in out of a jam later in the novel.

The opening scene with the alien is standard Simak.  Rather than being humanoid, the alien is a pink amorphous blob.  I like Simak’s aliens.  I think the fact that they tend to be very unlike humans lends an air of believability.  I also like that this one communicates psychically, for any audible form of communication would probably be terribly difficult to comprehend.

Overall, the book was satisfying, but felt like it was lacking in substance, despite the message.  It was initially published in serialized form, so the journey/chase format probably worked better with a couple of cliffhangers.  I enjoyed it, but I still think “Way Station” was his masterpiece.  I give the book three stars out of five.  I got it as an Amazon deal of the day, and for that price, it was well worth it. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Calculating Stars

Mary Robinette Kowal
Completed 9/7/2019, Reviewed 9/10/2019
4 stars

I was really impressed by this book.  It deals with sexism and racism in a 1950’s alt-history post-apocalyptic setting.  It was tight, fast paced, and well-written with a marvelous female lead.  I read this book on vacation and was listening to “Lucifer’s Hammer” on the road, which has a similar apocalyptic scene.  The books have some similarities, and a couple of times, I got the characters confused.  But while that book is a disaster novel, this book is more focused on the social issues of the day, with the disaster acting as a backdrop.  However, the disaster part of the book was one of the best I’ve ever read, being a small-scale narrative rather than trying to explain all the global details.  Kowal won both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards for this.

Dr. Elma York is a brilliant mathematician and WWII pilot.  She is with her husband Nathaniel in the Poconos when a meteor slams into Washington, D.C.  Most of the rest of her family is in D.C. and on the coast in Charleston and are wiped out.  She and her husband escape by small plane to a military base in Kansas which becomes the new capital.  There she discovers that the earth will experience climate events, first a global winter followed by a runaway greenhouse effect.  This discovery prompts the U.S. government to form an international effort to get people into space to begin colonizing other planets, as the earth slowly becomes uninhabitable.  Elma believes she has what it takes to be an astronaut, but meets intense opposition in the new space program.  While working as a computer (one who performs calculations) for the space program, she begins a crusade to get women including women of color who are qualified to be accepted as astronauts. 

The book is told in first person by Elma.  She is a great character with lots of guts and ambition.  She has one fatal flaw and that is she has terrible stage fright anxiety.  She freaks out and vomits whenever she must speak publicly or to a large group.  She has to deal with the social taboo of seeking help in this 1950’s world of unenlightenment on mental illness.  So in addition to sexism and racism, she has to fight that as well.  It makes for a wonderfully well-drawn character.  I really felt Elma’s drive to become an astronaut, despite everything that was blocking her.

Nathaniel, her husband, is also well done.  He was the lead engineer for U.S. aeronautics program and becomes the lead engineer for the international space program.  He’s great, almost too perfect, as the supportive husband, who is completely understanding of her and her issues.  But he does act as the foil to the misogynistic Stetson Parker, the bigoted and sexist lead astronaut of the program.  Parker is mostly a charicature until the second half of the book when he shows his humanity.  There are other women in the story who also fight for the right to become astronauts as well, but they take a back seat to Elma’s narrative. 

The disaster part of the book, the beginning, is really well written.  It doesn’t cover the details of the meteor slamming into D.C., but instead describes the shock wave and earthquakes that affect our main character.  So unlike “Lucifer’s Hammer”, it’s smaller scale in its disaster description, but it’s very effective.

I give this book four stars out of five.  The character development and plot are wonderful, and the writing is marvelous.  I was enrapt in the book, despite sometimes getting confused with “Lucifer’s Hammer”.  I haven’t read the other Nebula and Hugo winners, so I don’t know if it deserved to win, but it definitely deserved the nominations.  As a side note, this book is the first in a duology and there are other short pieces which are part of the story.  I’ve pretty much decided I’ll read all it eventually.