Book Review: Jefferson’s America

Book Review: Jefferson’s America by Julie M. Fenster

In 1803, many people in the fledgling United States expected a Louisiana War, as the Spanish had forbidden American shipping from passing down the Mississippi and through the port of New Orleans.  That didn’t happen, as the Spanish were induced to yield the Louisiana Territory to their allies the French.  France’s then-leader, Emperor Napoleon, said he would “never relinquish” the territory.  But when European troubles drew his attention, the French offered to sell Louisiana to the Americans for a cool fifteen million dollars.

Jefferson's America

President Thomas Jefferson got the U.S. to pay the money, but other than the important ports of New Orleans and St. Louis, it wasn’t clear what all was included in  the Louisiana Purchase.  Someone had to be sent out posthaste to learn river routes through the territory, and apply some scientific curiosity to what might be found there.  And so he chose the men of Jefferson.

This book is primarily about six men who led expeditions into the West, and the outcomes of those adventures.  Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson’s personal secretary and a man who suffered bouts of depression. William Clark, younger brother of a Revolutionary War hero who had been cast aside by his country.  William Dunbar, slaveholder and scientist.  George Hunter, a chemist bent on making his fortune.  Thomas Freeman, one of the surveyors that laid out Washington, D,C,  And Zebulon Pike, an United States Army lieutenant who was intrepid beyond all reason.

It’s emphasized that other than Lewis, most of these men were not Jefferson’s first choices.  Many better trained people simply didn’t want to risk their lives on perilous journeys, or couldn’t get away from previous commitments.

Of course, they are not the only people covered in this history text.  We also meet the legendary Sacajawea, without whom Lewis & Clark might well not have made it past the Shoshone.  Aaron Burr, who you may remember from that recent musical.  Blackbird of the Omaha, whose dinner invitations you should find a way to politely refuse.  And many others.

The story is primarily chronological, and skips back and forth between expeditions happening at the same time.  But it’s not all “this happened, then that happened.”  There is room for a certain amount of editorial opinion, and oddball moments.  The book begins with a visit to New Orleans in 1820 by John James Audubon, who was later to gain fame painting birds.  At the time, he was seeking wealthy patrons who needed their portraits done, to fund his passion.  He met one of the famous Jeffersonian explorers, who alas had not aged well.

While the book is matter-of-fact about the issue of slavery, including some of the worst consequences of the system, it very carefully does not mention Jefferson’s own slaves, even when talking about his time at Monticello.  I have to wonder if the author felt she’d have to put in another chapter just to explain President Jefferson’s complicated relationship with slavery and felt it best to avoid the issue.

The treatment of Native Americans is more directly dealt with, as they occupied parts of the lands the explorers were moving through.  There’s quite a bit of politics involved, both between tribes, and their relationships with the various nations who wanted their goods or land.  Zebulon Pike is mentioned as having noticed that the introduction of strong liquor as a trade good was distorting tribal life.

There are many direct quotes from letters and journals, and these are sourced in the extensive endnotes.  There’s also a bibliography and index, several maps, and a thin section of illustrations in the center.

The age of Jeffersonian exploration lasted only a few years, but established the workability of scientific expeditions into the wilderness, rather than just cash and land grabs.  It’s briefly mentioned that unlike the slapdash American expeditions, the Spanish science explorers under Carlos III were well-trained and equipped for their journeys–it’s just that they’d never gotten around to the Louisiana Territory.  (I would like to read more about those expeditions, please.)

I found this book a pleasure to read, and recommend it for senior high students on up (there’s some frank talk about sex) who are interested in this period of history.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume through Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, more about Sacajawea:

 

Book Review: Perry Rhodan 10: The Ghosts of Gol

Book Review: Perry Rhodan 10: The Ghosts of Gol by Kurt Mahr

Following clues retrieved from the distant past, Perry Rhodan continues to search for the secret of immortality.  Accordingly, the crew of Stardust II is searching a particular sector of the galaxy for structural anomalies.  Soon, they discover a particular signal coming from a supergiant planet which is quickly dubbed Gol.  Despite the misgivings of his Arkonide allies Khrest and Thora, Rhodan orders a landing.  Once there, Rhodan and the others must brave the bizarre inhabitants and lethal environment of Gol to find the next clue left by the mysterious guardian of the secret.

Perry Rhodan 10: The Ghosts of Gol

The Perry Rhodan series has been published weekly since 1961 in Germany, with over 2800 novellas in the still-continuing original continuity, as well as numerous spin-offs.  The first installment, written by series creators K.H. Scheer & Walter Ernsting, had the first moon landing happen in 1971.  U.S. Space Force Major Perry Rhodan and his crew find a stranded alien spaceship captained by the impetuous beauty Thora, assisted by frail scientist Khrest.  While Arkonide technology is eons ahead of Earth’s, their society has become stagnant and decadent, and it is soon arranged for a trade of alien science for the exploration assistance of the vital Earthlings.

Rhodan swiftly (but not entirely without opposition) unites Earth, and then leads it against an invasion of more hostile aliens.  With that out of the way, he’s free to search for immortality.  It’s not much of a spoiler to say that he eventually finds it and he and several of his allies become immune to aging, allowing for the vast timescale of the series.

This volume (which translates Issue #16 of the German edition) is part of the Ace Books reprint series which ran from 1969-1978, translated by Wendayne Ackerman and edited by her husband Forrest J. Ackerman.  At this point the series was published monthly as a “bookazine”, with a film review column (this issue was First Spaceship on Venus) and letters section.  Sadly, the vast majority of the series has never been officially translated into English.

Kurt Mahr (pen name of Klaus Otto Mahn) was trained as a physicist, which gives his technobabble a feeling of verisimilitude.  It’s clear that he enjoyed trying to figure out what conditions might be like on a 900+ gravities planet and how the heck our heroes were going to get around on it.  The inhabitants of Gol are energy beings who exist primarily in a higher dimension and provide a unique hazard to the three-dimensional humans.

This story is in the pulp SF tradition, heavy on the exciting things happening, light on characterization.  Rhodan is very much the omni-competent hero, inventing a new branch of physics during one of the chapters to solve a technical problem.  The person who shows the most personality is Thora, whose back and forth with Rhodan suggests that she’s sweet on him but not willing to admit it even to herself.  There’s no overt sexism in the text, but the gender ratio of the crew is such that there are only two named women in a crew of at least one hundred.

There are several mutants with psychic powers in the crew of the Stardust II; the majority of them are Japanese (though I am dubious about the name Tanaka Seiko for a male characters.)  It’s not made clear in this volume if this is due to the atom bombs giving that area extra radiation or just coincidence.

The novella concludes with a bit of a cliffhanger; Rhodan has succeeded in finding the next place to go, but the ship’s new location isn’t anywhere in known space and they have no idea how to get back.

While this is an exciting, fast-paced read, the series is hard to find, being decades out of print.  Recommended primarily to fans of German science fiction of the old school.

Magazine Review: Gamma 3

Magazine Review: Gamma 3 edited by Charles E. Fritch

Gamma was a short-lived science fiction magazine (five issues in 1963-64), known for high-quality cover art and snagging stories from authors connected with the film industry.  (Indeed, I picked up this issue because of the sweet Morris Scott Dollens art.)  It was digest-sized and relatively thin.   Let’s look at the contents!

Gamma 3

“The Girl of Paradise Planet” by Robert Turner concerns retired millionaire George Prentiss.  He and his third wife Evvie have come to the title planet on a long vacation (her idea.)  Bored, Robert has taken up underwater swimming with future SCUBA gear.  This world is not supposed to have any native intelligent life, but then where did that water-breathing naked girl come from?  Is George having hallucinations from the water pressure, or is he just going insane?

Over the course of the story, we learn that George is a self-made man who spent his youth starting a business, growing that business and getting rich, so he didn’t look for romance until middle age, and three times went for trophy wives, none of whom have worked out.  Which is okay…except that the possibly imaginary Irlana comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose function is to rekindle his love of life (and is younger and prettier than Evvie.)

Mr. Turner was an experienced author, but this was his first time writing science fiction, and I can tell.  He’s certainly no climatologist, and the ending twist relies on most of the characters forgetting a perfectly logical explanation for events that would be common knowledge to them, even if the reader wouldn’t know it.

“The Feather Bed” by Shelley Lowenkopf presents a bizarre future in which the economy runs on make-work.  For example, three years after a building is built, all the piping is torn out and replaced just to give the plumbing crews something to do.   This extends to writing as well.  Every 37 years, all extant editions of Shakespeare are destroyed, and replaced with “newly written” versions by living authors.  Except that it’s just retyping the whole thing verbatim.  And the same goes for all other works of fiction by dead writers.

Lew has had it with the system–he doesn’t want to “rewrite” King Lear again, and on the union points system, it will be years before he’s allowed to write more of the original fiction that made him a successful author in the first place.  Unfortunately, he’s just one man against the system, and winds up causing even the FBI to intervene.  If Lew sticks to his principles, he could lose everything, including the writing he really wants to do.

“Angel Levine” by Bernard Malamud stars  Jewish tailor Manischevitz, who is going through hard times.  His shop burned down, and the insurance money was eaten by customer lawsuits.  His son died in the war, and his daughter ran off with a man and never communicates.  He’s got chronic pain, and his wife Rosie is dying.  Manischevitz asks God for assistance, but when an “angel” named Levine shows up, there are reasons the tailor is unconvinced.  It’s ultimately a story about belief in the face of your assumptions about people.  There is racism and anti-Semitism in the story.  (This one was reprinted from one of the author’s collections.)

“The (In)visible Man” by Edward W. Ludwig  is a fantasy about James Smith, who has become socially invisible.  He’s finally decided to exploit that fact, but one person has finally become able to see him, and that is both Mr. Smith’s weakness and best hope.  It’s a fairly sweet story, helped along by James Smith, even when he turns criminal, sticking to a “least harm” principle.  There is an attempted suicide in the story.

“Inside Story” by Miriam Allen deFord takes place in a far future when the Galactic Federation sends scouts to find new worlds that one of their myriad species can live on and isn’t already inhabited by intelligent life.  These planets are exceedingly rare.  It looks, however, like this one might be ideal.  Presuming the scout party doesn’t find any surprises like rapid inexplicable temperature variations….

In this future, scout ships have mixed-sex crews, but this is because every member of that crew is a different non-compatible species.  The twist ending is suitably bizarre.

“The Birth” by George Clayton Johnson is a retelling of a classic story from a different perspective.  See how long it takes you to figure out which one!

“Buttons” by Raymond E. Banks concerns John Burke, a starship officer who is forced by disaster to upload his mind to a computer memory storage system.  Supposedly, he will have his mind reinserted into his human body once that’s fixed.  But that procedure has a high failure rate, and Burke is rapidly discovering the advantages of being a disembodied intelligence.  There’s some relatively early thought about the benefits versus possible hazards of transhumanism.

“Society for the Prevention” by Ron Goulart is a humorous piece about the travails of a interplanetary surplus store manager.  He’s just gotten a large shipment of extremely ugly wicker urns, the natives of the planet have organized a violent “Shop Local” campaign, and the newly arrived Young Girls Space Police and Welfare Committee officer suspects him of being in cahoots with the inventor of a death ray.  Everything more or less works out in the end, but now the store manager has to try to explain to his boss why the urns didn’t get sold.  The female Space Police officer is treated as a joke–admittedly so is everyone else, but it may not sit well with some readers, as part of the joke is that women are completely unsuited for the work.

The final story is “The Snail Watcher” by Patricia Highsmith.  This creepy tale is about a man who gets a little too fascinated with the reproductive habits of snails, not noticing that these particular snails are reproducing much more rapidly than is anywhere near normal.

Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham
Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham

Interior art is by Luan Metheringham, who sadly seems to have completely dropped out of sight with only her Gamma appearances known.

There is also an interview with “Ivan Kirov” about the state of Soviet science fiction in the early 1960s.  He declined to have his real name published for security reasons.  Per the interview, SF in the USSR was beginning to blossom after being suppressed during the Stalinist years.  Noted was a tendency for “nuts and bolts” stories of adventure, with little of the social or psychological exploration that had become common in Western nations’ science fiction.  (At the time, the government censors were big on Soviet Communism going worldwide being the only possible future, and writers were expected to get on board with that.)

The Banks story is the one that I liked best, though the Highsmith story was also effective.  Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of either author or the cover artist.

Book Review: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Book Review: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair by Barbara & Robert Tinker with Pendred Noyce, illustrated by Yu-Yu Chin

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Once again the Galactic Academy of Science must reach out to kids from the 21st Century to preserve the timeline.  This time Dr. G is sabotaging the International Science Fair to crush the spirits of budding scientists and create a public impression that junk science is just as valid as real science.  Future teen  Quarkum reaches out to two new field agents, Ella and Shomari.

Shomari and Ella must travel through time to learn about cryptography and cryptoanalysis, codes and ciphers, so they can crack the coded messages Dr. G is sending his minions while protecting their own communications.  From Julius Caesar’s shift cipher to Whitfield Diffie and the public key, the experts of the past inform the children of the present to save the future.

This is the latest in a series of children’s books about science, with the framework of ethnically diverse youngsters traveling through time to learn about subjects firsthand.  The language is suitable for fourth graders on up, with more difficult words defined in the text.  It helps that Ella and Shomari are very literate for their age and bright enough to bring up examples when they’re appropriate.

Important or notable words are emphasized with colored text, and the illustrations are good.  There’s information on how to find more codes and ciphers on the publisher’s website if the reader wants to play along.

There is some mild peril–Dr. G’s minions aren’t very threatening.  And the story acknowledges that there are difficult topics that come up in the past, such as slavery, religious discrimination and sexism, which hinder or offend the children from time to time.    However, they are treated as problems of the past, with no mention of such topics in the present.

Like many kids, I went through a codes and ciphers phase, and this book would have been fascinating to me then.   Check out your school or public library.

Book Review: After the Vikings

Book Review: After the Vikings by G. David Nordley

This collection of “tales of future Mars” was first published as an adjunct to a conference on possible first contact and the planet Mars.; the stories had individually appeared in Analog and Asimov’s magazines.  When the author realized he’d written them from furthest in time to closest, he decided on a framing sequence involving alien archaeologists excavating Mars in the very far future when Sol has become a white dwarf.

After the Vikings.

  • “Morning on Mars”:  Humans are now unthinkably old, and a new species is on the brink of succeeding them.  There is time, still, for a celebration of life.
  • “The Day of Their Coming”: Humans make first contact with intelligent aliens.  Some of the Martian colonists discover that they may have more in common with the aliens than their fellow humans.
  • “Comet Gypsies”:  A family is nearly done harvesting a comet for terraforming materials, and the oldest child will soon have to leave the only home she’s ever known.  No one in the story is Roma, I suspect the author was unaware of how problematic the word “Gypsy” is.
  • “A Life on Mars”: A medical emergency sparks a trip on a dangerous experimental ship.  But even if a life is saved, can a family be put back together?
  • “Martian Valkyrie”:  A tale of the first expeditions to Mars.  Sexism and nationalistic rivalries may doom everyone.  But the beginning can wrap around to the end, and the collection’s title has more than one meaning.

The stories take place in a relatively hard SF universe; there’s no faster than light travel or communication.  Despite my quibble about the title, I liked “Comet Gypsies” best, for its balance of science and human drama.

As with many small press books, there are a couple of proofreading errors, a dramatic reveal is spoiled in one story because half the word is missing.  There are a couple of non-explicit sex scenes, which may be problematic for young readers or their parents.

This is a nice collection of decent stories, and deserves to be more widely known.

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