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: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

Book Review: Doctor Dead: A Percy & Quincey Adventure

Book Review: Doctor Dead: A Percy & Quincey Adventure by Tyler Tork

Disclaimer:  I received a free download of this book to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Doctor Dead: A Percy & Quincey Adventure

Percival “Percy” Drew and his cousin Quincey Harker are enjoying an afternoon at San Francisco’s waterfront in 1904.  Until, that is, the young fellows are kidnapped.  It seems that the mad scientist Dr. Benoit believes the albinistic Quincey has a rare blood type that will enhance the endurance of zombis.   The boys must find a way to escape before Quincey is drained dry, or they are themselves turned into the living dead!

This young adult novel is set on an alternate Earth where some of Victorian fantastic literature is real, though often in a different form than the original stories.  (Dracula turns out to have been heavily fictionalized; among other things, Wilhemina Harker is not nearly as decent a person as in the novel.)  It’s fun looking for all the shout-outs.

The book is divided into four adventures, each building on the last.  The boys do escape Dr. Benoit in the first segment, but their elders make poor decisions that come back to bite everyone when Benoit turns out to have taken precautions in the event of being dosed with his own serum.

Most of the story takes place from the viewpoint of thirteen-year-old Percy, with only short sections from the viewpoints of Quincey and Native American (called “Indian” in-story) girl Mary when Percy’s not available to narrate.  Percy is very  bright and something of a mechanical genius, while fifteen-year-old Quincey is more interested in the medical field.

Mr. Tork has done his research on such topics as the manufacture of soft drinks in 1904, so it was a bit of a shock when one of the characters is said to have read H.P. Lovecraft, who would not be published for another decade.

There’s some period racism and sexism; thankfully the boys are only a bit ignorant and not malicious.  It feels at times that the book has trouble fitting in the YA category–a brothel is an important location in the plot, yet no prostitutes are ever “on screen”, nor indeed is it ever explained what goes on in a brothel.

Things become more difficult for our young heroes when a broken time machine comes into the plot; at least one of the adults who are nominally their allies cannot be trusted not to abuse such a device, so they have to keep it a secret from as many people as possible.  This prevents the boys from getting reliable help at various junctures.

There are some quirky supporting characters, and plenty of action to keep the plot moving quickly.  While no sequel is available, there are hooks for an expedition to the Galapagos Islands and a search for lost treasure, so if sales on this book pick up, they may yet be published.

Recommended primarily to teenage boys who’ve read some of the books this volume shouts out to.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Comic Strip Review: Kill 6 Billion Demons 1

Comic Strip Review: Kill 6 Billion Demons 1 by Tom Parkinson-Morgan

Disclaimer:  I received this volume as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Post-graduate student Allison Ruth and her boyfriend Zaid are attempting to have sex for the first time.  But the usual awkwardness becomes a non-issue when demonic-looking knights invade Allison’s dorm room and kidnap Zaid.  Their apparent leader jams a jewel into Allison’s forehead that…expands her consciousness?  When her vision clears, Allison doesn’t know where she is, but it’s certainly not Earth!

Kill 6 Billion Demons 1

According to “82 White Chain Born in Emptiness Returns to Subdue Evil”, an angel (approximately) who becomes the closest thing Allison has to an ally, this world is Throne, the center of the Multiverse, and used to be Heaven (approximately) before the gods went elsewhere.  Now Throne is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, infested with demons, demiurges and less savory beings as ganglords and shady guilds squabble over territory.

The gem embedded in Allison’s forehead turns out to be a powerful key, which makes her a valuable prize ripe for the taking.  But Allison isn’t at all keen on what anyone else wants for her.  She wants to be reunited with Zaid, go home, and have her life make sense again.  Not necessarily in that order.

This is the first collected volume of the webcomic, which can be found at http://killsixbilliondemons.com/comic/kill-six-billion-demons-chapter-1/   It covers the first few chapters, up to about the point Allison finally gets her head together some and decides to take her own actions instead of being just dragged around from one madcap situation to the next.

The setting (which takes aspects from Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and many other sources) allows the creator to stretch his imaginative muscles with bizarre backgrounds and distinctive non-human characters.  Allison undergoes several appearance changes herself, with the one consistent feature being her wide-open eyes, giving her a perpetually startled appearance.  (To be fair, most people would be perpetually startled under the circumstances.)  The one flaw with this being a print edition is that some of the larger spreads wind up having explanatory tags in  tiny font, so you may need a magnifying glass for full enjoyment.

Actual plot is thin on the ground, as Allison is only interacting with other characters in chases, confrontations or brief breathing spaces–we’re introduced to over a dozen characters who seem like they’ll be important to the story later, but right now we just have names/job titles/distinctive appearances.

Allison comes across rather shallow, but again this is excusable under her extreme circumstances; I’ve read ahead, and she gets more interesting.  In this volume, the interesting people are White Chain, who holds on to their (angels are agender, officially) ethical standards as much as possible even when circumstances require a far lower bar for what’s acceptable; and Cio, a cynical blue-masked demon who used to be a powerful master thief but has been depowered and now works as a bookkeeper in a brothel (until she quits to help out Allison…for her own reasons.)

While there’s quite a bit of discussion of sexual topics, and some non-graphic nudity, there’s no on-camera sex.  Lots of violence, though, some pretty graphic.  Some rough language as well.  Every so often there are text pieces that tell stories from the background mythology; these don’t always have standard endings.

Recommended for fantasy fans who don’t mind that much of what’s going on is confusing and won’t make sense until much later.  Yes, you can read it for free on the internet, but cash infusions from the print version help the artist keep creating.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail

Book Review: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail by Marcus Rediker

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Outlaws of the Atlantic

During the Age of Sail, the deep ocean sailing ship was one of the most advanced technological wonders of its time.  But such a complex device required many workers to keep it running smoothly and keep it from collapsing in times of danger.  So there rose the class of people known as the common seaman; sailors who were essential to the ship as a group, but entirely replaceable as individuals.

Often ill-used, to the point that they often compared themselves to slaves, sailors developed their own subcultures and began “resistance from below”; most notably creating the “strike” when an entire harbor’s sailors struck  (took down) the sails of the ships they were on and refused to work until they got better conditions.  Sailors became both the creators of and spreaders of rebellion against the cruel social order of their day.

Mr. Rediker is a professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh, and this is a collection of short pieces he’s written on the general theme of “resistance from below” as it relates to the Atlantic Ocean in the Age of Sail.  He talks a lot about “antinomianism” (the idea that one is primarily saved by faith, rather than obedience to law), and “hydrarchy” (rule by the sea, often connoting rule of the lowly many as opposed to the official hierarchy).

The book begins with an examination of “the sailor’s yarn” and how it was used to spread information both useful and dubious, influencing Western literature among other things.  It moves on to the stories of two men that demonstrate that history also includes ordinary workers and castaways.

In an essay on pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy 1650-1730, emphasis is laid upon the efforts of pirates to democratize their ships; pirate captains were limited in authority, unlike merchant or military captains whose word was law, and whose punishments were untempered.  This indeed was one of the reasons pirates found favor in popular culture; for all that they were criminals, they also had a kind of freedom seldom seen at the time.

There’s another essay on how “motley” (multi-ethnic) crews of sailors helped spread the ideas that led to the American Revolution; though the wealthy stepped in to keep the Revolution from going too far towards mob rule as they saw it.

There is a chapter on slave rebellions aboard the ships carrying them to the New World, usually doomed, and a separate chapter for the case of the Amistad, which turned out much better than could have been hoped.  The latter chapter looks at how conflating the Amistad freedom fighters with pirates helped influence American attittudes towards the men from Sierra Leone.

There are several black and white illustrations, copious endnotes and an index.

This book very much feels like an introduction to the theme of rebellion in Atlantic Ocean history, and as such I would recommend it to the casual student looking for a quick read on various aspects of the subject.  Professor Rediker’s other books appear to go into much more depth on the individual subjects involved, such as slave ships and piracy.  Based on his work here, those should also be interesting.

If these sound like topics you’d be interested in, check your lending library system to see if they’ve got this book in stock.

Book Review: Nexus

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.”  One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.

Nexus

Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five.  It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels.  Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology.  Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available.  These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.

After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights.  In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity.  Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.

Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD.  It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work.  The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory.  If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently.  Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him.  She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.

While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller.  Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory.  The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.

One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing.  The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies.  Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives.  Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work.  A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony.  But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.

Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.

Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse.  The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.

In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.

Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.

Comic Book Review: The New Teen Titans Volume One

Comic Book Review: The New Teen Titans Volume One written by Marv Wolfman, art by George Perez and Romeo Tanghal

By 1980, Marv Wolfman had come over to DC Comics from Marvel, but found himself writing one-shot team-up books, which he felt didn’t allow him the room to develop subplots and characterization the way he wanted to.  He offered to write a revival series for the Teen Titans, a book that had teamed up several kid sidekicks (and eventually some more obscure characters) for some years before dropping sales got the book cancelled.

The New Teen Titans Volume One

The Powers that Were turned his original proposal down, so Mr. Wolfman revised his proposal with several brand-new characters, going for more of a male-female balance than most teams of the time, and complementary personalities that would both cause conflict and bring the team together.  He also gave most of the group some sort of conflict with a father figure.  Robin trying to get out from under the shadow of Batman, Starfire’s weak-willed father selling her into slavery to save his world, Cyborg’s father being responsible for his needing massive cybernetic upgrades, Changeling having all his father figures vanish from his life, and Raven’s father being the demon Trigon.

That last was the plotline behind the first few issues, as Raven fled to Earth and assembled a team to battle her father’s planned invasion.  The first issue, however, made the alien Gordanian slavers the main focus, as Starfire needed to be rescued from them before she could join.  Raven also manipulated Kid Flash’s emotions (off-screen but it was pretty obvious) to make him loyal to her and thus willing to help out.

During that same story, the Titans accidentally made an enemy of Grant Wilson, who then in the second issue became the villain Devastator (using the 100% of your brain hokum) as part of a plan by the shadowy organization H.I.V.E. to acquire the services of his father, Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke the Terminator.

The third issue introduced the first version of the Fearsome Five, a villain group put together by Dr. Light for mutual gain.  They were promptly hijacked by Psimon, one of their members who had been working for Trigon.

The next three issues were all about Trigon, starting with the Titans having to face off against the Justice League in an effort to keep the more powerful heroes from accidentally knocking out the one barrier between Trigon’s realm and Earth.  Mr. Wolfman notes that the sales had been going down issue by issue (and it did not help that #5, the issue where Trigon is fully revealed, had guest art by Curt Swan, rather than George Perez–Mr. Swan was a classic Superman artist, but just wrong for this title) but issue #6, the big finish, saw the sales climb and every issue after that for a while.

In issue #7, the Titans face off against their own headquarters, the Titans Tower, as the Fearsome Five had co-opted it in an effort to free Psimon from the fate Trigon had “rewarded” him with.  This issue also explained who Cyborg actually was, and mostly resolved his relationship with his father.

Issue #8 was a breather, so that several new subplots could be introduced, some of which stuck around for quite a while.

On the strength of the many subplots, engaging personalities, and stellar George Perez art, the New Teen Titans series became DC’s hottest title, and the closest competitor they had for Marvel’s X-Men under Chris Claremont.  One of the obvious Marvel-style touches was setting the series in the real life city of New York, rather than one of DC’s many fictional cities.

There are some elements that don’t come off as well in hindsight; Starfire’s personality, powers and cultural background seem written specifically to have her go around wearing as brief a costume as the Comics Code would allow, or even less.  Raven’s origin involves rape by deception, and Trigon comes across as almost cartoonishly evil for the sake of being evil.  Cyborg often takes the role of “angry young black man”, and his bickering with Changeling is not nearly as funny as the writer seems to think it is.  And of course, Raven’s emotional manipulation of Kid Flash is very skeevy, which is acknowledged in the story itself.

Still, this is an important part of comics history, and fans of the various Titans incarnations should enjoy it.  (With a caveat that kids who only know the Titans from the cartoons might find some of the material a bit much–junior high on up, please.)

Book Review: Once Upon a Star: The Adventures of Manning Draco Volume 1

Book Review: Once Upon a Star: The Adventures of Manning Draco Volume 1 by Kendell Foster Crossen

In the 35th Century, many things have changed.  Terrans have gone to the stars and discovered the many alien races living out there, fighting with some, cooperating with others.  Right now, the Milky Way Galaxy is at peace.  Other things have not changed; there are still companies selling life insurance, and there is still insurance fraud.  And that’s where Manning Draco, top investigator for the Greater Solarian Insurance Company, Monopolated, comes in.

Once Upon a Star

Of course, since Manning is the best insurance investigator around, that means he only gets the toughest cases, using  quirks of the local biology or customs to create loopholes in insurance policies.  Most of his workload is caused by crooked insurance salesbeing Dzanku Dzanku of Rigel IV, and his sidekick, the easily mindwiped Sam Warren.  The slippery pair have figured out all sorts of ways to cash in on insurance scams, but just try to prove it!

Once Upon a Star was originally published as four short stories in the 1950s, then edited together slightly to make a fix-up novel.  (Three other stories about Manning Draco are in the second volume.)  These comedic science fiction tales follow an obvious pattern.  At the beginning, Manning is on Earth, flirting with an attractive woman (like Captain Kirk, Manning Draco has broad tastes and will hit on just about any humanoid species–he draws the line at crocodile people.)  This is interrupted by his irascible employer, J. Barnaby Cruikshank, who describes an oncoming crisis the company is facing.

Manning flies off to the planet where the problem is in his private starship, the Alpha Actuary.  There he learns what Dzanku and Warren have been up to, usually involving something about that world that isn’t in the official survey reports.  There will also usually be another attractive woman for him to flirt with.  Things get worse before they get better, but a combination of telepathy, eidetic memory and rules lawyering allow Manning to win the day.  (There’s also some nifty technology at his disposal, but if anything it’s underutilized and seldom plays a key role.)

As one might expect from the time these stories were written and the genre, Manning Draco is pretty much omnicompetent, though this does not always help a great deal.  For example, he’s the one Earthling with any appreciable psionic abilities…which puts him at about average in Galactic society.  And while Manning is aces with the ladies, Dzanku is fully aware of this and is perfectly willing to use it against him.  (It should be noted, however, that at no point is a woman forced to do something she didn’t want to do in the first place, despite one spoilery bit.)

Dzanku, meanwhile, is generally two or three plots ahead of Manning (having already set up the next scams while Manning has just arrived to fix the first problem), but suffers from the urge to gloat when he’s winning and devise elaborate traps rather than just finish Manning off.  He’s also addicted to gambling on games of skill, which Manning uses against him more than once.  Sam Warren is more or less a nonentity that Dzanku can have conversations with to advance the plot.

There’s no damsels in distress in these stories as such, though Fifties attitudes are the default.  A female insurance investigator is rare enough that Manning Draco is taken off guard by one showing up, and there’s a clear expectation that women will quit their jobs once they’re married.  With one notable exception, the women in the story are fully capable of making up their own minds and have agency, and the exception is so because of [spoiler redacted.]

The science is dubious (there’s an entire page-long note devoted to a nonsensical set of equations proving that people from outside a fast-time zone won’t age faster while inside it, despite experiencing events at the faster rate.)   There’s also some fantastic racism (Rigellians are inherently dishonest and have built their entire culture around deception and betrayal.)  And our hero at one point sells Dzanku into sex slavery as the best way to keep him imprisoned without dying (which would cost the insurance company money.)

Still, if you enjoy the 1950s style humor and want to watch a rules lawyer in action, this is the book for you.

Book Review: Snuff

Book Review: Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Duke of Ankh-Morpork and Blackboard Monitor, has been aware in a general way that his wife Sybil owns some property in the countryside.  But now that their son Young Sam is six, Sybil has decided that it’s high time that the family take a holiday to visit the ancestral manor.   And she’s somehow convinced Sam’s boss, Lord Vetinari, to sign off on this.

Snuff

So Sam Vimes finds himself on vacation for the first time in ever, stranded far from the smell and sounds of the city he knows so well, and at a loss how to handle himself in a rural area where he’s not got jurisdiction as a cop.  But as Sherlock Holmes remarked in “The Copper Beeches”, the countryside is not free from vile sin.  When Vimes discovers that there’s been a murder on his land and the oppressed cry out for justice, he’s willing to bend the definition of jurisdiction to bring the villains to heel.

This is one of the last Discworld books (only two after this one) and the last of the City Watch sub-series.  While Vimes is front and center for most of the story, we do check in with many of the other continuing characters for at least a sentence.  (This is one of the few Discworld books to miss out Death as a character, but that does not mean that no one dies.)

Over the course of the series, Ankh-Morpork has advanced from a parody of generic sword-and-sorcery cities that happened to share some geographical features with London to more or less a fantasy version of Victorian London–and most of this progress has happened within Sam Vimes’ lifetime.  Indeed, Vimes can be said to have facilitated much of this by his dedication to law enforcement that does what is right rather than what is convenient.  Another running theme of the books has been that people are people, regardless of their shape, odd customs or biological weirdness.  Dwarves and trolls and even vampires have become people, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with that description.  And now it is the turn of the goblins.

Goblins are the lowest of the low, considered filthy creatures with no visible culture, and treated as vermin.  Enslaving them, taking their sacred objects, killing them–none of these are considered crimes by the majority of people or the written law.   But Commander Vimes’ previous experiences give him some unique ways of seeing the “humanity” of goblins.

And while his efforts do yield results, Sam Vimes would not be able to fully achieve the goal of bringing goblins under the protection of the law without the aid of his socially-connected wife, an author who has her own insights into goblin culture, and several goblins who step out of their stereotype to show their worth.  (Although there is some question whether Stinky is really a goblin…or something more.)

Much of the “humor” this time revolves around bodily excretions, as Young Sam has discovered the scientific wonders of poo.  For those of us not keen on toilet gags, this gets a bit tiresome.  There’s also a fair amount of swearing, and a discussion of “the dreadful algebra” of what to do with an infant that’s been born in a time of famine.  And not all sins are forgiven.

The general quality of the writing is excellent as always, but Sir Terry’s sentimental side perhaps overwhelms the sharper edge of social satire, particularly in the ending.

Recommended to Discworld fans; newbies should probably start with Guards! Guards! which is the first of the Watch sub-series.

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