Wednesday, March 1, 2017

February's Book: Murder on the Orient Express

Happy Leap Day 2017!

I mean, Happy March 1st...

Speaking of being late to the party:

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Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Mystery (1934 - 137 pp.)

This is yet another of those books that has been read, reviewed and studied so many times I will focus on my personal experience with it, as well as try to bring up a couple angles I do not usually see. First, though, I have to consider what Murder on the Orient Express isn't. It isn't a police procedural. If it were, Hercule Poirot would be the worst police officer ever for many reasons.* It isn't noir.** It isn't Sherlock Holmes, as much as Holmes understandably influenced it.

Murder on the Orient Express ends is so old it's become mysterious again. For those who haven't read it, the premise is this: 16 passengers are in a train car from Istanbul ("Stamboul") to Paris. On the second night of the journey, somewhere in what once was Yugoslavia, the train is trapped in a snowdrift. It is then that one of the passengers on the train car is murdered. Our daring protagonist Hercule Poirot, with the aid of a Wagon Lit conductor and a doctor, must figure out who committed the murder.

Murder on the Orient Express is essentially two things: an inspiration for mystery dinner theatre, and a precursor to whodunit-style logic puzzles.

The logic falls apart for the benefit of the theatrics. Poirot sometimes misses clues that are plainly obvious, such as in certain omissions in the Ten Questions he asks based on the evidence. (106) At other times, his guesswork is so outlandish it leads to conclusions a reader could not possibly reach. (132) This removes the suspension of disbelief, making it appear less like Poirot is brilliant and more like Christie needed to get to the end of the book.

Almost as outlandishly, the women's nightgowns are discussed often, including during Poirot's luggage searches. Poirot notes that "I suspect it is the property of Countess Andrenyi, since her luggage contained only a chiffon negligee so elaborate as to be rather a teagown than a dressing-gown" (135) in front of the entire train car, yet the Countess doesn't bat an eye. Christie delivers the dramatic proclamations and garish outfits that would be fitting for a stage, which would probably make such revealing statements more interesting.

Christie's strongest suit is her language. She shows this right from the beginning, as in the introductions of Colonel Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham:
The Colonel, Hercule Poirot noticed, accompanied her back to her compartment. Later they passed through the magnificent scenery of the Taurus. As they looked down towards the Cilician Gates, standing in the corridor side by side, a sigh came suddenly from the girl. Poirot was standing near them and heard her murmur: 
“It’s so beautiful! I wish—I wish—” (10)
The setting is enchanting, Debenham's awed reaction conveys the scene's grandeur, and the dialogue is crisp. Dialogue is a strength that Christie maintains throughout the book, including in the lengthy conversations between Poirot and Dr Constantine.

This linguistic gift continues in her character descriptions. Her description of Princess Dragomiroff is at once hideous, mysterious and hilarious: "Her small toad-like face looked even yellower than the day before. She was certainly ugly, and yet, like the toad, she had eyes like jewels, dark and imperious, revealing latent energy and an intellectual force that could be felt at once." (62) The Count Andrenyi's more imposing manner is equally apparent: "There was no doubt that he was a fine-looking man seen face to face. He was at least six feet in height, with broad shoulders and slender hips. He was dressed in very well-cut English tweeds and might have been taken for an Englishman had it not been for the length of his moustache and something in the line of the cheekbone." (65) His character is the one that calls Christie's Sherlock Holmes influence to mind, from the tweeds to the inexplicable something calculating about him.

In both the time period and the genre, writing mechanics looked much different from the way they do now. An example is Christie's copious use of adverbs. Those atrocious, abolishment-worthy, overused, "shoot on sight"(!!!), "dumping ground" adverbs. (Yes, I know there's a debate. I'm firmly on the pro-adverb side.) In Murder on the Orient Express, Christie ends a word in "ly" 1044 times.** Subtracting words like "reply", and adding those sneaky non-ly adverbs, is probably a wash, so let's say she uses 1044 adverbs in a 137-page book. Removing the six pages of front matter and contents, leaving us at 131, that's approximately 7.97 adverbs per page. I shudder to think of what would happen to Christie at a writing workshop now. Yet... her writing doesn't suffer for it. That might be an interesting blog entry for a writing advice site.

The diagram of the train car is a fun addition. (42) I referred back to it quite a few times while reminding myself who stayed in which room. A zoomed-in diagram showing the inside of a room would have been good too.

NOTE: In my ebook, there is a massive list of Agatha Christie novels "Coming Soon". (2) I felt like I was reading it in 1934, if ebooks had been a thing back then.

FURTHER NOTE: I read Murder on the Orient Express largely on the TTC. Not exactly the Orient Express, but, like Christie's characters, I did experience a train delay.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 1

*Improperly handling evidence, (90) harassing witnesses, (79-80) conducting warrantless searches, (89) telling his theory of the case to the entire traincar, (134-136) and - of course - doing all of this apparently unarmed and with no backup. (28)

**Oddly, only one precedes a semicolon: "'Do not distress yourself,' said the latter kindly; 'I cannot see that there has been any negligence on your part.'" (45) All other similar phraseologies place a colon after the offending "ly".

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Gaming Your Protagonist

The author insert is a usually loathed type of character: often associated with wish fulfillment, being a "creator's pet", or with the Mary Sue group of characters. They're flypaper for parody and bad reviews.
On the other hand, authors are frequently told to "write what you know". (Or not.) I, for example, couldn't express the feelings of someone completely different from me unless I spent years of research on the subject. That's okay.
So how do we bridge that gap in order to create a character who is from the author's heart, but without having the entire ship tilted toward it?
A character like you but different.
I developed a method for this while writing the protagonist for the book I finished last year.
Imagine every one of your decisions as a node on a game tree. Your life looks something like this:
(from Study)
Each rectangle in this tree is a node, meaning it’s when you make a decision to follow one of the arrows below it.
Let’s say your parents don’t visit (#1). Then it ends up being windy (#2). Then you’re rich (#3). You end up shopping.
What if, hypothetically, you could go back in time and change the weather to sunny (#2)? Then you play tennis.
You can’t do that with your real life but you can do it with a fictional character.
For a character that is (a) enough like you for you to really get into the character’s head, but (b) different enough to not be an author insert, ask yourself the following:
  1. What’s a major decision I’ve made in my life?
  2. What if I’d decided differently?
  3. Then who might I be now?
Run wild with it. Be as speculative as you like. What you’ll likely find is that the character sees the world the way you’d see the world if you’d chosen a different path.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January's Book: The Eagle Unbowed

The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski
History (2012 - 591 pp.)

The Eagle Unbowed is an ambitious look at the experience of Poland and Poles during the Second World War. The book touches upon everything from life in the Second Polish Republic (1918-1939), to military operations, evacuations to the Soviet Union and then worldwide, social life, the situation Polish Jews faced, and the diplomacy that led to Poland's 1945 borders. As a result, it is a valuable reference, but reads as though it could have been split into two, or even three, books. The Table of Contents shows just how much material The Eagle Unbowed covers.

The book's central theses are that Poland contributed a considerable amount to the allied effort of World War II, and that the plight of the Poles has been overlooked by foreign historians. Five-hundred and ninety-one pages later, it is difficult to disagree.

Kochanksi does very well in placing the 1939 war in its farther-reaching historical context. The three Partitions of Poland, which had split the country between Prussia/Germany, Austria and Russia from the late 18th century until 1916, had prevented Poland from being a unified nation-state. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact repeated these events all at once. (95-96)

Germany and the USSR justified dividing Poland between them in many ways, including ethnic ones. Between the World Wars, Poland was one of Europe's few multicultural states during the era of self-determination. Whereas Slovaks and Magyars had been separated by land, or Greeks and Turks by religion, Poland contained not only Poles but also Germans, Jews, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Belorussians, among others. Poland was also not homogeneously Catholic; there were many Lutherans, Jews and Orthodox Christians. This diversity, while a cultural asset, presented a "fundamental weakness" (22) during World War II, explaining why Poland contained so many political dissident groups.

The underground factions in occupied Poland require a list of abbreviations at the start of the book. The most prominent Polish underground army was the Armia Krajowa (AK), the army most associated with the Government in Exile, and most representative of the pre-war government. However, there were also the socialist Armia Lubowa (AL), which received aid from the USSR, and the anti-Semitic extreme-right NSZ. Some Jews sought membership in the AK or the AL, or in the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB). There were also Ukrainian armies, such as the OUN, the OUN-B and the UPA. The only time the AK and AL fought with any cohesion was during the Warsaw Uprising, which also saw participation from "Italians who had deserted the Germans, escaped Soviet POWs, Hungarians, Slovaks and a Frenchman." (404) Otherwise, divisiveness was the norm, and civil war was the worst case. During the OUN's short-lived declaration of Ukrainian independence in 1939, "Ukrainians flocked to help the Germans, providing much of the manpower needed to shoot the Jews, joined German paramilitary formations and wore German uniforms", (260) whereas UPA units may have unofficially cooperated with the Soviet internal police NKVD. (546) Kochanski's not always flattering treatment of the Ukrainian groups is likely one of the book's more controversial points.

Still other pre-war Polish citizens - soldiers and civilians alike - were evacuated and expelled. Many ended up in such far-flung places as Siberia, Kazakhstan, Iran, India and South Africa. The Eagle Unbowed follows Wladyslaw Anders's II Corps, most famous for its capture of Monte Cassino in 1944 but which had completed its training in the USSR, Iran and Palestine, and which had nearly invaded the German-occupied Balkans. Other stories focus on the efforts of families in exile to reunite when possible and to resupply each other when not.

The Eagle Unbowed manages to do what possibly only a book about World War II-era Poland can do: list statistics that move the reader emotionally. The UPA frequently massacred entire villages of Polish civilians, such as on July 11-12, 1943, when it "coordinated attacks on 167 localities and killed about 10,000 Poles." (361) This was part of a campaign that killed approximately 60,000-80,000 Poles in the Kresy lands during the war. (363) Holocaust statistics are published widely, but see more compartmentalization here, such as in the three dedicated and compact extermination camps. In Belzec, 600,000 Jews died; in Sobibor, along the 100-metre-long "Road to Heaven" from the undressing stations to the gas chambers, 250,000 Jews died; and in Treblinka, 900,000 Jews died. (299-300) Perhaps most stultifying is the number of survivors of these three camps, and the earlier camp at Chelmno, combined: 110. (300) In total, 20 percent of the pre-war Polish population (6,000,000) died during the war, along with 90 percent of the pre-war Polish Jewish population. Specific pockets were targeted: "A third of all academics, scientists and doctors had been killed, and over half of all lawyers." (532) Nor was the suffering limited to humanity; "[Poland's] agricultural ouput had been devastated by the loss of 72 percent of all sheep and 60 percent of all cattle." (532)

Touching personal stories from soldiers and civilians, many in exile, make The Eagle Unbowed far more than a series of battle diagrams and tragic statistics. In Tehran, according to Polish minister Karol Bader in a letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Raczynski: "You should see Teheran today: the streets are full of Poles, including attractive girls in uniform who captivate British officers and the local male population; Polish bands and choirs who have invaded all the bars and hotels..." (249) Even among the normally humourless events of occupied Poland, there were occasions to smile. In the Warsaw ghetto, in 1940, "One enterprising Jew even managed to keep a cow in the ghetto, and milk was sold in return for fodder and cash. When a German owner of a factory in the ghetto found out, he provided an official ration for the cow." (295) The weaving together of a story about war with a story about survival is one of the book's finer points.

Kochanski emphasizes the warmth of Polish-Hungarian relations. Hungarian hussars smuggled Polish army officers across the Polish-Hungarian border. (205) Hungarian, rather than German or Soviet, soldiers were charged with the occupation of Stanislawow (now in Ukraine); Hungarian soldiers sang a Polish national song with Poles in the churches, and actively encouraged Poles to evacuate to Hungary before the Germans occupied the territory. (263) Poles in Hungary received government aid, self-governance within makeshift cities during integration, ran their own newspaper (Wiesci Polskie), and educated their own children: "Official support for cooperation between the Hungarian authorities and the Poles meant that, after the fall of France, Hungary was the only belligerent or neutral country in the whole of Europe where Poles could still receive a secondary school education."* (240) The refusal of Hungary to acknowledge the most recent partition of Poland is among the reasons Germany invaded Hungary in 1944. (239)

Wherever the Poles went, they were concerned with education. Poland was a major contributor to higher education between the wars: "many of the universities, including those in Krakow, Warsaw, Lwow, Poznan and Wilno, were highly regarded both at home and abroad." (24) A Polish cadet school for exiled military trainees in Palestine was based off of the six-year pre-WWII Polish secondary school curriculum. (195) In India and in South Africa, Polish children received education based on the pre-WWII Polish curriculum, with English as a second language. (254) Polish University College (1947-1954), a Polish architectual school in Liverpool, and a Polish agricultural college in Glasgow all received British university accreditation. (562)

Oliver Bullough of The New Statesman calls the book "opinionated, fluid and forceful". (back cover) While these attributes are usually assets, Kochanski's slant is evident throughout the book. It is unsurprising that a book based on Polish sources would be pro-Polish. Kochanski may have gone a step farther. Many of her sources are personal interviews with people who surface disproportionately often, including ones whose last names are Kochanski/Kochanska. These sources are still vastly outnumbered, but they appear decidedly less neutral than, for example, diplomatic discussions between President in Exile Wladyslaw Sikorski and British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. As always, though, each source can be taken at face value. Kochanski lists them very thoroughly.

The Eagle Unbowed represents years of searching through an impressive list of books, articles, primary sources, interviews, and anything else. Kochanski discusses issues that are often difficult from both a research and an emotional perspective. Most of her points are well taken. There are occasions when she sounds more like an advocate for Poland than like a truly neutral academic (any time she says "but in fact...", inevitably followed by something good aout Poland) but these are not the norm. Her grasp of her source material is enviable.

A direction for further research could be to write an archival collection like this one but about the Second Polish Republic. Poland's interwar years are still relatively unknown to many English speakers. Poland is a riveting setting for a history book, and it would be good to read one with less death.

Ease of Reading: 1
Educational Content: 10

*There is no indication as to whether a peripheral country, like the United Kingdom or Sweden, offered such a program. However, it would likely not have been in the pre-WWII Polish curriculum, as Polish students could learn in Hungary.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

December 2016's Book: The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Literature (1926 - 130 pp.)

The Sun Also Rises continues my trend of appreciating America's great interwar writers.* The Sound and the Fury also came out in the 1920s; Tender Is the Night is also set among American expats in Paris in the 1920s. It is exactly a year since I reviewed Tender Is the Night. January 4th is Parisian, apparently.

The book stars narrator Jake Barnes, an American living in Paris. He, along with his erstwhile girlfriend Brett Ashley, Princeton graduate Robert Cohn, adventurer Bill Gorton, and Brett's other boyfriend Michael, travel from Paris to Spain. First Jake and Bill go fishing in Burguete, and then the whole crew watches a bullfight in Pamplona. For those in the mood to re-enact this plot, Pamplona still hosts bullfights.

The most striking aspect of The Sun Also Rises is how unbelievably modern it is. The only notably absent technology is smartphones, meaning The Sun Also Rises could realistically have taken place in the 1990s. (The telegrams could be voicemails.) As someone who did not live in a home with a computer until 1996, and who did not carry a cellphone with any regularity until 2006, I felt as though I could have lived my childhood in Hemingway's world. Aside from that, much of 1920s slang persists (see the note below), and the characters act the way 20-somethings apparently still do.

A highlight is Hemingway's descriptions of the characters' more physical moments. An early encounter between Jake and Brett uses the image of a dark gate as possible foreshadowing of a conflict-filled trip, but more importantly, opens up an opportunity for Brett to show her affection: "We turned off the Avenue up the Rue des Pyramides, through the traffic of the Rue de Rivoli, and through a dark gate into the Tuileries. She cuddled against me and I put my arm around her. She looked up to be kissed. She touched me with one hand and I put her hand away." (8) The reader sees how the characters' relationships build through their actions, which delivers more excitement when they finally do get what they want.** The fight between Jake and Robert is a less happy, but equally riveting, moment. (100) It is the only truly sad part of the book, as Robert soon reflects that Jake is his "only friend". (102)

The dialogue is short, fast, clipped and snappy, with very few tags. A lack of dialogue tags increases the book's pace, making it feel more lifelike in a conversational setting, at the occasional expense of knowing who is talking if there are more than two characters present. Hemingway's dialogue (see extended passages on pages 64, 77 and 96, for example) is one of The Sun Also Rises's best features. It rivals William Faulkner's, and the general style is a huge influence on my own novel about 20-somethings.

Hemingway frequently violates the usually-but-not-always-true maxim of "show, don't tell". Robert Sawyer explains why he prefers showing to telling here:
Why is showing better? Two reasons. First, it creates mental pictures for the reader. When reviewers use terms like "vivid," "evocative," or "cinematic" to describe a piece of prose, they really mean the writer has succeeded at showing, rather than merely telling.
Second, showing is interactive and participatory: it forces the reader to become involved in the story, deducing facts (such as Mary's age) for himself or herself, rather than just taking information in passively. [emphasis mine]
Hemingway writes such non-vivid statements as "But the effort of talking American seemed to have tired him" (57) and "Then after a while it was better and I lay in bed and listened to the heavy trams go by and way down the street, and then I went to sleep" (17). The reader never sees the man's eyes droop or hears the screech of wheels on tracks, but that is no problem. Hemingway shows when it makes the setting come alive and tells when it is perfectly fine to trust Jake's admittedly usually drunk judgment. There are many more of Jake's offhand observations throughout the book, even during longer paragraphs, few of which create the evocatic imagery of the settings. Ironically, Hemingway's later essay Death in the Afternoon, which also discusses bullfighting in Spain, is largely seen as one of the greatest examples of "show, don't tell" of all time.

NOTE: As can be expected of a book released in 1926, The Sun Also Rises contains some 1920s slang. Many of these have caught on in the North American slang canon, such as drawing out the word "ab-so-lute-ly". Among the key terms in The Sun Also Rises is one I never hear anymore: "tight", meaning drunk. "Tight" appears 32 times in the book, albeit not all in that context, and "drunk" appears another 59 times. At the 130-page figure my ebook has, that is almost 0.7 instances per page. Ah, to be an American in Paris in the 1920s...

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 2

*As with many of these frequently reviewed books, I discuss my experience reading it, as well as any point that discusses how the book displays the craft of writing. In many cases, all the literary criticism has already been said, such as a teacher assigning parts of three Hemingway novels, including The Sun Also Rises, in the eighth grade.

**Brett gets her wish on page 14: "Brett's face was white and the long line of her neck showed in the bright light of the flares. The street was dark again and I kissed her." Again, the contrast between the white flares and the dark street is what makes this scene magical.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

[Amazing Stories] December's Writing Prompt: Alone in the World

Everyone's gathering for the holidays. What if you couldn't?

Discover your fate at Amazing Stories:

Alone in the World


(from Wallpapers Craft)

Where you are, who you are, and what you have to do in order to have the best holidays you can... given the circumstances. You could be asea in a hotel full of partiers anxious to have you educate them on your favourite customs (or drinks), or your could be asea in the Pacific. Click the bolded link to ask the questions none of us can answer in more than a story.

Friday, December 9, 2016

November's Book: Dead Wake

Dead Wake by Erik Larson
Journalism (2015 - 353 pp.)

Dead Wake is Erik Larson's 100th-anniversary-timed retelling of the sinking of the Lusitania, an event that underscored U-Boat capabilities and potentially plunged the United States into World War I. It follows the parallel stories of the ship itself, including notable passengers and crew, and the submarine U-20 that sunk it. This format echoes Larson's previous bestseller Devil in the White City, which simultaneously follows the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the serial killer who stalked it.

The introduction is best when it describes the atmosphere surrounding the Lusitania's final launch from New York City to Liverpool. It is the size, speed and modernity of the vessel. (8-9) It is the mad scramble to either board - or intentionally not board. It is the German warning that merchant ships within a designated war zone around the British Isles may be torpedoed, and the eerie lack of concern most crew and passengers showed toward that warning. (multiple citations - flipping through the book at random reveals plenty) Likewise, Larson's initial description of U-Boats and U-Boat culture reveals an autonomy their captains held that would be almost unparalleled until World War II - much of which was because U-Boats eventually went out of Germany's wirless communication range. (58) Internally, U-Boats could be extremely uncomfortable, including "hellish temperature" (64), but they also had their moments of camaraderie, such as celebrating Christmas. U-20 had six daschunds on board at point, leading officer Rudolph Zetner to note that "I slept with a torpedo and a puppy." (62) All of this occurred while the U-20 was being watched from Room 40, a secret British codebreaking location.

For those unfamiliar with the main plot points, they can be spoiled here. This is not a suspense book in the least. That said, Larson humanizes the passengers, and U-20 Captain Walther Schwieger, to the point that there is suspense. An inanimate ship like the Lusitania can sink, and everyone remembers that, but no one can name the full list of survivors and deceased. By bringing personal stories and journals into Dead Wake, with surprisingly little artistic embellishment, Larson makes the reader wonder who lives and who dies.

My favourite passenger to read about was Charles Lauriat, a well-known Boston book dealer who lost a rare copy of A Christmas Carol in the wreck. Another interesting one was Theodate Pope, a noted spiritualist whose personal background is very well documented. Among her experiences was Dr. Silas Mitchell's "Rest Cure", which ordered patients to abstain from virtually all movement, often for weeks on end. Pope came to hate the Rest Cure, as many did;* this is unsurprising when considering that one of Mitchell's treatments was "mild electrical shock, delivered while the patient was in a filled bathtub". (158) Richard Preston Prichard and Grace French apparently had a wonderful time meeting each other on the Lusitania, emerging as better candidates for a fictionalized WWI-era ocean liner romance than what viewers actually got. Then there was some torpedo-related humour, despite that one expects submarine warfare to not be funny. Margaret Mackworth and her friend Dorothy Conner unwittingly entertained 2015-2016 readers with the following exchange:
Mackworth turned to Conner and said, "I always thought a shipwreck was a well-organized affair." 
"So did I," Conner replied, "but I've learnt a devil of a lot in the last five minutes." (251)
Hint: To try to figure out who survived and who did not, read into whose post-sinking journals are quoted before the sinking. If a passenger writes about the sinking in 1916, for example, the person obviously survived. If a passenger is only mentioned in the journals of others, the chances are slimmer... but not zero. This rule is broken a few times, and some quoted passengers' journals were only retrieved later, so there are still quite a few surprises. A hundred years is a long time to recover old documents that were sealed surprisingly well.

Equally important is that the reader understands just how devastating the passenger deaths were to Schwieger, who ordered the fateful torpedo. The Germans were certainly not shy about sinking British vessels, as in this commemorative medal made at the time by German artist Karl Goetz. It is worth noting that Lusitania's building was Royal Navy-funded, the ship had military-grade armour, and was carrying munitions when it was sunk. From a military perspective, for a U-Boat to sink such an imposing ship with only one torpedo was almost unbelievable. From a human perspective, Schwieger noted that "It was the most terrible sight I have ever seen. It was impossible for me to give any help. I could have saved only a handful... The scene was too horrible to watch." (264) Then, when was WWI ever simple?

My least favourite part of Dead Wake was the end. Once the ship has sunk, and the survivors are safely returned to their families, the rest of the book feels like a New Year's party on January 4th. I especially disliked the Woodrow Wilson vignettes, which felt irrelevant to the rest of the story. Yes, the sinking of the Lusitania factored into the United States's declaration of war on Germany two years later, but the book is about the boat, not the war.** Dead Wake also ends on a strange note; its last sentence is about a minor character, much like a news story might place its facts from most to least important. A tighter ending with a bang of a concluding sentence would have made for even better reading.

That said, I doubt anyone who was on either the Lusitania or U-20 that day is fit to disagree.

Ease of Reading: 7
Educational Content: 7

*One of the Rest Cure's best known recipients was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who published "The Yellow Wall-Paper" in 1892. I have always loved the story but never knew it had been inspired so literally.

**For a great source on the causes of World War I, go with The Origins of the First World War by James Joll. Note that it is a history book, not journalism like Dead Wake, so it is denser and far less touching.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

October's Book, Finally: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

It's worth noting I did read and review a book in October, with the original idea it'd be a bonus book. November was more about releasing my own material, and reading it too.

December has some great, great books I'll post.

The first of three (November's and December's are on their way):

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
Science Fiction (1966 - 382 pp.)

It's December in an even-numbered year, so you know what that means. More Heinlein!* (Completely coincidentally, as you can see from this being October's book.)

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is among the most reviewed books in science fiction history. A plot summary is here. As with the other popular books I write about on this blog, I'll write more about my reading experience.

My edition says, on the front, "His classic, Hugo Award-winning novel of libertarian revolution". The aforementioned revolution figures prominently, especially in the second and third parts of the book. The parts that appealed to me the most were the oddly human interactions between our Robocop-style protagonist Manuel O'Kelly Davis and Mike/Michelle/Adam Selene/whatever you want to call the most powerful computer in the Solar System. "That Dinkum Thinkum", the book's first part, explores this relationship before the later two books conclude that an all-knowing computer is best used to topple the corrupt Lunar government. Mike "knew almost every book on Luna, could read at least a thousand times as fast as we could and never forget anything unless he chose to erase, how he could reason with perfect logic, or make shrewd guesses from insufficient data... and yet not know anything about how to be 'alive'." (57) This juxtaposition of the human-ness Mike assumes throughout the book with his sheer inhuman-ness is what makes The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress great to me.

Political, legal and economic fiction is what I write. I love analyzing these themes from their "what if?" origins, toward their more serious or more entertaining directions. It's interesting to read Heinlein, an engineer noted for his intentionally outlandish settings,** take up the reins. Certain passages, like the mishmash "the classic 'Pearl Harbor' maneuver of game theory, a great advantage in Weltpolitick" (287) make my university days spin in their graves. Others, like the frequent satires of American politics I won't expand upon further in order to avoid spoiling the plot, had me in stitches. One of my favourite lines in the whole book is when O'Kelly Davis angrily notes, "I don't know how much to tell. Can't tell all, but stuff in history books is so wrong!" (296)

A few anachronisms take away from the action. The use of gigantic, mountain-mounted catapults to transport materiel from the Earth to the Moon recalls "The Brick Moon" more than it does the space craze of the '60s. In a post-Sputnik world, couldn't the transportation method have been more Sputnik-like and less like ancient warfare? Similarly, although the story is set in 2075-76, the characters' social attitudes feel uncomfortably Mad Men-era. Whether it's Mannie forcibly rescuing his platoonmate/fellow Cabinet member/love interest Wyoming "Why Not?" Knott, including a not-too-hard push on the buttocks, (35) or the bizarre judging of a capital case of flirting with the wrong woman, (159) I don't feel the future.

One of the best things The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress does is what it doesn't do. Wyoming is apparently very attractive. Everyone has multiple wives and husbands. The book has the word "mistress" in the title. Not once is a sex scene even plausible, though. There are times when it could possibly happen offscreen, such as any of the times Wyoming puts Mannie "to bed", but it is as though the political and social events these characters endure are so grandiose they make the seemingly all-important sex irrelevant.

Current pop culture nod: It's a shame Heinlein didn't live to see the release of Black Mirror. He probably would have been invited to write an episode.

Ease of Reading: 5
Educational Content: 4


*My forays into Heinlein:
December 2012: Stranger in a Strange Land, the last book of the venerable Book a Week
December 2014: WWII-era stories: "-And He Built a Crooked House" and "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag"
September 2016: Quora post referencing "-And He Built a Crooked House"

**See the aforementioned "-And He Built a Crooked House", as well as the fact that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress takes place on a polygamous, grain-importing Moon.