Category Archives: Literature

James S.A. Corey – Abbadon’s Gate: The Expanse, Vol. 3

James S.A. Corey – Abbadon’s Gate: The Expanse, Vol. 3

The best of the series so far. The protomolecule that was the major plot axis of the first two books forms a 1,000 km-wide ring between Uranus and Neptune’s orbits. The space inside the ring seems to be some kind of wormhole leading to a million-kilometer wide space with more than a thousand other rings spread along its edges. Earth, Mars, and the Belt waver between war and peace, both inside and outside the ring space. Protagonist James Holden  and his crew, along with a few other characters try to keep the peace, and try to ward off a vengeful character whose father and sister figured prominently in the first two volumes. The drama of a continually worsening situation keeps building and building, with some elaborate physics involved—gravity and inertia turn out to be excellent plot devices. The final battle scene is fantastically done—one of the best I’ve read.

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James M. Cain – The Postman Always Rings Twice

James M. Cain – The Postman Always Rings Twice

This short 1934 book helped give birth to the modern detective noir genre. Much popular literature of the period was on the vanilla side; this one was downright scandalous, with murder, adultery, and drunken car crashes looming large in the plot. Think of this book as a predecessor to today’s hard-boiled, Elmore Leonard-style stories. While not entirely to my taste, the sleazy story does have its low-brow appeal, to which I am not immune.

Arthur Conan Doyle ­- The Complete Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle ­- The Complete Sherlock Holmes

The audio version, narrated by Stephen Fry, is a delight. I enjoyed the Benedict Cumberbatch BBC series a few years ago, and Fry’s radio programs on Victorian culture sparked an interest in reading some primary source material. Though lengthy—four novels and countless short stories—this collection made driving, exercising, and doing chores go by much more quickly. I also followed along on the Kindle edition, which is free.

James S.A. Corey – Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, Book 1)

James S. A. Corey – Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, Book 1)

The Expanse is a science fiction show I recently discovered and rather enjoy. People began colonizing the solar system a few centuries before the series begins. Earth is under a global UN government and prosperous, if corrupt. Mars declared its independence some time ago. It was not peaceful, and tension lingers. Out in the, ahem, expanse of the asteroid belt and beyond is where this book takes place.

People have colonized asteroids, several moons around Jupiter and Saturn, and built several major space stations. Roughly 100 million people live in the Belt, but is small and backwards compared to Earth’s 30 billion population. Resources such as air and water are precious, and despite incredible solar system-wide wi-fi, the Belt isn’t as prosperous as the inner planets. Life is hard and dangerous, and a lot of decent people are also kind of sketchy; they have to be. Life expectancy for Belters is just 68, compared to 123 on Earth. native-born Belters are noticeably taller and skinnier than Inners due to growing up in lower gravity, marking them apart physically as well as culturally. They have been in space long enough to develop their own distinct patois, which is one of several nice touches that describe their growing cultural distance from Earth.

The Belters do not have an independent nation, but there is an IRA-style independence movement, the Outer Planet Alliance, or OPA. It is decentralized, uncoordinated, often violent, doesn’t necessarily have a clear leader, and is prone to factions and infighting. Inner planet governments have various interests and presences throughout the Belt. Sometimes they treat Belters well, and sometimes they don’t. Same with numerous mining companies, security contractors, and other businesses.

The protagonists are a plucky four-person ship crew who have origins from across the system, plus a hard-boiled Belter ex-detective from Ceres Station. They have different personality types and different philosophies, and while they are mostly good they also have their flaws. Through no fault of their own, they find themselves right in the middle of these tricky geopolitical dynamics. They try to stop a brewing system-wide three-way war while dealing with a number of other potentially lethal plot developments.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is enough of a fan that when the SyFy channel declined to renew The Expanse for a fourth season, he brought the show over to Amazon’s Prime streaming service. I enjoyed watching the first three seasons recently, and saw that the books on which it is based were on sale. The show is not a shot-for-shot remake of the books, though some parts did read like a retread. On the plus side, books have fewer space, time, and special effects budget constraints than television, so the characters and the fictional universe are developed more fully than in the show. The science parts of the science fiction are not this series’ drawing card, but they are more thoroughly explained and are apparently quite accurate, at least by speculative fiction standards.

I enjoyed it enough that I will continue with the book series, and will carve out some time for the tv show’s new season when that comes out later this year. Highly recommended if you’re into that sort of thing.

Dalton Trumbo – Johnny Got His Gun

Dalton Trumbo – Johnny Got His Gun

The protagonist wakes up to find that he cannot see or hear. He is unable to move beyond slightly wiggling his body, but he is not paralyzed. He soon figures out he has also lost both arms and both legs. He cannot walk, or hold or touch anything. He can feel that he is also missing his nose and most of his jaw. He cannot smell, taste, eat, or speak. He is being fed through a tube, and can feel that his face is being hidden by a mask. It sometimes itches, but he cannot scratch it, or ask anyone else to. He does not remember how he got wounded. His last memories are of combat during World War I, but doesn’t remember being in imminent danger before waking up.

The whole book is his train of thought as he figures out his situation. He oscillates between wakefulness and dreams—most vividly when he feels the pain of his still-healing side wound being gnawed at by a furry, wriggling rat. The pain, helplessness, and terror he felt seemed absolutely real. But he later believes this was just a dream, and sticks to that story.

Now and then he thinks back to his childhood and teenage years in Colorado. He once accidentally broke his father’s prized fishing rod as a boy. His father, a good man, took it well and soothed the child’s dread. When he grew old enough to work, he took to outdoor jobs a long train ride away, and met a girl he wanted to marry, taking the train back home to visit her when he could sneak away.

He has no way of telling whether weeks, months, or even years have passed in his new state. He does not what country he is in. France? England? Somewhere back in America? He does not know if his family knows what happened to him, if they have visited, or if his girlfriend has moved on. He does not know if his body was able to be identified. He learns to tell by feeling vibrations from footsteps when nurses come and go, and can even tell them apart by gait.

Near the end of the book he learns to communicate in Morse code by nodding his head in dots and dashes, and feeling dot-and-dash pats in response on his torso. His doctors or nurses, or whoever is looking after him, inform him they cannot do what he asks, because it would be against regulations.

Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo

Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo

The classic tale of revenge. I’ve been making an effort to read more literature, and Dumas is a natural author to include in that project. He was one of the most popular novelists of his day, basically the equivalent of Stephen King or John Grisham in ours. This novel has some cheesy moments, the characters aren’t particularly nuanced, and plausibility is not its strong suit. But the imagery, atmosphere, and sense of adventure make up for it. This isn’t King Lear, and it doesn’t need to be. It’s more about feeling and spirit than being highbrow.

Like many novels of its day, The Count of Monte Cristo was first published in serial format. Asu such, it has more cliffhangers and sudden reveals and plot twists than one would expect in a more deliberately constructed narrative. But its famous scenes are famous for good reason. And now I get many cultural references I did not before, which is another plus.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn – In the First Circle

Alexander Solzhenitsyn – In the First Circle

Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is about a nationwide prison camp system, the gulag, with millions of prisoners that persisted for decades. His most famous story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, is the story of one solitary prisoner over a single day. In the First Circle sits in the between. It is about a small group of zeks, or political prisoners, in a relatively cushy camp outside Moscow.

In the First Circle‘s title is an allusion to Inferno in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which reserves the first circle of hell for good people who predated Christ or otherwise didn’t fit into the Christian worldview. Its residents are spared the tortures of the inner circles, but they are in hell nonetheless. The zeks are well aware that they have comforts that prisoners in Kolyma or Lublanka could only dream of. They are still miserable. Regular references to banned literature such as Dumas comingles with dreary Soviet prison routines in a way that perfectly illustrates this tension between privilege and imprisonment.

The First Circle is fiction, but heavily autobiographical. Solzhenitsyn was a gulag survivor, and the protagonist is modeled after himself. The most heartbreaking scenes are during the family visits between separated prisoners and their wives and children. They are just a few miles apart, close enough to have monthly visits. Yet the distance between them is so great the zeks might as well be in Siberia. One couple even contemplates divorce because a zek’s pariah status stains his wife’s social standing and career opportunities.

There isn’t much in the way of plot, but that isn’t the point of the book. It focuses more on the distance, and longing, the mingled joy and sorrow of small comforts, and the pointless rules and cruelties that have become these men’s lives. Solzhenitsyn also gives chapters to the zeks’ wives and children, and Stalin himself even puts in an unflattering appearance, which was unprecedented when this book was published.