Patrick S. Baker‘s “Hoplite” is an example of military science fiction at it’s finest. A war veteran, his insider knowledge and experience shines through in the depth and realism of the battle sequences and the technical and military lexicon. Often it is the little details that can make or break a scene, and Baker breaks none. The story is narrated by the ship’s AI, Hoplite, an Assault Carrier that has entered a system and found the human settlements destroyed by an unknown enemy. “Hoplite” questions the ideas and notions around bravery, making the readers ask themselves who decides what bravery is, and how does one recognize it?
The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters is a dark, absorbing, yet ultimately hopeful novel about a police detective doggedly doing his job even as the world is literally about to end.
Henry (Hank) Palace has wanted to be a police detective since his mother was killed when he was a boy. Now Hank has his chance, he is promoted to detective after only one year, three months and ten days as a patrolman. The reason for his early promotion is that most of the rest of the police force of Concord, New Hampshire has walked off the job. The reason; a six and half kilometer wide asteroid is due to hit the earth in October and it is already March.
Humankind is dealing with the news of its imminent demise the same way it has dealt with disasters in the past; which is to say in about every different way possible. Some people have stopped working and are going through their “bucket lists,” others seek escape in drink and drugs and sex, and others are committing suicide. The chosen method of suicide varies by country and region. In India, thousands burn themselves alive. In the American Midwest, a shotgun in the mouth is favored. In Concord, it is hanging. Hanging is so popular that Concord is called “Hanger Town”. However, the majority are going about their daily lives as best they can, muddling through, doing their jobs and hoping for the best.
Hank Palace is in the last group. When another body is found in a McDonald’s bathroom, Hank is assigned the job. Anthony Zell, a 38 year old insurance man has used his own belt to hang himself. But what looks like just another suicide to everyone else looks like murder to Hank. A murder he is determined to solve in the face of all resistance.
The Last Policeman is a good old-fashioned police procedural with an apocalyptic background. It is written in the first-person and as such the work rises or falls on the main character; Hank Palace. Fortunately, Hank is an easy to like, compelling character. He is finally living his dream of being a detective and regardless of the circumstances he is determined to do the job the best way he knows how.
Of course, the real question the book asks is not who murdered Anthony Zell, but why bother to solve a murder when everyone will be dead in six months? For Hank the answer is simple; it is his job and even at the end of the world we should try and get justice for people.
The first book of a planned trilogy, The Last Policeman starts a bit slow and leaves a few loose ends that will hopefully be ties up as the series goes on. But ultimately the novel is very readable and interesting.
The fact that we humans are different from our ape cousins is self evident. We have bigger brains, walk upright and we make and use tools. But ever since the publication in 1871 of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man the question was and is how we got to be so different.
Richard Wrangahm offers us a good, new answer to that question in his book: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. The answer is simply that we cook our food. Wrangham is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University and also the Curator of Primate Behavioral Biology for Peabody Museum, so he knows of what he speaks.
Written in clear, accessible prose the book draws on diverse scientific disciplines such as Wrangham’s own studies of ape behavior, paleontology, biology, chemistry, sociology, physics, and nutritional science as well as studies of hunter-gathers to draw the conclusion that cooking “made” humans, well, human.
Wrangham knowledgably speculates that about 1.8 million years ago our ancestors brought fire under control, turning it from a fearful destroyer to a tame helper and then cooking was invented. According to Wrangham, it was this ability to cook that drove the development of the first “true” humans, homo erectus. Cooking started to drive evolution. The ability to cook and eat cooked food gave a huge advantage to our forbearers. It made food easier to chew and digest and therefore less body energy was required for these activities allowing more investment into hunting and gathering. Further homo erectus’ body started to change; teeth and jaws became smaller, as did the digestive tract and more calories started to go to the burgeoning brain.
Cooking also drove social changes. Cooking created the pair-bond and specialized sex-roles. Wrangham makes the point that monogamy developed as a deal in which men would provide and protect the food source, while women cooked it. In short men hunted and defended the food, while women prepared it. This wandering into evolutionary psychology is Wrangham’s weakest argument, but he doesn’t put too much reliance on it.
Finding new, interesting and sweeping ideas in the field of evolutionary science are rare. Even rarer is a clear, concise and truly fascinating treatise on these any of these big new ideas. Wrangham has written just such a book with Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.
Babylon’s Ark subtitled: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo is the compelling and ultimately heartwarming story of how one man rescued the abandoned animals of the Baghdad zoo in the middle of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The book is an odd and quirky combination of a Tom Clancy thriller and a James Herriot animal care story.
Lawrence Anthony, a South African conservationist, who at the start of Operation: Iraqi Freedom in 2003 realized that no one would be caring for the animals of the Baghdad Zoo. He soon arrived in Kuwait, rented a car and recruited two native speaking zoo keepers from the Kuwait City Zoo and was the first non-reporter civilian to enter the war torn country.
Traveling 500 miles thru a warzone, Anthony found the zoo in appalling condition with only a few animals surviving. Anthony and his two helpers soon set to work. They ‘liberated” equipment from bombed out hotels to care for the animals. They bought donkeys in markets to feed to the carnivores. Anthony soon formed an unlikely alliance with the local American military unit, the US 3rd Infantry Division (Rock of the Marne). Sometimes acting against orders, individual soldiers were soon helping Anthony. Friendly soldiers gave him a weapon to defend the zoo from looters, which he soon had to do. They used their own money to buy herds of sheep and other food for the animals. The remaining zoo staff soon returned to work and more international help arrived as well.
Not satisfied with those successful efforts Anthony and his team were soon rescuing cheetahs, ostriches and other animals from Uday Hussein’s private menagerie. With US Army Captain William Sumner and his soldiers, Anthony and his team also rescued abused and neglected exotic animals from black markets all over the warzone. In one exciting adventure, a military raid lead by Captain Sumner and Captain Gavino Rivas rescued seventeen horses from Saddam Hussein’s famous herd Arabian Horses.
After the fighting eased the US Army deployed engineers to repair and improve the zoo and the surrounding park which reopened to the public in July of 2003. Anthony left the country in September 2003.
If the book has any problem it is Anthony’s writing, which frankly leaves much to be desired. He could have used a good ghost writer or strict editor when completing this book.
This book is a must read for animal lovers ever where.
Since the publication of War Beneath the Sea: Submarine Conflict During World War II in 1996 it has become the standard text on submarine warfare in World War Two and a must have in any World War Two historian or general naval historian. The position this book has seized has more to say about a dearth of books that deal in depth and scope with that aspect of warfare then the excellence of this book. Which is not to say that War Beneath the Sea in not a good book; it is, but it does have some flaws.
In scope and depth this book is impressive. It covers in great detail the submarine operation of Germany, Britain, Japan and America. Padfield give rather short shrift to the Italian Submarine forces operations. Padfield draws on his vast knowledge of the German Kriegsmarine and how Grand Admiral Donitz absolutely dominated U-boat operations.
Padfield deals with how morale was maintained under the horrible conditions of the submarines of the time, not to mention in the face of rising causalities. The writing is clear and concise and the narration is nicely organized both chronologically and by operational area. He also delivers detailed stories of convoy battles and submarines individual actions as well. It is here that the book becomes almost more than the reader can bear. While the stories are well drawn and interesting, Padfield is unrelenting in his retelling of the death of submariners. The brave men on both sides die by drowning, by fire, by suffocation, by the crushing depths of the sea.
Padfield can be credited with taking no sides in this book, he is critical in his analyses and evaluations of all the major combatants submarine operations. His descriptions of the features and shortcomings of the major weapon systems are uncompromising.
It is fair to say that the book is not perfect. Although mind boggling complete in its depth. It is more of a synthesis of already existing ideas and information and doesn’t even try to break new ground in either description or evaluation of the submarine and its role in World War Two naval warfare, both tactically and strategically.
The book has a comprehensive chronology in the back. Also extensive notes and references are included.
When the Devil Dances is the third in the Posleen War or Legacy of the Aldenata series by John Ringo. The first two novels in the series are A Hymn before Battle and Gust Front. Devil is followed up by Hell’s Faire.
In this one earth has been invaded and largely occupied by the vicious Posleen. 90% of the human population has been literally eaten. The only parts of the Terra holding out are the high mountain regions of Europe and Asia, non-continental islands and the American heartland bordered by the Rockies and Appalachian mountains. Major Mike “Mighty Mite” O’Neal the hero and commander of the 555th Mobile Infantry fights the alien tide with everything he has, but he is blocked at many turns by the Galactics that are trying to “tame” the wild humans and reduce the whole human race to Janissary status.
Clearly part of a series of books, When the Devil Dances should not be read first. The reader should read the books in order, otherwise many of the events and characters will make little sense without having taken in the first two books in the series.
Ringo’s writing really shines in his intense details of the military operations and technology, some readers will no doubt say he is too detailed. The other high point in the writing are the battle scenes, full of blood, the strum and drang of warfare and the dark humor that often comes out of men in combat. In the battle scenes hyper velocity missile fly, anti-matter explodes, alien and humans die in big batches.
Ringo, an U. S. Army veteran, clearly pays homage to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers with his Armored Combat Suit (ACS) and the Mobile Infantry. But more importantly Ringo’s themes of military honor, service, self sacrifice and average men and women rising to circumstances are the same that Heinlein’s classic novel spoke too. Ringo’s characters fight and often die because it is the right and good thing to do. In the world of the novel, the bad guys are truly evil, the good guys are truly good and there are no grey areas.
If the reader is looking for a solid military science fiction action novel with stirring action scenes, good technology and no subtle philosophizing on the right and wrong of war, then they need look no further then When the Devil Dances and its companion books.