Posted October 3, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
The King of the technothrillers is dead. Clancy passed away overnight at the age of 66. No information yet about why, although the cigars and bacon at every breakfast might have contributed.
I enjoyed his early Jack Ryan novels, before they became a little preachy and political. He really did hit upon a new engine for driving thrillers that seemed to accelerate the reader through the text. I think he did it best in Red Storm Rising which was, if I recall, a non-Ryan book.
I learned a bit about long form story telling from Tom, both what to do and what to avoid, and I'll share a drink with Admiral Kohlhammer in his honor later.
Posted September 20, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
I picked up the audio book of Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World because it was on special. Five bucks. I thought it might be a nice change from all of the genre I've been reading and it was. And it wasn't. I'll explain in a moment.
Most all of what I know about the great Khan I learned from Conan. The quote about driving your enemies before you, tipping over their yurts and diggin' on the the lamentations 'off der vimmin'.
And something about John Wayne playing him in one of the worst movies of the 1960s, which I really must get around to watching one day. Perhaps in a double header with The Green Berets.
"You're what's it's all about, little Hamchuck."
I say it wasn't entirely a departure from genre because a chapter or two into Weatherford's book I could already see just how many fantasy writers had raided the Khan cupboard for their babarian research. Possibly more than have borrowed from Tolkien over the years.
George R.R. Martin's Dothraki are one example who spring to mind, but pretty much every barb-civ story I've ever read seems to be based on them to some extent. Listening to the narration has been, at times, like settling into an epic fantasy, and I have to keep reminding myself that this is non fiction. Blood feuds, wife stealing, spirit worship, doomed loves, implacable hatreds, the fall of cities, insensate violence, impenetrable tribal and feudal cultures, they're all there.
Also there, and a surprise to me, in spite of the book's subtitle, was an unexpected lesson in the foundations of modernity. Example? Genghis Khan grew up as something of outcast, the son of a woman stolen from her husband, widowed when her second husband was poisoned, and turned out by his tribe because they didn't want to care for all the extra mouths. It soured Genghis on the traditions of clan and family loyalty which were the defining and organizing principles of steppe society. When he started to knock over other tribes and grow his own power base, one of the many things he changed was to promote men on the basis of merit, rather than kinship. It had a range of effects, one of which was to bind all the people's he conquered to his rule because they learned if they served the Khan well, it mattered not whence they had come. He would promote them.
In combination with changes he made to regularise his army - eg, organizing them into decimal units of ten, then one hundred, then a thousand and so on - it made the Mongols much less a Horde than a sort of savage mobile modern state.
I'm enjoying the audiobook so much that I plan on buying myself a hard copy. It is shelf worthy. I might even get an ebook for research while I'm away at the beach the next two weeks. I'm also going to try a little experiment with my new Amazon links. Rather than just buying it as normal, I'll put an associate link below and go in thru that, thereby giving myself a small discount because I'm sort of buying it from the Burger, rather than Amazon direct.
Prof Boylan suggests below that it should be the next bookclub title. I am totally open to that suggestion.
Posted September 18, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
And although I enjoyed it, I gotta say I'm bit surprised that anyone could be surprised to discover that Orson Scott Card is a socially conservative homophobe.
Seriously? Buggers as an implacable, destructive alien species?
And the lessons of the future? Child soldiers are awesome.
Anyways, I wouldn't want to get all down on it. I did enjoy the story even though there were plenty of times I had to work real hard at suspending my disbelief, especially in the later chapters as the premise begins to seem a lot sillier and the narrative structure falls apart.
I wouldn't set it as a bookclub title but wouldn't have too many issues to recommending it to anyone who can disconnect their feelings about the author from the text. I'm also quite keen to see how the film adaptation works, since there's more a few challenges to surmount in getting this story onto the screen.
Another thing I learned while reading Ender's Game, I should just give up on literature. I'd been trying to read Wolf Hall for about a month and a half before I gave up and downloaded Game. I recognised it as a truly fine piece of writing, a work of genius indeed, sustained across a vast canvas and... meh.
I just couldn't give a shit about it.
Hilary Mantel is a hundred times the writer that Orson Scott Card is, and yet I was able to finish and enjoy Card's book in a fraction of the time I struggled through Wolf Hall.
Posted September 8, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
I'd been following Mister Ringo's progress on this book avidly, as much a fanboy as any... well, any fanboy. I loved his Posleen invasion series and can't wait to see what he does to shambling hordes of the undead.
He's been kind enough to write a little intro for us. So I'll let him take over.
John Ringo writes:
The Black Tide series, essentially complete with four books written at this point, draws upon a lecture and essay I occasionally give titled 'The Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse' combined with my utter distaste for most 'zombie apocalypse' stories as well as most post-apocalypse stories. The essence of this lecture is that given various factors related to microbiology, some researcher creating a 'zombie virus' in the near future is a given. There are too many reasons to do so (notably notoriety and the inevitable grants that result from it). The technology is already here. 28 Days Later has gone from 'unobtainium' to 'doable.' So how do you respond? What zombie plan actually makes sense? And what do you do if you've survived?
What you do if you've survived is save the damn world. Not drive around acting like a loon.
The Black Tide Series (first book: Under a Graveyard Sky, Sept. 2013, Baen) focuses on one family's response after getting early warning of the deliberate release of such a virus: The Smith Family, Steven, Stacey, Sophia (15) and Faith (13) activate their prepared 'biological apocalypse' plan by taking to sea in a sailboat.
I was extremely impressed by Mister Birmingham's 'Without Warning' (I do NOT impress easily when it comes to sci-fi action novels) and in straight bow to the author, Steve is a naturalized American citizen, born in Australia and a former Aussie Para. I doubt I can write an Australian character as well as Mr. Birmingham wrote Americans but I tried.
The first part of book details their experiences as part of a clandestine and illegal vaccine production group based in NYC. The climactic battle takes place during the Fall in New York where they attend 'The Last Concert' in New York's Washington Square Park and have to fight their way out when NYC suffers its final blackout.
The second part of the book is about beginning rescue operations at sea and the initial formation of Wolf Squadron, the group that begins the slow process of returning the world to civilization. This culminates in the clearance of the 'mega-ship' cruise liner Voyage Under Stars.
Four books are complete in the series, Under a Graveyard Sky, (Sept. 2013, Baen) To Sail a Darkling Sea, (tentatively March, 2014) Islands of Rage and Hope and Strands of Sorrow. The first two are already scheduled and the others will probably be following at quarterly or biannual release. Graveyard Sky is currently available from Baen's eBook page as an electronic Advanced Reader's Copy.
The same page includes sample chapters which carry on well into the New York portion and clarify various aspects of the science of the virus. (Which is not 'unobtainium.') The book is about people who competently, ruthlessly and proactively respond to an apocalypse then turn right around and start rebuilding.
They do not give in to despair. They do not care only for themselves. And they will not bow.
Nightwish' 'Last Ride of the Day' is the theme song of this series.
Riding the day every day into sunset
Finding the way back home.
Over time various snippets from all three books have been posted, mostly on Facebook.
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Posted September 6, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
Like reading. Josephine Tovey has written of her struggle to keep up the good reading habits of her earlier days because the modern world provides so many distractions.
I left Nelson Mandela in a lime quarry on Robben Island, the same way I abandoned Clarissa Dalloway on her way to the florist, and Ishmael, only shortly after he set sail. That was how far I managed to get into Mandela’s The Long Walk to Freedom, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, before the books joined the mushrooming pile by my bedside, or the increasingly fraudulent display that is my bookshelf.
I was enjoying each one. But I couldn’t seem to finish them.
Nelson, Clarissa and Ishmael were all abandoned for twitter, facebook and netflix. Jo felt as though the internet had trained her out of long form reading, that the endless one minute pleasure spasms of reading one Buzzfeed listicle after another had made her as incapable of sinking into the challenge of literature as most 20/20 batsmen would be of playing for a draw over two days on a sticky wicket at Headingly.
As a guy who regularly whacks himself in the face with an iPad when dozing off in bed, I sort of understand. And yet I wonder if Josephine is doing it wrong. She's right about being trained into gorging ourselves on handfuls of M&M-like snippets of text and audio and social media updates and blogs and grumpy cat and link bait lists and whatever and ever amen. You do have to stay in the habit of reading stories longer than 300 words. That's what I'm contracted to write for Fairfax at Blunty. 300 words a blog. I frequently go longer than that, of course, because I'm a windbag. But all of our data, all of everybody's data, points inexorably towards the fact that, yes, Homo modernus has a very short attention span.
Why then would you take a difficult piece of literature into your soft warm bed at the end of a long and difficult day? You're almost certainly setting yourself up to fail. There are two issues here. One, being tired, stressed, overworked and generally too warn out to stay awake for more than a few minutes. Literature is not going to help with that. And secondly, literature.
None of the books Josephine cited struck me as being much fun to read. You might enjoy them the same way that you might enjoy the challenge of bench pressing your own body weight, but that's more of an existential satisfaction than a pleasurable one.
I still read in bed, but after suffering from the same distractions and a few I discovered all on my own, such as news aggregators like Flipboard and Zite, I now have a policy of reading either one short to medium length article from something middle to high brow like The New Yorker, or a couple of chapters from one of my unrivaled collection of books that improve with altitude.
The thinky stuff I read because I enjoy it, but not too much of it, and usually not late at night. To return to the weightlifting metaphor, it helps to give your brain a bit of a workout every now and then. But mostly at the end of the day I just want to relax and if I'm reading that means I'll be reading something like Steve Stirling's latest alternate history novel of the Change. (The Given Sacrifice, since you ask, and yes it is awesome). Thrillers, action adventure stories, fantasy, SF, all of the genres that don't get no respect at literary festivals, they all produce the sorts of books that are likely to find you cursing the author at four in the morning because you just have to keep turning the pages.
Nobody has to keep turning the pages of literary fiction unless you have a term paper due the next morning.
The other issue, of course, is simply a lack of time. The reason so many of us read in bed is that we don't have the time to do it during the day. There is that brief and shining moment in your 20s when, particularly if you are a layabout student, you do have endless days and months to lie around consuming book after book. But those days are over for me, and I suspect they are over for Josephine Tovey as well.
I've 'read' many more books this year than I have in recent years, however, simply by subscribing to Audible.com. Even though I work from home, I find these days that I'm a commuter more often than not, or a taxi driver perhaps, ferrying kids from one commitment to another. I spend a surprising amount of time behind the wheel, enough to let me stream hours of music, listen to hours of podcasts, and still get through one or two long audiobooks a month. I never listen to audiobooks in bed because that would be a bit perverse. I can't explain why. Just shut up you.
But in the car, walking the dog, hanging out at endless, endless, endless school sporting functions, they are a godsend. And they don't even need to be thrillers. Right now, just to prove that I can, I'm making my way through Hillary Mantel's huge, thinky, dense and difficult Wolf Hall. It's brilliant, visionary, almost hallucinatory in its evocation of Thomas Cromwell's point of view and I read it, or rather listen to it, with a grinding envy for all the talent this woman has to spare.
But it's weightlifting. Really difficult weightlifting. I feel better for having done it. It's good for me. But I enjoy it in the same way that I enjoy a really hard workout. It's only fun when it stops hurting. And I would never, ever attempt it in bed.
36 Responses to ‘Doing less of the things you do in bed’
Posted August 8, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
If I was working for the Washington Post I'd probably be a helluva lot more relieved than concerned about Jeff Bezos buying my ass wholesale this week. Chances are the business desk will never write another decent story about Amazon's business practices, but other than that Bezos seems to be shaping up as very old fashioned hands-off proprietor in the tradition of American billionaires who buy a newspaper as a sort of charitable indulgence rather than a commercial investment.
He paid $250m for a masthead once valued at over a billion, and he probably overpaid. But he can afford it. Dude's personally worth over $25 billion. He could lose fifty or sixty million a year on the Post for the rest of his life and still die megawealthy. and that's without Amazon paying him another cent.
The thing about Bezos, he plays for the long run. He's playing for the long run in trying to monoplise the publishing industry, and probably in trying to roll over retail competitors like Costco and Walmart. He could afford to sit and wait for years, decades even, while the slow death of the old media kills of most of the legacy print competitors leaving a few globally recognised mastheads to survive as megasaurs in a radically changed ecology.
I can very easily imagine a future where a handful of brand titles like The New York Times and now the Post, become less about serving their local catchments and more about selling an increasingly rare - and thus valuable product - hard news, to a much wider market. (It's noticeable, for instance that the stories selected by the editors of the NYT for each day's live read on Audible seem very strongly slanted towards an international audience). I'd also add that there's no guarantee the Times will survive, given their parlous finances. But they're a lot better placed to do so than most papers.