I’m not sure where to begin with this book. Perhaps a good way to start would be to define what kind of book it is, but you see, there are layers to it. You could approach it in a number of different ways.

One avenue would be to say it’s a romance. The protagonist, Dr. Alasandr Say, is in love with a fellow physicist named Penny. Only that’s not the romance. That’s backstory. Dr. Say goes to a remote village in Scotland as his first post-doctoral research assignment. He has been hired by the foul-tempered Lord Learmonte to transcribe notes taken by an ancestor of the latter, a mysterious scientist whose own research produced a number of bizarre results.

You see though, already I’m getting off-track, because I haven’t gotten to the romance part. Dr. Say strikes up a friendship with Nesta, Lord Learmonte’s daughter, who is being pressured by her father into an arranged marriage with an old family friend.

It’s a classic Victorian romance, or comedy of manners–a drama about engagements made for reasons of family business competing with the desires of the heart. It’s full of well-mannered upper-class society folks holding gatherings, with ladies in dresses and men in suits, all set against the backdrop of a dreamy glen in Scotland. Dr. Say even gallantly assists Nesta after she falls into a river, in a scene straight out of Victorian literature that is charming in its modesty.

Except… it’s not set in the 1800s.  Rather, it takes place in a future where much of modern technology has been rendered useless by sun-storms–bursts of energy from the sun that wrought catastrophic damage on the modern world, which is still recovering. The reason for the revival of the old-time fashions is to cover people’s skin against the powerful solar rays. This is retro-futuristic world-building at its finest.

And what is Dr. Say researching, exactly, while on his romantic summer retreat into a dreamy wilderness? It has something to do with the powerful electrical storms that well up nightly, originating from the site of Lord Learmonte’s ancestor’s laboratory. Storms which may be somehow connected to the solar anomalies of decades past, and which local superstition maintains are connected with supernatural forces–such as the glowing will-o’-the-wisps that appear late at night, known as the “Riders” from the “Otherworld.”

You see? I told you this book had layers. Sometimes I felt like I was reading Austen or even Wodehouse; other times it felt closer to something by Jeff Vandermeer.  The closest analogue I can think of is Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes, a book that combined interpersonal drama with scientific research and a dash of pure magical fantasy. Not many books give you romance, magic, mystery, and glimpses into the politics of scientific research funding, but Ocean Echoes does, and A Summer in Amber does too.

I could go on more about how much I enjoyed this book, but it seems better to let you discover the mysteries and bewitching atmosphere of Glen Lonon and Maig Glen for yourself. It’s a marvelous place. Be sure to check out some of the supplemental material, such as maps etc., on the author’s blog.

This is a cover for a 1980 edition. There are many like it–and many un-like it–but this one is my favorite.

Starship Troopers is a famous book, with a profound influence on modern science fiction. It’s one of the earliest known appearances of powered armor in fiction, elements of its setting can be seen in countless other science-fiction works about humans battling alien insects, and it was the basis for a cult-classic movie franchise.

The book is told in first person by Juan “Johnny” Rico, a soldier in the Mobile Infantry. It begins with Rico and his platoon attacking an enemy planet, then flashes back to when Rico joined the military, over the objections of his father.

Rico details all the details of basic training, as the drill sergeants mold the recruits into a fighting force. Occasionally, he flashes further back to his high school class in “History and Moral Philosophy,” taught by a retired officer, Lt. Colonel Dubois.

Throughout the book, Rico reflects on Dubois’ lectures. And why is that? Well, we’ll talk about that later.

Eventually, Rico graduates and joins the war against the bugs. His mother is killed by a bug attack on Buenos Aires, a devastating attack which mobilizes Terran forces against the bugs, and Rico soon ships out to attack Klendathu as part of the formidable unit “Rasczak’s Roughnecks.”

Ultimately, Rico becomes an officer and, after another daring raid to capture a “brain bug,” becomes an officer and commander of “Rico’s Roughnecks.”

There really isn’t that much sci-fi stuff in the book. Apart from a few episodes of high-tech infantry attacks against the bugs at the beginning and the end, you’d barely notice the book is set in the future. It’s mostly about military basic training. My father was in the army and trained at West Point, and the descriptions don’t seem much different from the stories he’s told me.

So why did Heinlein even bother setting it in the future, if we’re only going to get a few pages of power-armored spacemen fighting overgrown bugs and lots and lots of “history and moral philosophy”?

Heinlein was a fervent anti-communist, and it is widely believed that he chose insects for the antagonists because they represented a collectivist society taken to an extreme. The bugs care nothing for individuals; indeed, they frequently are willing to sacrifice hundreds of “workers” in order to kill just a few humans. The centrally-coordinated, anti-individualist bug society is meant to represent communism in its most extreme form.

Here is where things get strange. Much of the book is dedicated to showing Rico and his comrades being molded into a cohesive fighting unit–a hierarchical structure where soldiers follow orders from their superiors unquestioningly, the chain of command is respected, and if necessary, soldiers sacrifice themselves to defend society.

Doesn’t that sound awfully… I don’t know… collectivist to you? It does to me. But now I’m confused. Rico and his men are the good guys, and the bugs are the bad guys, and both are collectivist. I’m not saying they’re the same, but it’s a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind as far as I can see. What’s going on here, Heinlein? Make up your mind if we’re supposed to be for collectivism or against it!

Well, there’s more to this story. But first, it occurs to me I’d better apologize to new readers coming to this as part of Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month. You probably are used to normal, sane people who review a book by talking about the plot, the characters, and saying what they did and didn’t like. (For a long list of VSFM posts, written by competent and focused reviewers unlike yours truly, see here.) I have a tendency to write long, rambling reviews that go off on tangents, and I daresay this particular book only encourages me. If you want the TL;DR version, it’s this: I didn’t especially like the book as a novel–I found it too didactic, with not enough actual plot to liven it up. That said, it is interesting, and worth reading nevertheless.  But to find out why I think it’s interesting, I’m afraid you’ll have to be subjected to more of my idiosyncratic review style…

Check out the Wikipedia page on Starship Troopers. You’ll see in the contents a section called “Allegations of fascism.” You can read the section if you want, although it really tells you nothing beyond what the title conveys–the fact that some people alleged the book was promoting fascism.

That’s a serious allegation! And maybe it’s the answer to our question. After all, 20th-century fascism was another totalitarian ideology that competed with communism. And when I say “competed” I mean “fought bloody wars against.” Between them, these two ideologies are responsible for death and destruction on a mind-numbing scale.

But you’ll notice I specifically mentioned 20th-century fascism, as formulated by Mussolini. But that was more of a darker take on the nationalism of Garibaldi, wedded to some concepts borrowed from 20th century socialism. We must dig deeper still.

The name “fascism” comes from the fasces, a symbol of wooden rods bound together, which shows up in all sorts of surprising places across the globe. The fasces symbolized power in Ancient Rome, and if there’s one tradition Heinlein seems to be modeling his futuristic society on, it’s the values of the Roman Republic.

It’s time to talk about Lt. Col. Dubois, as promised. Here he is replying to a student who has just said that “violence never solves anything”:

“I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that… Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.”

Wow! Whatever they’re teaching in that Moral Philosophy class, it probably ain’t pacifism, is it? No wonder it got Rico so excited to join up, even over his father’s objections.

Well, that and another reason. Sorry if I buried the lede here, but in the society of Starship Troopers, you only become a full citizen by serving in the military. In other words, you have to complete basic training and fulfill a term of service in order to be able to vote. And why is this? Dubois explains:

“There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free’… This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears…

The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion . . . and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”

The goal of Heinlein’s society is cultivating civic virtue. (Much like the fasces, the words “civic” and “virtue” both come from Latin.)  The idea is that people who have paid a heavy price to wield authority will use it judiciously and wisely. Thus, restricting citizenship only to those willing to fight and die in the defense of society.

Is this fascism, as we understand it today?

Not quite, I don’t think. I don’t believe a society governed by the votes of military veterans is inherently fascist. That said, you can see the potential for it to turn into something a lot like fascism. The Freikorps weren’t all Nazis, by any means, but you can see how easily the former can produce the latter.

Of course, a society in which only military veterans can vote will be much more militaristic than one where everyone can vote. That goes without saying. And militarism, while possibly not the most collectivist society imaginable, is certainly not friendly to ultra-individualism either.

To an ultra-individualist, anything that’s less individualistic than their own ideals looks like some form of creeping collectivism, whether fascist or communist or whatever. Judged by the standards of 2020s America, 1930s America looks pretty collectivist. For example: a huge national service program in which people perform manual labor sounds pretty weird to us, but FDR pulled it off with some good results.

There are some problems–such as alien bug attacks and highly contagious viruses–which require collective action to solve. A certain amount of civic virtue is needed to meet such emergencies, which is why the society Heinlein envisioned is so militaristic.

That is, what we see of it, which admittedly isn’t much. Actually, one of my problems with the book is the lack of description of the wider world outside the Mobile Infantry. Rico’s father does some sort of business, but other than that, details about the economy are vague. Even the government itself is unclear. Veterans vote, but what do they vote on? Do they vote directly for policies, or for representative candidates? Who, in short, is driving this bus?

Starship Troopers isn’t the sort of pulse-pounding action-adventure novel its name suggests. Actually, it’s a philosophical novel about society and government. Given that, it would have been nice to see a bit more of both. But it’s also intended as a tribute to, as Heinlein puts it, “the bloody infantry, the doughboy, the duckfoot, the foot soldier who goes where the enemy is and takes them on in person.”

And certainly, anyone who does a job requiring discipline and sacrifice is deserving of praise. DuBois’ speech above relates to something I’ve been musing about lately: in wealthy societies, where options for entertainment and leisure abound, people easily can forget about the dignity and respect afforded to those who do the hard jobs that keep society running. But it is, and always will be, noble to forgo pleasure to do something good. And the more opportunities for pleasure there are, the nobler forgoing them will be.

In that regard, Starship Troopers certainly offers plenty of food for thought, and it’s easy to see why Heinlein chose to put such an austere message in the form of a science-fiction story, at a time when the United States, as a prosperous superpower, was beginning to focus on the possibility of traveling into space. As President Kennedy said in 1962, three years after the publication of Starship Troopers:

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? 

…We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

“Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” There’s a political rallying cry for you! Sadly, there is always the danger that “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” will be competing with it…

Anyway, Starship Troopers is definitely a worthwhile book, not only for its status as a hugely influential work of science-fiction, but also as an insight into the mindset of the Cold War.

“Aamrgan?” you say. “What kind of title is that?” Well, it’s an anagram of anagram. Nifty concept, isn’t it? It’s a good brain-teaser that sets the stage for what’s to come.

Aamrgan is a short book, but it contains huge ideas. It was originally going to be a novel, until the author began contemplating the backward time travel paradox, and so instead wrote this short but fascinating work of metaphysical puzzles.

When I was in college I took a class in logic offered by the Philosophy department. I did okay in the class, but I always felt like there was something about it that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. Maybe my mind isn’t great at grasping abstract concepts. I got the same vibe reading this–like I was stretching my mental muscles in a way they weren’t used to moving. 

Don’t be fooled; while the book is 34 pages long, it’ll keep you thinking about it for way longer than it takes to read it. It’s different; it makes you think about things you may have taken for granted in entirely new ways. It’s a good book to start off the year, too; what better way to start a new year than with a new perspective?

Dune-Frank_Herbert_(1965)_First_edition
There are many different covers for Dune, none of them totally adequate, IMO. This is a good image, but the fonts… ugh.

Dune is such a weird book. As almost everyone knows, it’s about a young nobleman named Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, who are taking control of the barren desert planet Arrakis.

Almost immediately, they are faced with political machinations among various factions, including the rival House of Harkonnen, the smugglers of valuable spice that can be found only on Arrakis, the natives of the planet–the mysterious Fremen, a reclusive desert people–and the Bene Gesserit, a mystical order of witches, of which Jessica herself is a member.

Early on, I was struck by how likable many of the characters are. Duke Leto and Lady Jessica are genuinely in love with each other and care about ruling well and raising their son. Paul’s mentors, including Gurney Halleck, Duncan Idaho and Thufir Hawat all are earnest loyal members of House Atreides. I feel like many modern stories would go right for the grimdark by having everyone be a jerk. But in Dune, there’s only one character who is obviously evil right from the start, and that’s Baron Harkonnen.

Of course, he is successful in his scheming against House Atreides, and quickly ends the Duke’s reign, forcing Paul and his mother to flee into the desert wilderness of Arrakis. And an inhospitable world it is–an endless sea of sand, populated by the monstrous worms that seethe beneath its surface.

Paul and Jessica soon make contact with the Fremen, the indigenous tribe who, thanks to Bene Gesserit of a bygone era, believe Paul to be a messianic figure. This is helped by the fact he has all sorts of strange second-sight abilities as a result of a Bene Gesserit breeding program designed to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, which means “the one who can be many places at once” or, in the language of fictional tropes, “the chosen one.”

Yes, this is a “our-hero-is-the-chosen-one-from-the-prohecy” story. Normally, I can’t stand those, but I’ll give Herbert credit, he manages to do it in a way that pretty much works. Part of that is just due to the obvious care and effort he put in to building every aspect of this world–each character, each faction, is carefully described and thought out, all with their own motives and plans. Herbert clearly put a lot of work into the worldbuilding here, which is maybe why there are so many scenes of Paul and Jessica having hallucinogenic experiences where they glimpse different possible futures–there are any number of ways this story could go at any moment.

Speaking of Jessica, I really liked her. She’s a good mother, a good wife, and a brilliant strategist and a genius at political maneuvering. Classic science fiction is not necessarily a genre where you find a lot of strong, believable female characters, but Jessica is certainly that.

Most of the characters are very good–in fact, if there’s a weak link, it’s Paul himself. His mind is so weird that he can be a little hard to relate to at times. I guess that’s the idea, since he has achieved some sort of near-omniscient consciousness.

It’s not news to observe that Paul is clearly modeled on T.E. Lawrence, an Englishman who led Bedouin guerrilla forces against the Ottoman Empire in World War I, and who had quite a complex psyche himself. Dune is loaded with quasi-Islamic terms and concepts, and it seems quite likely that Herbert was influenced by Lawrence’s portrait of the culture depicted in his memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. (Paul Atreides is referenced as writing a book called “The Pillars of the Universe” in Dune.)

Lawrence was also the subject of the film Lawrence of Arabia, which was released to near-universal acclaim three years before Herbert published Dune. I can’t imagine it didn’t influence him. I even wonder if the idea of the effect spice has on people’s eye color was inspired by Peter O’Toole’s baby blues in the film. 

The big difference is that Paul’s revolution succeeds, and he ultimately brings both the House of Harkonnen and even the Emperor himself to their knees, forcing the Great Powers to bargain with him. T.E. Lawrence, um, didn’t. I think Lawrence’s story is actually more dramatic, but Herbert was telling a mythopoetic saga in the grand tradition of heroic legend. The Hero with a Thousand Faces can’t be overruled by the Politician with Only Two, even if that is more true to life.

Dune totally follows the path laid out in Joseph Campbell’s book. It’s practically the archetypical heroic myth. Small wonder the book has had such influence. The desert world, with its “spice” and its “sandcrawlers” and its “dew collectors.” Not to mention its quasi-religious order of people with superhuman powers… it all reminds me of something. Hmm, what could it be?

Yeah, the Tatooine portion of the original Star Wars has some serious overlap with Dune. I’ve even heard it said that the Krayt dragon skeleton C-3PO sees is meant to resemble a sandworm. I’m not so sure about that (worms wouldn’t have endoskeletons.), but there’s no doubt somebody had Dune on their mind while making Star Wars.

I’d argue that The Phantom Menace is also weirdly like Dune. It’s about a young ruler who loses their throne thanks to the machinations of a sinister trade guild, flees to a harsh desert world, develops a keen head for political and military maneuvering, and leads an army of indigenous warriors to take back their throne.  Yes, Padmé Amidala is the female Paul Atreides. They even have the same initials! And here they thought some kid who could drive fast cars was the Chosen One.

All right, I’ll quit re-litigating The Phantom Menace. (For now.) The point is, Dune had a massive influence on the world of science fiction and fantasy. It’s weird, but here at Ruined Chapel, we like weird. Like Paul Graham, we believe that good design is strange. This is why you can’t have strict rules for writing. As I discussed with Mark Paxson a while back, Dune breaks writing rules, and well it should, because it is in service of creating a memorable world and telling an interesting story.

This is a collection of short speculative fiction stories that deal with complex concepts–the existence of God, the nature of reality, human relationships–as approached by everyday people. Goats has a knack for writing characters who are instantly relatable. Although this is in many ways a stylistic departure from his earlier books, which are primarily comic novels and crime thrillers, the thing they all have in common is the intelligent and humane voice of the narrator.

Even in “Snowlight,” which is one of my favorite short stories ever, and is probably the darkest one in the collection, the protagonist has a basic decency and pathos to him that makes the reader sympathetic, even when he does something that is objectively quite shocking. The characters always feel like humans–even when they’re not. There is a religious robot in one story, and a man who thinks everybody is a robot in another. Philosophy and humor are mixed frequently; as in the case of Zetoxis the philosopher, of whom it is said, “the wise man and the fool reside in the same body.”

Many of the stories suggest a moral or logical question for the reader to ponder. Some of them just let you look at the world in a different way through revolutionary technology, as in “Sentenced to Hard Empathy,” or “The Big Punch-Out,” the latter of which creates a dystopian world reminiscent of the imaginings of early 20th-century futurists. Sometimes this is blended with satire, most notably in “The Obscurators.”

The longest stories, “Alone” and “Fact of Existence” present concepts that could fill whole novels. “Alone” reminded me of John Brunner’s novel Total Eclipse with its depiction of being stranded on a desolate alien world. “Fact of Existence” is a fascinating exploration of consciousness and religion, in the context of a science-fiction mystery. This is everything that science fiction should be–a great story that gives the reader something to ponder. The whole collection is like that, as Goats riffs on the same themes from a variety of different perspectives.

The only problem I have with this book is a purely technical one specific to the Kindle version. It has no table of contents. That’s not a big deal in a novel or novella, but in an ebook of short stories, it’s a hassle to have to scroll through it to find the one you want. As a workaround, I bookmarked the start of each story. Yes, I’m lazy. What can I say?

Still, it’s a small price for being able to read these stories. And we are lucky to be able to read them, for as Goats explains in his afterword, all but “The Big Punch-Out” were rejected for publication. This lack of taste on the part of literary website editors is to our advantage, as these tales might have ended up scattered behind a Balkanized array of paywalls. But you can get them all, now, for $0.99. (Or if you don’t want to deal with the ToC issue alluded to above, it’s worth it to spring for the paperback version.)

I highly recommend this book. I could go on about all the reasons why, but it’s really best if you just go check it out and lose yourself in a world of madmen, robots, wanderers and philosophers, all with different ways of looking at the universe and its mysteries.

This is a historical fiction novel set in the Napoleonic era. It follows British lieutenant James Burke, who is in Argentina as a “confidential agent.” A spy, in other words. While there, he assumes different identities of varying nationalities to worm his way into a position where he can learn the latest news.

With Napoleon’s power growing, the British are trying everything they can to undermine him, which includes taking an interest in Spanish-controlled Argentina. Burke allies with some freedom fighters to scout the land for a potential invasion by His Majesty’s forces.

Of course, this is a spy thriller, and Burke, like another famous literary spy with the initials J.B., is a ladies’ man, and soon is sleeping with Ana, the beautiful wife of a local merchant. Ana has all sorts of connections with major players in Argentinian politics, and in addition to their romance, provides Burke with useful information for plotting a British invasion.

But Burke also makes powerful enemies, including one who soon proves to be critical to the future of the nation. Amidst political machinations and the occasional bumbling of his own country’s military commanders, Burke finds himself having to improvise one plan after another to keep himself alive.

The book is engaging and fun. I know next to nothing about 19th-century South American politics, but the story and characters are so vivid it was easy to follow along with the plot. Williams’ descriptions of the terrain are excellent, making it easy to picture the caravans, troop movements, and other maneuvers in which Burke is involved.

There is also just the faintest element of the supernatural to the tale. At the very beginning and the very end, Burke has an unusual experience which makes him feel like a man guided by the hand of Fate. It’s very subtle, as is appropriate, but I liked the touch.

Burke is a supremely capable man, pragmatic and sometimes cold, though he can be swayed by feminine wiles. He occasionally pauses to reflect on the grim amorality of his work, as he manipulates events and people to further the aims of the British Empire.

In fact, if you read between the lines, while Burke may tell himself he is doing this to defeat the evil Corsican, in actual fact it’s hard not to see it as simply one more conquest by Britain. As best I can tell, l’Empereur was interested in South America solely to the extent it was a possession of Spain, with which he was allied. British foreign policy in the early 19th-century was that Bonaparte’s empire had to be destroyed, and the best way of doing that was to establish an even bigger empire, that happened to be owned by London. Convenient, eh?

But I don’t expect you to trust me on this point, dear reader. After all, I have been accused of harboring Bonapartist sentiments in the past. (I swear, the bust of him on my bookshelf is only there for aesthetic reasons!)

Read the book for yourself, and make your own judgments. Because, while Williams may take literary license now and then, the events are firmly rooted in historical fact. Like, James Burke was a real person. So was Ana, and so was the main antagonist of the book, whose name I’ll not reveal since it could be something of a spoiler.

As I read it, I kept thinking what a good film or TV series this book would make. I was picturing Patrick McGoohan in the role of Burke. Of course, even if we could use a time machine to offer the role to the late Mr. McGoohan, he would probably turn it down for much the same reason he did the role of 007. Alternatively, one could imagine Rowan Atkinson as Burke and Tony Robinson as his servant, William Brown, but that’s not quite the right tone…

But enough of this idle silliness! Read this highly entertaining book, and whatever conclusions you draw about Burke or the nation he serves, appreciate British military intelligence for all the amazing tales of espionage they’ve given us over the centuries.

This is a fantasy novel set in a world where elves, goblins and changelings (shape-shifters) are perennially maneuvering against each other. The main source of conflict is the precious gems which are used for all manner of magical purposes. The three factions are not at war, but rather a state of uneasy peace which is frequently threatened, as when elves encroach into goblin territory.

There are three main characters: Alue, an elf, Talin, a changeling who for some time has disguised himself as Alue’s familiar, and Naj’ar, a goblin-changeling halfbreed. The three keep finding themselves drawn together, as often as not due to Alue’s reckless behavior.

The overarching plot of the book is left pretty vague. There are a lot of dubious goings-on among the three factions, as well as problems with something called The Veil. This book is unusually lean on world-building for a fantasy novel, which I can see might be disappointing to some readers. Personally, I actually liked the fast-paced nature of it. I don’t read much fantasy, exactly because so many fantasy books tend to get bogged down in world-building, so this was refreshing.*

Alue was the character who was most interesting to me. At first, I didn’t like her, largely due to the fact she had a tendency to disregard rules, and then whine when punished for it. (I call this “Anakin Skywalker syndrome.”) But as the book went on, I came to like her more–she really does want to do the right thing. Usually.

Talin was a bit tougher to get a handle on; his motives are ambiguous and at times it seems like he’s in denial about his own desires. Na’jar seemed to be the most honest and reliable of the three.

I think fans of fantasy will find a lot to like here. This is the first in a trilogy, and by the end, the shape of the overarching plot is beginning to emerge. It’s an entertaining read for anyone who enjoys a good adventure. If you’re still on the fence about whether to read it or not, check out Audrey Driscoll’s review.

*You’re saying, “But you read Sci-Fi novels that also have lots of world-building!” Yes, this is true. What can I say? Somehow Sci-Fi can hold my attention in a way that Fantasy doesn’t. It’s just a quirk of mine, and can’t be interpreted as a comment on either genre.

Okay, I know most of you couldn’t care less about American football. But hear me out on this.

George Plimpton was a pioneer of participatory journalism—that is, journalism in which the writer actually participates in what he’s writing about, as opposed to simply describing it as a bystander. His many exploits included playing in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, boxing with Archie Moore, and pitching in an MLB game.

But arguably his most famous act of participatory journalism was his time as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. Plimpton joined their camp during the 1963 season, and participated for five plays in an inter-squad scrimmage. Here’s how he introduces the fateful moment:

“The offensive team in their blue jerseys, about ten yards back, on their own twenty yard line, moved and collected in the huddle formation as I came up, and I slowed, and walked toward them, trying to be calm about it, almost lazying up to them to see what could be done.”

After his five plays were run, the Lions had lost 29 yards. Certainly an inauspicious playing career, although as time has gone on, it’s proven to be far from the most embarrassing thing to happen to a Lions quarterback.

How interesting could a book about a man being terrible at football be, you ask? Well, that’s just it. Plimpton may have been a bad quarterback, but he was a magnificent writer. He could make anything sound interesting. Something as boring as lining up under center, he makes memorable:

“I took a few tentative steps toward Bob Whitlow, the center, waiting patiently over the ball. I suddenly blurted out: ‘Well, damn it, coach, I don’t know where to put my… I just don’t know…’

The coaches all crowded around to advise, and together we moved up on Whitlow, who was now peering nervously over his shoulder like a cow about to be milked.”

What makes Paper Lion great isn’t Plimpton’s scrimmage performance by itself. That just serves to give the book a structure and a dramatic climax. But the real meat of the book is in Plimpton’s descriptions of what goes on behind the scenes of an NFL team, like the annual revue they put on after the final roster cutdowns, in which the rookies mock coaches, veterans and league officials. Plimpton describes himself performing in the role of then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle:

“I wore a Napoleon hat, a cloak, a wooden sword, three cap pistols and a rubber dirk; and I carried a pair of handcuffs, a tack hammer, and a frying pan. These artifacts… were supposed to suggest the inquisitorial aspects of Rozelle’s office.

…and when I clanked toward the footlights, and said ‘Howdy, I’m Petesy Rozelle,’ the audience delivered a stiff barrage of invective.”

Or, during a hazing session where rookies are made to sing their college fight songs before the entire team, Plimpton struggles to recall his alma mater:

Crimson in triumph flashing

‘Til that last white line is past.

er… We’ll fight for the name of Harvard

‘Til… that last white line is past….

There are his depictions of all the Lions players, like Earl Morrall, the journeyman quarterback who would later go on to join the legendary 1972 Miami Dolphins, and of George Wilson, the Lions’ firm but good-natured coach. Dick “Night Train” Lane, whose record for interceptions in a season still stands to this day. Dick LeBeau, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career as a defensive coach, was a member of the team, whom Plimpton recalls the players likening to a pop star.

Above all, there are the antics of lineman Alex Karras. Karras was suspended for the 1963 season for gambling, but he still makes his presence felt as Plimpton recounts stories of him. Karras was a hambone, a performer by nature, always improvising skits and stories to amuse his teammates waiting in the hotel before a game, as in his recollections of an imagined “former life” in World War II:

“I knew all those cats, Runstedt, Goering–Bavaria Fats we called him–and Rommel. He had a terrible weak stomach, Rommel did. He used to get sick all the time. I’d come rushing up to him in the morning to fling the salute at him, and say, ‘Hello, hello, heil, heil, good mornin’ gener’l,’ and he’d get sick.”

It’s no surprise Karras went on to a career in acting after his football days ended. He had a natural gift for entertaining—but then, as Plimpton describes, as game time drew near, he would grow serious, and sick to his stomach. Karras’ queasiness and unpredictable temper actually reassured his teammates: “Alex is ready,” they murmur when his mood turns sour, “In five minutes he’ll be out there on the field making the poor fellow from Philadelphia opposite him pay for it.” Plimpton concludes the chapter, “We crowded into the elevator. No one said anything going down. Karras would sit alone on the bus.”

Plimpton had an incredible talent for knowing just how to end a chapter. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anyone else who could do it as well as he could. Here’s his conclusion of the chapter about his ill-fated scrimmage, when he hears a woman in the stands call out to him:

“She was wearing a mohair Italian sweater, the color of spun pink sugar, and tight pants, and she was holding a thick folding wallet in one hand along with a pair of dark glasses, and in the other a Lions banner, which she waved, her face alive with excitement, very pretty in a perishable, childlike way, and she was calling, “Beautiful; it was beautiful.”

The fireworks lit her, and she looked up, her face chalk white in the swift aluminum glare.

I looked at her out of my helmet. Then I lifted a hand, just tentatively.”

Plimpton’s time with the Lions occurred in the shadow of departed star quarterback Bobby Layne, who had led the team to multiple NFL championships in the ’50s. Legend has it, Layne cursed the team when they traded him, saying they would not win another title for 50 years. And as of this writing, they still have not, being one of the worst franchises in the NFL over the last half-century.

I wonder if the book would have been the same if Plimpton had chosen some other team for his experiment. He had tried to go to the New York Giants, the New York Titans (now Jets) and the Baltimore Colts. But somehow, it seems right that it was the Lions who had this awkward, lanky quarterback who wore number 0 and who stumbled on his first play from scrimmage. There is a poetic quality to it—someone who knows he hasn’t got a chance, but is trying anyway, because, well, how else to know what it’s like? 

The Lions play on national TV every Thanksgiving. Generally, they lose. Even if they don’t, the game is usually meaningless, as they have almost always been eliminated from playoff contention by that time. But I love this tradition, because there’s a kind of melancholic beauty to it, just as there was to Plimpton’s venture. Sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner on a dreary day—as midwestern November days always are, somehow even when they are sunny—and watching the Honolulu blue and silver appear on the screen as the Lions go into another ill-starred competition makes me think of old Plimpton and his wonderfully nerdy courage. 

It’s said that the owners of baseball’s Chicago Cubs believed that fans didn’t care about winning as much as they did entertainment. They were probably wrong, but I still see where they got that idea. Anyone can cheer for a winner; but it takes something special to cheer on a perennial loser, year after year. Don’t we teach kids it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game?

And in a way, Plimpton did win. He wrote one of the greatest sports books ever—a book that captures both the details of the game and the poetry of it. Football is a late autumn sport, and is tightly connected with the mood of the season. As John Facenda said in the intro to an NFL films production I once saw, there is “something somber in the eyes of the men, something of winter in their faces…” Paper Lion depicts football’s essence, in all its violent, weird, funny, fading autumnal glory.

I’ve loved football since I was a kid—I first read Paper Lion when I was 13 years old—so I’m probably biased. But I do believe it’s possible to enjoy the book even without being a football fan, because Plimpton was such a fantastic writer. In the introduction to the 1993 edition, Plimpton described an encounter with a rustic fellow who came up to him and said that he had only ever read one book—Paper Lion. Flattered but nonplused, Plimpton asked if he’d ever considered reading another one. The man replied with the greatest compliment a writer can receive: “Have you written another one?”

Indeed, he had, and this is why I think even a non-football fan may enjoy Paper Lion. I’ve read lots of other things he wrote, on subjects which normally hold no interest for me, but which I enjoyed anyway because of his masterful storytelling and wit.

In 2003, less than a week before he died, Plimpton went to Detroit for a ceremony at halftime of a Lions’ game to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the book and reunite with some old Lions’ stars. I remember watching the game on TV, and thinking how weird it was to see number 0 on a football jersey.

Of course, the Lions lost the game, 23-13.

51s-eBLPWELThis is a collection of four short stories, each set in rugged western landscapes, and each with an ironic twist to them. I learned about it from Pat Prescott and had to check it out. I love weird westerns, and these tales fit the bill perfectly. Each one is a short but memorable concept: An impatient mountain man becomes obsessed with a sinister crow. A would-be stagecoach robber experiences a stunning change in his fortunes. A hike in the mountains turns deadly. 

All these stories are good, but my favorite is “Hangin’ Tree’s Revenge.” This is the story with the strongest supernatural element, and the one that most clearly conveys the mood of a weird western. Frontier justice is never far off from outright revenge, and one feels that the desert is governed by mysterious forces that make little distinction between the two.

Anyone who likes supernatural stories with dark twists will enjoy these tales, and that goes double for people like me, fascinated with bleak desert landscapes. The landscape is very much a character in these tales, as in Bruce’s environmentalist novel Oblivion, and it’s a good way to get lost in the eerie desolation.

GossamerThis is the sequel to The Gossamer Globe, which I reviewed here. It’s a fantastic book, and I’ll keep the plot synopsis to a minimum because I would not want to spoil the first book. Gossamer Power follows Lucia, Kailani, Ms. Battenbox, Jevan and other characters from Globe, as well as introducing some terrific new ones, including the handsome Sebastian, who is irresistibly fascinating to almost everyone, and a character known simply as “Glorious Leader” or to use his full name, “Oh Great Glorious Leader.”

All the things I loved about the first book are present here as well: the humor, the sword-fighting, the political intrigue. I was worried this installment wouldn’t live up to the high bar set by the first, but I enjoyed this one almost as much. I say “almost” because this one ends on a cliffhanger, so it doesn’t have a totally satisfying ending. Tonally, it’s definitely The Empire Strikes Back to Gossamer Globe’s A New Hope. 

So much of what makes these books wonderful are the little things, as in when, on having traveled by airship to his native land, the Glorious Leader shows Jevan and Lucia the flying carriages of his home, commenting that the people who clamored for them had no “regard for the fact that an airship is, essentially, a flying carriage. They already existed.” And indeed, how many times have you heard people talk about not having flying cars when in fact that’s basically what an airplane is?

The book is full of little moments like this. Ms. Battenbox isn’t in it much, which is kind of a pity, since she was one of my favorites from the first book, but her keen mind for strategy and her biting wit are still in evidence during her few scenes. At one point, she remarks, “There are many state secrets this sham government will never know about… How stupid are you commoners to think you could imprison me in it?”

In addition to being a bawdy, swashbuckling adventure, Gossamer Power, like its predecessor is also a clever satire, touching on many everything from the “Internet of Things” to the modern surveillance state. Like any good fantasy, for all its outlandish elements, there are some things that really ring true.

It’s a worthy sequel, and I can’t wait for the next one!