This book would make a great movie! It would be like Jurassic Park meets Aliens, with a bit of Predator thrown in. Instead of making endless sequels and prequels and reboots, the movie people ought to try adapting a lesser-known story like this one.

“Okay, Berthold; slow down,” you say. “What’s this book even about?”

Well, it’s set in the 23rd century, and tells the story of Nick Dekker, owner of the reigning champion women’s soccer team, the Los Angeles Hawks. Dekker sees an ad for an interplanetary safari, and decides it would be an excellent off-season activity for his team. Although Britt Jewel, the team’s coach and also Dekker’s girlfriend, is not excited about big-game hunting, he convinces her to go, and the rest of the team soon signs up as well.

Things start off well. The Regulus, the spaceship which transports them across the galaxy, is full of top-tier amenities, including a gym where Dekker spends most of his time fulfilling a promise to Jewel that he’ll get back in shape. It’s almost like a luxury cruise.

Except, not quite. Dekker is troubled early on by the presence of military personnel, most notably Capt. Luke Webb, a veteran of the Deep Space Infantry, who commands a unit of extremely lethal experimental combat robots. Dekker, a former space marine himself, begins to suspect this is something more than just a vacation.

His suspicions prove justified. Not long after landing on the first planet, they encounter a hostile species of intelligent aliens, soon dubbed the “Gorgon.” In response to the threat, Capt. Webb conscripts all the Hawks players into military service under his command.

What follows is textbook military sci-fi: plasma rifles, high-tech combat suits and the aforementioned combat robots get thrown into action against an alien army.  Of course, I loved it.

Moreover, though they’re both fighting the aliens, there’s some real tension between Dekker and Webb. Dekker distrusts the dictatorial officer’s motives, given his repeated withholding of important military intelligence from the rest of the group, while at the same time treating them as his own fighting force.

I do have some criticisms of the book. First, there’s a little too much exposition at the front. Now, I don’t mind a book that slowly builds up a world, and I hate the modern trend of having to start every story off with a bang. So, I don’t mind this too much, but some readers might find it slow going.

Second, I have a few problems with how the dialogue is written. It feels very stilted at times, like a bit too much explanatory matter for the reader has been included. Also, Dekker has this habit of telling everyone to call him by his first name, to the point that with every person he talks to, he seems to have a conversation like this:

“Hi, I’m Nick Dekker.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Dekker.”

“Please, call me Nick.”

“Okay, Nick.”

This got a bit repetitive after a while.

But, I enjoyed the story so much that I could readily overlook these issues. Like I said, I can easily imagine this being a movie, and it would be a really good movie. The problems with exposition would disappear, as that sort of material can be conveyed much faster with film. And, this book is the first entry in a series, so the movie folks can rest assured they have plenty of sequel material lined up already.

If you enjoy military sci-fi adventures, give this one a try.

Irene Iddesleigh is a novel about a woman who marries a wealthy aristocrat but whose marriage quickly collapses when he discovers her love for another man. He keeps her a prisoner in his estate, but she ultimately flees, leaving behind not only her estranged husband, but their son as well.

What makes this book, ah, distinctive, is the prose style. Here, for example, is the beginning of Chapter V:

Our hopes when elevated to that standard of ambition which demands unison may fall asunder like an ancient ruin. They are no longer fit for construction unless on an approved principle. They smoulder away like the ashes of burnt embers, and are cast outwardly from their confined abode, never more to be found where once they existed only as smouldering serpents of scorned pride.

What does this mean, you ask? Frankly, I have no idea. Let’s try some of the dialogue:

“The sole object of my visit, my dear Irene”—here Sir John clasped her tender hand in his—“tonight is to elicit from you a matter that lately has cast a shadowy gloom over my anticipated bright and cheerful future. I am not one of those mortals who takes offence at trifles, neither am I a man of hasty temper or words—quite the contrary, I assure you; but it has, fortunately or unfortunately, been probably a failing amongst my ancestors to court sensitiveness in its minutest detail, and, I must acknowledge, I stray not from any of them in this particular point.”

Not exactly spare, is it?

Okay, it’s time I told you the background on this book: it’s considered to be one of the worst novels of all time. Luminaries like Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis mocked it for its legendary badness. (Supposedly, Tolkien and Lewis’s group The Inklings would hold competitions to see how long it was possible to read from it without laughing.)

I admit, I find this all a little distasteful. Ros was a self-published author, whose husband financed the publication of her novel as an anniversary present. So, when I read that Twain, Tolkien, Lewis et al. mocked her work, it brings to mind the traditionally published authors who sneer at indie authors of today. Oh yes; I am very inclined to be sympathetic to Ros.

So is it really one of the worst books ever written? Or did successful literary men simply delight in kicking a humble woman while she was down?

One of the main charges leveled against Ros is her use of purple prose, and as the above passages demonstrate, there is solid evidence to convict her of this. I didn’t cherrypick the worst examples, either. The whole thing is like that. Here’s another one:

The thickest stroke of sadness can be effaced in an instant, and substituted with deeper traces of joy. The heart of honest ages, though blackened at times with domestic troubles, rejoices when those troubles are surmounted with blessings which proclaim future happiness.

You might say that sounds long-winded and pompous. Maybe it does. And yet, is it so different than this?

Men thin away to insignificance and oblivion quite as often by not making the most of good spirits when they have them as by lacking good spirits when they are indispensable. Gabriel lately, for the first time since his prostration by misfortune, had been independent in thought and vigorous in action to a marked extent — conditions which, powerless without an opportunity as an opportunity without them is barren, would have given him a sure lift upwards when the favourable conjunction should have occurred.

That is from Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, which is not regarded as one of the worst books ever written. Let’s try one more:

While I looked, I thought myself happy, and was surprised to find myself erelong weeping—and why? For the doom which had reft me from adhesion to my master: for him I was no more to see; for the desperate grief and fatal fury-—consequences of my departure—which might now, perhaps, be dragging him from the path of right, too far to leave hope of ultimate restoration thither. At this thought, I turned my face aside from the lovely sky of eve and lonely vale of Morton—I say lonely, for in that bend of it visible to me, there was no building apparent save the church and the parsonage, half-hid in trees; and, quite at the extremity, the roof of Vale-Hall, where the rich Mr. Oliver and his daughter lived.

That is from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which is one of the most beloved British novels in history. And yet, while this prose may not be exactly purple, it is at least a very suspicious shade of blue.

To be clear, I like both Jane Eyre and Far from the Madding Crowd. And even my well-known penchant for contrarian takes does not extend to arguing that Irene Iddesleigh is as good as either of them. It distinctly isn’t. But still, you can see similarities. These apples have fallen from the same tree, even if one is a bit misshapen and has these weird brown spots.

And what tree is that? The tree is Victorian Romanticism. Its roots are deep and its seeds are everywhere. While its fruit can be justly criticized for being overwrought and melodramatic, it is also really, really popular and enduring.

Virtually all Victorian prose, even the good stuff, seems excessively florid to the modern reader. Expectations of what writing should be were just different back then. If we condemn Irene Iddesleigh for being flabby and flowery, mustn’t we say the other Victorian novels exhibit many of the risk factors for same?

I think at least part of the reason for the extreme contempt leveled at Irene Iddesleigh is its publication date. It’s an 1860s novel published in 1897. The reaction against Victorian Romanticism was already underway, and as Paul Graham once observed, “There is nothing so unfashionable as the last, discarded fashion.” It was just the wrong time for that sort of thing.

Still, it is definitely not the worst book I’ve ever read. It’s not good, except strictly as an exercise in campy melodrama, but it’s actually more fun than some Serious Works Of Great Literature that I’ve read.

I’m pleased to report that Zachary Shatzer has done it again. The prolific master of zany comic stories has delivered what might just be his best book yet. This one is set in London and tells the story of the titular Percival Pettletwixt and his friends, as they seek to solve the mystery of his lost monocle.

Finding the missing eyepiece involves a hot air balloon battle, plenty of magic spells, a talking miniature ox, interdimensional travel, a man made entirely of cheese, and a series of books entitled Butler Detective, another addition to Shatzer’s growing library of books-within-books that I desperately want to read.

Why I say that this is Shatzer’s best book is that, in addition to delivering nonstop laugh-out-loud jokes, it also has developing character arcs, multiple plot threads that tie together nicely, and even a bit of a message to it, about the importance of friendship and valuing substantive qualities over merely superficial ones.

But mostly, what makes this book great is its humor. Maybe it was the London setting, or the cast that includes a great many well-meaning but somewhat daft aristocrats, but I found myself comparing it to works by P.G. Wodehouse. It’s that good.

Now, I want to say something more about this tale’s place in the modern literary world, but I’m concerned that doing so may, ah, “ruffle some feathers,” so I must choose my words carefully.

When I was a lad, there was a popular series of books involving magic and set in Britain. The first few books were entertaining and enjoyable; at least to a nine year-old, which is how old I was at the time. They were witty and fanciful adventure stories.

But, as time went on, it began taking itself too seriously, and grew from being a humble series of children’s books into that dreaded modern Megatherion of the entertainment landscape: the franchise. Somewhere down the line, its innocent charm disappeared, and it turned instead into an all-consuming phenomenon, spawning countless imitations, until at last it seemed as if every other story was about magic and set in Britain, and a reader wanted to throw up their hands in despair, crying, “No, no! Give me anything but a story about magical adventures in Britain!”

What does all this have to do with Percival Pettletwixt? Only this: that Shatzer’s delightful little comedy manages to be a story about magical adventures in Britain without being the least bit boring or tiresome. It’s fresh, fun, and an absolute joy to read. My only complaint is a handful of typos, and even that somehow only added to the book’s earnest sense of whimsicality, wholly free of self-seriousness or pretension. In short, it’s a jolly good show, old sport!

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Do I even need to tell you what this book is about? You can probably tell from the cover. That’s right, it’s about baseball. In particular, a minor league phenom named Joe Carpenter who quickly takes the sport by storm. The scout who discovers Joe, Bud Esterhaus, is a grizzled but likable veteran of the American pastime, who narrates the budding star’s meteoric rise from one league to the next, as the two of them pursue Joe’s ultimate dream of making it to “The Show”.

Of course, Joe has a secret that threatens to derail any hope of playing in the major leagues, and Bud has problems of his own–an ex-wife, an estranged son–that make their journey far from smooth.

I admit, I’ve never been much of a baseball fan. Fortunately, Brennan’s wonderful prose is so finely crafted that knowing anything about the sport is purely optional. The story moves along well, and the characters are interesting and likable. Especially Joe, who I was rooting for from the start.

This book also includes another Brennan staple: long and vividly-described road trips during which characters can explore their pasts. Like Fascination and Eternity Began Tomorrowthis is partially a road trip story, if only because the “here today, gone tomorrow” ethos of the minor leagues requires near-constant travel.

If you love baseball, you’ll love this book. If you don’t love baseball, you’ll still probably love it, simply because Brennan is a fantastic writer who knows how to spin a compelling yarn in any setting.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

I saw this book in Lydia Schoch’s weekly thread of free books a couple weeks ago, and it looked interesting. You all know the famous warning about judging and covers, but what can I say? This one caught my eye. I advise you to study it for a moment, and think about what kind of book you expect it to be.

The character on the cover is Philippa Roy, a successful politician who serves as U.S. Secretary of State from 2041 to 2045. The book is presented as her memoir of her time in office, which starts off fairly ordinarily enough, recounting her early political career, in which she makes combating climate change a major priority.

Her early successes raise her national profile, which leads to her appointment to the State Department. However, she soon learns a disturbing truth: the U.S. government has been concealing the existence of extraterrestrials, with whom they have been in contact ever since the famed Roswell Incident.

The President reveals this to her because alien technology is humanity’s last hope of reversing the effects of climate change. And so, Secretary Roy enters into tense negotiations with beings from another world, attempting to convince them to share their advanced technology.

Of course, she also still has to juggle various Earthly political rivalries, both in the form of domestic and global opponents. My favorite was her relationship with the Russian President, who, despite being a villain, was perhaps the most entertaining character in the story.

Also, as most of you know, I am fascinated by conspiracy theories, and Roswell / Area 51 is fertile ground for same. As an aficionado of classic Coast to Coast AM, back when Art Bell was the host, the parts of the story that concerned the government covering up their dealings with “our friends upstairs” gave me a warm, nostalgic glow. I loved every minute of Secretary Roy’s gradual uncovering of the clandestine operations of the “dark state”. (How cool of a term is that, by the way? I bet Mike Lofgren wishes he thought of it.)

This brings me at last to the “political” angle of the story. Just last week, I was tweeting about how much I prefer reviewing indie books to blogging about politics. But I guess I have to say a word or two about it here.

Some readers might disagree with Secretary Roy’s policies. Some may find them too left-wing. Others may find them not left-wing enough. Such are the joys of politics! My advice: don’t get hung up on details like this. Obviously, for the plot of the book to work, the main character needed to be a high-ranking official in the U.S. government, and to make that make sense, the author needed to give her a plausible political background and corresponding set of policies.

I myself did not agree with every one of Roy’s policies. But that did not detract from my enjoyment of the book one bit. While the author obviously put a lot of thought into making the political aspect of the book believable, it’s a science-fiction story in the tradition of Childhood’s End and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and should be treated as such. I highly recommend it to all sci-fi fans.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This short story collection came recommended to me by Lorinda J. Taylor, so I knew going in it would be good. And it lived up to my expectations. The stories are all weird, unsettling, at times disturbing, at other times very funny. In short, an excellent blend of moods.

Each story is based on a famous painting, including works by Chagall, Picasso, and others. A neat concept which leads in interesting directions, and allows for new interpretations of famous pieces.

My favorite story in the collection was probably “The Gift,” which is a classic tale of a vengeful spirit, a concept that I love. I also greatly enjoyed the story from which the collection takes its name, a disturbing blend of sci-fi and horror that evoked A.C. Flory’s Vokhtah in its detailed portrayal of an utterly alien society. “Corden’s Coral Phase” was also a highlight, with the entertaining banter between its characters gradually revealing their personalities.

The description of this collection on Goodreads says, “If you like authors such as Philip K Dick, Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury, P.G. Wodehouse, Annie Proulx and Franz Kafka, then Crow Bones is the anthology for you.”

I can definitely see the influence of Poe and Bradbury. (To be clear, I’m talking Bradbury at his best, i.e. Something Wicked This Way Comes.) I didn’t pick up the Wodehouse influence so much, maybe because the subject matter, even when it is humorous, is more off-kilter than “Plum” would usually do. But it is well-written, and to that lineup above I would add two more names that it brought to my mind: Harlan Ellison and Ambrose Bierce. It has that same dark mood that characterized their works, and frequently the sardonic edge as well.

These stories are probably not for everyone, as their grimmer elements may deter some readers. But if you like dark, weird fiction, and the fact that you’re reading this blog is a strong indication that you probably do, then you should absolutely check it out.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

You probably know Warren Zevon, if you know him at all, as the “Werewolves of London” guy. Maybe you remember his appearance on the David Letterman show when he was dying of cancer.

But Zevon was more than just a one-hit wonder with a poignant final act. He was a hardboiled, sardonic, and tempestuous man. A Byronic rocker, particularly in the sense of being “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” From his ’70s mercenary anthems “Jungle Work” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” to his more sensitive ruminations on death, “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” “Life’ll Kill Ya,” and “Ourselves To Know,” his body of work contains far more than just a goofy dance tune about Lon Chaney Jr. walkin’ with the Queen.

Of all Zevon’s albums, Transverse City is probably the least popular. Even his friends didn’t like it. And it’s true, it has a vastly different sound compared with all his other albums.

Yet, the more I listen, the more I become convinced it is his finest work. Maybe there is no standout track like “Roland,” “Mohammad’s Radio,” or “Mr. Bad Example,” but the album as a whole has no weaknesses. Moreover, it’s a concept album with thematic coherence. Rather than just a bunch of songs, it’s a series of variations on a single motif.

And what is that motif? Haha, you must be new here. Seasoned Ruined Chapel veterans know my critical style is very much that of a shaggy dog story; we work our way gradually to the punchline.

But okay, let’s start at the beginning. Track one, side one, and it’s also the title track. It is setting the tone. Right off the bat, we get a whirlwind tour of a cyberpunk wasteland: “Past the shiny mylar towers / Past the ravaged tenements / To a place we can’t remember / For a time we won’t forget.” Zevon had apparently been reading William Gibson, and the influence is pretty clear.

From that, the music segues into a weird electric buzzing that bleeds into the next track, “Run Straight Down.” Once again, we get another techno-hellscape, this time with a more direct commentary on the annihilation of the environment: “Pretty soon there’s not a creature stirring / ‘Cept the robots at the dynamo.”

And again, there’s a weird effect of sirens and helicopter rotors that introduces the next song: “The Long Arm of the Law,” which paints a picture of a post-apocalypse dystopia full of corrupt authorities: “First words I ever heard: / ‘Nobody move, nobody gets hurt!'”

These first three tracks form a coherent vision of nightmarish high-tech cities and the nihilistic decadents who populate them, of the destruction of nature by machines, and an evil government that oversees it all.

To me, this is almost a mini-album in itself, and these three songs would be worth the price. But Zevon is just getting started.

Next up is “Turbulence“. At face value, this is another of Zevon’s signature “obscure warzone” songs, in the tradition of “Roland.” (And later, the little-known “Bujumbura”)  This time, Zevon has made his narrator an unfortunate young soldier in the U.S.S.R’s occupation of Afghanistan: “But comrade Shevardnadze, tell me / What’s a poor boy like me to do?” The song also includes (in Russian) the following haunting lines:

“Lost city on the red desert
I hear voices of enemies from everywhere
I miss my mother very much.”

Following “Turbulence” is the moody and atmospheric “They Moved The Moon,” which is lyrically pretty thin but which captures the feeling of eerie discombobulation perfectly.

Now, if you’re listening to this on a record, this is where the side change occurrs. I only know that from Wikipedia. I first heard this on CD. I admit, I’ve never listened to an actual record on an actual record player. I’ve seen them, and I’ve listened to electronic recordings of records, but have not, ever, listened to one. Yet, even when I was born, it was common for music to be released this way. It really blows my mind.

But, we proceed. The first track on Side 2 is “Splendid Isolation,” which sums up the attitude of the extreme introvert nicely from its opening line onward: “I want to live all alone in the desert.”

And then we have “Networking.” This may well be the most prescient song on an album filled with prescient songs. It opens with an elegant statement of how our own technological advancement has outstripped our own biological capabilities: “There’s a way to live that’s right for us / Like Mayans in Manhattan and Los Angeles.”

From there it goes on to deliberately mix up the language of socializing and dating with computer lingo, culminating in the rather suggestive, “I’ll upload you, you can download me.” Nor is the spiritual element forgotten in this computerized social scene: “There’s a prayer each night that I always pray: / ‘Let the data guide me through every day.'”

There were such things as electronic dating services as far back as the 1960s. But in 1989, they were little more than curiosities. If you asked the average person in 1989 to envision a world where socialization is done primarily through computer interfaces, they’d probably say that it sounds either impossible or extremely sick. They would certainly have been wrong about it being impossible.

The next song, “Gridlock,” is about the frustrations of L.A. traffic. It wouldn’t surprise me if Zevon wrote it while sitting in a traffic jam, because it definitely captures the impotent rage of being stuck in an endless line of cars.

Then there’s “Down In The Mall,” which sounds more incongruous to modern ears now that malls are becoming a symbol of the past, seen only through the lens of nostalgia. What you have to realize is, malls were at one time a symbol of consumer culture, only to be replaced in their turn by online shopping, an even more streamlined competitor in the Darwinian struggle to create the most de-humanized, atomized, and efficient consumer experience.

Still, Zevon’s critique of materialism comes through loud and clear. Mindless consumption is the only thing that ties the characters of the song together: “We’ll go shoppin’ babe; it’s something we can stand.” This is a more realistic, but no less dystopian, riff on the theme of “Transverse City”: a couple losing themselves in a vast, artificial, sensually dazzling but fundamentally hollow experience.

The album ends with a twist on a familiar staple: “Nobody’s in Love This Year.” Zevon usually has a few love songs on most of his albums, but this one, as the name suggests, is more of an anti-love song. Not only has this relationship failed, but all relationships have failed.

All right, I believe I promised you a payoff for all this. I said that Transverse City is organized around a single motif. We are now in a position to see what it is.

The unifying motif of Transverse City is… the pervasive alienation created by modernity.

This is, of course, a very old theme. Really, it’s as old as the first machine, I suppose. And it hasn’t stopped the machines from getting better.

Moreover, 1989 was probably the worst time in history to bring it up. We were poised on the cusp of the 1990s, and as I tried to say in my series on ’90s action movies, the ’90s were an era of overwhelming optimism. In the United States, at least, there was a sense of  excitement at the potential of all the wonders the marriage of liberal democracy and modern information technology had in store for the coming millennium.

And certainly for the next decade or more, such optimism proved to be largely justified. The ’90s were a time of peace, plenty, and prosperity. Technological change did create a booming economy and previously undreamt-of conveniences.

Small wonder Transverse City was a flop.  Small wonder even Zevon’s closest collaborators thought it was lousy. To be either a commercial or critical success, art must be in harmony with the prevailing feelings of its time. Like a plant needing the proper soil and climate to grow, art is no less dependent on its environment.

No, there’s just no sugarcoating it: In 1989, Transverse City was a dud, pure and simple, and in some sense, deservedly so.

In 2022…?

Transverse City gives us songs for a world of atomized individuals who socialize mainly through a little box in their pockets, a world where mega-corporations control nearly every aspect of the economy, a world scarred by wars waged by criminal governments equipped with the latest high-tech weaponry, a world where every day another patch of what had once been wilderness is buried beneath the girders of metastasizing megacities. Well…

But I’m not in the business of telling you what to think. You know modernity at least as well as I do, and you can listen to Transverse City as easily as I can. You may think my interpretation is too jaundiced. Maybe you’re right. Then again, maybe you’re Pollyanna. Either way, Warren Zevon has a message for you:

Told my little Pollyanna, 

There’s a place where we can stay.

We have come to see tomorrow;

We have given up today…

I’ve been hearing a lot about this series, The Book of Boba Fett. But, turns out it’s not a book. It’s a television series, on a streaming service I don’t have. Damn false advertising!

However, Boba Fett: A Practical Man is a book. And it’s by the author of the Republic Commando books, the first of which I enjoyed. So far, so good.

The book follows Fett after his escape from the Sarlaac, when he has assumed the title of Mandalore. He’s going around doing typical Mandalorian mercenary stuff, when who does he run into but the Yuuzhan Vong?

Okay, time-out. How many Star Wars fans even know who the Yuuzhan Vong are? Personally, I had heard of them only by reputation; this is the first piece of Star Wars fiction I’ve ever seen that includes them.

My gut reaction is, they don’t fit in. They are weird, vaguely Lovecraftian entities that shun all machinery in favor of specially evolved organic technology substitutes. The Mandalorians description of them as “crab boys” made me think of the Collectors from Mass Effect 2.

Fett realizes a Yuuzhan Vong invasion is going to be bad news, and so strikes a deal with them to help them fight the New Republic, in exchange for the safety of his people. Of course, he knows they will renege on the deal and attack the Mandalorians eventually, so the deal is negotiated in about as much good faith as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and Fett begins discreetly passing intelligence to his nominal enemies in the New Republic.

I’m about to go off on one of my rants about Star Wars lore. Be warned.

I hated the idea of Fett negotiating such a deal. Of course, it makes strategic sense, but the Mandalorians are all about bravery and valor. Yet, here we have Fett using deception and legal quibbles to save his bacon. This is not the honest, forthright, confrontational style that Mandalorian honor demands! They are lions, not foxes!

This leads me to a larger point, which concerns not just this book, but everything we thought we knew about this particular Star Wars icon. Namely: is Boba Fett actually overrated?

I’ve always thought I liked Boba Fett. But, pretty much everything I see him in, he never quite lives up to expectations. As I said, I haven’t watched the new series, but I hear bad things, including that Boba Fett becomes a secondary character in his own show.

Of course, the thing that makes Boba Fett cool in the original trilogy is that you have no idea who he is or what his backstory is. He seems tough and capable, but beyond that, you make up whatever story you want for him.

Which is why all subsequent attempts to flesh Boba Fett out fall flat. They’re never going to live up to what you imagine. (Probably my all-time favorite Boba Fett story is his appearance in Galaxy of Fear #2, City of the Dead. But, I read that when I was 8.)

Like Karen Traviss, I love the Mandalorians. Theoretically, Fett should be the ultra-Mandalorian. But, again, he falls short of the Mandalorian ideal, otherwise known as Canderous Ordo from Knights of the Old Republic.

Ordo is like a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood. A tough-as-nails soldier who found steady work as a mercenary after the Mandalorian Wars, then used his underworld connections to forge an alliance with the Jedi Revan to defeat Darth Malak, then rebuilt the entire Mandalorian army. Meanwhile Boba Fett is most famous for being knocked into a hole in the ground by a blind man.

And so all writers who try to write Boba Fett are hamstrung by the fact that his documented actions are not half as cool as what everybody thinks he can do, and has done. Traviss is perfectly capable of writing good, solid Mandalorian warriors, as shown in the Republic Commando book, so I think the real issue here is the difficulty of reconciling movie Boba Fett with what we all want him to be.

Apart from the fact that (a) Fett isn’t a great protagonist and (b) the primary villains don’t really feel like they belong in Star Wars, it’s a decent book. There are plenty of battle scenes and stuff about Mandalorian culture. Traviss’ writing is mostly fine, although that issue with made-up words I mentioned in my Republic Commando review comes up again.

Also, there’s this:

Fett hadn’t come across anyone with ideas about taking over the whole galaxy before, unless he counted Palpatine.

Um… why would you not count Palpatine?

Anyway, that’s a minor point. This is a fun book for fans of the Mandalorians, even if only to compare how far they have fallen since the days of Ordo. But if you’re not a die-hard Star Wars fan, you’ll probably be lost.

[Content Warning: This post quotes vivid descriptions of World War I battles.]

I mentioned I had read this book in my review of Jünger’s novella On The Marble Cliffs. I hadn’t planned to review it, but my friend Joy Spicer asked me about it, and so, well, how could I not? By the way, Joy has also written a review of a different translation, which you should definitely read.

But there’s a reason I don’t often review memoirs. It’s hard to do. I can’t claim “I didn’t like this” or “The author should have done that.” It’s his life. Who am I to say how Jünger should have lived it?

Because the way he lived it is simply astounding. The Storm of Steel tells of his service in World War I in the 73rd Hanover Regiment.

Maybe I should start by briefly describing World War I. The best executive summary I ever heard was, “Because a Serbian shot an Austrian, Germany invaded France.”

Is that an oversimplification? You bet. But it succeeds in conveying one important truth about World War I: it was insane.

Jünger could clearly see it was insane. And he wasn’t necessarily against it, either. Indeed, throughout the book, one gets a sense of him as a strongly patriotic German, who fought bravely for his country:

“[T]here is someone within you who keeps you to your post by the power of two mighty spells: Duty and Honor. You know that this is your place in the battle, and that a whole people relies on you to do your job. You feel, ‘If I leave my post, I am a coward in my own eyes, a wretch who will ever blush at every word of praise.'”

In many ways, Jünger fits the stereotype of the well-drilled, almost machine-like German soldier. There is little sentimentality in his reports, and almost no questioning of his duty, save the occasional gripes about senior officers out of touch with the front line reality.

This is a big reason I read memoirs, especially old, relatively obscure ones. You “meet” people, strange people, people to whom you can barely relate. While reading it, I ask myself, what would I have done, in Jünger’s world? What would he make of mine, if he could see it?

My sense is, almost all people from the past would find the modern world unbelievably luxurious. Everyday people caught up in wars, like Jünger, had it especially hard, but even the Kaiser himself lived a life that was full of many more day-to-day inconveniences than, say, mine.

We are all familiar with so-called “First World Problems.” People will complain about something, and then add that phrase to signify their recognition of their own privilege. And then usually go right on complaining.

Funny thing, though: prior to 1914, Europe was the “First World.” Germany, France, England… all were thought to represent civilization at its most advanced. Civilized comfort is always a state of exception; more fragile than many realize, and easily giving way to barbarism.

I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to live in more material wealth and comfort than the vast majority of humans who have ever lived could imagine. If nothing else, I owe it to them to read what they experienced.

I don’t want to come across as glorifying Jünger excessively. He fought for German Imperialism, and he was, by his own admission, a harsh and even callous man. How could he not be, after everything he lived through? After everything he did? The fact is, it’s close to impossible for me to relate to Jünger, or almost anyone who lived in his time, or before. Their world was so different; their experience of life so alien to that of most modern Americans.

I’m as guilty as the next guy. This very morning, I was annoyed by a little plastic flange on a bottle of bug repellent that didn’t work right. What a trivial problem to be concerned with, right?

We humans are problem-solving creatures, and if we have no real problems to complain of, we’ll invent some new ones. What would a world without problems even be like? Would it be paradise, Shangri-La, Nirvana, Heaven? Or would it after all turn out to be “the other place,” as that old episode of The Twilight Zone implied?

A life of comfort can breed a taste for destruction, as Jünger well understood:

“The horrible was undoubtedly a part of that irresistible attraction that drew us into the war. A long period of law and order, such as our generation has behind it, produces a real craving for the abnormal, a craving that literature stimulates.”

I’ve written before about how, in the early 20th century, it was almost like the people of Europe could sense something was brewing. The artistic movements of the period all pointed the way towards decline or catastrophe, as though people had grown tired of the century of Pax Britannica that prevailed after Waterloo, and had developed a kind of perverse wish to see a true crisis.

If so, they got it. What does it look like when an advanced civilization turns its resources to the primal urge for war? What does it look like when a decadent aristocracy, long removed from concern for the people it governs, decides to throw its full weight behind creating the very thing it was intended to prevent?

I don’t know the answers. But Jünger did, and therefore I give him the last word:

“Thus all the frightfulness that the mind of man could devise was brought into the field; and there, where lately there had been the idyllic picture of rural peace. there was as faithful a picture of the soul of scientific war. In earlier wars, certainly, towns and villages had been burned, but what was that compared with this sea of craters dug out by the machines? For even in this fantastic desert there was the sameness of the machine-made article. A shell-hole strewn with bully-tins, broken weapons, fragments of uniform, and dud shells, with one or two bodies on its edge… this was the never-changing scene that surrounded each one of all these hundreds of thousands of men. And it seemed that man, on this landscape he himself had created, became different, more mysterious and hardy and callous than in any previous battle…

[…]For I cannot too often repeat, a battle was no longer an episode that spent itself in blood and fire; it was a condition of things that dug itself in remorselessly week after week and month after month. What was a man’s life in this wilderness whose vapour was laden with the stench of thousands upon thousands of decaying bodies? Death lay in ambush for each one in every shell-hole, merciless, and making one merciless in turn.”