Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: Free Dakota

Free Dakota Free Dakota by William Irwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quick, engaging read about an imagined secession movement in North Dakota. I sped through it and enjoyed it. Irwin does a great job of discussing political ideas in plain language and without jargon. This is also a hallmark of his non-fiction philosophic writing, in particular the pop culture and philosophy works which, like the novel, are able to make complex ideas clear and simply without simplifying them.

I enjoyed the many allusions and homages to other libertarian thinkers and works.

Nevertheless, this is Irwin’s first novel and it shows at times. The characters could have been developed more and the plot more subtle and integrated. It took a little bit for the book to get going. The political philosophy might have been interwoven more into the plot and so rather than merely having characters discussing the ideas about liberty and secession, the ideas could have been concretized in the action of the story. There is some of that, especially as the book goes on, but not enough and to many will come over as too talk-y. My biggest criticism is that there was more on the “tell me” side of the old writer’s saw “show me don’t tell me.” I don’t think Irwin wanted to write a 1000-page tome, but this could have been a few hundred pages longer so that he could have developed the detail in the character and the plot that would have made the book better and more compelling.

I would certainly recommend this book to those interested in political ideas, especially libertarianism. Lastly, I would love to read a sequel and learn about how things go forward given the ending.

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Review: Prince of Thieves

Prince of Thieves Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw the movie, The Town, a few years ago and got the book after I learned the movie was based on a book. The movie was great, the book is even better. You get so much more depth with the characters and the plot. With the book, you can dwell on the inner life and struggle in Doug; the obsession of the FBI agent pursuing him; and the thoughts and reactions of Claire -- the woman caught up in the middle of it all.

It always amazes when an author can make a sympathetic hero out of a character that should be a bad guy. Hogan does just that, I kept hoping and looking for a way for Doug to get out; you want him to get away with it all even though you know he shouldn't and he can't. Hogan gives a haunting portrayal of Charlestown adapting to the changes in the 90s--which also mirror the changes in Doug: it wants to move forward but can't or doesn't know how and so does it what it knows best even if that is wrong.

The book was also wonderfully nostalgic for me as someone who lived in Boston in the 90s. I loved reading the names of the old banks and places no longer there.

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review: Executive Power

Executive Power Executive Power by Vince Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall, an exciting thriller. I liked what Flynn did with the two simultaneous story lines early on, but ultimately I wish they were better integrated. The plot and ending is a bit far-fetched, not impossible just not all that plausible. But that's what one would expect from this genre.

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Saturday, July 09, 2016

Review: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A classic that should be on everyone’s sci-fi reading list.

It was, I have to admit, very different from what I expected—and so much better. I suppose I had the horrible 90s film with the same title too much in my head, but that monstrosity basically just steals the title, some character names, and the idea of a war against alien bugs.

The story telling is masterful. There isn’t a lot of action—especially for a book about war—but there is a lot to chew on as we see Rico develop and think about the different themes of the book. Also, I realized that from Gundam to many well-known sci-fi books about space wars in the future, this book was the progenitor.

I don’t quite understand why it is considered so controversial. Some claim it is ‘fascistic;’ a criticism that makes little sense unless you confuse the movie for the book. But this is pretty silly since the movie isn’t in any real sense an adaption. (According to the Wikipedia article about the book, the director of the movie admits to not being able to read the book because it was “boring” and that he hated it; also the title of the book and other superficial details from the book were grafted onto to a pre-existing script for marketing reasons).

In the book itself there is nothing resembling fascism—the government is explicitly a representative democracy (though with a limited franchise). We don’t see one-party rule or evidence of authoritarianism. We don’t see much of civilian life, but from what we do see it seems relatively free and unhindered. Military service is completely voluntary and the recruiters try to deter enlistment. There’s nothing to suggest a corporatist fascism like in Firefly (i.e. Blue Sun). There’s also nothing to suggest the racist fascism of the Nazis either. The idea that this book is at all fascist is utterly groundless.

Another criticism is that it is militaristic or pro-military. In many ways, this is true (though I am not sure that this in itself is a criticism). The soldiers in the book are portrayed positively. We don’t come across crooked or incompetent soldiers or officers (at least not ones that make through training). No loafing soldiers whining about their situation or officers redirecting supplies for sale on the black market. There are a few things to consider here. First, this is an all-voluntary army, even amidst a war. There are many intentional points along the way designed to weed out bad characters or those with the wrong motives for joining up. That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be some loafers or crooks that make it through, but you are not going to have many Hawkeyes or Klingers hanging around the mess.

Second, the units we see through Rico’s eyes are the elite of the elite—this is not a full view of the entire Federation military. There are lots of indications that the military as a whole is run differently than the Mobile Infantry. And by the time we really see these guys in action, there is a full blown war going on. So it makes sense that Heinlein portrays them as he does Heinlein did indicate that book was a paean to infantry soldiers who he viewed as having done the toughest job in wars. The book makes several historical connections to older wars and the infantry solider throughout time. It is in these ways that it is pro-solider.

But if this is all that was behind this ‘controversial’ claim, that’s pretty weak sauce. The deeper issues are the issues raised in the discussions of “History and Moral Philosophy” class. I didn’t agree with all of the ideas presented for sure, but that’s beside the point. These classroom discussion are what makes the book so great. It asks you to think about these issues: Who should have the voting franchise? Who should rule and why? What is the point of war? What institutional arrangements can lead to a more stable and prosperous society? The characters in the book have answers, and there is some reason to think Heinlein is sympathetic to these, but that’s not the point. The point is that the question are posed, and in a philosophy class no less. The instructor (and the author) wants you to think about these questions.

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