Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lloyd Alexander 1924-2007

Well, now I'm in mourning. I read his books over and over in childhood. Kind of in the transition from Oz to Heinlein, with lots of overlap. (Just finished a new novel by him last week, in fact.)
He's the only author I ever sent a fan letter to. He sent a very nice letter back, with a hello from his wife, Janine. Kind of romantic they died so close together. Still, sad.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Two novels by John Scalzi

(Spoilers Warning!)

It took me a long time to get through Old Man's War. Part of it was that I was writing a screenplay for the Nicholl's deadline of May 1st. But it was also that the story spent a lot of time in set-up. It moved in fits and starts until it was more than half over. I know I would have wolfed through a Harry Potter novel in a weekend, no matter what.

By the end of the book, Scalzi had introduced two interesting groups of characters. One was of the Consu, a highly-advanced race that has a religious need to war against the lower races, including our own, in order to raise them up spiritually. Without this religious need, they could just use their superior technology to annihilate everyone else. The other interesting characters were those in the "Ghost Brigades". These were soldiers created from the genetic make-up of army volunteers who died before they got to serve. Chronologically, they are children, but they function as adults--being able to communicate in English and fight battles within a few weeks of their coming into being.

When I saw that the next novel in the series was called The Ghost Brigades, I wanted to read it. I figured, the first novel was slow, but Scalzi has already set up the universe of his story--now we can get to the fun part. The novel did read a lot faster than the previous one. In that, it did not disappoint. The main character was likeable; it was fun to be in his head. The premise reminded me a bit of the cover blurb for Valerie Freireich's Becoming Human: "Can the clone of a traitor overcome his legacy, or will he be doomed to repeat it?" In Freirich's novel, you learn from the beginning that the traitor in question wasn't really a traitor, so the problem for the clone is growing up under the cloud of unjustified suspicion. In Scalzi's novel, a ghost brigade soldier is built to contain a recording of the consciousness of an escaped traitor, in hopes that the new soldier will remember enough of the mind of the traitor to provide clues as to the traitor's motivation and whereabouts.

The new soldier, Jared Dirac, isn't told about his progenitor's past, so doesn't have the cloud of shame with which Freireich's character had to contend. When he awakens with no memory of the traitor, he is raised as any ghost brigade soldier, and that's a delightfully interesting combination of childhood and basic training--over in two weeks. Then he's fighting wars, seeing things with a possibly more mature understanding than his peers. It's fun for the reader to note his perceptions and wait for more and more of the traitor's personality to surface. When the memories finally do return, then the hunt is on.

My problem with both books is in their endings. In the first novel, the main character, John Perry, finds a ghost brigade soldier who is created from the DNA of his dead wife. Perry has spent most of the novel mourning his wife, so it isn't surprising that he wants to meet her double, who is named Jane Sagan. The problem is that Jane is essentially a child, who has very little to do with Perry's deceased wife, or much besides soldiering in common with Perry himself. Scalzi should have left it as a bitter lesson: that you can't bring back the dead, you have to forge new relationships with the living. Instead, by the end of the novel, Jane agrees to go live with Perry on a colony farm, assuming they both survive their enlistments. The reader is left wondering, live together as what? Does he see the clone of his wife as a sort of daughter? Are they supposed to be lovers? He'll be eighty-five; she'll be ten. Does he expect the personality of his dead wife to surface? Well, at least there's the comfort that the odds of them both surviving are very small.

Ironically, I have the opposite problem with the next book--the characters' failure to bring back the dead when given the chance to do so. The traitor has an innocent daughter, named Zoe. Jared remembers the traitor's love for his little girl, and feels it as well. At the end of the novel, both Jared and the traitor are dead, but the little girl is saved. Jane orders her last surviving soldier during a battle to find and save a recording that had been made of Jared's consciousness. Then she later decides to destroy the recording, and thus the chance of bringing to life another clone who could serve as Zoe's father. This is judged to be a good moral choice--proof, even, that she "has a soul". The judge of this soul-quality is an alien from a race that has no qualms about butchering humans (including children) to cook and eat. But this judgement isn't presented as ironic.

Jane Sagan is told that both she and John Perry can get early retirement from the service, and go live on a farm, while raising Zoe as their daughter. She chooses to do so, and I think that is supposed to be a happy ending. But I am left wondering: Could there possibly be two people less suitable to raise a child? One of them, Jane Sagan, was never a child herself. That she even knew how to calm a frightened child strained my credulity. The other, John Perry, is a grandfather, who finished raising his children years ago, and wasn't sufficiently interested in his own grandchildren to stay on Earth to watch them grow up. Not to mention my doubts as to the stability of the home. Could Jane actually be happy on a farm and inside a slow, clumsy body, with its reduced abilities of perception, after spending the entire nine years of her existence as a super-enhanced human? Won't she start to miss the other "ghosts"--people like her? And does she really accept being out of the loop? She's survived nine years. She should be advancing into the upper echelon, toward becoming a decision maker in the power structure. Not shunted aside.

Yet this is considered a more moral solution than to bring back alive a clone who will have the memories of being a father to the child, and actual feelings of love for her. After some initial problems adjusting, Jared did seem to integrate his progenitor's memories with his new unique personality fairly well. Had Scalzi described more suffering in the process, the decision not to revive Jared would have made more sense.

In The Ghost Brigades, the soldiers are shown innocently enjoying a sexual orgy that is apparently the tradition following each battle. So now we know that they do have sex. They say that their commander, Lieutenant Jane Sagan, doesn't participate in the orgies any more, but that's OK, since they're optional. The reader is supposed to assume that Jane doesn't any more, because she's saving herself for John Perry, the geezer to whom she is quasi-engaged. That doesn't seem fair. Scalzi is called a successor to Robert Heinlein, but Heinlein wouldn't have done that to a female character. He would have had Jane enjoying the orgies right up until she's able to meet back up with her true love. For evidence of that, see Glory Road, about kicking the stranger's shoes away from his lover's bed when he's ready to come back to her ("but I would go see Star first, or soon anyhow, and kick that strange pile of shoes aside"), or Lazarus Long's mother's guilt-free willingness to have an affair while his dad was at war.

I get the impression that Scalzi is trying to give people what he thinks they want. He really failed in my case. Scalzi is not Heinlein. Heinlein's characters behaved in a way that made sense within their context.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Army Ranger Captain Jonathan Grassbaugh, killed by a roadside bomb

Here are different links to articles about a young man from New Hampshire, recently killed in Iraq:
  • teaching at 10. His fourth-grade teacher spontaneously asked Jon to teach the rest of class long-division. He remembered the boy as being both a "math whiz" and a natural teacher.
  • drummer boy at 14. The "28th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry", a Civil War Reenactment group, remembers him fondly. there's a cute photo of 14-year-old Jonathan dressed as a Civil War drummer.
  • rings of jupiter - "His brother remembered a night Jonathan invited the family to the Grainger Observatory at Phillips Exeter Academy, to see a full moon and the rings around Jupiter."
  • bicycle helmet & pizza stories, by Joelle Farrell of the Concord Monitor, reprinted in
  • NHPR story on how he met his wife helping her move into dorm, post office, pledging in military fraternity, wedding video
I've been listening to NPR since the war began. They have profiled many soldiers who have died. This one has upset me the most.