My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1960

Yeah, that’s a sPaCe BlAsTeR!

I’ve almost completed my read-through of the top science fiction books of all time and was casting about for something else to do. I decided that reading through the list of Hugo award winners and nominees wasn’t a bad way to spend my time.

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (Winner)- Grade: B+
Heinlein created a somewhat surreal story with a surprising lack of actual trooper-ing happening. I mean, there’s a lot of lead-up to fighting scenes, but very little of the action is portrayed. It’s good, but not quite as good as I was expecting. It also features what would become even more pronounced in later Heinlein writings- an insistence that you as a reader sit and read lengthy sections where he expands on his views of sex or economics. Despite that, it comes out at the other end a quite good novel, if not necessarily worthy of the hype it has. Hey, it’s better than the movie!

Dorsai! (AKA Genetic General) by Gordon R. Dickson- Grade: C-
It’s easy to see how this book influenced so much other military science fiction. It is also easy to see why it hasn’t remained the enduring classic that some of the others on this list have. It’s full of dull, stilted inner dialogue, thin characters, and ho-hum battle scenes. A stage setter? Absolutely. Still worth reading? Only for the historical value of it.

The Pirates of Ersatz (AKA The Pirates of Zan) by Murray Leinster- Grade: A-
Space pirates? I was pretty sure nothing could go wrong there, but I was surprised by how thoughtful this book was, and how not much at all like a pirate novel it turned out to be. I expected a campy book about some free shooting space pirate blowing stuff up. Yes, there is plenty of piracy here, but the novel is not about the action of space pirates raiding other ships. It’s about the main character, Bran Hodder, and his interactions in a sometimes careless universe. He initially is thrown into the plot because of a rather comedic scenario in which he accidentally made a possible death-ray emitter. From there, he goes on to fulfill a few action/adventure tropes, but he also has a fair share of Robin Hood in him (itself its own trope). But Leinster weaves these trope-like ideas together in a way that makes sense and actually contributes to the overall plot. It’s a very good read that holds up surprisingly well.

Brain Twister (AKA That Sweet Little Old Lady) by Mark Philips- Grade: B-
There is a healthy dose of humor in this pseudo whodunnit, pseudo action adventure, maybe slightly Red Scare novel. I’m still not sure what to make of it. The science fiction in it is downplayed, but essential to the plot. It’s a fun romp that you can read in just a few hours, and if you find it at a library or something I’d recommend taking the time to do so, just so I can ask you what the devil happened.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut- Grade: F
I have read enough of his books to think that yes, it’s him and not me. Anyway, this book has some bare bones plot about people going places and doing things so that you, the reader, may be subjected to a constant stream of consciousness of same-sounding dialogue that tells you about Vonnegut’s ideas. Nothing by Vonnegut is worth reading, in my opinion. His “dark humor” is laughably quaint and based on stupid jokes. His alleged wit about the way of the world is trite. His characters are infants. His dialogue is forced. His reflections on religion could be refuted by a first year theology student. There is nothing here that is not found in every other one of his books, recycled and reused. It is awesome in its awfulness.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

My Read-Through of the Hugos- Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

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Presidential Biographies: Franklin Pierce #14

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills by Franklin Nichols.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills by Franklin Nichols

Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills is, without a doubt, a phoenomenal biography. Originally published in 1931, with a second edition that adds a chapter evaluating Pierce’s legacy, it remains a stunning accomplishment. It gave me, as a reader, a sense of what it may have been like to be alongside Pierce at key moments, thinking about his inner decision making and motivations as well as his clear actions.

Pierce was born the son of a Revolutionary War Lieutenant in New Hampshire. His father wanted him to be educated, and he fought this at first, but after one particularly formative instance when his father took him halfway back to school and made him walk the rest in the rain, he decided he’d shape up. He also turned his grades around through determination, study, and taking partners to help him learn. Early on, these types of experiences helped shape him into who he would become. His father was hugely influential in his outlook on life, and, like his father, he hated the notion of a state being dominated by outsiders. He would be a staunch Democrat for his entire life.*

If there is one thing that characterizes Pierce’s political career, it is a consistent dual affirmation of the platform of the Democratic Party and a commitment to preserving the Union. It was these dual notions that one can consistently trace throughout his career. He rose to political power slowly, largely through his efforts in New Hampshire and keeping the Democratic Party unified there, ultimately ending up with him being called a “Dictator” who threw down opposition to his vision for the party in Concord. Throughout his life, he demonstrated a “hatred” (as Nichols calls it) for abolitionists, whom he saw as radicals stirring the pot for what could only end with war. Because of this hatred, he never took the abolitionists seriously enough, and this would plague him throughout his political career and particularly as President. As a Senator, he devoted his  efforts to securing better pensions for soldiers, for the United States had the “worst” pension system “on the face of the earth” (111). He faced down abolitionists in Senate and helped pass what could be referred to as a “gag order” on discussing slavery on the Senate floor (an effort John Quincy Adams would dedicate much of his late-in-life effort to overthrowing). The abolitionists may have gotten the last laugh on that, as they were then able to paint Pierce as opposed to the right to petition.

Pierce also became embroiled in battles over the railroads and what is now called imminent domain. Pierce had early on taken political allies who opposed the railroads and sided withe farmers or others with land interests, and he, as characterized most of his life, stayed consistent on this issue, even when it seems that siding with the railroads would have been politically expedient (or at least, could have made him wealthy). Temperance was another issue he faced, and Pierce was staunchly in favor of temperance and passing laws to that effect.

Once again, though, slavery reared its ugly head and Pierce as a Senator was led to call slavery a “great moral evil” even as he drafted a party platform that allowed for “squatter sovereignty”–allowing states to determine their own destinies as slave or free.

In the Mexican-American War, he learned a deep, personal antipathy for war, even though he attained the rank of brigadier general. It is perhaps his personal experience with war–he never distinguished himself as a hero, though he did his service dutifully–that would lead him, as President, to so vehemently work for compromise.

As President, he attempted to unite the Democratic Party by selecting a cabinet composed of the entire spectrum of Democrats, whether Northern or Southern. This led to some infighting, but Pierce had far less controversy in his cabinet than some other Presidents, including some who are inexplicably seen as far better administrators (here’s looking at you, Andrew Jackson). Andrew Jackson comparisons abounded, for Pierce was unafraid to use his power to veto, even on seemingly innocuous bills. He pushed hard for the Kansas-Nebraska Act that would lead directly to bleeding Kansas. This is perhaps the greatest blight upon his leadership, for this act would trigger bloody conflict and give rise to even greater tensions. Yet this apparent blunder was an attempt by Pierce to bring compromise, hoping to please the South with its allowing for slavery while letting northerners see hope for overthrowing things like the Fugitive Slave Act. This kind of dual purpose for legislation characterized Pierce’s Presidency, though he frequently simply managed to anger both sides rather than bring about reconciliation.

In foreign policy, Pierce probably ought to be seen largely as a failure. His attempts to annex Cuba failed–with great long term repercussions–though he did help open avenues for different areas of expansion. With Native Americans, he had difficulty selecting competent people to manage the territories and he failed to uphold or enforce treaties with Native peoples on multiple occasions. In conflict with Utah, he ultimately caved to Brigham Young’s stronghold in the state.

After his Presidency, he stayed loyal to the North but remained vehemently opposed to emancipation. He’d go on to claim that emancipation proclamation was unconstitutional and that it wiped out states while destroying “property” (read: slaves).

Pierce’s whole life was, again, characterized by a commitment to the principles of his party and attempts to keep the union. These efforts led to his attempts to pacify the south with compromises that would lead to a springboard for his most hated enemies, the abolitionists, to unite and make a serious effort to overthrow him. Ultimately, Pierce’s efforts undermined his goals, and this “Young Hickory” would have a tarnished legacy.

For all Pierce’s efforts, the critical eye of history has not shined brightly upon his legacy. Most recently, aggregate rankings of Presidential careers have placed Pierce in the bottom 5-10 Presidents to have ever held office in the United States. Such is the legacy of a man who gave his life, monumentally, to the effort to keep the country united and serve the principles he felt best. Whether an accident of birth, decisions made in his life, nurture, or some combination, it is the very fact that Pierce stuck to his principles and served some that were doomed to failure that led to the judgment of history. His attempts to placate the South while largely ignoring or downplaying the impact of new political players–most notably the abolitionists–were disastrous, ultimately leading at multiple points to a lose-lose scenario in which he angered both the North and South.

Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills is that rare biography that truly transcends itself, making the portrait of a person seem to become that person, as though the reader is living alongside and experiencing the life. It truly gave me a wonderful sense of Pierce’s life, and an admiration for his best qualities, while realizing his numerous faults. It’s an extraordinary work.

*In any historical analysis, it is important to see that some terms or their referents change over time. The Democratic Party of Pierce’s time was quite different from that of our time, as can be seen in even the simplest historical analysis, despite some claims to the contrary.

Franklin Pierce’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Franklin Pierce (14th President – Original Ranking #11) There is little historic doubt that Pierce’s Presidency agitated the fires of secession rather than calming them, though perhaps not directly. His hatred of abolitionists and general placation of the South certainly doesn’t improve with historical analysis, but it also led to the stirring up of those same abolitionists into a true, rival, political power. Pierce’s attempts to tow his party line and keep the country (and his party) unified at all costs ultimately failed, but it could also be argued that the wheels were already churning before Pierce came into the office. Surprisingly, he attempted a number of compromises which ended up simply exacerbating the two sides of several issues. Generally seen as among the worst Presidents on outcomes, I ended up coming out of reading on Pierce with an admiration for the man. He stuck to his values, even when it cost him political clout or other interest in himself. Though his values were frequently wrong, that he tried to navigate them in an increasingly difficult situation is admirable. Nevertheless, his favoring of Southern interests on slavery is particularly despicable, and his handling of Bleeding Kansas, the Native Americans associated with it, and many other issues was quite poorly done. Does he deserve a ranking in the bottom 5-10 Presidents? Possibly. But having him end up here–ranked beneath other, less principled or consistent persons who didn’t seek compromise, feels like an accident of history more than a reflection on his competence.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Star Trek: DS9 Season 4 “Sons of Mogh” and “Bar Association”

Hey! We have demands and stuff! Yeah!

I’ve completed my re-watch of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Now it’s time to start Deep Space Nine! I am much less familiar with this show, though I’m pretty sure I’ve seen about 80-90% of the episodes. It’s been so long that I’m sure it will all feel brand new. My wife has never seen the show. She and I will go through, review every episode, and give commentary and a grade from A-F. There are SPOILERS for each episode below. Without further adieu, here’s:

“Sons of Mogh”

Synopsis

Worf’s brother Kurn visits DS9 to demand Worf help him regain his honor by killing him ritually. The dishonor is apparently brought on by Worf’s decisions to side with Starfleet and thus led to disfavor against Worf’s family. Worf agrees, but Dax and Odo get Kurn out in time to have him saved by Bashir. Kurn thus feels doubly dishonored, unable even to have an honorable death. Meanwhile, a discovery of a Klingon ship attempting to drop a cloaked minefield on DS9 means that Worf and Kurn must go undercover to discover the location of these mines. Kurn saves Worf on the mission, but now feels like a traitor as well. Finally, Bashir agrees to wipe Kurn’s memory and allow him to go with a family friend to assume a new identity, saving his life… kind of.

Commentary

Okay, do we really think that Bashir would agree to wipe Kurn’s memory? Seriously. That seems like a massive breaking of his oaths and vows, not to mention that similar cases have always had a “but it couldn’t possibly succeed” clause or some other major moral opposition to it, as should have happened here. I generally enjoy Klingon episodes, but this one seemed nonsensical. No one was acting in ways that seemed believable. I mean, did Worf really “save” Kurn by basically turning him into a completely different person? It definitely doesn’t seem like it to me. Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way, either, because according to the excellent Deep Space Nine Companion, many fans had outcry against this effective killing of Kurn by Worf.

If there is a plus side to this episode, it’s that Michael Dorn is a great actor and somehow manages to sell this as serious. Also, there is apparently a thing developing between Dax and Worf? Awesome. Also, the aforementioned Deep Space Nine Companion has a cool piece in it on this episode about the development of the mek’leth and how they made it by looking at a number of weapons one of the people working on the show collected. Neat.

Grade: C- “The characters are completely out of character here, and the solution seems so out of place that it doesn’t really feel the episode was resolved in any way. 

Wife’s Grade and Comment: B “It was a really cool episode, but so implausible a solution.”

“Bar Association”

Synopsis

Rom has an ear infection but doesn’t get it treated because he can’t get time off work. Ferengi don’t do vacations, obviously. It would hurt profit! But then Rom gets the idea, partially from Bashir, that a union ought to be formed, and he joins together with others at Quark’s to strike and get better pay and benefits. This of course goes against all that is Ferengi, and the Ferengi Commerce Authority sends Liquidator Brunt to end the dispute, threatening financial ruin. But Rom manages to rally the employees again and Brunt schemes to harm Quark in order to force Rom’s backing down. Finally, Quark and Rom come to an agreement that lets Quark honor the union’s demands in secret if they pretend he has won the dispute. They agree, but Rom decides to quit the job to become someone who can survive on his own, wrorking for the station as a diagnostic tech.

Commentary

Can we sit back and think for a moment about the massive gulf between DS9’s treatment of Ferengi and that of The Next Generation? I mean seriously, could you imagine an episode even close to this level of seriousness with the Ferengi as presented especially in early TNG? I definitely can’t. The writers of DS9 did us a service by salvaging the Ferengi and turning them into a genuinely compelling people. And the Ferengi Commerce Authority is part of that, here showing that the Ferengi aren’t afraid of gangster tactics when it comes to getting what they want. Sure, the episode is silly–it has Rom in it, after all–but it builds on the characters in believable ways, even if it does so in a condensed timeline that seems to stretch credulity a little far.

This is a great character developing episode for both Quark and Rom and introduces a number of other characters who become more important as the series goes on. I enjoyed it.

Grade: B “A great character piece for Rom, though it has elements that are maybe a bit too rushed or unbelievable. I do like how much DS9 has done with the Ferengi!”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: A- “I think Rom is great. He’s super fun.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Star Trek: DS9– For more episode reviews, follow this site and also click this link to read more (scroll down as needed)! Drop me a comment to let me know what you thought!

SDG.

Reading Through the [Alleged] Top 100 Science Fiction Novels- #76-80

I’m a huge science fiction fan, but realized I haven’t read a lot of those works considered classics or greats. I decided to remedy that, and found a list online of the Top 100 Science Fiction Books. The list is determined by vote from sci-fi fans online, so it may change over time. I am going off the order of the list as it was when I first saw it. Each book will receive a grade between F and A+ as well as very brief comments. I’m interested to read what you think about these books as well. There will be very minor spoilers in some of these.

76. The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe Grade: B-
“As I read this, I understood how beautiful it was, and how it could easily be among others’ favorites. I’m not sure if it’s just the mood I was in, or what, but I could not get into it. The style seemed much more interested in prose than in telling the story, and that made it difficult to get into. Of the three novellas included here, I enjoyed the third the most, with its tie-ins to the previous ones. I suspect on a re-read I might enjoy it more, so I should get back around to it someday.”

77. Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis Grade: B+
“Several parts of it seem dated–particularly the narration style, which draws heavily from H.G. Wells. Many good ideas are here, however, which make up for a somewhat disappointing lack of characterization given Lewis’ immense success at the same task in his Chronicles of Narnia. I enjoyed the different types of aliens, as well as the adventuresome plot. It’s a good, but not superb book.”

78. Ilium by Dan Simmons Grade: A
“A futuristic-ish reinvisioning of Homer’s epic with robots, insane technology, aliens, and more? Yeah, only Simmons could pull this off and not utterly destroy the source material. It’s not quite at the transcendent level of Hyperion, but it is simply phenomenal nonetheless. The different strands of the story get pulled together in surprising and satisfying ways, and it sets up for a sequel in a perfect fashion. I’m hoping the sequel will be just as good.”

79. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick Grade: C-
“The later in Dick’s career I get on this list, the less I like his novels. Thankfully, he actually constructed an attempt at a story with characters for this one. The problem is that the characters and plot aren’t very compelling. It’s one of those books you finish and you think: ‘Well, that was okay, I guess.’ And really, that’s all this book was. Okay.”

80. Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan Grade: A
“It’s a sci-fi noir novel. Does there need to be any other reason to read it? Oh, yeah, and it’s a satisfying mystery, too. I forgot to mention that the science fiction aspects of it actually lend themselves to the mystery without feeling like they were invented merely to make the mystery easier to solve or make sense. It’s pretty fantastic. The reason I marked it down is because I think the sheer amount of explicit sex and extreme violence was overdone. Unlike many books, both make sense for the sake of the plot, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy reading them. Apart from those aspects, this novel was superb, and I think most readers would agree.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Reading through the [Alleged] Best 100 Science Fiction Books– Check out more posts in this series as I continue.

SDG.