Vintage Sci-Fi Month: “Cobra” by Timothy Zahn

The cover is delightfully pulpy but also -very- misleading.

January is Vintage Sci-Fi Month and I’m hoping to feature a number of looks at vintage sci-fi I’m reading for the month to spur some discussion and hear your thoughts! Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.

Cobra by Timothy Zahn 

I ended up buying the omnibus edition of the Cobra Trilogy at Manticon 2015, where I met Zahn, David Weber (my favorite author), Eric Flint, and others. I got it signed while I was there, and for about 5 years it has languished on my TBR pile. But, having had the rare experience of exhausting my library pile before my weekly trip, I delved into some books I owned for once! With it being Vintage sci-fi month, I figured I’d check out Cobra, published in 1986.

Honestly, the premise didn’t really strike me as anything terribly exciting. A super soldier fights against enemies–it’s a standard trope of science fiction that’s made many an appearance. Of course, I’m a pretty big fan of military sci-fi, so I tend to gravitate this trope and others like it. But when I actually began reading the book, it became quickly apparent that the premise isn’t really what the book is about at all.

Jonny Moreau is a likable enough main character to whom we are introduced as he struggles with the question of whether to enlist or not. He quickly does, and suddenly finds himself slated to become a Cobra, a new kind of super soldier with heightened abilities to go along with a nanocomputer to help analyze and react to threats and a body built to suit it. Jonny expects to be deployed as a kind of undercover insurgent in advance of invading enemies, and we as readers go along assuming that’s what the book will then end up being about. But, again, it’s not. Just as Jonny is about to get involved in some serious war, witnessing glimpses here and there, we jump ahead years and instead see Jonny trying to cope with his memories back home. He tries to strike it back up with his girlfriend, he tries to find jobs, but he is ostracized as a freak due to his, well, freakish abilities having been a Cobra. He can’t blend in anywhere.

But it turns out the human government has a plan! They’ve made a deal with their alien enemies to colonize on the other side of their space, going through a narrow corridor the Trofts grudgingly open in order to get there. And who do they decide would be the perfect colonists? None other than the already super-adapted Cobra soldiers! Off they go! Thought you were reading a military sci-fi novel? Now you’re reading one about colonization. But there are more surprises in store because some Cobra units go rogue and try to set up their own government, then the Troft close off the corridor, and the crap hits the fan. Suddenly the Cobra have their own civilization that is set apart from the human Dominion of Man, and that’s pretty much where we end after a whirlwind of events set over more than a decade.

Honestly, this book is maybe 20% about being a super soldier and 40% about dealing with the stress and life that comes with being such a soldier with another 40% about the colonization of a new planet/government intrigue. PTSD (implied), trying to cope with the horrors of war that has home, questions of political loyalties: these are just a few of the heady topics Zahn brings up in Cobra. He does so in typical Zahn fashion, though, moving along with the action such that some of the most emotionally impactful moments go by very quickly. That’s probably the biggest weakness in Cobra: so much happens and it moves so quickly that readers aren’t able to fully appreciate or grasp the horror of Jonny’s life at points.

But it is there. All the pieces are in place. As a reader, you can see the horror, feel the awfulness of some of the situations, and sympathize with Jonny as it happens. Zahn does not quite pull the trigger on making the book entirely a commentary on the horrors of war, but it’s all there. It just gets a bit glorified towards the end with the colonization happening, but even there it is all imperfect, a little weird, and ambiguous. Zahn’s strength is in making compelling characters, and that certainly comes through in this book, but his unwillingness to fully embrace what seems like a core part of the book–the questions facing a super soldier with nothing to do–undermines the power of the book somewhat.

Having read Cobra, I’m left feeling a bit confused, to be honest. Looking back on it, I’d say it is an engaging read. It does not quite live up to the potential of some of the ideals Zahn hints at throughout, but it keeps the pages turning even as your brain is working to catch up with the themes and action. I enjoyed Cobra quite a bit and will definitely be reading the rest of the trilogy. I’d recommend it to readers who are looking to go off the beaten path in their military sci-fi reading.

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– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

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.

Presidential Biographies: Ulysses S. Grant #18

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Ulysses S. Grant, the Eighteenth 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 Grant by Ron Chernow.

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.

Grant by Ron Chernow

Ulysses S. Grant is one of those Presidents that I only knew for his Civil War service and drinking problems. Indeed, as I have discussed my reading of the Presidential Biographies, I was often told Grant was one who would be ranked low due to the corruption on his cabinet and his drinking. Yet, as I discovered in this truly excellent biography by Ron Chernow, the story is much deeper and complex than that. Indeed, I don’t think I’m mistaken to say that Grant is certainly one of the most underrated Presidents we’ve had. Moreover, he was an altogether decent man.

Grant was born in Ohio. His father had a tannery business, among other businesses, and Grant detested the smell and sights of he gruesome business. Instead, he joined the military where he distinguished himself as a marvelous equestrian. He distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War, though he was personally opposed to what he felt was a poor decision to go to war. He made enemies in the military, and they sought to undermine him by spreading rumors about his drunkenness. These rumors would dog him his entire life, and into the modern era. They were not unfounded. Chernow dedicates no small amount of time discussing both the reality of Grant’s alcoholism and the myth that developed around it. For one, in Grant’s time, alcoholism was seen as a moral failing rather than an addiction that needed treatment to overcome. That misunderstanding continues in part to this day. Due to this view of alcoholism as moral failing, the rumor mill that surrounded Grant about alcohol came up again and again, fed by his political and military enemies in order to undermine his moral and other status. Grant did binge drink. He tended to do so in certain situations: after battles, for example. Yet he also worked hard to fight alcoholism in himself and others, making a pact with his longtime friend and adviser, John Rawlins, to help him keep from drinking. It is also likely he promised his wife he would not drink, and she defended his character to the end of her life. Moreover, he was free of scandal regarding women, and, though a few unsubstantiated rumors arose about this as well, it seems clear Grant was quite loyal to his wife throughout his life. The rumors of alcohol, though, did get him out of the military.

Then, the Civil War began, and Grant was called to defend the Union, which he did with gusto. His political views had, in part, formed in response to his wife (a Southerner who owned slaves) and against his father, with whom he had a strained relationship. The Civil War changed these views as well. He had leaned towards abolition, but through the war this conviction solidified. As he continued to rise in power in the Western Theater of the Civil War, he became agitated by setbacks surrounding logistics. This led to him issuing General Orders No. 11, what Chernow calls the “most sweeping anti-Semitic action undertaken in American history.” These orders stipulated that Jews would be expelled from his military district, which included parts of Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. He blamed certain Jewish traders as source of black market goods and transactions, and he felt his actions were justified, not to mention going along with the general anti-Semitism of the time. Grant’s story of interactions with the Jewish people was not over, though, as we’ll see in his Presidency.

Grant continued to thrive in war, and won many hard-fought victories against sometimes larger armies and fortifications. His victory over Vicksburg catapulted his fame, and Lincoln ultimately placed him in charge of the armies fighting Lee. Grant’s reputation as a butcher is unsupported by his actual actions on the battlefield and after. In victory, he was cordial and even kind towards the defeated enemy. He was a grand strategist who burst fortresses with tactics rather than a sea of bodies, though the latter was often the result of the type of battles that were being fought. Grant ultimately defeated Lee and the South, of course, leading to a Union victory.

Next, Grant dedicated himself to healing tensions in the country, though he also felt that the rights of the newly freed slaves would need military protection. He and Andrew Johnson repeatedly clashed as the latter’s policies undermined what Lincoln had done and what Grant hoped Reconstruction would accomplish. Grant ultimately decided to run for President and won against Horatio Seymour. Several states were still ineligible to vote in this election.

Grant’s Presidency was certainly not perfect. It is true that his administration was marred by several scandals. Many of these were due to Grant’s nature as a person: he simply trusted his associates far more than he should have, and this would come back to truly bite him in later years. The list of scandals is long, ranging from monopolies on gold, to custom houses, to tax evasion scams. Almost all of these were done by appointees of Grant, his cabinet, or people he trusted. Lingering attacks on Grant about his alcohol use continued throughout both of his terms, as well.

Moreover, Grant’s attempts to deal fairly with Native Americans failed badly. He attempted a policy he called the “Peace Policy” in which he would honor treaties the United States had made with Native American groups. He even worked to get citizenship for Native Americans. He believed that Native Americans were largely provoked by whites who then attributed any conflict to the Native Americans (658). He appointed Ely Parker, a Seneca, as the Commisioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that position. Grant and Parker planned for a gradual granting of citizenship to Native Americans. Of course, part of this plan was absorption of Native Americans and this would involve effectively “robbing Indians of their rightful culture” (as Chernow puts it, 659). Native Americans largely rebuffed Grant’s plan for them, not wishing to be made into white people’s idealization of “civilized.” Unfortunately, during this time period, the slaughter of buffalo herds by white men, in addition to continual incursions by white people on Native lands, and the greed of people for gold in Native lands led to conflict. The Peace Policy devolved into a series of raids and wars against Native Americans, including the infamous “Battle of Little Bighorn” in which Custer, whom Grant had dispatched, was killed and made into a folk hero–a status undeserved, to say the last. Grant’s Peace Policy was perhaps well-intentioned, but it was also a failure. He wished to see Native Americans integrated into the United States, not particularly aware of whether this was something they desired or not; and he ultimately dispatched troops to fight those same people. It is tragic in a number of ways, because Grant, unlike many of the Presidents we have already looked at in this series, truly did seem to view all people as… people.

In the South, the Ku Klux Klan rapidly arose to try to suppress black voters and power in these states. Unlike Andrew Johnson, who practically encouraged such violent terrorism, Grant responded to these militaristic racists by fighting them. He and his attorney generals–though largely the first, formed a Justice Department that would expand federal powers to prosecute criminals in states. As part of his enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments, Grant charged his attorney general, Amos T. Akerman, to vigorously defend black voters. Grant worked to pass additional enforcement acts specifically targeting the KKK and other groups that were terrorizing blacks trying to vote. This gained him praise from such luminaries as Frederick Douglass. Grant then went to the length of suspending Habeas Corpus when he was told that the KKK was murdering people before they could testify against them. He and Akerman managed to convict more than 1000 members of the Klan, ultimately leading to what was truly a massive, militaristic, terror organization to losing much of its power. After the Colfax Massacre, Grant worked to try to bring the perpetrators to justice. When the Supreme Court overturned the few convictions Grant managed to get, he was enraged and, in an eloquent condemnation of the moral state of the country, said:

Fierce denunciations ring through the country about office-holding and election matters in Louisiana, while every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime. (quoted on p. 759-760)
Grant saw this and many other instances as evidence the Federal Government needed the power to intervene in the states in order to enforce the law. Just as they’d done before the Civil War and into certain issues today, people cried out for “states’ rights” in response. Grant oversaw the passage and signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1875, helping ensure this federal intervention, but the Supreme Court would ultimately strike this Act down. In short, Grant’s Presidency was characterized by the fight for civil rights of the newly freed African American population. It was a battle that gave him many victories, though also some defeats. And, ultimately, that battle continues to this day. We do have to thank Grant, though, for his effort to undo much of the damage Johnson did to black civil rights.
Grant also worked to heal his schisms with Jewish people. He became the first President to attend a synagogue congregation, following the traditions of those in attendance despite being told he did not have to. Moreover, “Mortified at memories of General Orders No. 11, Grant compiled an outstanding record of incorporating Jews into his administration…” He nominated Jews to numerous positions, leading to contemporary Jewish leaders o state that he had overcome the blight on his name from his General Orders (642-643). Moreover, he worked to protect Jewish citizens abroad. When Russia was revealed to be relocating Jews, Grant spoke with some American Jewish leaders, telling them “It is too late, in this age of enlightement, to persecute any one on account of race, color, or religion” (quoted on 643). He then made a formal protest to the czar and directed the American ambassador in Russia to make a state paper to document coercion against Russian Jews (here I largely paraphrase Chernow on p. 643). Chernow notes, quoting a scholar writing in Woodrow Wilson’s era, that Grant did more for the Jewish people in the United States than any other President before or since (836).
Grant’s Presidency ended, but he continued to have influence in the political arena, including working actively for Garfield in particular. His tendency to trust others would have one more disastrous consequence late in life, though, as he trusted a young Ferdinand Ward with all his fortune and that of many family members. Ward, however, was running nothing but a Ponzi scheme, and ultimately left Grant and many others effectively penniless. This would lead, however, to Grant finally deciding to put pen to paper and write his memoir, which Mark Twain eventually purchased to publish. Grant had gone from thinking he was next to a millionaire to seeing Twain’s advance check of $1000 as a massive windfall. It was a miserable state for such a man to fall to, and Twain recognized it as well. Moreover, Grant was horribly ill as he wrote his recollections, but as through his life, he soldiered through and completed them at cost to himself. The memoir would become a massive commercial success and go down as a major event in American history. Grant used the last months of his life to speak with friends and even enemies, making amends with several. He died, surrounded by friends and family. His casket bearers included soldiers from both the North and South, signifying his lifelong battle for Union.
Truly, Grant was a phenomenal man and President. He is massively underrated on the latter score. Chernow’s biography, Grant, is a fantastic work as well. I highly recommend it, and I recommend learning more about this President.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Ulysses S. Grant (18th President – Original Ranking #3)- Often dismissed as a footnote for his Presidency and talked up as a General instead, Grant was, in fact, one of the more effective Presidents when it came to some areas where it mattered most. A principled man, when he identified an evil, he worked vociferously to attack it. His war on the KKK was effective and waged with as much acumen as he dealt with troops on the battlefield, helping to end at least some of the terror levied against black citizens. He worked to rebuild relationships with Jewish citizens after making a poor choice earlier in his career. He tried (but failed) to walk a line between honoring treaties with Native Americans, bringing peace, and pleasing whites intent on expansion.

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 Wars: Queen’s Shadow” by E.K. Johnston

I saw that Queen’s Shadow was announced and felt a thrill of excitement. Though I have thought the Disney Star Wars books have been uneven (as were the Expanded Universe novels before Disney, for sure), I have enjoyed my share of them. Also, I have a soft spot for The Phantom Menace. I saw it as a kid right at an age that it would appeal to. Sure, it has major issues, but it has some truly great moments. I love the over-the-top feel of Queen Amidala, as well as basically all the cool stuff on Naboo. So here we are, with a novel about the Queen and the handmaids. I feel that.

The book follows these handmaids through Padme’s move into the Senate, and shows how their careers diverge into different paths. It picks up right as Padme’s time as Queen is coming to an end. Some political intrigue is involved, and readers get insight into one of the best characters from the prequel trilogy. E.K. Johnston gives all the handmaids personalities and motivations. I didn’t think any were particularly memorable, but they made me want to keep reading.  The book has several memorable moments, especially as it reaches its climactic action and ties to the later movies.

Johnston also fills in several details about how things developed in between films, which I always think is welcome especially for the Prequel Trilogy, which, among its faults, moved too quickly for my taste. There are also some details filled in about the broader conflicts in the Galaxy, which helps make sense of some of the machinations behind Episode III.

The novel is for a Young Adult audience, but reads just about the same as most Star Wars books, in my opinion. The whole expanded universe and now these “canon” novels are generally appropriate for any readers capable of handling somewhat mature content. It honestly makes me wonder a little bit why this was categorized as YA and not simply in the general science fiction section.

Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow is quite a fun read, and one that serves fans well. It’s not going to blow readers away with the intricacy of the plot, but it gives Star Wars fans more insight into the films and some of the more interesting characters in the prequel series. Johnston’s work is a welcome addition to the Star Wars canon, and I particularly enjoyed learning more about the Queen. I’d recommend reading it.

Links

Star Wars Expanded Universe Read Through– I have many posts on expanded universe novels within Star Wars. Check them out here.

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 “Crossfire” and “Return to Grace”

“You know how I can tell you’re upset? That out of place hair.”

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:

“Crossfire”

Synopsis

Shakaar, the onetime Bajoran freedom fighter whose backstory was largely revealed in the episode of his name, is back on DS9 and Odo is not pleased by his apparently budding relationship with Major Kira. Quark and Odo have a story that goes laong with the main plot all the way through this one, going back and forth with complaints even as Quark is making it clear with his actions that despite his adversarial relationship with Odo, he enjoys his company. Quark counsels Odo to tell Kira his feelings, but even as he works up his courage to do so, she reveals she is falling for Shakaar. Meanwhile, a plot to kill Shakaar is unfolding and Odo, distracted, has to act himself to save Kira and Shakaar’s life. Worf, much to Odo’s annoyance, is the one who ends up capturing the Cardassian agent involved. Sisko is surprised by Odo’s distracted nature. Odo puts soundproofing in his floor at the end of the episode, ending something that was annoying Quark. The latter thanks him, but Odo plays it off as business, once again seeing Shakaar and Kira together.

Commentary

This is a good character-building episode for Quark and Odo. It shows the sometimes comical nature of the adversarial relationship. It also shows how they seem to be molding that relationship into a strange friendship. Odo’s feelings for Kira are a major theme, of course, but that seems to be played out in my opinion. He needs to just tell her already, or, like Quark said, get over it. The enigmatic ending of the episode made it hard to figure out where it might go next.

Seriously though, Quark. He basically is the glue that makes the whole show work at times. This episode is one of those. I could see this episode being quite boring, to be honest, but Quark’s character added the dimension of humor and friendship that pushed it over the edge into a good episode.

Grade:  B “I love the interplay between Odo and Quark, but wow Odo needs to just tell Kira his feelings already.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: B

“Return to Grace”

Synopsis

Kira must ride with Dukat on a transport ship to a conference about the Klingon Empire. When they arrive, the site is a wreck and a Klingon Bird of Prey is leaving. Dukat and Kira rig the ship to fight the Klingon and defeat it, capturing the warship. Dukat destroys his transport gleefully, but is annoyed, to say the least, when the Cardassians don’t welcome him back into leadership for the capture of the Bird of Prey. He decides to strike out on his own in the Bird of Prey in order to fight the Klingons, but Kira refuses to join his crew and she and his daughter, Ziyal, go back to DS9.

Commentary

This episode is an action-packed whirlwind of crazy. Dukat, stripped of rank, is commanding a lowly transport! Ha! But then he manages to turn the transport into a kind of Q-Ship and takes over a Bird of Prey? Then, he goes seemingly mad for a personal vendetta against the Klingons? Yeah, these are the things that happened in this episode.

I think if there is any specific meaning in this episode, it is that the writers are saying Dukat isn’t going anywhere. That’s good, because he is a spectacular villain that I love to hate. They’ve given him some reasons to like him a little bit now, but this personal war seems a good setup for more drama.

Grade:  B “There’s a lot that happens in this one, and it makes me wonder what they’re setting Dukat up to do next.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: B

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.

Presidential Biographies: Millard Fillmore #13

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Millard Fillmore, the thirteenth 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 Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman.

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.

Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman

Millard Fillmore’s story may be seen in a number of ways: his story was a truly “American” story where someone rises from absolute poverty (his parents were tenant farmers) to the highest office in the United States; or perhaps the narrative is of one who sought above all else to preserve Union in a time when pressure was increasing to split it; perhaps, instead, the narrative is of one who, having Southern interests at heart, pursued them with all his strength. Regardless of one’s thoughts on his life, it is clear Fillmore left a mark upon our country, for better or ill.

Fillmore’s story is interesting because he did seemingly pull himself up by his bootstraps (again, the traditional narrative of what people say happens in the United States, but rarely does), educating himself and becoming a lawyer. He got involved in politics in Buffalo, New York, and became a Representative.

Millard Fillmore’s ascent to the Presidency was unexpected, to be sure. He was the second “Accidental President” to happen, upon the death of Zachary Taylor. Added to the ticket as the Vice President, the Whig Fillmore was expected to help carry some of the Southern vote, and he did. However, he was not expected to become President in a time where the Vice President was largely a placeholder office. Yet when Taylor died, the nation was in the throes of some enormous sectional battles, particular among them that “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Millard Fillmore expended an enormous amount of energy to defend slavery. Though he decried it repeatedly as an evil–or at least morally wrong–he used both federal resources and his own power as President to pursue the ends of slaveholders throughout the United States. The Compromise of 1850–something that may have been vetoed under Taylor–was rubber stamped and pushed by Fillmore, who spent the rest of his Presidency eagerly pursuing the cause of the expanded Fugitive Slave Act. He repeatedly used federal soldiers to aid in forcing people back into slavery and allowed interpretations of the Fugitive Slave Act that led to the kidnapping and forced entry into slavery of any number of black people. His Presidency was shaped by this constant use of federal power to impinge upon states’ rights. Of course, the false narrative of “States’ Rights” that persists to our time regarding what divided the North and South is shown here in stark relief. Southerners weren’t out in the streets demanding states’ rights when federal troops marched into major cities in the North to assist in the kidnapping of black people. Fillmore endorsed and pushed these events forward, and states’ rights were trampled.

Some have read Fillmore’s pursuit of the Fugitive Slave Act and other parts of his Presidency as showing his unflinching commitment to preservation of the Union. On this scheme, Fillmore was enforcing a law that, if left alone, would led to the secession of the South. This narrative, though it paints Fillmore in a more positive light, seems to go against the thrust of his Presidency, which was filled with explicitly racial bias and intentional thwarting of the rights even of American citizens in favor of Fillmore’s favored people.

Another example of this played out in foreign policy, as Fillmore’s pursuit of a treaty with the Swiss included compromising the rights of Jewish Americans. His pursuit of economic success of those whose interests he protected superseded his commitment to defending all Americans abroad. The Swiss treaty included provisions for allowing citizens of both Switzerland and the United States to travel freely between the countries, but it allowed for the Swiss cantons to prohibit Jews (including Jewish Americans) from conducting business in or visiting specific juridictions. Fillmore, commenting on this treaty, said he found “nothing to object to,” even after concerns were raised on the floor of the Senate. On the other side of the world, Fillmore pursued an America-first policy that eventually (under Pierce) forcibly opened Japanese ports to American trade. Though this certainly benefited some portions of the United States financially, it was an imperialist, expansionist move that was well in line with Fillmore’s apparent policy of putting white American interests above all else.

After his Presidency, Fillmore joined the Know-Nothing party and helped push their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant nonsense on the national stage. It was as though the clear white-first ideals he demonstrated in office weren’t explicit enough: he simply made them clear in further actions.

Finkelman’s summary of Fillmore’s legacy is on point:

[O]n the central issues of the age his vision was myopic and his legacy is worse. He opened the West to slavery and destroyed the Missouri Compromise line. The total appeasement of the South only encouraged new demands for more land for slavery… He ran for president on a ticket that openly attacked foreigners, immigrants, and Catholics. In reteriment, Fillmore opposed emancipation and campaigned for a peace that would have left millions of African Americans in chains. In the end, Fillmore was always on the wrong side of the great moral and political issues of the age: immigration, religious toleration, equality, and, most of all, slavery. (137)

Fillmore was a terrible President.

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

Millard Fillmore (13th President- Original Ranking: 13)- Fillmore put into practice those horrors that Jackson set up, for the same reasoning. He protected the interests of those he cared about: nativist racist whites. He allowed for the stripping of Jewish American rights abroad. He pursued the Fugitive Slave Act with the vigor of one who saw it as the highest good. He used federal resources time and again in defense of slavery. After his Presidency, he joined the Know-Nothings so that he could let his nativism truly shine, with their anti-Catholic, anti-immigration rhetoric that spread fear in order to pass policies that favored wealthy white protestants. He was a tool of slaveowners and, when he had power, he used it to full effect in ways that demonstrably did not assist all Americans. He was a terrible President whose only interests were those of expanding the influence and economic success of the narrow sphere of people he felt deserved it.

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.

“Gate Crashers” and “Space Opera” – Two wild first contact novels

I quite enjoyed sharing my last couple reads of debut novels with you (Space Unicorn Blues and The Stars Now Unclaimed) and figured I’d keep doing some of these little book posts. Here, I want to review two humorous first contact novels I read recently.

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

I love space opera. It is perhaps my favorite subgenre of science fiction, and I read a ton of science fiction. When I saw a book entitled simply, “Space Opera,” I was intrigued. When I saw the cover and the tagline “In space, everyone can hear you sing,” I put it on the “to read” pile for when I was ready for what I assumed would be a funny romp.

I wasn’t wrong. Catherynne M. Valente is clearly a talented author, and her humor is cut from the same cloth as Douglas Adams. At multiple points, I was reminded quite vividly of Adams’ writing, but never in a derivative way. Valente has her own brand of dry humor that will make you laugh, really laugh at life. Yeah, life–in the all-encompassing everything that is alive now kind of way.

The plot is zany: humans are contacted by some species and told we can produce our best talent to compete in a universe-wide talent show and not lose or be killed. So a washed up pseudo one-hit-wonder type of band gets brought back together to show the galaxy what-for. It’s ridiculous but it somehow works. It’s full of what would almost certainly be anachronisms and occasionally stilted dialogue, but by gum it still works. Valente basically wills this novel into being in a way that feels fresh and frankly hilarious throughout. You care about the characters more than some of them perhaps deserve, and the aliens introduced are interesting. But what makes it tick, again, is Valente’s almost casual wielding of humor that never gets in the way.

Space Opera is perhaps a little bit too over the top at times, but Valente cashes in on a wildly funny premise, fills it to the brims with wit, and brought me laughing to a satisfying finish. Readers who enjoy Douglas Adams should run to get it.

Gate Crashers by Patrick S. Tomlinson

What if we are totally incompetent when it comes to contact with other species? What if they were just as confused by us as we were by them? What if we found out they were trying to just ignore us? Tomlinson touches on all these questions and stirs in a helping of humor in his intriguing Gate Crashers, a rare self-contained space opera/first contact novel that hits back at several tropes.

The book is ultimately more serious than you might be lead to expect by the extended introduction. There is a lot of depth here, and readers hoping for a simple laugh riot may be disappointed by a lengthy middle portion introducing many side characters and much exposition. But it is this central portion that sets up for a rather satisfying conclusion that Tomlinson deftly handles in a way that doesn’t disappoint.

Gate Crashers is an entertaining read, though at times I wondered what the central theme or motivation is. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my time spent in this jaunt. I recommend it for people who think C.J. Cherryh needs more humor and less verbosity (I don’t know why Cherryh came to mind, as Gate Crashers only tangentially reminds me of her work, but that’s where I’m at as I type this up).

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.

Presidential Biographies: Zachary Taylor #12 (1849-1850)

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Zacharay Taylor, the twelfth 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 Zachary Taylor by John S. D. Eisenhower.

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.

Zachary Taylor by John S. D. Eisenhower

Taylor’s life, as I reflect on the biography by Eisenhower, seems almost ho hum. It’s like what one would expect if one had fictionalized the rise of someone to the Presidency in the 1800s. He began as the son of a Virginia landowner who had himself been distinguished in the Revolutionary War. Unlike some of the other Presidents we have already looked into, it doesn’t seem Taylor ever needed to worry about monetary problems. He followed somewhat in his father’s footsteps by becoming an officer in the United States Army. He became a national hero during the Mexican-American War and leveraged that popularity, in part, to ascend to the White House. He was a gentleman farmer from Virginia, which is a rather kind way of putting the fact that he relied on people he’d enslaved for his wealth. Eisenhower notes an anecdote at the beginning of this biography that inspired him–he was speaking with someone who argued that Taylor, had he lived, may have been the person who could have prevented the Civil War. Why is that? Most simply, because it is likely he would have vetoed some things that led to greater national tension. Let’s explore that along with some other aspects of his life and Presidency below.

Taylor joined the army and moved up the ranks, eventually to become a Brigadier General. Due to his more genial relationship with Andrew Jackson and James Polk, he got the nod over more senior generals to command U.S. forces in the Mexican-American war, winning a series of unlikely victories (or at least victories where he was outnumbered) and skyrocketing to national fame. This national fame was enough to get him the nod as President. He viewed himself as somewhat independent, but garnered support from the South due to his own status as a slaveowner and from the North due to some of his statements about not expanding slavery into new territories. Taylor, later in life, would recommend his son purchase a new plantation, complete with slaves. It is clear however moderate his position on this was for the time, he was no abolitionist, and his own frustrations over abolitionist arguments was clear at some points in his life. Nevertheless, neither was he in a hurry to force slavery’s expansion over all new states.

Taylor’s foreign policy included trying to reach out to more countries to establish relations with the United States. A humorous aside is the fact that Taylor sent an “American minister to the German empire, only to discovery, on Donelson’s arrival, that the German empire did not exist” (105). I laughed out loud on reading this sentence, and think it has to be one of the foreign policy gaffes of history. No, it didn’t have a large impact, but it was a big “Oops!” Anyway, he did make contact with a few other countries and, minimally, didn’t damage our relationship in a huge way with Britain or any other major powers.

The question of California’s status in the Union was one that loomed large for Taylor. He would die before it would eventually get resolved, but his own attempts to come to a moderate position led to much vocal opposition from both North and South. Because he opposed things like the Fugitive Slave Act, he was criticized by the South and important figures like Henry Clay as one who wasn’t seeking compromise. The status of New Mexico was also hugely important when he came to office. Yet neither debate, nor the major question of the expansion of the Fugitive Slave Act, would be settled while he lived, for he died July 9, 1850, just over a year in office. President Fillmore would effectively rubber stamp whatever solutions Congress offered to these major issues, though it seemed clear Taylor would have vetoed some aspects.

Zachary Taylor was most interested in the preservation of the Union. It seems clear that he could, like others of the time, feel the tensions start to shift and cause fissures in the United States. Whether it was his military record, his upbringing, or something else, he seems to have had a somewhat moderate stance in an age in which there were few moderates. A Virginian, he saw the interests of the country at large as more important than those of his own section of land. A slaveowner, he opposed the expansion of the Fugitive Slave Act. He was an enigma, and it would be quite interesting to know what would have happened had he lived. But he didn’t live long enough to carry out some of the acts that he may have to secure the Union. As such, though he is an interesting play for alternate history buffs, he may remain a rather obscure President.

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

10. Zachary Taylor (12th President- Original Ranking #10)- Taylor had what one might envision as a “standard” story of a soldier rising to the Presidency. But he was also a “gentleman farmer” (read: Virginian slaveowner who used slave labor to bolster his wealth). Interestingly, he may be considered something of a moderate in a time when there were very few moderates. His opposition to things like the Fugitive Slave Act and prioritization of the Union over the interest of the State or region makes for an interesting “What if?” scenario had he survived his entire Presidency and changed more of the course of the country. His life was less interesting than other Presidents, and in death he opened the path for events that would lead to the Civil War–not that he had any control over his timing. The best that can be said for Taylor is that pondering what may have happened had he lived can occupy a great deal of time. He wasn’t particularly effective or country-shaping as President. He was a man of his time, but one who broke the trend by favoring the Union over his own interests.

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.

 

 

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.