“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.

Advertisements

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.

Presidential Biographies: James Polk #11

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Polk, the eleventh 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 Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman.

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, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

Polk’s career seems to have been defined by destiny. Whether it was his destiny as a man mentored by Andrew Jackson to become President or his utter belief of and living out of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, Polk’s place in history seemed assured from a fairly young age. After studying law, he rose through the Tennessee legislature to get to Congress. Soon integrated into larger issues as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, his friendship with Andrew Jackson grew and he campaigned for the man to become President. Finally becoming President himself, he would expand the powers of the executive office more than perhaps any predecessor, with his eyes upon expanding the borders of the United States as well.

Polk was a firm believer in Manifest Destiny, perhaps one of the most damaging ideas in the history of the United States. The idea was that America was some kind of glorious city on a hill and the spread of American (read: white, largely Anglo-European) settlers across the vast expanse of the west was destiny–a destiny given by God. Though Borneman doesn’t explore the notion much (indeed, in the biography the term is only mentioned a few times, and never in much detail), it is clear through Polk’s actions that he fully bought into this perspective.

When he became President, Polk had four primary goals: “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (353). The first two were clearly goals related to Manifest Destiny, and he would go to war to gain California. The dispute over Oregon was eventually resolved as war loomed with Mexico. The United States wasn’t prepared for a two front war against two different opponents, and Polk fell back from his hardline stance over where the boundary for Oregon should be drawn, thus gaining agreement from the United Kingdom.

California was a different affair, and Polk seemed to realize quickly that Mexico would not easily cede California, and began looking for a way to take it from them. He was, he thought, given a gift when blood was spilled near the Rio Grande, though not on American soil. It did, however, become a rallying cry, and Polk moved to declare war. Rather than letting Congress initiate it, however, Polk presented Congress with a declaration of war and got their approval, a clear expansion of executive power. Even as he did this, and having already prepared for the conflict by moving American soldiers into the area, he moved to use the navy as well. These moves expanded the conflict but also helped get a victory for the United States.

There were a few times in Polk’s presidency when he made clear errors of judgment. Perhaps the most obvious time was with his claim about “American blood on American soil”–his claim that Mexico had attacked and killed apparently innocent American soldiers and killed them in American territory. The claim was false and would haunt Polk as his critics continually pointed out his error. Nevertheless, the claim burgeoned the popularity of war with Mexico and effectively got Polk what he wanted anyway. Another issue was his “54 40 or fight” slogan referring to demanding Oregon from the United Kingdom, apparently over threat of war. Those who took up the cry favored war rather vehemently, and Polk was forced to throttle back his claims a bit. Thankfully, it did not come to war, and P0lk had another victory from apparent error.

Polk owned slaves and wrote into his will to free them when he died–so long as his wife agreed. Some see wills like this as evidence of a kind of softening towards slavery, but I think this is clearly mistaken, as it really just shows people wanted to live by enslaving others and didn’t much care what happened once they died. It was a fairly common practice, but one that does nothing to mitigate the ills of slavery. Polk’s clearly expansionist attitude helped contribute to more atrocities being committed against native peoples as white settlers spread and used military might and deception to displace people who were already on the land they overtook.

Regarding the biography, Borneman writes well, and his outlining of the life of Polk is fascinating and enlightening. I had thought for some time that Polk was a rather forgettable President, but after reading this biography, it seems Polk’s influence–for good or ill–on later events in our country, and certainly upon its borders, is astounding. I recommend Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America highly.

Polk’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES

6. James K. Polk (11th President- original ranking- #6): James Polk achieved the goals that he set for himself as he entered the office of the President. As his biographer, Walter Borneman points out, those goals were “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (Polk, 353). Polk accomplished all of these goals, though it took a war to do so. Moreover, he expanded the power of the executive branch, including in the President’s powers regarding war, getting directly involved in helping order the conflict. His clear belief in Manifest Destiny, that doctrine that ought to be consigned to the trash heap of history, continues to influence nationalism today. The unspeakable atrocities that continued to be perpetrated on those peoples native to the land the United States would gain in international eyes though his Presidency must not be understated. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find many Presidents with greater impact on our country than Polk had.

 

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: Deep Space Nine Season 4 “The Visitor” and “Hippocratic Oath”

Dad? I mean… son?

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:

“The Visitor”

Synopsis

An older Jake Sisko receives a visit from a fan of his writing in the middle of the night. She’s curious about his writings and why he didn’t write more. Jake agrees to tell his story. It turns out that on DS9, there was an accident that transported Captain Sisko into some kind of time-locked dimension, keeping him connected to Jake but also making it impossible for him to escape. The younger Jake became obsessed with trying to rescue his father, ultimately losing his wife and his writing career in pursuit of finding a way to get his father back. Jake has seemingly figured out what’s happening with his father–he himself is acting as a kind of tether keeping Captain Sisko bouncing around in the time thingy. To fix it, Jake has taken a lethal dose of a drug, freeing his father, but only after informing him that he’s going to be transported back to the moment of the incident and needs to avoid the accident that began the whole thing. Captain Sisko, back to the “present,” rescues himself and his son from the tragic accident, freeing them both to pursue a life that they missed in an alternate realm of possibility.

Commentary

Here we have the kind of emotional storytelling that made TNG so spectacular at its best. There is tragedy here on a grand scale–we feel immense loss throughout the episode, and even at the end, when everything turns out well, we still feel the tragedy of the whole of the “other Jake’s” life. Because really, “other Jake” is truly dead, as Star Trek works its multiverse. It is haunting and beautiful. Yes, you know as the viewer all along there will be resolution, but that doesn’t take the power away from the narrative.

Grade: A “Hauntingly beautiful.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: A- “It was quite good acting with a compelling story, but the thunderstorm visitor felt a little contrived.”

“Hippocratic Oath”

Synopsis

On DS9, Worf tries to impose his own way of rule of law on Odo, which leads to Odo losing a valuable lead in an investigation. The bulk of the plot, though, is O’Brien and Bashir stranded on a planet with a bunch of Jem’Hadar. One of the Jem’Hadar appears to be immune to the drug the Changelings use to enslave them, and Bashir tries to work on a cure. His efforts ultimately lead him to discovering that the man is immune not due to some built up immunity or anything he can do; rather, it was something genetically unique to him. Bashir can’t save the others, and O’Brien attempts to bust them both out of the planet, much to Bashir’s chagrin as he worked on trying to find a cure. They escape, but Bashir is displeased with O’Brien’s attempts to escape, feeling his own commitment to helping others was more important.

Commentary

Bashir and O’Brien will need some patching up after this one. I thought it was a great character piece for the four primary movers- Bashir, O’Brien, Worf, and Odo. It showed how different Odo and Worf are regarding their mindset when it comes to security. It also helped establish Bashir as more than simple comic relief. The main plot is brutal, too- the whole time I thought there’d be some breakthrough and we’d start seeing Jem’Hadar getting cured, but once again they baffle attempts to change them. It’s a kind of nature vs. nurture playing out all over again, and it is a fascinating way to deal with a whole people group.

This episode is one that is part of what I think may be a larger problem with DS9, though–there are a lot of big idea episodes with far-reaching implications that don’t seem to keep having an impact beyond the episode itself. Time will tell if anything from this episode will reverberate beyond its 45-minute confines.

Grade: A- “A strong central plot coupled with great character development makes for a great episode.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: A- “I thought it was really interesting and now I want to know more about how the Jem Hadar are impacted by their mind control drug.”

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.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 4 “Way of the Warrior”

Boom. There goes our budget for this season.

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:

“Way of the Warrior”

Synopsis

On DS9, the crew trains for the possibility of Changelings coming to attack. Meanwhile, a huge Klingon fleet shows up, much to the chagrin of, well, everybody. They begin causing trouble on the station, causing Starfleet to send Worf to try to act as a kind of liaison. Worf discovers the Klingon fleet is planning to launch an attack on the Cardassians, allegedly because they suspect Cardassia has been taken over by Changelings. Worf lets Sisko know, and the latter takes the Defiant into Cardassian space to warn them. They’re too late, but manage to rescue Dukat and the Council. The Klingons have withdrawn from the Alliance with the Federation, thus showing that they have once more embarked on an era of conquest. Sisko et al. return to DS9, and after much combat, they manage to fight of the Klingons, who leave only after many threats.

Commentary

Uh… what? I mean this was a cool two-parter in that it had a whole lot happen, but it was incredibly implausible all throughout. You’re telling me the Klingons would suddenly go off the deep end, withdraw from a lengthy and seemingly awesome alliance with the Federation, and start going and killing stuff without any reasonable evidence? I just don’t buy it at all. I mean, even if we buy the idea that the Klingons are almost entirely bloodthirsty crazies, they still have demonstrated that they will listen to reason and do not operate completely without reason. This undercuts the whole premise that we’re supposed to buy into for this episode and makes it difficult to take it seriously overall.

Does the episode have great action? Yes, it certainly does. But too much happens too quickly to be believable.

Grade: C “What the hell just happened?”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: C “Great Klingon action, but totally unbelievable.”

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: John Quincy Adams #6

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with John Quincy Adams, the sixth 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), I picked

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel

John Quincy Adams – Lived 1767-1848 ; President from 1825-1829

John Quincy Adams is often seen a bit enigmatically. He doesn’t have the same resume as the other early Presidents, it seems, nor does he have a long list of sterling accomplishments to solidify his legacy. Yet what I discovered when reading this biography by Paul C. Nagel is that appearances, as always, are not as they seem. John Quincy Adams (hereafter JQA) was a phenomenally interesting person, and a truly effective person of state, if not the flashiest President of his time.

Most obviously, JQA was the son of President John Adams. He greatly admired his father, though as I observed in the look at John Adams, his father was something of an absentee father. Some of the personality traits of the father passed to the son, and at times JQA seemed aloof and uncaring of the problems of even those close to him. One example is that when he was engaged to his wife, Louisa, he wrote urging her to break off the engagement if she felt it would be better for her. I suspect that Louisa did not take the letter as kindly as it may have been intended. In any case, even in his early life, he traveled to Europe to study abroad. Later, he became the United States Foreign Minister to Russia. He was supremely successful in this role and Louisa certainly contributed to some of this success. One example of the difficulty facing him in this role would be to look at the budget. The French Minister to Russia had a budget of about 300,000 per annum, while JQA’s own budget was $9,000. Despite this, JQA formed close ties with the Czar and managed to leverage this advantage for the sake of the young United States.

Throughout his period as Foreign Minister and for much of his life, JQA struggled financially, unable to ever seem to stay out of debt. Late in his life, he allowed his surviving son, Charles Francis Adams, to take over his finances. However, JQA never seemed to be comfortable with his financial situation, and this serves as one example of his overarching personality trait of being quite ambitious. He longed to be likened to Cicero or Aristotle and counted among the greatest minds of all time. Yet, he constantly felt frustrated at his own perceived lack of ability and knowledge. Ironically, late in life he complained that his diary would never be seen as a great work of humankind, yet his journals have survived largely intact to become one of the most important early records of the United States. His ambition was perhaps his greatest trait and flaw, as it both encouraged him in endeavors at which he would succeed and led him to be somewhat vindictive and uncooperative in the political sphere.

I already noted his success in Russia, but JQA also negotiated peace with Britain after the War of 1812, settled disputes over borders both north and south, drafted the Monroe Doctrine which would, obviously, get credited to Monroe, and was overall a complete success as Secretary of State and diplomat. His foreign policy was decidedly in line with republican (not to be confused with Republican) ideals of the time, pushing policies that attempted to expand the borders and influence of the United States while also showing a commitment to independence and individualism. It was a tough balance, and speaking of policy in such general terms doesn’t seem wholly accurate or decisive. Moreover, whether one agrees with the Monroe Doctrine and its broader ramifications or not, it is clear that JQA was highly influential on the shaping of US foreign policy.

As President, JQA faced vigorous opposition of his embittered political opponents. He had big ideas, including trying to expand on both the arts and various areas of learning at the Federal level and encouraging spending in various areas. But again and again his opponents in Congress thwarted him. Frankly, the part of the biography covering JQA’s Presidency was perhaps the least interesting, if only because it was filled with the kind of seeming obstructionism that often has played into current politics as well.

After he was President, JQA continued to make huge impacts on public policy. He argued in favor of the Africans in the Amistad case and powerfully condemned his contemporaries on the issue of slavery. Interestingly, Nagel argues that JQA’s initial movements towards abolitionism may have been, in part, influenced by the fact that so many of his opponents while he was in the White House were in favor of slavery. However, it would be tough to fully buy into that argument as his family didn’t own slaves and had other abolitionists therein. It seems more likely to me that JQA simply bought more into abolitionism as he grew older. Regardless of his motivations, he became a powerful spokesperson for abolitionism as a Representative from the state of Massachusetts. His most cogent arguments included a frank mockery of the notion that the U.S. could affirm that all people are created equal while also holding slaves. He continued his push to attack slavery in sidelong fashion throughout the rest of his life.

The sidelong approach to slavery was seen, in part, by his constant arguments for the right to petition. He continued to defend the right of people to petition the government, which had been scaled back at least in part alongside a gag order on discussing slavery. That is, the U.S. Congress had effectively issued a blanket gag order on slavery such that it could not be directly disputed or debated. Abolitionists constantly wished to petition the government, but they were not allowed to do so. JQA took up the mantel of arguing in favor of the right to petition, despite its notorious unpopularity at the time. Eventually, he managed to help get the gag order removed, setting the stage for broader debate and eventual emancipation (not without the Civil War, of course).

I’ve not had a President as difficult to rank as John Quincy Adams yet. That’s not saying much because I’m only at #6, but I always assumed John Quincy Adams was kind of a footnote to history. Moreover, after reading the biography it seems his Presidency may not have been very effective, but that was hardly his own fault. He was a phenomenally important foreign minister and congressman before and after his Presidency, respectively. It’s very tough to judge him so far as the definitive list goes, but I’ll have to try. Whatever one’s view of his Presidency, he was a fascinating, amazing public figure who is well worth studying.

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life  is a fantastic biography of a fascinating person. I truly had no idea John Quincy Adams was interesting at all and frankly figured he’d be nowhere near as interesting as his father or any of the other early Presidents. However, reading this biography completely changed my view of this complex person.

 

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.

4. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.

5. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.

6. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

*Rankings not definitive

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: Deep Space Nine Season 3 “Shakaar” and “Facets”

Didn’t I have enough makeup already?

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:

“Shakaar”

Synopsis

Kai Winn calls on Major Kira to intercede on Bajor in a dispute between a group of farmers and the government. Essentially, the farmers have some equipment the Kai believes would be better put to use elsewhere, but the farmers point to a contract they have allowing them use of the equipment. It turns out some of the farmers are former resistance members who fought alongside Kira. Kira manages to convince Shakaar, the leader of the farmers–and of her former resistance cell–to speak with Winn directly, but instead of trying to speak with him, Winn simply sends soldiers to arrest the farmer. Shakaar and others resist the arrest, and Kira joins in. They flee to the mountains and an escalating conflict develops as Winn devotes more and more soldiers to the pursuit. The conflict ends when the soldiers and resistance fighters refuse to fire upon each other. The leader of the government soldiers takes Shakaar and Kira to Winn, and the two explain to Winn how Shakaar now plans to run for First Minister. Kai Winn, ever the amoral person that she is, steps aside to ensure her crazy actions bringing Bajor to the bring of Civil War are not exposed.

Commentary

Kai Winn… she really has it coming sometime. She’s a slithery snake; an eel! She manages to get out of every situation mostly intact, and often on the better end of things! In this one, it feels like she’s gone too far, but she still seems to get out of the consequences of her rather insane actions. Also, the actor who plays her is fantastic at making a really love-to-hate persona come to life.

Overall, this episode’s main plot is pretty astonishing. I mean, I don’t know what kind of media services Bajor has, but I’d imagine pretty much everyone would be outraged by the Kai sending the military after some group of farmers who were basically just insisting the government follow its own agreement. These are Bajorans, after all! Haven’t they had enough of governments ordering them around and going off the deep end in response to minor slights… like the Cardassians? Also, how believable is it that the thing escalated as quickly as it did? I’m fully willing to believe that Shakaar and his group could elude their pursuers on ground they knew better (though what kind of technology Bajor is using to track them is another question), but to go from “Yeah, we’d like this farm equipment back” to “KILL THEM!” seemed pretty abrupt.

What sets this apart, though, is what I just mentioned with Winn, and it applies to all the characters here. There’s some pretty good acting happening here and it helps sell the crazy plot. Somehow, I want to believe that a culture that just threw off the shackles of oppression would be totally willing to just do the same thing to their own people. Indeed, knowing humanity, it doesn’t seem that surprising that another people would do the same kind of crazy stuff, does it? But still, my suspension of disbelief did struggle here.

Grade: B- “It is pretty unbelievable, but the actors all do a great job pulling it off.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: B+ “Kai Winn should not expect any other outcome from sending Kira to put down a people’s rebellion.”

“Facets”

Synopsis

Dax wants people to take on the roles of previous Dax hosts so she can learn from them. Nog fails his exam, but only because Quark rigged it. Rom makes Quark admit to it, Nog retakes the test and passes. High fives.

Commentary

Yeah, that first sentence summarizes the main plot of the episode pretty well. We’re already familiar with many of the Dax hosts, but here we get to see them as various crew members. Somehow, we’re supposed to get past the idea of Odo somehow–without any neural network–getting the memories of a completely different species and changing his appearance perfectly for it. Oh yeah, and a Bajoran, and humans, and a Ferengi all manage to have the same thing happen to them. Sorry, not buying it. It also wasn’t all that interesting, because the transformations really just get used as ploys to make the main characters do weird things. I guess it was kinda cool to find out the reason Curzon Dax was so harsh on Jadzia was because he was in love with her, but that’s also creepy. The Nog side story is really the saving grace here, because it’s cute, simple, and resolved.

Grade: D+ “Weird. Too weird. But the Nog side story was good.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: C “It just felt like they couldn’t think of anything to do with an episode, so they just made all the actors be weird.”

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.