Friday, May 21, 2010

Red Mars

Red Mars (1992) was among the first novels that I read when I was really getting into "serious" science fiction.  I remember enjoying the book, particularly the level of technical detail described by Robinson, and enthusiastically recommending it to everyone I knew.  Well, I recently had a chance to give the novel a fresh look (or a listen since it was an audiobook) and it didn't completely live up to my memory.

The novel chronicles the first permanent human settlement on the planet Mars in the year 2026 (a date looking increasingly optimistic as the years go by!).  A crew of one hundred of the brightest scientists, engineers, and other technical luminaries has been chosen to establish a base and open the planet to further colonization in the coming years.  The array of characters who will shape Mars for years to come is introduced as they begin a year-long flight to Mars aboard the spaceship Ares.

After the initial settlement has been firmly established, the gates are opened for immigration to the red planet.  The UN commission on Mars initially tightly controls the influx of people to ensure that proper infrastructure is in place on their arrival.  Within a span of years, however, the interests of individuals and the planet itself begin to be passed over in favor of the interests of transnational corporations who have come to Mars looking for profits.  A good portion of the book deals with the reactions of the original colonists to these developments and how key characters attempt to influence them.

There is an increasing, planet-wide sense of outrage as it becomes clear that Mars is headed down the same profit-driven path that has led to Earth's problems.  Acts of sabotage abound, and soon Mars is in the grip of a revolution--the corporations and UN on one side, the Mars-first groups on the other.  The war culminates with an apocalyptic series of events that might return Mars to its original, barren state.

While the technical and political aspects of the colonization are an important focus of the novel, Red Mars is also an intense study of character and personality.  Each colonist is chosen to go on the inaugural mission because they are a leader of their field and used to being in a position of authority.  This setup leads to inevitable conflicts among the mission personnel.  These conflicts come into sharp focus early in the novel when the question of terraforming Mars arises and the original one hundred are split into camps with different views.  The fallout from this fundamental difference of opinion shapes the majority of events in the novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first third of the book.  The technical descriptions of the initial phases of settlement are truly phenomenal.  However, there are points in the story that get bogged down due to excessive (IMHO) levels of detail.  This seemed to occur on a semi-regular basis when characters needed to "find their way" or decide on a course of action.  The geology of Mars is interesting, but you can only take so much wandering around in a rover with detailed descriptions of escarpments, sediments, alluvial plains, etc.  Despite the few sections that take some slogging to get through, Red Mars is a good, solid hard science fiction read--I give it 3.5 hamsters.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Agent Zigzag

Agent Zigzag (2007) opens with a scene straight out of the movies.  Two lovebirds are relaxing in a restaurant enjoying a romantic dinner when, all of a sudden, two policeman appear, prompting the man to dive through a glass window and run up the beach to evade his pursuers.  This incident seems to nicely encapsulate the life and times of Edward Chapman, the man whose story Ben McIntyre has set out to tell in Agent Zigzag.

Eddie Chapman is a flamboyant, complicated character who spent much of his life on the wrong side of the law.  He is also, incredibly, one of the most successful double agents ever to operate for British intelligence.  This seeming dichotomy of character makes for a fascinating read.

When the story opens, he is involved in a gang of safe crackers implicated in a string of robberies in Britain.  He winds up incarcerated on the island of Jersey when World War 2 breaks out and the island is captured by Nazi Germany.  In a fairly ill-conceived bid to gain freedom, Chapman volunteers his services as a spy for the Germans.

He is eventually recruited and trained by the Abwehr to carry out sabotage missions within Britain.  His background as a criminal made him a particularly appealing candidate as a spy to the Germans.  Analysis suggested he was likely to feel ill-treated by the British and, as a result, less inclined to turn sides once released into Britain.  Also, his expertise with using explosives to crack safes could be harnessed for more sinister purposes.  Of course, Chapman, a consummate liar, did everything possible to reinforce these ideas.

Following a period of rigorous training, Chapman parachutes into Britain in the dead of night with orders to blow up an airplane production plant.  Instead of proceeding as planned, he heads straight to MI5 to volunteer as a double agent working for British intelligence!  While he is at first greeted with surprise and distrust, the British eventually realize what a useful tool they might have at their disposal.

Most of the account details his retraining by the British and subsequent missions working for both sides in Germany, Norway, and Britain.  Chapman, though brilliant, is prone to wild mood swings, fits of bravado, and bouts of romanticism.  This kind of behavior has his British and German handlers constantly on edge and questioning his motives--both sides are constantly confronted with the question of whether he is worth all the fuss.

Agent Zigzag is a highly compelling account of an almost larger-than-life personality.  At times, it is difficult to believe that Chapman's story is not fiction!

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Caesar is the fifth novel in Colleen McCullough's 'Masters of Rome' series of historical novels which describe the events leading to the downfall of the Roman Republic. The series opens in 110 B.C. and proceeds to chronicle the careers of Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, and the early life of Gaius Julius Caesar. This is, of course, a drastic understatement of the scope of the series--these novels are extremely thorough and well-researched. McCullough has made a concious effort to remain as faithful as possible to primary sources when writing her own account.

This installment opens in 54 B.C. when Julius Caesar is in the midst of his years-long campaign to subdue Gaul. Nearly all of the first half of the novel describes the tactics used by Caesar to break apart the alliance of Gauls cobbled together under the leadership of Vercingetorix with aid from the Druids.

Particularly interesting is the description of Caesar's tactics at Alesia (52 B.C.), a hilltop town where Vercingetorix had holed up in an attempt to avoid giving battle. To prevent any sizable Gallic force from escaping Alesia, Caesar completely surrounded the town in about three weeks time with a series of ditches stretching for over 14 kilometers. When word came that a Gallic relief force had been dispatched, Caesar incredibly built a second line of fortifications facing outward, thus encircling his army between the two defensive lines! Both Gallic forces attacked the Romans simultaneously over the course of two days but were repelled each time. In the climactic battle, a weak point in the Roman lines was nearly breached by the relief army 60,000 men strong. Recognizing this to be the critical moment of the battle, Caesar personally led a desperately small force of cavalry around to attack the Gallic army in the rear which broke into a headlong retreat. Vercingetorix, still in Alesia on the brink of starvation, was forced to capitulate, essentially marking the end of organized Gallic resistance to Roman rule.

The latter half of Caesar chronicles the events in Rome where the boni faction, led most vocally by Cato, is attempting to strip Caesar of his army and send him into exile. Following the death of Caesar's daughter, the personal relationship between Caesar and Pompey the Great is fractured irrevocably, thus ending the First Triumvirate that had dominated Roman politics for a decade. When Caesar crosses the Rubicon, bringing his army onto Roman soil, a state of civil war is declared by the senate. The novel closes with the rather anti-climactic Battle of Pharsalus where Pompey's force is easily defeated, and he is forced to flee to Egypt. On arrival, he is assassinated by the ruling Ptolemy king in an effort to make peace with Caesar. Though the remains of the boni faction have fled to western Africa, Caesar now stands the undisputed master of Rome.

I absolutely loved the book and give it 4.5 hamsters. McCullough really shines when describing the inner working of Rome's broken political system. The characterization, whether true or not, is brilliantly pulled off. However, I do have some small reservations about the way Caesar and Pompey are portrayed. McCullough veritably deifies Julius Caesar throughout the whole series. His failures, granted few and far between, are definitely downplayed in the narrative. On the other hand, Pompey is portrayed as a rather weak man who allows himself to be easily used. I can't believe that someone who had risen to such heights in the Roman Republic based nearly completely on his prowess commanding an army could have such a spineless nature. A very small quibble about a novel that is truly a masterpiece of historical fiction!