The Cosmic Computer by H. Beam Piper

With this book, I thought that I had figured out the main point only to have the rug yanked out from under me at the last moment. I like these types of books. 🙂

Unlike Star Trek or Star Wars, this sci-fi tale has no aliens or abductions or any such stuff. This is a story about a colony, Poictesme (pronounced: Poi-Tem), with a collapsing economy and one tiny ray of hope; a ray of hope so tiny that one might suspect that it was manufactured by half-drunk feverish minds in a moment of desperation. Supposedly, after a civil war the Terran Federation left a super computer (named Merlin) hidden somewhere on this colony world. Even more unlikely, Merlin specializes in “predicting the future.” Now you need to understand a couple things about this world to understand the lure that Merlin has on these people:

    A) The Federation used the Poictesme as a staging ground for the war.
    B) The Federation left everything behind in hidden installations as it cost too much to haul away.
    C) Anyone who found abandoned military equipment could claim it for salvage.

On Poictesme, very few people made a real effort to restart the economy. Instead, they dreamed of the day when Merlin would be found while subsisting on military slavage. Merlin would be wise enough to right the wrongs and repair the collapsed economy. Everyone would have money again. In an effort to prepare for this glorious day, a group of local city officials sent Conn Maxwell to study computer science on Terra. (He was also supposed to search the old military records for the location of Merlin’s hiding place; he actually found maps of dozens of installations that were still hidden across the planet.) While there, Conn became convinced the Merlin was simply a rumor propagated by the military for psychological warfare. Rather than breaking the bad news to his “financiers,” he and his father, Rod, decided on using the myth of Merlin to rebuild the economy. They lied to everyone about the existence of Merlin. The Maxwells and the local financiers formed a company to hunt “salvage.” This cover would allow them to search for Merlin without interruption. Throughout the book, Rod and Conn Maxwell use the hope of Merlin to lure people into building a salvage company, a trans-galactic shipping line, and a production empire – all in the name of searching for Merlin.

Of course, things don’t work out quite so smoothly….. There are those who believe Merlin should be used to watch the courrput government, those who want Merlin to BE the government, those who think that Merlin is a god who can lead mankind to a higher existence, those who think that Merlin is the anti-christ and should be destroyed and those who think that Merlin is a joke. These factions, along with plenty of economic speculation create an atmosphere of that mixes elements of pure anarchy with the pre-1927 stock market. In other words, a whole bunch of fun…..

Don’t worry, I doubt you can predict the ending. It caught me off guard as it came out of left field. You can buy the book from Amazon or get the text and audio book here. Oh, and I don’t see any reason why everyone couldn’t read this book.

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The Man Who Knew Too Much by G. K. Chesterton

Having never read Chesterton, I picked up this fun work. To be honest, I was a bit confused at first. I didn’t know anything about the book, but foolishly assumed that it was the source of some movie I recall seeing years ago. In actuality, each chapter stands alone as a short story and the book comprises a collection of short stories that cover the life of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Harold March, “the rising reviewer and social critic,” stumbles upon a strange fisherman one day and subsequently stumbles into a series of mysteries. The unique stranger seems to know everyone who is anyone on a first name basis; yet, this strange man doesn’t appear to have any career. Horne Fisher, as he becomes known to Harold March, knows more than he wants to know about life, the universe and everything (Hint: Answer != 42).

As an aside: there are a few swear words in the book. This was a bit surprising since Chesterton was a strong practicing Catholic. I don’t think that these few words should stop a person from benefiting from the book.

Each chapter contains a story written by March about a mystery solved by Fisher. Sometimes March participates in the mystery; at other times Fisher relates the story to March afterwards. March’s character parallels Dr. Watson in many respects. The difference between Holmes and Fisher comes in the conclusion of each mystery. Fisher knows so much that he can’t prosecute the criminal. In every instance, politics and the good of the England prevent justice from occurring. Ironically, if Fisher knew less, he would cause more damage through “justice.”

How can that be? Chesterton expertly explores the intricacies of working justice in a corrupt world. While a Christian may disapprove of ruling on the “lesser of two evils,” that isn’t always an option. Every day, courts find themselves faced with deciding between the lesser of two evils. Though we should always try to take the high road, I don’t believe that it is always possible. Too much grey exists. How do you rule between two people in the wrong? Do you pick one over the other who did “less wrong?” Chesterton illustrates the difficulty of executing justice in each chapter of this book. The Bible deals with this very topic in 1 Samuel 14 and Joshua 9.

Tell me, do you think that justice is a black/white issue? Or is it shades of gray? How do you approach your faith? Is it black/white, gray or as in my case: both?

Peter Pan In Scarlet, by Geraldine McCaughrean

The sequel of “Peter Pan”, and very hyped one at that. Posters all over the local bookstores, a prominent place in the library for display, all kinds of stuff. The hype has generated an overall feel for the book before you even pick it up. The sort of thing you can read aloud to the grandkids, in memory of your childhood love, Peter Pan (or love-to-hate, whatever the case may be). It should be here noted that any connections I make in this review are my own ideas. But I don’t think that enjoying (or deploring) “Peter Pan” prerequisites reading this book. Its in a class all on its own.

Well, maybe not all on its own. Its probably got some company in the feels-like-a-certain-movie-remade-into-a-not-so-kidsy-kids-book category (this is my personal first foray into that sector, so perhaps I need to research it more or something, because the whys of the genre escape me entirely). Which would be fine, if the movie in question was really good (“The Ultimate Gift”), or even actually edifying (“Amazing Grace”). I could understand why they bothered with the movie tie-in at all if it was at least acceptable (“The Queen”), or even just popular enough to justify its existence as a movie (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) and subsequent book derivative from purely economical purposes. Note that none of the above are little kidsy movies, which this book is kinda positioned as. I wouldn’t know a lot about movies, except….

My cousins go to the theater at least once a week to see a movie. Usually more often. Between the frequency of their visits to the theater and the frequency of family get-togethers (also, once a week), I get to be “up” on the latest and greatest (or lamest) films. It should be noted that this situation has existed for five years, at least, and I’ve never had a book-movie crossover experience. Oh, some books I like have been made into movies, and I have read some books that were written of movies, but never, ever, ever, have I read a book and felt like I was watching a revision of a movie. This is exactly how I felt after about six chapters of “Peter Pan In Scarlet”, and I have to say, it was a little uncanny. Especially since the book’s progress aligned so closely with the movie plots. I have never seen “Saw”, or any of the following sequels, but if I did, I suspect it would progress a lot like the plot of this book, which is so similar it really seriously creeped me out. Until about chapter three, this is a very interesting book, and I can see a children’s book following the events of the first chapter (under whose auspices the work was accepted for publication). The rest though, well, it earns at least an R triple e triple y, as in cREEEpYYY.

Plot: The movie “Saw” (and its accompanying tri-sequel films) is basically a very annoying person forcing other people to run around in terrified circles at their whim, allegedly to learn some important lesson, with lots of violence and weirdness and unnecessary surgery along the way. I havn’t seen it, but if I ever did I suspect it would have the same feel of stupi-borin-creepy-ness as this story (and everyone is literally running around in circles for awhile). Basically, Peter Pan’s lost men (er, boys) head back to NeverLand because they are having nightmares, in an effort to save Peter Pan from… whatever is causing the nightmares, which is explained to be time itself but really who cares, because once they get there no one says anything about saving or time or.. um… anything relevant to the plot up until then. The whole group goes off on a series of adventures for the sake of adventures, the only really dangerous obstacles being the ones that Peter, in his “innocence” has created for himself. Anyone who ever wondered what happened to the nannies of the lost boys’ carriages, or the lost boys themselves once hey grew up, will be happy to know that they all hung around NeverLand and tormented Peter Pan whenever they got the chance. Along the way, some characters are introduced, including animal-talker Ravello, and a male companion for Tinkerbell.

Positives: The first few chapters of the book find us looking in on all the Lost Boys and Wendy in their various states of adulthood. This is hilarious, even if they have all given up their remaining half-brains to their children, but…

Negatives: …then everyone starts having nightmares, and the whole thing just goes downhill from there. First, we have to watch while everyone tries to get back into their childishness, mainly by putting on the clothes of their children, the result being that, since not all the lost boys have male children, the group heading to NeverLand has some boys, a girl (Wendy), and a female lost boy, replete with a tutu and an attraction to the boy lost boys, all of whom fight over her affections in a series of scenes that are really NOT FUNNY (the effort to make these moments “cute” does not help. There is nothing cute about it, or about the new boy fairy that Tinkerbell likes so much). Next, NeverLand has become a land of nightmares, and for no apparent reason, Peter Pan has not noticed, and for no apparent reason, neither do the kiddies, who go off on all these adventures to meet creepy people who are mean to them and each other, and for no apparent reason, the Lost Boys start to grow up at varying speeds only to be banished from Peter Pan’s sight after they use their newfound height to help the kiddies out of a jam, and, I think you get the picture. The theme of no-reason culminates in the end…

SPOILERS …where Peter Pan is dying (don’t start clapping yet). It appears Ravello is really Captain Hook in disguise, and in addition to his famous poison-tears, he has developed a new power; any child who holds his hand and says what he wants to be when he grows up will automatically grow up. Thus he is given responsibility for most of the bad things that have happened to the children. Peter Pan’s illness is attributed to his wearing various articles of Hook’s clothing, so Hook is forced by the children to remove his necktie and so forth. This does not help, so one of the kids holds Hook’s hand and says he wants to grow up to be a doctor. He grows up really fast (guess the other kids had some sort of protection, it taking most of them at least a chapter to do this). Then he fillets Peter, finally finding an removing the cause of trouble; apparently, Peter used Wendy’s handkerchief to wipe his nose earlier. Her handkerchief, despite the many adventures and shipwrecks and so forth, still had a piece of London fog left inside. The fog got into Peter’s system, and was wrapped around his heart, slowly killing him. The grown up lost boy removes the piece of fog from Peter’s heart, and everyone is happy. Especially Peter, who, once recovered, banishes the boy because he has grown up, and we don’t hear anything more about him while everyone else lives happily ever after. I am not kidding here. Laughing as I write, yes, but kidding, no. END OF SPOILERS

OVERALL: highly recommended to any child who thinks they like horror novels. This will cure them right away, or at least bore them into submission. Everyone else, pick up a biography on one of the Tudor royals, whose lives make a lot more sense.

The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

And what do you suppose you could do if you were invisible? What would you do if no one could see you? H. G. Wells probes these questions in this classic work, The Invisible Man. This story cleverly explores the concept of becoming invisible with its benefits and curses. (Mostly curses….)

For starters, if you haven’t read H. G. Wells, just be aware that he does have some profanity. This fact is a shame on many fronts, but mostly in that his work is inventive and of literary value. The language makes the book less accessible to children (though children’s adaptations exist).

On to the fun stuff…. All most all of the superheroes designed by Marvel comics have one incredible fact to their name; most of them have a special set of clothes that morphs according to their special ability. The invisible woman’s clothes turn invisible with her. Mr. Fantastic has a suit of clothes that stretches with his body. Superman’s clothes are invincible due to a protective aura around his body. Let us ponder this for a second. Without these special miracles that keep their clothes on them, these superheroes would be bit chilly pretty quickly. Mr. Fantastic would stretch right out of his clothes. Superman’s clothes would be shot or burned right off his back. Oops. The Invisible Woman would have a problem when she turned invisible. Everyone would still see her clothes. And so, the main character of our story, The Invisible Man, has this very problem. He has the choice of being seen wearing clothes and bandages head to toe or running around without any clothes at all (this being problematic in the winter).

When you are invisible and without clothes, life in the city is tough. Not seeing you, people run into you. How do you eat when you are invisible? Until the food is digested, people can see it…. Your greatest weapon is the secret of your invisibility. How do you keep it a secret and still survive? The Invisible Man discovers the difficulty of answering these questions while he seeks to find a method to reverse his invisibility.

Our invisible friend is a “mad scientist” who wants two things: fame and money. He tries to tell himself that his work is for the good of mankind, but his action betray him like perfume concealed in one’s hand. He excuses his brutality and felonious behavior by casting the blame on the simpletons who are preventing him from finishing his work. These “simpletons” are confused by his strange devices and chemicals; he refuses to educate them, but rather expects them to kowtow to his genius regardless of the impact on their lives. Still, as a character, we find humanity in him and the ability to sympathize with his problems. Sometimes others are at fault to some degree, but his excessive responses place the majority of the blame on his shoulders.

Wells writes this story as if a historian writing about the events of the recent past. The only facts that he reveals about the Invisible Man come from the observations of those at the scene or through the confessions of the Invisible Man himself. Most authors blend this sort of perspective with an omniscient narrator, but Wells resists that temptation making this a particularly good read. The reader never has advanced knowledge over the characters in the story.

I encourage that you read the book for its literary value, enjoyable plot, and philosophical discussion of academia and scientists.

Quick poll: If you could pick one, which super power would you choose and why? How would this affect your daily living?