Future Imperfect & A Plague of Demons by Keith Laumer

Plague of Demons

Plague of Demons

I decided to review both books simultaneously as they are both compilations of short stories. Laumer’s books are intriguing for their styling, both fast paced and full of interesting similes. Much of his work is (apparently) focused on a lone wolf hero who must rescue the world. I can see that come out over the course of these two works. Seldom do the main characters have any support or assistance from others. When they do, those others tend to die or be maimed etc…

After reading A Plague of Demons I was a bit excited. I had stumbled upon an author who wrote light science fiction and that was reasonably clean. Further, the first short story of his that I had read, Greylorn told first-person story of a starship captain dealing with a mutinous crew. The captain used his brains and psychology to outwit the crew and save the day. Not, that there wasn’t a bit of action mind you, but that was secondary and in support of the use of his intellect to solve the problems. I learned to appreciate that approach to life some time ago: when you don’t have the money or tools of others, you use your God given talents (relying first on Him, secondarily on your talents) to out think a better equipped and better funded opponent.

I thoroughly enjoyed Greylorn and then proceeded to read the entire book. There were a few swear words in Plague but nothing that would push it passed a mild PG rating. Then I moved to the next book: Future Imperfect. This one easily pushed PG13 and had some mild adult content (i.e. not explicit but more than was needed). Arg. That is so annoying.

Would I recommend that you read Laumer? Depends on the person. Laumer does have some interesting qualities that make for good philosophical and literary discussions. For example, Laumer emphasizes the intellect over everything else. Most of his works in these two books (published 1965 and 1966) swirled around the mind and soul. Whether it was a man being slowly transformed from a human to a superman to a super tank while maintaining his individuality and personality or whether it is a discussion of cloning and eternal life. Always, the person is more than the body and more than an animal. Laumer seemed to see something special in the intellect; possibly from a modified humanistic perspective. His work seems to acknowledge evolution while maintaining the uniqueness of the human. In one story the only thread between each incarnation of the man was the brain which was transported from body to body. In another, the body was nothing, but the collection of memories and personality tapes recreated the man himself. So apparently Laumer saw man as more than flesh, but not necessarily more than the collection of his memories and personality.

Very interesting….

Laumer also leans on the use of telepathy and other mental powers in several of these works. Once again that reinforces his fascination with the mind and its power.

Plague was a set of adventure stories and you should at least read Greylorn and Thunderhead. They are great adventure stories about heroism, duty, and honor.

Laumer experimented with another genre of science fiction called dystopian. Dystopia is the opposite of utopia. Dystopia being my new vocabulary word. 🙂 Typically, dystopian works like Orwell’s 1984 focus heavily on the dystopian world, while Laumer’s characters just happens to inhabit the dystopia. The dystopian world is around the character but not the point or the driving focus of the book. In The Day Before Forever contained within Future Imperfect, an evil company that controls life and death, parcels out organs at high price to those who can afford replacements wants Steve Dravek dead. Meanwhile, Dravek has a nasty hangover and a scrambled memory. His attempts to piece together his life leads him to confront the evil ETORP organization, though he approaches it rather obliquely. It isn’t his primary goal to attack ETORP, but simply survival.

Other dystopia focus on end of the world conditions, the so called catastrophe movies like Day After Tomorrow and Impact. Not that I have watched them, but they represent the usual approach to a dystopian universe.

Anyway, the point of my rambling was to observe how Laumer approaches these subjects in a manner worthy of consideration. Very different approach than the typical genre.

Another point to consider: Baen Publishers has chosen to make these and other works available for free in a multitude of formats. I like this as it allows me to read books on my PDA easily when I have 3-5 minutes where I am waiting in line or walking. Yes, I read while I walk. Make use of my time. Baen believes that by giving some books away, people will be more likely to purchase hard copies. Can’t say that I’m opposed or that I think they are wrong. Its a brilliant idea. Read about it here. Get copies of their free books here.

Audio of Greylorn
More about Dystopia found here.

The Starbucks Experience by Joseph Michelli

The Starbucks Experience

I read this book and enjoyed it immensely. I appreciated the in depth look into the culture that has made Starbucks unique.

Michelli attempts to communicate the necessity and method of creating an experience for consumers by examining the methods used to create the Starbucks experience. Michelli uses Starbucks as a positive example of what a business can do if they put forth a consistent effort at creating a customer experience. He divides the book into chapters based upon the five guiding principles of Starbucks.

In this work, Michelli argues that every business must encourage employees to own the business. Like a runner with ankle weights during a marathon, so is a business that does not encourage its employees to own the business. Companies have been slowly trending from an authoritarian structure to an approach that respects employees and encourages improvement. Currently Starbucks leads in this change and has demonstrated that this shift will improve a company financially as well as socially. (Another company with an even more aggressive employee focused approach is Panda Express.)

Further a company must recognize that everything is important. One cannot let little things go because each piece builds the complete picture. In isolation, the problem might appear too small to bother with, but each minutia works together to complete a whole picture. Every jigsaw puzzle has many pieces that appear too small to matter much, but without those pieces the puzzle will never display the complete picture to the viewer. Satisfaction will be lessened exponentially with each piece missing or marred in the picture.

Michelli notes that people enjoy receiving a pleasant surprise. Starbucks has attempted to codify this into the lifestyle of their employees. Whenever possible a Starbucks partners take opportunities to improve the life of the customers through simple surprises. These could be simply remembering names and favorite drink orders. This small effort showing that the customer matters delights and unfortunately surprises most people. Forgetting to surprise a customer could easily result in boredom. Boredom dulls the edge of the experience. Boredom defocuses the image in like manner that fog fuzzes the windshield on a cold morning. That lack of focus and clarity confuses the customer’s perception of the company.

Resistance can squelch or inhibit growth, yet it could spark improvements, innovation and growth. The choice belongs to the company. A company that fails to listen and act upon criticism will find their customers distancing themselves and moving onward. A company cannot market effectively if they do not know what the customer thinks and desires. This is cheap marketing research.

Finally companies make an impact on the environment around them. A company could focus on profits alone (for the benefit of the executives), or a company could focus on developing their employees and the environment around them.

One glaring fault leapt from the pages of this book, namely that Michelli present Starbucks as the perfect organization without faults. On the last two pages, he acknowledges their faults, but throughout the book he never addresses how Starbucks learned from failures. There is never an explanation of how Starbucks developed its ideals nor what the inevitable the missteps cost them nor how they recovered. A positive image is good, but if it does not reveals some flaws (humanness), it has limited usefulness

Further, Michelli fails to address how to map a fast food industry with low cost of goods (coffee is relatively inexpensive) to other industries. Most companies cannot afford to give away replacements for broken items (i.e. spilled drinks). While Starbucks intelligently chose to make free replacement drinks a standard practice, how does that translate to companies that do not have a low cost product?

What are your opinion of Starbucks? The other day, I stopped in for a simple coffee. They told me that they were just making a fresh pot and that if I would be willing to wait, they would give me a free cup just for waiting. This is consistent with Michelli’s view of the company and demonstrates their ideals. Unfortunately, Michelli never suggests how a company without a low cost high margin product can do the same.

The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, by David Starsky

Six Wives of Henry VIII

800 pages is more than enough for a deeply thought out biography… but this one covers six biographies spanning one of the most important periods in English history. The book gets boring only because the author insists on three points so often. 1) Religion is an effort to accumulate power where otherwise there is none; 2) fate is inescapable and people are 100% consistent in their motivations 100% of the time; 3) most historians have the Tudor chronology all wrong because of a lack of sources from the era; and thus, this version of events is in a different order with different motivations. The second point, ironically, is the most annoying, because we are reminded of it 100% of the time.

Plot: Biographical sketches of all six of Henry’s wives. Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Katherine, and Katherine. And even at 800 pages, it only skims the surface of most of these women. The author has a lot of “new” theories and twists on the historical chronology that make for a more spicy story (which reads like a series of dates-gone-wrong on “Saved By The Bell”). Also covers the political intrigue on the Spanish side of things, with many excerpts from ambassadorial letters (alongside tavern ballads).

Positive: Little details like badges and livery colors, plays, ballads, and court jousting tournaments, keep things interesting. And the constant referral to the Spanish ambassador’s perspective makes for a “Cinderella-as-told-by-the-stepmother” twist to everything that is funny, in a morbid sort of way. (okay, so he’s serious, and unlike the Disney reversal books, few people know enough about this story to find the differences. The reason that’s in the positive section; now I want to learn more, so that I can detect more nuances of error in the future!) And really, it IS funny to think of Anne of Cleves desiring to marry Henry again. She had land, money, power and a nice position in court for the first time in her life; he had just beheaded wife #5 for no good reason. No one wanted to marry Henry by then; not even wife #6! Also, most of his sources are not usually quoted in other works, so, again, to read another side of the story can be good.

Negative: Starsky insists that he has new research to break up the existing schools of thought regarding the Tudor era. Therefore, he claims, much of the chronology given to Henry VIII’s reign is wrong, due to partisanship of the historians and the lack of evidence from the period itself. So, the six wives are reinterpreted from David Starsky’s contemporary, atheistic, and “courtly love” (which in revisionist terms means a mix of the gothic ideal of pining away for a “true love” who is married and the hippie “free love” movement) perspective. Its pretty much a reversal of the history, right down to casting Henry’s 5th wife as the “normal” Tudor-era woman and the best wife of the lot. I disagree with all of the above, but on one point especially I would like to make a case; the Tudor period is one of the most well-documented eras in history. Journalism, journaling, record-keeping, and letter-writing all exploded as fashionable activity during the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign. All this correspondence and availability of records naturally saw an increase in espionage; so if English records aren’t enough, there are often French, Austrian, Spanish, and other countries whose spies recorded the same information in letters to their own country, each other, and often other countries as well via ambassadorial instructions and papers. Tudor history is so well known precisely because of the wealth of records available.

Overall: not recommended, except as a counterpoint to a better biography. I enjoyed the facts as a historian, but as a reader, his style is boring. He says what will happen in the beginning of the chapter, then forecasts it again and again and again with words like “inevitably”, and “a palatable feeling of doom”, etc. When the end of the chapter comes along, instead of giving more detail to make the “yeah-the-guy-was-right-again” part interesting, he gives less detail than even we’ve read so far. He needs some writing lessons, the guy does. E.B. White has a book on writing that’s so good its worth just plain reading (now that’s superior writing skills for you!)

The Chronicles of Camuloud: The Skystone by Jack Whyte

The Skystone

Plot: The book is written from our main characters perspective, Publius Varrus, and as so it begins with his telling us why he is writing this chronicle of events.

Publius is severely wounded near the beginning of the book, and is laid up with his general, who is also wounded, in their own private tent. As they lay there for some weeks and talk and get to know each other very well, and eventually the general is healed and departs, leaving Publius alone for many more weeks; he recovers and is left with a noticeable limp. Following this episode Publius makes his way back to his hometown where his grandfather lived, his deceased grandfather left his forge and home to Publius. There he meets an old friend named Equas, together they clean up the old forge, make a partnership and uncover all the tools Publius’s grandfather left him. Safely hid beneath the forge’s floor, along with a valuable dagger made from skystone; metal smelted from a rock that fell from the sky. Several months after settling in and selling weapons to the Roman legions, Publius is visited by his old general, Caius Britannacus.

Caius learns of the dagger and all the wonderful weapons Publius makes, and asks him to consider going to his own villa, many miles away, to live and forge swords for his small colony he is creating. He believes Rome will fall soon, and is determined to outlast all the chaos by building a self-reliant colony. Publius is far from convinced about his friend’s beliefs, but promises to consider the option. Caius is nearly murdered by the assassins of an old enemy, Claudius Seneca, but thanks to Publius and his friend, lives to see another day. Caius leaves to finish his duty in another country while Publius goes home.

After many weeks and several misadventures, Publius is on the run for his life from none other, than Claudius Seneca, who wants to kill him for breaking his nose and carving a V in his chest. All this is Claudius’s fault, but only Publius and his friend who was with him, know that. Few weeks pass before Publius arrives at Caius’s villa, wishing to live there. Note, Claudius tries to have Publius killed at least three times on his way to the villa. Caius is on duty in Africa but will be home soon, some of his colonists house him until Caius’s sister, Luceiia Britannacus. Who happens to be very beautiful, perceptive, educated and smart..

Positive: I really like the background the author gives us about that period in which Arthur was born; it helps one understand why Arthur does what he does later in life. (Make note, this is a series, so Arthur doesn’t actually come into the picture until the fourth book) The plot was well thought out, and the style of writing is very engaging. The book is very detailed and is always sure to let you see each characters personal interests and character traits. You get to know the characters very well throughout the book, and those following the first.

Negative: In the book there are many sexual comments and references. There are several undesirable comments about women. A few sexual scenes between man and woman, including some between man and his wife. (scenes that should stay between man and wife.)

Being Romans, they tend to swear and call people “whoresons,” and some modern day swear words.

By a moral standard, Publius is not very moral, as he tends to lust after women quite a bit. Though he is very good at what he does for a living, we like that part, he also has a pretty good sense of honor. And I am not saying he is no good, just that he has problems. However we (at least I did) end up liking Caius better, because he is far more moral and thinks things through more often!

Overall: I did enjoy this book, even though I had to skip over several pages some times. Due to sexual scenes.

I would recommend this book to very few, as it is more of an adult historical fiction. Though this book does teach you a lot about the Arthurian legend, and gives you information about the period before Arthur’s birth and about the fall of Rome. Personally, I think if you tore out those bad pages, this series could be offered to a wider range of readers.