A friend’s space opera, polygraphs, classics and an auteur: stuff I’ve read.

These days I don’t read much space adventure, but FIRST LIGHT: Resonance, Book One was written by a friend from my writing group, Casey E. Berger, so I picked it up. Happily it’s very good .

The story follows three separate protagonists, though I doubt it’s a spoiler that their adventures all turn out to have common ties. Jaya is a military officer in the human space forces, currently hunting the terrorists known as the Sons of Priam. Tynan is an ET scientist whose lifelong research has suddenly been taken over by people whose agenda he does not trust. Marantos, a bounty hunter, discovers her new assignment comes with booby-trapped strings attached that might lead her to the last place she wants to be, home.

It turns out they’re all fighting against the Sons of Priam and as this is the first in a trilogy, it doesn’t go well. The characters are solid and the story is absorbing. I will get book two sometime this year.

LIE DETECTORS The History of an American Obsession by Ken Alder argues that the polygraph is indeed a distinctively American thing — not that other countries aren’t interested but nobody uses it as widely (employment, national security and crime) as the U.S. does do. Alder focuses primarily on the early 20th century polygraph work of John Larson and Leonarde Keeler who dreamed that technology would liberate the justice system from corrupt cops, brutal interrogation and flawed human judgment (it foreshadows the claims about AIs as unbiased judges in Weapons of Math Destruction). In practice the lie detector failed miserably at all of these, with confessions coming mostly from mind-games (lying to someone they’d failed the interrogation) and the  kind of coercive, though non-violent interrogations that often produce fake confessions. This was a good read except when Alder gets pretentious — he makes multiple analogies to Frankenstein’s creature, and they all fall flat.

Rereading A CHRISTMAS CAROL for the first time in several years, it struck me that in some ways Scrooge is even more malevolent than his on-screen portrayals. The film Scrooge shows the covetous miser beset by urchins singing Christmas carols; here nobody even tries (“No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock.”). And while I’ve often wondered why he’s so down on his nephew marrying for love — from what we see, Fred lives a comfortable middle-class lifestyle — here Fred brushes that off as an excuse; his uncle didn’t make any effort to hang with him before the wedding so it didn’t make a difference. A great novel, vividly written, contrasting the joy of Christmas with the hardships of the Cratchitts and the low lifes such as Old Joe.

THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle reworks H.P. Lovecraft’s Horror at Red Hook from the POV of Tom Tester, a Harlem busker and amateur occultist. Assigned to deliver a typical blasphemous book to a sorceress, he manages to thwart her acquisition, but this brings police attention, as well as interest from a cultist preparing to awake Cthulhu. Reminiscent of Lovecraft Country in its mix of racism and black magic, but considerably bleaker and darker. Excellent.

Last year I skimmed THE FILMS OF HOWARD HAWKS by Donald C. Willis for its entry on The Thing From Another World and only last week went back to read the whole thing. That was unfortunate as there were details elsewhere in the book it would have been nice to add, such as Kenneth Tobey discussing how much rehearsal time Hawks gave them and how much it helped the cast bond. And reading the review, I didn’t really register Willis’ point that the idea of the Thing chopping humans up and draining their blood to feeds its seedlings is body horror as much as the 1982 Carpenter film.

Willis is a big fan of Hawks’ work though scathing in his reviews of the worst films (Hatari). However he’s not a fan of auteur theory (he devotes one appendix to dismissing it) and he’s clearly irked with critics who view Hawks through that lens (making the valid point that whether the director’s an auteur or not doesn’t make the film better). I find myself in disagreement with his taste on a lot of topics but as his writing about Hawks is solid and that’s what I bought the book for, it all works out.

THE VEGETARIAN CRUSADE: The Rise of an American Reform Movement 1817-1921 by Adam D. Shprintzen looks at how the Bible Christian sect emigrated to America in the early 19th century, bringing with it the belief that not killing animals for food was not only Christian compassion but kept the four humors in balance in the body (meat unbalanced them, leading to violence and war). This was picked up and popularized by other reformers who promoted it not only for health but as part of an overall package of social change including pacifism and abolition. By the end of the century vegetarianism had become more commercial (the first meat substitutes were on grocery shelves)and the emphasis was more on personal lifestyle choices (eat vegetarian, achieve optimum health and you can attain peak career success!). This has some interesting stories, such as an abolitionist vegetarian settlement in Bleeding Kansas, it’s too inside-baseball in its details of the movement for me (as always, my lack of interest in the details does not mean the author did a bad job). I’d have been more interested in the later 20th century as it feels like the perception of vegetarianism changed quite a bit from where Shprintzen leaves off.

RESIDENT ALIEN: The Sam Hain Mystery by Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse follows the first two books with a lighter story. Harry discovers the author of the 1960s Sam Hain mystery series — light-hearted, sexy 007-inspired yarns — may be living in Patience under their real name. Only why is it their last, unpublished manuscript switches to a hardboiled story about covering up a murder? The plot in this one felt way too loose — I lost track mid-book — but it was a fun read anyway.

#SFWApro. Cover by Phillip Dannels, rights to all images remain with current holder.


Filed under Comics, Reading

2 responses to “A friend’s space opera, polygraphs, classics and an auteur: stuff I’ve read.

  1. Pingback: I was slightly less than today years old when I learned the term “ethnogothic” | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Reading about war: WW I, War in Space and a Martian Invasion | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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