Tag Archives: John Le Carre

RIP John Le Carré

David Cornwell, AKA John Le Carré, died last week at the age of 89.

Despite being an immense fan of his, I don’t think this was exceptionally tragic, except in the sense death is usually tragic. He had a long life, a truly amazing career and his last book, Legacy of Spies proved he still had the touch. As I said at the link, writers returning to the scene of their early classics usually tank, but Le Carré came through.

When I started reading (sometimes, but not usually rereading) Cornwell’s work a few years ago, I fully expected that he’d no longer be cutting edge. Sure, he was more cynical than James Bond, but several spy books I’d read in recent decades showed more cynicism than James Bond. They knew that espionage services included careerists who put personal advancement ahead of the mission, incompetents, and officials who treated ordinary people like pawns. But there was always the hero, standing against them, doing the right thing.

When I read Spy Who Came In From the Cold I realized Cornwell’s cynicism was of a different order. It’s his protagonists who treat ordinary people like pawns, make incompetent decisions or prioritize their careers. Smiley and his boss Control at a minimum put an innocent British woman’s life in danger; at worst, they put her in danger fully knowing she won’t survive.  In Looking-Glass War Control manipulates a branch of military intelligence to eliminate them as potential rivals. Cornwell, an ex-spy himself, rips into British intelligence in countless ways, as only someone on the inside can rip into something.

His 21xt century novels aren’t his best work. After 9/11 his anger at the way intelligence services have been let off the leash with no consequence if they bite someone led to some heavy handed endings (even though I’m sympathetic to his views). But we still got some excellent books such as Legacy and A Most Wanted Man.

Cornwell’s writing is first rate and his characterization ditto, though reading so much in a relatively concentrated span of time makes his tropes stand out (this is true of any writer) such as the protagonist with the dysfunctional marriage, the ne’er do well father and the flamboyant, edgy troublemaker (The Naive and Sentimental Lover, my least favorite of his books, has two out of the three). He can still make those tropes work, like the conniving father in A Perfect Spy, or work against them, like the happily married couple in Our Kind of Traitor.

He was a great talent, and it was a pleasure to read him.

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John Le Carré, sex, the south and cats: books read

My general reaction to “famous author returns to world of legendary early work” is to cringe, because the results usually suck. John Le Carré’s A LEGACY OF SPIES was therefore a pleasant surprise, as Peter Guillam — a former aide to George Smiley — learns that The Spy Who Came In From the Cold has a son who’s now suing Peter and the British government for getting his father killed. Investigating the real story plunges Peter back into the Cold War to show how the scheming in Spy was partly to unmask the traitor Smiley and Control suspected in their organization (instead the mole wouldn’t be outed until Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) I could have done with less of the spycraft details (they don’t seem as important as when Cold War espionage was current events) but overall very good; I find it encouraging for my future that Le Carré could turn out something this readable at 86 years old. I have now read all of Le Carré’s novels until he writes another — though I may get around to his autobiography at some point.

THE LONG SEXUAL REVOLUTION: English Women, Sex and Contraception, 1800-1975 by Hera Cook looks at how England went from discomfort and ignorance over sex, women’s pleasure and methods of contraception to the sexual revolution and the acceptance of birth control and optional parenthood. Very informative about how uninformed people were, and how they coped (wives refusing to put out was a common solution — maybe that’s why today’s religious right rejects marital rape), how male privilege was the default setting (it was argued condoms were a bad idea because they made it impossible for the man to act on impulse) and how big a difference effective birth control made — Cook is writing partly to refute previous arguments that the sexual revolution wasn’t all that. Dry and specialized, but informative.

THE LONG SOUTHERN STRATEGY: How Cashing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics by Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields argues that the GOP’s success has effectively spread Southern standards of racism, religion and gender nationwide, though the only point I was interested in was the gender aspect. While this made a couple of interesting points — it reminds me a lot of Mothers of Invention in discussing the restricted role of Southern womanhood — it’s mostly political information I already know, though backed up by a lot more polls and stats.

77 THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE GETTING A CAT: The Essential Guide to Preparing Your Family and Home for a Feline Companion by Susan M. Ewing is a competent Getting A Cat book but doesn’t tell me anything my previous reading on this topic didn’t.


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Spies, mysteries and gender: this week’s reading

AN ACT OF VILLAINY: An Amory Ames Mystery by Ashley Weaver, is a decent retro mystery with a 1930s English sleuthing couple (though their marriage is less stable than detecting couples were at the time), poison-pen letters, plenty of suspects for the murder of a talented actress (a jealous understudy? A cheated-on wife?) and everyone gathered together for the big reveal. I enjoyed this, though the reveal the killer is insane comes out of nowhere — that’s the kind of explanation that needs some groundwork. While this didn’t have as much period detail as I was expecting, I give Weaver points for having all the characters act appropriately formal — Amory’s husband still refers to his mother-in-law as “Mrs,” for instance.

A DELICATE TRUTH by John Le Carré starts with a terrorist operation you just know is going to go terribly wrong (it involves an ambitious British politician working with a private Blackwater-type group), then focuses in on the minister’s private secretary, Toby. He knows something nasty has gone down and begins investigating, but that of course proves an extremely dangerous choice … I’m sympathetic to Le Carré’s scathing view of counter-terrorism and the way botched operations and innocent deaths rarely bring down any punishment. But by the same token, it’s hard for me to buy that the big reveal (innocent woman and child killed!) would actually be a career-ender for anyone. And in many ways, this felt more like a stock spy movie script (Toby struggling to get the truth out reminded me of Three Days of the Condor) than Le Carré’s best work.

YOU THROW LIKE A GIRL: The Blind Spot of Masculinity by former NFL star Don McPherson argues that society needs to throw a sharper light on men’s behavior (“We ask why an abused woman stays in a relationship — but never why the man stays.”) and find positive role models rather than just focusing on what not to do. While much of this is familiar to me, McPherson makes some sharp points, such as the difference between chivalrously protecting women and supporting and helping women.

GOOD AND MAD: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister looks at both the power for change that women’s anger can fuel change (it prompted a lot of women to run for office in 2018) and the way society has portrayed female rage as something they should be ashamed of, particularly when it’s directed at men.

Traister, who’s done a lot of reporting on sexual harassment (and has some eye-raising Harvey Weinstein accounts) does her sharpest writing on that topic. She points out, as others have done, that the issue isn’t sex but the damage to women’s professional lives (half of the women who experience harassment start looking for a new job within two years). And that contrary to anti-metoo writers, the issue is not weak women terrified of sex (as Katie Roiphe pretends) but “women in 2017 who had briefly believed they were equal to their male peers but had just been reminded they were not. [They were] women who had suddenly had their comparative powerlessness, their essential inequality, revealed to them.”

And that, she adds, is why even groping and leering comments that don’t rise to the level of Harvey Weinstein-class predation still deserve to be punished: they’re “professional harm and power abuse” and that needs to end.



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Special agents, space travel, Russian warrior women and more: books read.

CHASE by Dan Curtis Johnson and James H. Williams III was a 1998 DC comics series I wish had run longer (though Chase has been bouncing around the DCU ever since). Cameron Chase is an agent for the DEO (yes the inspiration for the one on Supergirl) which covertly watches over the metahuman community. Chase has some issues with the superhero set, but she’s a capable agent who does her job, whether it’s with them or against them; she also has a latent meta-power of her own that allows her to shut down other people’s abilities. The explanation for it was one of the things they never got around to, as well as the mystery about how reformed supervillain Mr. Bones wound up as head of the agency.

This includes the original series plus several short stories from various DC special editions. While I passed it up when it originally came out, I’m happy to have Cameron’s stories in TPB.

John Le Carré’s OUR KIND OF TRAITOR has a vacationing British couple befriended by a burly Russian money launderer who offers to turn over his treasure-trove of Russian Mafia secrets to the authorities if they’ll just get him and his family to England and his son into Eton (one of the prestige private schools) This works best in the opening chapters because of the unusual structure, alternating between the encounter and the couple undergoing grilling by British intelligence. It gets more stock near the end, and particularly in the finish — given Le Carré’s 21st century cynicism, it’s no surprise pervasive British corruption wins out over justice. Overall, though, good, and maybe his only novel where a happy couple live all the way to the end without getting torn apart.

ALPHA CENTAURI OR DIE! is a space opera from Leigh Brackett, without the exotic style of her Martian books (even the hardboiled Nemesis From Terra): with Earth’s oppressive government restricting space flight to robot ships (part of a general policy on controlling everyone’s movements), a pilot leads a group of rebels into space hoping to evade the ships and reach Alpha Centauri. However, after they succeed, it turns out there’s Something Powerful on the planet awaiting them. This is extremely sexist, the colonists’ wives being sniveling and timid without the energy Brackett’s Bad Girls exude; however it’s a good, tense read otherwise and I love the secret of the alien race.

THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich is a spectacular collection of anecdotes by women who fought on the Russian front for various reasons (revenge, patriotism, a desire to be near their husbands) and lived through experiences that while certainly familiar (death, friend’s death, near death, scenes of brutality, rape and harassment) comes off fresh, whether because of the female point of view, the grimness of the Russian front or Alexievich having a good eye for a killer quote. The aftermath of the war was a real mixed bag for the interviewees, including those mired in PTSD, those who say they settled down happily, those who were treated as camp followers by their hometowns; a couple who had their husbands carted off by Stalin for getting captured instead of dying. Very good and a fantastic resource if you wants scenes of violence, starvation in sieges or the sounds of combat (like the constant crack of bones when the fighting gets close enough to hear).

#SFWApro. Cover by J.H. Williams III, bottom cover uncredited. All rights to both remain with current holders.



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John le Carré and Jack Cole: authors read

After the mess of Mission Song, John le Carré returns to form with A MOST WANTED MAN. Issa, the title character, is a Chechen refugee and alleged terrorist who shows up in Germany with a vague hope of starting his life over. Because his corrupt Russian father has ties to British-born German banker Tommy Brue (Tommy’s father handled the guy’s money laundering), Issa’s refugee-rights lawyer Annabelle believes she can talk Tommy into helping Issa. All three of them become the subjects of British and German intelligence efforts, with an eye to using Issa as bait in a scheme to turn a prominent terrorist funder.

Part of what makes it work is that instead of the stock thriller plot that took over Absolute Friends, everything that’s going down seems perfectly plausible: people get deported or their lives ruined simply because they try to help out someone they couldn’t have known is a terrorist, or suspected as a terrorist. Is Issa guitly? It seems unlikely at first but the concluding scenes make it seem possible … maybe. That’s still enough to bring others to disaster. The book is well written and while it does use some stock le Carré tropes (Brue’s ne’er do well father, his failed marriage), they don’t bog the book down. The only real problem is the ending, which feels very ex machina (technically it’s set up earlier, but it still feels forced).

THE PLASTIC MAN ARCHIVES, Vol. 3, continues Jack Cole’s delightful Golden Age run on the stretchable superhero with the same mix of horror and comedy stories found in Vol. 2, all marked by Cole’s loonie visual style. The Gay Nineties Nightmare may be my favorite in this volume: hunting a wanted fugitive, Plas and Woozy discover he’s fled to a town that cut off contact with the rest of the United States after it was left out in the 1900 census. As a result, it’s still frozen in the 1890s (“Gay Nineties” nostalgia had a surge of popularity in the 1940s). Other stories involve body-swappers, bad girls, cities gone mad and other goofiness. A pleasure to reread this one.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Cole, all rights remain with current holder.

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International intrigue, overpopulation and spelunking: books read

John LeCarré’s MISSION SONG is the most disappointing novel of his since The Naive and Sentimental Lover. The protagonist, Bruno Salvo, is a Congolese/Irish mixed-race translator with a flair for African languages. A client in British intelligence hires Salvo to attend a conference at which a visionary Congolese leader will build an alliance with Western power players to unite his war-torn country and restore Freedom and Democracy … eventually. When Salvo realizes the conference does not have his people’s interest at heart (which I’m pretty sure anyone who’s read it figured out as fast as I did) he tries to do something about it but runs headlong into the corrupt British forces involved. Just as the last third of Absolute Friends recycled war on terror cliches, this book feels like a Cold War thriller of 60 years ago (just switch out the corrupt business interests for Commies). Even LeCarré’s writing couldn’t hold me on this one.

Robert Bloch’s THIS CROWDED EARTH is set in a dystopian late 20th century world where curing disease and age has led to massive overpopulation: skyscrapers are hundreds of stories high, elevators can take an hour to deliver you (to say nothing of how crowded they are) and having one room to live in is luxurious. The protagonist finally snaps and gets sent to a mental hospital — but with space at such a premium, why does it have private rooms and spacious grounds? Why do the nurses keep jumping his bones? It turns out he’s part of the big and secret plan to save the world, but there are a few bumps along the way …  This comes off less as the dystopian fiction I expected and more a metacommentary on dystopian SF, showing the usual solutions won’t work (we can’t colonize the Solar System to drain off the crowds), the Resistance is half-assed and incompetent and all the predictions about dystopia from the 1950s (this was a late-1950s novel) turned out wrong. Given Bloch’s usual cynicism, I’m surprised he actually offered a happy ending; overall this was more interesting than good, and it’s very sausage fest-ish (two hot nurses and one mom in one scene are all the female presence we get).

In the Silver Age, spelunking adventurer Cave Carson headed an adventure team on the lines of the Sea Devils or the Time Masters but he never got his own series. Nevertheless, he has popped up several times since that era, and finally landed a starring slot with Gerard Way, Jon Rivera and Michael Avon Oeming’s CAVE CARSON HAS A CYBERNETIC EYE: Underground. His glory days over, Cave now works on underground drilling vehicles for the powerful EBX tech and struggles to rein in his rebellious daughter Chloe (Mom, a subterranean princess, has passed away). When it turns out EBX is up to no good, Cave, Chloe and the obscure superhero Wild Dog (yes, the prototype for the guy in Arrow) must work together to save the lost race of Muldoog and stop EBX from unleashing a demonic monster. Hardly up to the level of Way’s Umbrella Academy, but fun as a weird pulpish underground adventure (certainly better than Paul Chadwick’s The World Below).

#SFWApro. Art by Bernard Bailey, all rights remain with current holder.



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From the English Civil War to the War on Terror: Books across time

THE RAVEN’S BANQUET is Clifford Beal’s somewhat disappointing prequel to Gideon’s Angel. In the waning days of the English Civil War, cavalier Richard Treadwell falls into Puritan hands. As he awaits his sentence, he writes down a memoir of his earlier life as an idealistic Protestant mercenary fighting against the Catholic League, only to have his ideals crumble in the face of war’s madness. This is perfectly readable, but just … slight; Treadwell bounces from exploit to exploit with no goal other than surviving another day and learning nothing a lot of historical adventures don’t teach their heroes (the supernatural element is very slight). The constant cutting between the “present” and his youth is distracting too. After the first Treadwell adventure, I’d expected more.

BUNKER HILL: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick looks at how Boston’s smoldering resentments with British rule and taxes exploded into armed insurrection in 1775, giving us Lexington, Concord and the misnamed battle of Breed’s Hill (nobody knows for sure why the Yankees made their stand in such a hard-to-defend spot). Very good at showing how chaotic, compromised and improved the birth of America was, and how unclear the patriots were about what they were doing (“They realized it was impossible to charge Benjamin Church with treason, as the legal definition of treason was still betrayal of the king.”).

Lance Morrow’s THE BEST YEAR OF THEIR LIVES: Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon in 1948, Learning the Secrets of Power looks at the year Nixon began his rise with the Alger Hiss hearings, Johnson won his first Senate race and JFK began his battle with Addison’s (which as one reader pointed out hardly justifies the title). Unfortunately Morrow smothers whatever merit the concept had by treating the future presidents more as literary characters than real (JFK’s death is a modern version of the Osiris myth!) and shoehorning their lives to fit his concept of their characters (Nixon was embarrassed and reticent talking about sex, he was reticent admitting his crimes in Watergate — it all fits!). Coupled with Morrow’s fondness for padding (a history of Washington monuments, a history of film noir), this was a waste of paper.

John Le Carré has a fondness for giving stiff, conventional Brit protagonists a bromance with someone flamboyantly edgy, as in Our Game and The Naive and Sentimental Lover. In ABSOLUTE FRIENDS the buddies are half-hearted radical Ted Mundy and genuinely radical German Sasha who meet as left-wing students, then become handler and East German informant. In the present (i.e., 2002), they’re both recruited by a pacifist billionaire who wants to push back against the military industrial complex in the wake of the Iraq war. But there’s more going on than it appears … Unfortunately what’s going on is a stock plot straight out of a conventional thriller (a CIA scheme to trigger a terror attack and thereby justify the war on terror) and I’m tired of Le Carré ending books with a dying protagonist going stream-of-consciousness (as in the preceding novel The Constant Gardener). A weak one for Le Carré.

#SFWApro. All rights to image (source Wikimedia) remain with holder


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A gardener and a sea king: books read

One of the complaints I’ve sometimes seen about John le Carré’s work is that so many of his protagonists have identical troubled, miserable marriages, and that’s pretty accurate (despite exceptions such as The Russia House). Part of what makes THE CONSTANT GARDENER arresting is that the marriage is a happy one despite all the usual warning signs (she’s hot, a lot younger than he is, everyone assumes she’s cheating on him) — although of course we start the story with Justin, a British diplomat in Kenya, learning his wife Tessa has just died. Refusing to believe the official story Justin starts digging and soon discovers Big Pharma and its government allies have been using Kenyans as lab rats for a new drug. Reminiscent of Le Carré’s brooding about corruption in The Tailor of Panama, though slightly more hopeful things can change. Overall excellent, though the scenes where Justin learns about ISPs and computer viruses are horribly antiquated now.

AQUAMAN: Crown of Atlantis by Dan Abnett and various artists is a good follow-up to Black Manta Rising as Aquaman copes with his new popularity in the surface world (“Here come more Aquafans!”), battles an other-dimensional monster and doesn’t notice that Atlantis is starting to get fed up with him. Abnett doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel — Aquaman struggling with Atlantean politics is a plot that goes back to the Bronze Age — but they do a solid job and offer entertaining stories.

#SFWApro. Cover image by John Fontana, all rights to image remain with current holder.


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Libraries, bloggers, corrupt bankers and a knightly wordsmith: books (#SFWApro)

THE NIGHT BOOKMOBILE is an uninspired graphic novel from Audrey Niffenegger in which a book-loving woman encounters a mysterious bookmobile that contains every book she’s ever read, and nothing else. And years later, she finds it again … Niffenegger clearly things she has Things To Say about reading, but I wasn’t impressed by this enough to try figuring out what they are. As I didn’t care for the author’s Her Fearful Symmetry either, I wonder if Time-Traveler’s Wife is the only thing of hers that’s going to click with me.

I didn’t care at all for Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim so perhaps it’s not surprising I don’t care for the author’s SNOTGIRL: Green Hair Don’t Care (art by Leslie Hung). The story of a struggling fashion blogger whose a hyper-allergic mess in real life felt like an overly cute version of pretty much every recent TV sitcom about struggling twentysomethings. That isn’t a good thing.

GREEN ARROW: The Death and Life of Oliver Queen by Benjamin Percy and Otto Schmidt ties into DC Rebirth not by bringing back the pre-Flashpoint Green Arrow but by soft-rebooting the bland Flashpoint Ollie (art on his first cover by Dave Wilkins, all rights remain with current holder) into the radical activist version. Which is a great idea, as is bringing back the romance with Black Canary, but story is a flop. I can’t see why Dinah is so down on Ollie using his money for philanthropy (which she implies makes him a hypocrite as he’s rich but helping the poor — no, it doesn’t make any sense). The money laundering underworld bankers are adequate villains, except the story treats “bankers who arrange financing for criminal and terrorist activities” as if it were some breathtakingly new idea. To say nothing of the uninspired nomenclature (a problem for other writers too) — seriously, the bankers fire-burned killers are called The Burned?

For a good story about corrupt bankers, we have John Le Carré’s SINGLE AND SINGLE the story of Oliver Single, former lawyer for his father’s extremely dirty bank. Years ago he walked out on Dad and blew the whistle on him to the British government. Now, though, “Tiger” Single is on the run from very angry Russian mobsters over the loss of their money, so Oliver’s back in to try and save Dad and bring the mobsters down. This comes off as Le Carré reworking the father-son issues of A Perfect Spy for a happier ending; good, although the plot largely vanishes midway through the book.

MALORY: The Knight Who Became King Arthur’s Chronicler by Christina Hardyment appealed to me as I love Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, but lost me early on. Apparently there’s not much definite material about Thomas Malory for Hardyment to work with, so what we get is a constant stream if “it’s quite possible Malory did this” or “Malory might have done that,” which is something I’ll accept in small doses, but here Hardyment’s pulling Malory’s entire life out of the air. Equally annoying, she tries to reverse-engineer his life from his work — Malory wrote about pure romantic love, so obviously he couldn’t possibly have accepted an arranged match. Very unimpressive.


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Super-heroes and black ops: books read (#SFWApro)

BATMAN: Graveyard Shift (by various writers and artists) dis unusual these days in that it offers a series of one-shots rather than a big arc: Clayface tries to discredit Bruce Wayne, we met the first inmate ever committed to Arkham, Catwoman becomes queen of the Gotham underworld and Bruce mourns the death of his son Damien (don’t worry, he got better. They always get better). Individually these were fun, but they still carry enough continuity to be distracting; in one story Gordon has been jailed for something but we get zero explanation (on the one hand, Supporting Character Framed is common enough I don’t need one; on the other it isdistracting). And as others have said, the New 52 Batman having so many sidekicks in a six year career is ridiculous (it also reduces Dick to just one in a series of rotating Robins).

RED HOOD AND THE OUTLAWS: The Big Picture shows the writers are upgrading the power levels: Jason now wields mystic light-sabers and Roy is apparently a super-tech genius. Here again there’s no arc, just a series of stories as Arsenal defeats a criminal army with a screwdriver (more brutal than I like my heroes, though), Arsenal battles Lobo, Red Hood and Starfire take on Frankenstein (the highpoint of the book for me) and the Outlaws’ vacation turns into trouble (“They must be here undercover.”). Fun, but not the A-list — it doesn’t help that R’as al Ghul in the cover image looks like Wolverine.

John Le Carré’s THE TAILOR OF PANAMA is a black comedy inspired by Our Man in Havana (there’s also the in-joke of having the operation labelled “Buchan” for the earlier spy thriller writer) wherein the author’s typical characters have all been replaced by Star Trek‘s Harry Mudd (though admittedly that kind of conman character is hardly new to Le Carré’s works). Pendel is an ex-con who’s reinvented himself as an expat from the upper crust of British tailors; when a spy demands intel on Pendel’s politician-clients as the price for keeping his past secret, the tailor simply makes up whatever bullshit sounds exciting enough. Unfortunately when MI5 and a British press baron learn that Panama’s on the brink of civil war (heroic radicals pitted against a Japanese-backed cabal plotting to exploit the Panama Canal), they can’t sit idly by — and the story becomes more Black than Comedy. With Le Carré’s scathing satire of gullible spymasters, conniving press barons and the supposed “special relationship” between the UK and US, this could easily be a takeoff on the 2003 Iraq War, except it’s seven years too early. Unusual for Le Carré’s work in that Pendel’s marriage is relatively happy; one weakness in the book is that the tailor’s American wife speaks so strangely, I kept thinking she was a non-native English speaker. Overall though, excellent.

2153702SECTION G: United Planets by Mack Reynolds (all rights to cover reside with current holder) collects three short stories set in a future where space flight has enabled every race, culture and  political movement to settle it’s own planet if it so wishes. In a rather Star Trek set up, the United Planets never intervenes in member worlds’ affairs officially, but with an alien invasion looming, Section G specializes in covertly overthrowing governments that won’t get with the program (whether or not Reynolds meant it that way, it’s very reminiscent of the US attitude to governments that weren’t anti-communist enough). Reynolds was well known back in his day for looking at socioeconomic themes rather than just tech; while he does that here, he doesn’t do it as well as I remembered — way too many points made through As You Know exposition, for instance. And while I don’t hold it against the book it’s funny now that writing in the 1960s he assumed Spain’s then-current dictatorship (fascist General Franco) would continue into the future long enough to reach the stars. A touch disappointing.


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