Saturday, November 26, 2011

Freeheads, by Kerry Nietz

Last summer I read books 1 & 2 of Kerry Nietz's DarkTrench saga, and loved them (see my reviews here and here).  Lucky me, about the time I was finishing those books, Nietz was finishing up book 3, so my wait was blessedly short for Freeheads.  In books 1 & 2, debuggers SandFly and HardCandy are sent to repair a robot on DarkTrench, an interstellar ship which has just returned from a voyage to Betelgeuse.  The robot, as well as the crew, had encountered a curious song from a star, which had transformed them. SandFly and HardCandy then take DarkTrench on a return journey to Betelgeuse where they encounter a seemingly idyllic but ultimately malicious alien race.  Freeheads opens with the pair returning to earth, in hopes of bringing the message of A~A3, Nietz's moniker for God, to people spiritually enslaved by a controlling Islamic regime.

Through a series of events driven by both divine intervention and sabotage, SandFly and HardCandy have to abandon DarkTrench, intending to head straight to earth, but end up on the moon.  There they discover a colony of exiles from earth and learn the source of the rogue stream they had briefly accessed on earth.  To their great surprise, they realize that due to a malfunction on DarkTrench, 40 years have passed since they left earth; to them, it had only been weeks.  Also to their surprise, the message of A~A3 and the superlative stream managed to make its way to earth via the original DarkTrench crew.  However, the fledgling group of followers of the message have been persecuted and nearly eliminated.

Things had changed on earth during their absence.  Before they left, everyone lived under religious oppression, but that oppression had progressively become widespread slavery.  SandFly returning after 40 years to confront the leaders and lead the people out of slavery?  Any Biblical allusions you might imagine here are certainly no accident. 

Nietz has a spiritual message in Freeheads, not in the sense that he preaches, and certainly not in a way that deters from the story.  In fact, that's part of the fun of the whole DarkTrench series: In a world in which Christianity has been effectively quashed by world-dominating Islam, what would it look like to reintroduce the gospel?  Nietz gives us a warning to heed.  Sandfly's theory as to why the message of the Bible "just faded out": "Those who knew the Truth got lazy, or worse, refused to share what they knew. . . .They cloistered.  Failed to do something when they had a chance."  Sobering words for a Christian culture that sometimes seems to make itself irrelevant to the wider world. . . .

Besides a great story and a compelling spiritual message, Nietz handles the science well.  Freeheads is chock full of speculative technology, but Nietz, not satisfied with simply throwing out crazy devices or giving people and machines unfounded superpowers, gives enough description and background to make the technology almost believable.  He's no stranger to natural science either; his descriptions of a close encounter with a comet and a walk on the moon's surface are quite convincing as well.

With his DarkTrench saga, Nietz shows his skill as a captivating writer, adept at conveying a fast-moving story with thoughtful spiritual reflection and an imaginative view of the near future.  The three books can certainly be read and enjoyed independently, but they're best taken as a whole, showing both SandFly's development as well as Nietz's development as a writer.  He's got a few more books to write before he enters the pantheon of sc-fi greats, but I do like Tim George's blurb from the back cover of Freeheads: "Nietz writes in a way that makes me wonder what the masters of the genre like Asimov and Heinlein might have written had they known A~A3."  Well-said.  I'm already wondering what Nietz will come up with next!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

What a game!  I don't consider myself a gamer, although I wasted plenty of hours with my Atari 2600 and later with a Nintendo.  Now I play with my kids sometimes on their Wii and PS3, but it doesn't quite have the appeal as it once did.  Ready Player One is a novel for gamers, especially for those who fondly remember those Atari 2600 days, but the story will draw in non-gamers as well.

In Ernest Cline's world, about 3 decades in the future, the internet has become a virtual reality environment.  It started with the OASIS, an online game, which became the standard operating system/ web browser/ social environment for virtually everyone.  The creator of the OASIS, game programmer James Halliday, a fabulously wealthy, childless recluse, hid an "Easter egg" somewhere in the OASIS and, when he died, had a video released in which he stated that whoever finds the Easter egg would inherit his fortune.  The hunt would require an encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s pop culture, including video games, TV shows, movies, music, and more.  The world goes crazy for 1980s fashion and culture, as everyone would love to have a piece of that fortune.

Cline's protagonist, Wade Watts, known in the OASIS as Parzival, is about to finish high school, and as a poor orphan in a bleak world, lives in the OASIS as an escape.  He has dedicated the 5 years since the start of the contest to learning every bit of Halliday's favorite 1980s culture.  Finally, he has a flash of inspiration and becomes the first person to find the first clue, making him not only an overnight celebrity, but also the target of a ruthless corporation with the aim of taking over Halliday's company.
Cline's Delorean doesn't travel through time, as far as I know.
Ready Player One makes for a fun read, a roller-coaster ride of Wade's adventures, avoiding threats both virtual and real-life.  A child of the 1980s will love some of the tasks he has to perform in his search, like playing the Matthew Broderick character in an interactive version of War Games (if he misses a line, he loses points; luckily Wade has watched the movie enough that he has it memorized) or playing against Halliday's avatar in the arcade classic Joust.  All of his research pays off time and again.  Many of the cultural references, on which the story hinge, will be lost to readers older or younger than Halliday's generation, but it's still a fun story.

This is a fun read, sure to satisfy readers like me, fans of Cory Doctorow, and players of online multi-player games.  I'm sure it will make a great movie, coming to theaters sometime in 2012.  In the meantime, let your imagination run wild as you picture life in the OASIS, where you can drive a time-traveling DeLorean, go to school exclusively in a virtual reality school, fly your own X-wing fighter, and make your virtual living room look just like the one on Family Ties.  Enjoy!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

God, No! by Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette is a hilarious comedian, talented magician, lucid thinker, and noted libertarian.  He's also a proselytizing atheist, a hard-core atheist who feels like it's his duty to inform anyone who believes in God of the error of his ways.  God, No! continues his atheist proselytization, but I'm not sure how many converts he'll get.

If you don't know Jillette, you may recognize him as half of the comedy/magic team Penn and Teller (and a recent appearance on Dancing with the Stars, if you're into that sort of thing).  One thing you need to know before you pick up this book, or watch his T.V. show Bulls---, is that he has a filthy mouth.  He cusses and curses and uses crude sexual and scatological language more than anyone I've ever known.  So if that sort of thing turns you off, you'll want to avoid this book.  (I assume the Penn and Teller magic show in Vegas is a bit less profanity laced.)
Would  you buy a philosophy of life from this man?

God, No! is really for a the Penn Jillette fan.  Mostly it's a memoir, with loosely connected autobiographical stories intermixed with anecdotes from Penn's adventures in life and show business.  There are plenty of stories to make you laugh, like his account of his trip on the zero-g plane and his ill-fated use of a blow dryer in lieu of a towel after a shower.  He also tells plenty of stories that show his big heart, love for people in his life, and love of life itself.  This man loves life and makes the most of it.

The stories provide some relief from the stated purpose of the title and chapter titles: an attempt to deny the existence of God and to provide an alternative ethic for atheists, "one atheist's ten suggestions."  Penn says he's been an atheist all his life, in spite of his being brought up in church, but he refers frequently to some of the "new atheists," like Hitchens, Dawkins, and others.  Penn has done some reading.  God, No! is not an academic treatise or systematic defense of atheism, but Penn does make some good points.

The most damning argument for Christians revolves around proselytizing.  Penn thinks Christians are wrong about God, Jesus, and eternal life.  However, if someone really does believe that anyone who does not become a Christian is going to hell, he has an obligation to tell everyone he knows how to become a Christian.  Otherwise, Jillette doesn't want to hear anything from him:
If someone really believes in everlasting life . . . , then letting someone ---- up everlasting life is much worse than letting someone get hit by a train.  ----ing up everlasting life is being hit by a train forever . . . . This is like real no-kidding . . . forever, like dentist-drilling-into-your-teeth forever.  You have to do whatever you can, even if the heathens laugh in your face . . . .  You can't respect someone's right to not believe in something that's going to give him or her eternal life.  That's not real respect, that's callous disregard.  That's negligent eternal homicide. . . . If you believe in everlasting life and don't annoy me about it, if you're polite and let me believe what I want, even thought I'm going to spend eternity in real break-is-over-back-to-the-handstands-in-the-river-of----- hell, what kind of scumbag are you?  Get away from me!  How much do you have to hate someone to let the everlasting train of lost eternal life squash someone's heathen ---?
 Wow.  As a Christian who believes that Jesus is the only way to heaven and eternal life, this passage convicts me.  In the same way, Rob Bell and Francis Chan, in their books about hell, assert that a belief in hell should inform one's evangelistic choices.  Surely if I believe in God and hell, my lifestyle should demonstrate a regard for others which demands that I share the gospel at every opportunity.

A video Jillette posted on his blog about proselytizing made rounds in some church circles recently, leading some groups to target him with prayers for his salvation.  I'll join those prayers, specifically praying that, in spite of the many phonies in the American church, Jillette will meet some Christians who demonstrate the love of Christ in such a way that he will see both the hope we have in Jesus as well as the reasonableness of believing in him and following him.  Miracles do happen.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Scroll, by Grant R. Jeffrey and Alton L. Gansky

Biblical archaeology might not strike you as fodder for an adventure novel, but Grant Jeffrey and Alton Gansky make it work in The Scroll.  Taking cues from Indiana Jones and Michael Crichton, these authors send the world's foremost biblical archaeologist, Dr. David Chambers, back to Israel for the dig of his life.  Struggling with his faith, he has decided to branch out into other pursuits, but his old mentor and a pile of money lure him back.  He and his team, including his ex-fiancee, pursue the treasures of the Copper Scroll, including artifacts from the Temple in Jerusalem.

Here's where The Scroll excels, adding fiction to non-fiction for a thoroughly believable story.  The Copper Scroll in question, one of the scrolls found with the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, inventories the locations of vast stores of gold and silver, as well as the Temple items.  The monetary value would be sufficient to inspire a hunt, but we quickly learn that the real agenda is to recover the Temple artifacts and use them in a new, restored temple.  This effort has been the subject of many fictional works since the discovery of the Copper Scroll.
The real scroll.
One major plot element is the discovery of tunnels beneath the old city of Jerusalem.  I particularly enjoyed this due to my own experience there.  In the early 1990s, when I was in Jerusalem with my parents, I took a solo journey through Hezekiah's tunnel, which runs from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam.  According to 2 Kings 20:20, Hezekiah directed the tunnel to be built to bring water into the city.  This tunnel is only a few hundred yards long, but with the curves and utter darkness (I only had a book light to guide me), it felt much longer.  Dr. Chambers's treks through much longer tunnels reminded me of my short walk, and made me thankful there weren't armed men pursuing me.

However, The Scroll is fiction, after all, and gets into plenty of fanciful archaeology, a petty love triangle, and melodramatic action sequences.  I appreciated the setting and history, especially the realistic portrayal of a dig site and the reminder that biblical archaeology constantly affirms the historicity of scripture.  But The Scroll qua novel fell short, feeling a bit amateurish.  Not a great book, but a fun read.

(Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Waterbrook/Multnomah in exchange for an unbiased review.  Thanks!)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

In the Garden of the Beasts, by Erik Larson

The more I read about Hitler's rise to power, the more I am convinced that a) he was pure evil, and b) the German people were not duped, but handed over power to him gladly.  Erik Larson's new book, In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, covers the period from 1933 to 1937, portraying Hitler's rise and the consequent transformation of Germany through the eyes of William Dodd, U.S. ambassador to Germany during those years.

Dodd was not FDR's first choice.  In fact, he asked a whole string of people who refused before Dodd accepted.  At the time, Dodd was contentedly teaching history at the University of Chicago.  He did not fit the diplomatic mold.  Diplomats then, as seems to be the case now, were independently wealthy and lived well while in the field.  Dodd, whose modest personal wealth and small diplomat's salary did not permit him to live and entertain like most diplomats, ruffled many feathers with his frugal, no-nonsense ways.  He rented the home of a wealthy Jewish family drawing criticism both from Germans, who were offended that he lived in a Jewish home, and from some Americans, who felt that he was taking advantage of a persecuted family by paying so much less than market value.
The Dodd family
Another source of criticism came from people who knew something about Dodd's daughter, Martha.  A bit of a tart, to put it mildly, she made the most of her status as the young (in her 20s), attractive daughter of the American ambassador.  She traveled in elite circles, carrying on affairs with Germans and foreigners alike, including the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet diplomat.  Her well-known and indiscreet "social life" caused one critic to say that the Dodd's house was a bordello. She got around, but was attractive and desirable enough that one of her Nazi friends thought she would be a good match for the Fuhrer himself.  She was introduced to Hitler, but apparently didn't make enough of an impression for a second date.

Not only was Dodd a little clueless about Martha's affairs, but, at least at first, took some time getting up to speed with diplomacy in a changing Germany.  To be fair to him, nearly everyone in the U.S. government failed to see what was boiling under the surface.  The greatest concern in the U.S., even into the latter half of the decade, was not the rising Nazi threat but the failure of Germany to pay off bonds held by Americans.  FDR charged Dodd with getting payment from the German government, but no one there cared much about satisfying the Americans.

Over time, the Dodd family came to see what the Nazis were made of.  When violence against their own people by the German police state even spilled over into violence against Americans in Germany, Dodd's objections went unheeded.  His refusal to attend Nazi rallies caused the Nazi leadership to shun him.  Dodd was slow to grasp the reality of what was coming in world history, but being on the ground in Berlin placed him way ahead of the curve.  Ultimately, he was called home, to his relief, but the U.S. might have been better off if they had heeded his warnings and taken some action against Germany when it might have done some good.

Larson's highly readable account will certainly satisfy any World War 2 history buff and the general reader alike.  The story of Dodd and his family provide a unique perspective on this piece of history.