Archive for November, 2014

Diodorus Siculus – The Persian wars to the fall of Athens

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

There are not many famous classic historians. Once you have read the limited material available and you want to read more you get to the lesser known historians and these often cover similar periods. This is certainly the case for Diodorus Siculus who like many of the classic historians cover a great period of time. So what has survived over time is what gathers interest and also the reason for a translation. The work that has survived is that from The Persian wars to the fall of Athens (ca. 30 BC), the title for this particular translation, which covers the period from 480 to 401 BC. This is basically the end of the history by Herodotos and much of those by Thucydides and Xenophon. These three names also form the problem many contemporary historians have had with Siculus. He is actually not much of an original historian. He is a copyist, mainly using other works to compose one of his own. As a result this particular translation holds numerous sections based on the work of these three historians. I have read them all before, so why would I want to read it all again?

One reason is that neither of the three cover the full scope of the period. Each chose their own starting and ending points. So one could basically say Siculus has merged them all into a greater narrative. This actually the weakest of the four reasons to be named. The others are much more significant.

The first is that the three aforementioned historians cover the period until 480 BC and from 431 to 401 BC. There is thus a gap in Greek history for almost 50 years which basically covers the period of the hegomony of Athens in the Mediterranean. Siculus is the only surviving source to cover this period. Here I do have to mention that this is a relatively peaceful period. There are not that many events to record. Compared to the material for the other periods this period is not that extensively described as Siculus focuses mostly on military achievements. While it mentions the fall of Themistocles, the victorious general of the Persian Wars, and the rise of Pericles as Athens’ dominant figure, the latter is not as present as I had been taught in history. The cause, as mentioned is obvious, as Siculus does not seem to have any material on political developments or simply ignored them. Siculus certainly has more interest in military affairs. As he lived and wrote during the period in which powerful generals expanded Roman power and changed the republic into an empire, the interest in political affairs may be low.

The other reason what makes Siculus’ history worthwhile is that because he was a native of Sicily his history also covers the history of Sicily during that period extensively. Again he copies from another greater source, but his copy is the only one to survive. While some events are connected to other Greek events, the Greeks in Sicily and southern Italy cover a mostly independent history. The power of Rome was still limited to its near vicinity so the Greek only had to deal with each other and another power, Carthage. The Carthage presented in the fifth century BC still seems very similar to that of the third century BC when it clashed with the growing power of Rome. Siculus does not provide much background information on Carthage, but its weaknesses seem not to be so different as they were later. Either way it makes for some interesting comparisons.

The last reason why Siculus’ history is interesting to read is because he sometimes presents alternative versions to the histories of Thucydides and Xenophon. Both historians do have some colored perspective to events, either diminishing them or giving more credit or blame than where it is due. Siculus also had access to Persian histories and could thus shine some different lights on affairs. Siculus is thus not a simple copyist. At times he makes choices of what he believes to be a more accurate description.

As a historian Siculus does not venture much into digressions or orations, which makes his history easier to read than others as he keeps a tigher focus. His history thus also progresses a bit faster. His chronological accuracy is much criticized, but for the reading experience you don’t really notice it. As he shifts focus to different locations and events frequently, keeping track of what happened when is not easy.

The translation is done well, making the history easy to read. I do have to admit I abused the frequent source references in the text. I was more interested in the new or different material, so if there were paragraphs that were virtual copies from Thucydides or Xenophon I did not read them that attentatively. Even so I enjoyed this history as it shines new lights on many less known events.

Richard Morgan – Woken Furies

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

In the third, and probably last, science fiction novel on his main protagonist Takeshi Kovacs, a rogue agent who switches just as easily between government jobs and criminal affairs, we are taken to his planet of origin. Woken Furies (2005) opens in a chaotic way as Richard Morgan drops the reader in the middle of several unclear affairs. It is a subtle drop as much information is presented in a way that seems random and just part of the noise.

It is the start of a story that follows an odd rhythmic flow that changes from intense, almost chaotic scenes, to almost lethargic sequences in which time little seems to happen and we have to wait with the character for the sparks to be ignited. They do provide Morgan ample room to spend some time with the different characters and present this particular future world. Different themes come across these moments and Morgan uses them without them being obvious if I compare this with how he did so in the first two novels.

Nevertheless, it are the action scenes where Morgan shines. They are exciting and very creatively played out. They are never predictable. Unfortunately you never get into a rush, something Morgan only accomplished in the first novel, Altered Carbon. The slower and longer periods in between are not exactly boring, but they do make it easy to put the novel aside for a shorter or longer while. They do not really grab and hold attention. Could they have been skipped or shortened to create a more tigher story? I don’t know. They do have their functionality as they do provide some depth and reflect the periods of waiting or searching the main protagonist is going through. They are never too long as the scenes change frequently enough. I think it is the great contrast with the action scenes that make it feel so different. It could be just a personal experience in which the setup of the story development simply does not fit me that well.

The behavior of the main protagonist has been going steadily downhill throughout the novels. He seems to have reached a kind of low in Woken Furies. His long life is more of a burden than an asset. He is still likable thanks to his rogueish character and bad boy attitude. He does not undergo much change during the course of the story, but his attitude is frequently the center of discussion, which in a way is unusual to find in most stories and thus it is an interesting element.

The plot is not as tight as the first novel, but much better compared to the second. There is much going on, despite the slower sections. It starts chaotic and the reader will have difficulty finding out what is going on. In the middle part the plot shifts. Developments are different and overall more straightforward. The plot holds many layers of complexity that only come to the front in the final part which holds a great number of unsuspected twists. This setup seems a bit reminiscent of the plot structure of Broken Angels, the second novel, although events were far more simpler and straightforward. I cannot say that Morgan has presented the complex layers in gradual and understandable way. He certainly tried to do so but to me much of it felt somewhat convoluted, with many ideas and concepts coming together in a forced way.

While complexity does not turn me off, I can handle quite some and often enjoy it, it can be dangerous as it can sting the author in its integration into a story. Otherwise, complexity can also be part of the story itself, adding much to the atmosphere. The reader does not need to understand everything in his first read. He can enjoy the oddities and the mysteries and discover the hidden clues and insights in later rereads. I am half of an opinion on that part. Perhaps I did not pay sufficient attention to the story and read to easily on certain sections which would have given better support on later developments. So I will leave this point into doubt and let the reader decide for himself.

The science fiction elements are plentiful but foremost functional, although in several cases I had trouble making something out of it that could put it in the realm of possibility. That is always the difficulty with science fiction: the author has to make it believable to the reader. Morgan did not always succeed there.

Woken Furies holds much to enjoy and I cannot say I irritated myself on anything. The slower sections were maybe a nuisance because I wanted more of the action scenes and a faster pace. That did not mean they were bad or poorly written. They had their function and in their way added much to the story. Overall the story is solid with plenty of details to explore and they were never too much. The atmosphere is dark and gloomy, but the approach of the characters is realistic and grounded. It is easy to connect with them.

Richard Morgan – Broken Angels

Monday, November 10th, 2014

When writing a series there are three approaches. In most cases there is one central storyline. There may be partial storylines to give each novel a sort of beginning and ending.  The less used approach is using the same main protagonist to tell different stories in different settings while the universe it takes place in is the same. The even less used and third approach is doing the second approach without using the same main protagonist. Of course there are no clear boundaries between the approaches.

Richard Morgan is using the second approach for his science fiction series around the mercenary (or free agent) Takeshi Kovacs. The first novel, Altered Carbon, was a pure detective crime noir, albeit filled with a lot of violence. Broken Angels (2003), the second novel, is more of an expedition novel. The setting is very different as it takes place on a world devastated by a brutal war. Our main protagonist has been involved in that war and seeing the expedition as a more interesting opportunity.

Unfortunately Morgan’s choice is in my opinion the wrong one. He could have written a nasty and brutal story about the war that is only visible on the background. I can only assume that there are plenty of such stories already written. He uses it only to complicate matters.

That does not explain why the expedition story is wrong. The main reason is that it is too longwinded with little excitement. There is a bit of excitement in the beginning of the story when Kovacs seeks a way to set up the expedition according to their wishes. Once that is done the tale bogs down into details and minor stories about secondary characters who from the beginning do not seem to be of much importance. The expedition progresses very slowly. Morgan adds in a bunch of complications but from the beginning I was only looking forward to the goal of the expedition, not the journey, which was essentially not much of a journey in the traditional sense anyways. Traditionally the journey is what drives the story or, what I expected, the goal of the journey would drive most of the story. The expedition would thus reach its goal before or around halfway of the novel after which the story would be driven by the outcome of the expedition. Morgan however drags the expedition on to more than three quarters of the novel. What happens after does takes things in a very different direction than expected. Morgan does seem to be very good at strong finales as he ends the novel in a good way.

The characterization if fairly well done. The main protagonist has lived a long life so there is much to explore. The rest of the group of characters seem to be too many as Morgan tries to give each of them some depth so that in the end I had not succeeded in connecting with them. As mentioned before they seemed of less importance to the story so my interest in them was not as high as it might have been. Strangely enough the character that seems to be the more mysterious one in the beginning remains rather superficial.

Overall Broken Angels does not deliver. The long central part was somewhat dull compared to the bright sparks of the good start and the strong finale. I didn’t connect that well to the group of characters which are present in most of the novel. The cast was much more constrained than that of Altered Carbon and should have provided better opportunities to give them a presence. In this case the dull central story is far less effective than the many alternating strong scenes of Altered Carbon. The plot of Broken Angels is simply too thin and long to be carried only by solid writing. The novel itself is still recommendable and an entertaining read. Compared to Altered Carbon it just seems rather weak. That does not mean I have gotten dulled by this second novel of the series. The universe it takes place in is very interesting and there is still much to explore. The main protagonist remains unique and the connection with him is ever strong.

Richard Morgan – Altered Carbon

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

Richard Morgan produces a crime noir science fiction novel with a hard edge with Altered Carbon (2002). Some call the setting dystopian and that is not correct. Yes it is a world where corporations dominate a capitalistic society and the rich are virtually above the law and many people strive for a similar luxury combined with power. If one cares to examine things more seriously these are all choices and many can live their own life as they want. It is a worse society than today’s one but it all depends to what one compares it to.

Morgan opens the novel powerfully and immediately defines the rules of this future society. It certainly sucks in the reader. Then the rhythm changes and the story becomes a detective although with a heavy dose of violence, many interruptions and sudden twists. There is certainly not a steady course to be found which makes the detective story different while it keeps many familiar elements.

The main protagonist does a peculiar investigation. He makes strange choices and certainly in the beginning it is hard to understand what course he is following. It is a bit an early weakness in the plot. Morgan throws in a bait so that the main protagonist will follow that course tenuously. It is only at a much later stage that the pieces start falling into place.

The main protagonist is an unusual character. He is a sort of special agent with many unique skills and a long complicated history. He seems out of place as a detective but he takes care of his job resiliently. He is a bit of rebel, careless and reckless, which seems out of place with his training. It makes one wonder why he is given this job. Nevertheless his attitude allows for amusing dialogues and situations which put the reader in a different frameset.

Morgan allows the reader to really get to see the world from the perspective of the main protagonist by using a first person narrative. As he is out of place he reminisces a lot and compares what he sees with what he already knows. This way Morgan can provide the reader with plenty of background information on this future universe by throwing around many small bits where it is appropriate to do so. There never is a feeling of infodumping so this is well done.

The future universe does not have much peculiar elements. Much seems rather similar to the current world. Morgan just uses a number of things that are not much different from the traditional cyberpunk SF. He just gives it some different setup and has a few new ideas that make things different.

As a detective novel the story is somewhat unusual. It is more focused on the circumstances than the actual crime. A lot of secondary plotlines draw away the attention. It is all greatly entertaining and it provides a engaging pageturner as it is impossible to predict where things are going. The investigation seems to be going everywhere and nowhere. All in all that makes a very good read. Highly recommended.

One final note: Although this novel has a standalone story it is not the only one with this main protagonist. It is actually part of a loosely connected trilogy. So who enjoys this novel can go for another one.

Joe Haldeman – Forever Peace

Saturday, November 8th, 2014

When time passes an author can look back to an earlier work and notice certain perspectives have changed. He has learned new things and can say to himself: “What if…”. Now this is not something unique. It is something that I think plenty of authors do in regard to the works of other writers. They see interesting ideas and concept that they like. The key element is the approach and the story that the other author decided to follow. I don’t call that stealing. Creating something really new and unique is rare the more time passes as pretty much any concept within a logical framework will have been used. So what remains is the approach and the direction of the story told.

This is what Joe Haldeman has basically done with Forever Peace (1997). He calls it a companion novel to his classic science fiction novel The Forever War. To be honest it is mainly thematically connected and shares some ideas and concepts from that novel and uses them together in a new setting. As those ideas and concepts come from very different settings within that novel they create something new that is basically unrelated to that classic novel. What they do share is that they are about a long terrible war that dominates society although not as completely as in The Forever War.

The novels can be divided into two parts. The first part is the strongest as we follow a main protagonist living a double life as a lethal soldier and a scientist. The war has already damaged him and we follow his life and share his experiences. It is bleak and somber without any solution in sight.

Haldeman uses a peculiar narrative in this first parts. He shifts between a first person and a third person narrative while the third person narrative still uses the main protagonist’s perspective. You hardly notice the shift. You only suddenly get more information on a wider level and less on the personal level. It is somewhat odd.

The second part of the novel changes the story from a war story to a thriller in the popular mold like that of Dan Brown. It is not completely sudden. Haldeman introduces several elements in the first part although they seemed to be part of the environment, providing some worldbuilding for the near-future setting. Now several of these become connected and begin to drive the story. While the first part of the story didn’t seem to have a particular direction, the second part quickly provides focus. Tension rises as dangerous threats become apparent while the chances to save everything seem slim.

As the second part has a very different approach to the story, Haldeman also changes the perspective. The main protagonist has to share his stage with the narratives told from several other characters. Haldeman uses them as he sees fit.

The second part is in my opinion much weaker than the first part. The thriller plot is pretty standard fare. Its no better than what Dan Brown cooks up and less complicated. The plot has a number of weaknesses, which can best be described as conveniences. Much of the ending is much too easy and clean. It is a stark difference with the ambiguity of the first part where society seems to be stuck in a mess of problems.

It can be said that the ending is terrible in certain ways. It reminds one of certain things from The Forever War although there is no direct connection which would link the two stories for certain. In a way one could say Haldeman aims too much for the happy ending, resolving everything in a clean and neat way. One can make comparisons to the ending of The Forever War. However there is a big difference. While The Forever War ended good in its essence, its reality was horrible. Forever Peace has a different approach that makes it all more humane.

As I’ve said I liked the bleak story of the first part most. It has impact and when reading it sometimes gave me the chills like much of The Forever War did. If it had a plot it would have had potential for a classic science fiction novel. Unfortunately it did not. Haldeman did not seem to know what to do with or the second part was his goal all along and he simply wanted to make a powerful first impression to make his solution gain acceptance. To me, in the end, the novel does not deliver. The first part had a strong impact but Haldeman did not take it anywhere. The second part was entertaining and certainly exciting as a thriller usually is, as he used the right common elements to make it work. The quality of the plot in that part however was poor. It simply lacked the elements to make it so.

So my opinion on this novel is divided. This cannot be called a bad novel. It has many qualities and interesting ideas but also a number of flaws which prevent it from being a really good novel. The first half makes it recommendable, the second only partially, which makes it hard to give a finite answer. I have given my analysis and leave the judging to you.