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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Legend

Legend

by David Gemmell

Publisher: Del Rey (October 1, 1994)

ISBN-10: 0345379063

 

Druss, Captain of the Axe, is a Legend within the Drenai Empire. He has stood against armies, won thousands of battles, some more hopeless than others. He has journeyed the length and breadth of the world to rescue the one love of his life. The Nadir tribesmen call him Deathwalker, and believe him a spirit of death itself.

He’s also sixty years old, has arthritis and a bum knee.

Thus, more or less, begins Legend, David Gemmell’s seminal work of fantasy which, despite being a best-seller and well respected title for years, I had never given much serious thought. I once again blame cover art, which makes the book look like another one of hundreds of schlock fantasy novels with all the literary merit of a toilet paper roll. Despite appearances, however, it’s a fantastic book.

The story of Legend takes place around the fortress city of Dros Delnoch (which bears a striking resemblance to Minas Tirith, though I think that’s mostly coincidence), the last bastion between the hordes of the Nadir (a Mongol like tribe of barbarians united under a single strong leader) and the Drenai Empire itself. When the current Earl of the Dros Delnoch realizes that he’s about to come under siege for what is probably the last time, he sends a message to his old friend Druss, who drags himself out from his mountain home for one last great battle.

Druss is one of the main characters of the novel, but he’s hardly the only one. Several others flit in and out of the story, and while many of them are essentially archetypes, they are generally well-written and interesting archetypes, so it’s not a terrible burden to bear.

Gemmell’s writing has been compared favorably to REH’s, and I think it’s a pretty apt comparison. Both have a similar evocative style that glosses over the details that don’t matter to the story, in favor of those who do. For all the talk of empire and nation conquering, the reader gets only the barest picture of the world beyond Dros Delnoch. For the purposes of this book, it’s the only place that really matters. The battle scenes, which are really critical in a book like this, are extremely well done: fast paced enough to be excited, vivid enough to feel real, and gruesome enough to make you appreciate the awfulness of war without overdoing it.

Gemmell apparently wrote this book shortly after discovering he was diagnosed with cancer, which makes the work both more moving, and makes it clear how much of a personal work it really is. In a lot of ways, the book is a meditation on fighting, not literally, but metaphorically. What makes a man fight? Why do some surrender, when others won’t? Why will some never surrender, even when the battle seems hopeless? Legend tackles a lot of these questions, either implicitly or explicitly. And it does it all through a brilliantly compelling narrative.

Fantastic stuff, that is totally worth the read. I will probably check out the second book in the series at some point, and perhaps Gemmell’s take on Troy as well (I believe he wrote one).

 

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Northlanders Vol. 1: Sven the Returned

Northlanders Vol. 1: Sven the Returned

by Brian Wood

Publisher: Vertigo (October 2008)

ISBN: 1401219187


I like Vikings.

Okay, that isn’t true. I LOVE Vikings; I think they are, without question, one of the most fascinating groups of people every to rape and pillage their way across Europe (there’s a surprising amount of those, if you think about it).

All joking aside, however, I really do love Vikings. There is something about their culture, history, mythology, and overall world-view that I find deeply fascinating. I suspect some of it is a result of my Tolkien love, as he borrowed liberally from bits of Viking myth, as well as my reading of D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths as a youth. So when my friend Seth recommended that I start reading the Northlanders comic, I took him seriously. I also realized that I couldn’t add another book to my pull list, so I just decided to pick the first trade up.

The first trade collects the saga of Sven the Returned, a Viking warrior who abandons his post in the Varangian Guard to return home and claim his title and lands from his uncle, who has usurped his place. Sven’s motives for doing this are a little shaky, since he makes it clear, constantly and without end, that he hates Norway, hates the Viking ethos and world view, and in general, wants nothing to do with the whole thing. Yet back he goes. What follows is a saga full of all of things you ought to expect from a good Viking tale: fighting, betrayal, fighting, arctic survival, fighting, old rune seers, fighting, feuds of honor, fighting, philosophizing, and yes, some fighting.

Okay, there’s actually a lot of fighting, though perhaps not quite as much as I make it seem like. But there is a damn lot of it, no matter how you count it out. Most of the fighting is quite brutal. Some of it is brutal to the point of being cartoonish, frankly. There’s a particular scene involving a deerskin that just comes out as being over the top silly.

The dialogue is variable. Sometimes it flows well. Other times, it feels stilted and forced. Sven’s witticisms sometimes come out as being very clever, and other times, just sound damn silly. Likewise, the rest of the characters are a bit variable, though some more consistent than others.

I think the hardest thing I had with this, honestly, is that I didn’t like Sven terribly much. He comes across as a bit of a whiner at times, and his attitude grates for a while. Granted, that may be the point, as he does undergo some interesting growth and change as the story moves along, but I did find it hard to care about him consistently. Several of the other characters are rather superficial, particularly the female lead, who’s name escapes me at the moment (which may say something in itself).

The art is good; it fits the story and the setting well. I’m not an art critic, so that’s all I’ll say about that.

Overall, I enjoyed this. It’s not the most amazing work I’ve ever read, but as a modern Viking tale, it’s pretty solid. Worth picking up, if you are into this sort of thing.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Hobbit

The Hobbit [UNABRIDGED] (Audio CD)

by J.R.R. Tolkien (Author), Rob Inglis (Narrator)

Publisher: Recorded Books; Unabridged edition (July 2001)

ISBN-10: 07887898210788789821 

 

This is a re-read, of course, but I have no idea how long it’s been since I read it. It’s also the first time I’ve listened to it on audio. Rather than doing a full-on review, which seems kind fo silly for something I’ve read so many times (and which most people have read once), I’m going to just hit a few highlights.

 

Rob Inglis does a great job reading this; I enjoyed his reading of Lord of the Rings (which I’ve now started on), and he does just as well on the Hobbit.

 

Bard (who, ironically, is not actually a bard) strikes me as a Robert E. Howard character who was transplanted to Middle Earth. He’s a dour, grim-faced warrior who eventually becomes king by his own hand. I believe that Tolkien was a Howard fan, so that’s not entirely surprsing, but it is kind of neat.

 

Middle Earth seems much less developed in this story, but I don’t know if that’s deliberate obfuscation on Tolkien’s part or not.

 

I don’t re-read this book often enough. It’s really fantastic.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient (The Works of Robert E. Howard)

Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient (The Works of Robert E. Howard)

by Robert Ervin Howard (Author), Rusty Burke (Editor)

Publisher: Bison Books (April 1, 2005)

ISBN-10: 080327355X

 

Later in his writing career, Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane), apparently became more and more interested in history, and more specifically, in writing historical fiction. He was apparently working more on that sort of writing prior to his untimely demise, and reading this collection just reemphasizes how much the world lost when Howard took his life.

 

In the stories in this collection, Howard’s focus is on the Crusades. He moves back and forth in that time period, but there is clearly something about the clash of Western Christendom, Islam, and the nomadic tribes of Asia Minor that Howard finds absolutely fascinating. In a sense, Howard is just continuing his fascination with the conflict between civilization and barbarism, but on a more historical scale.

 

Howard himself acknowledges that these stories are much darker than some of his other works; many of the protagonists are not heroes, but are instead reasonably selfish bastards who, if they end up doing a good deed, do it mostly for selfish reasons. There are a few exceptions, but by and large, these are not stories about nice people. Nor are they all happy stories—tragedy, death, and failure crop up with reasonable regularity. It’s not all sadness and loss, but the stories definitely have a darker tone than some of his earlier works. I really enjoyed them.

 

Howard does a wonderful job of bringing his characters and the world they inhabit to life in a vivid and exciting fashion. While some of his historical details are probably a bit off, there aren’t any major glaring errors or oddities. The same dark humor and fast-paced action that is found in his Conan stories are still here, though the violence is sometimes even darker and grimmer than in the tales of the barbarian turned king. Some of the earlier stories have a very Conan-eqsue feel to them, including one story with a cult and the old temple of some forgotten god that could have been lifted right out of Hyboria.

 

If I have a complaint about these stories (and I have very few), it would be that many of the various protagonists in these stories do start to blend together a bit. There are three to five different “grim European knights/warriors exiled from their homeland”, and after a few stories, I started to lose track of who was who. I suppose it would have made little sense to have the same character survive five centuries of crusades, but it did get a bit frustrating, on occasion.

 

Still, it was a minor quibble in an otherwise wonderful series of stories. Howard continues to impress.

 

Major reading projects now on hold, as I am moving soon.

The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

by Sydney Anglo

Publisher: Yale University Press (August 11, 2000)

ISBN-10: 0300083521

 

 

 

In any case, thanks to a recent trip experience with the airline industries fantastic scheduling skills, I was finally able to put a couple of books to rest. I will start with this one, because it’s been the longest in coming.

Like a lot of young boys, I went through a phase of thinking that the medieval European knight was the coolest thing ever. Unlike a lot of young boys, I don’t seem to have grown out of that phase. And, as all young boys know, one of the coolest things about knights is that they fight. With swords! And axes! And lances, maces, flails, and other various instruments of personal destruction. Net result? Knights are AWESOME. At the end of the the day, I love them more than Ninja (that statement may result in me being lynched by the intarweb, but there it is).
 

Being a practicing martial artist, I eventually came to the question of “how the heck did knights fight?” at which point I realized that a lot of my points of reference came mostly from Hollywood and other similarly lousy sources. So I decided to look into the matter, and by some means I’ve long since forgotten, came across Sydney Anglo’s extremely comprehensive work.
 

This is a great book, IF YOU ARE INTO THIS SORT OF THING. I highlight that fact because this is a fairly serious, scholarly text. It is about 400 pages long, and is much larger than the average hardcover novel. It has footnotes, citations, and all sorts of other things that you will not find in your average pop history book. If you do not have the stamina or patience for that sort of thing, this book will not be fun for you.
 

If you do have the patience for that sort of thing, however, you’ll find this to be a fun and interesting insight into the actual practices of medieval European warriors. Anglo works his way through a variety of topics and ideas, starting with broader problems such as historical methods of writing about martial arts practice, and then narrowing things down to look at specific methods on unarmed combat, sword fighting, jousting, and other topics pertinent to the medieval knight (and his modern fan base). Anglo’s writing is fairly scholarly, but not so dense as to make the reading difficult, and he has a very dry wit that pokes through at just the right moments.
 

Statistically, I suspect the audience for this one is rather limited—if you aren’t into martial arts, medieval history, or (probably ideally) both, this book won’t offer you much. If you’re a martial artist, this book will give you a great introduction to a variety of arts that are generally poorly understood. If you’re a medievalist, this book will give you some great insight into a different aspect of medieval European culture. If neither of those things interests you, leave this one on the shelf.
 

Next Review: Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient

 

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Foundling: And Other Tales of Prydain (The Chronicles of Prydain)

The Foundling: And Other Tales of Prydain (The Chronicles of Prydain)

by Lloyd Alexander

Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. BYR Paperbacks (May 16, 2006)

ISBN-10: 0805080538

 

Lest anyone be super impressed that I’ve managed to finish another book this week; this book is neither long, nor is it “difficult” reading in any sense of the word. This is not to say it’s not worthwhile, merely that it isn’t something I’d pick up if you’re looking for a serious intellectual challenge.

 

The Foundling is a collection of short stories set in the same setting as Lloyd Alexander’s more well-known and popular Chronicles of Prydain; essentially, it’s a prequel book, adding some detail to the original chronicles, or filling in a few unanswered questions. It includes the story of how Dalben was raised by Ordu, Orwen, and Orgach; how Coll saved Hen Wen from the clutches of Arawn Death Lord; how Fflewddur Fflam got a hold of that damnable harp of his in the first place; and the story of why the great sword Dyrnwyn is, in fact, black. The last is perhaps the most disturbing of all the stories, in keep with Alexander’s penchant for writing children’s stories with some seriously adult undertones.

 

While I enjoyed these stories, I have to confess that I was a little disappointed. I think, honestly, that my expectations were a bit to high; the depth and detail of the original Prydain chronicles is somewhat muted in many of these stories, which read more like a pseudo-Welsh version of Aesop’s Fables. Many of them have a very clear “moral” that, while never stated directly (“the moral of this story is…”), is pretty apparent from the reading. And while the stories do serve to fill n some background information, some of them, like Dalban’s, tell us very little that we didn’t already know. Coll’s story is the only one that really puts a big spin on what we learn in the original Chronicles, and I’m not sure I’m entirely satisfied with that spin. But it works well-enough, I think, in context.

 

Those who enjoyed the original Chronicles of Prydain should enjoy these stories as well; for readers not familiar with Alexander’s work, I would start with the original Chronicles first, which are a lot deeper and more interesting. Certainly, any child who enjoyed the Chronicles would probably enjoy these too, and might not notice some of the issues I’m finding. Worth adding to the bookshelf, if this is your thing.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Lavinia

Lavinia

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Publisher: Harcourt; 1 edition (April 21, 2008)

ISBN-10: 0151014248


When my father told me that Ursula LeGuin had put out a new novel, I was, as I usually am, ecstatic. LeGuin is one of my all time favorite authors, and I can’t think of time when she’s written something that has somehow failed to engage, entertain, or intrigue me. The fact that she was, apparently, riffing off Virgil’s Aeneid was just icing on the cake for this poor excuse for a classical studies major.

When the book arrived, I found myself looking at the cover and suddenly wondering what the heck this book was about. As much as I tried, I could not remember the character of Lavinia from my previous readings of the Aeneid in the slightest (the best I could do was to temporarily confuse her with Dido). My guilt at my poor powers of memory was a bit assuaged when, after some checking, I realized that Lavinia only barely appears within the Aeneid, and never speaks at all. It’s no surprise I don’t remember her. Indeed, it’s a wonder that many people do.

The notion of taking an old story and telling a different side of it is a popular one these days, and I confess I’m not terribly up on the sub-genre (which seems to include things like The Red Tent, Mists of Avalon, and Lady Macbeth, among others), so I can’t compare it fairly to other authors efforts. It is a sub-genre that seems potentially filled with a lot of anger; how easy would it be for Lavinia (or any of these voiceless women) to rage against the world that so long ignored them? How simple would it be to tell a story about how the men screwed everything up, and the women were doing everything right?

Easy though it might be, LeGuin doesn’t do anything of the kind. Her Lavinia (who is curiously aware of her meta-fictional existence) is very, well, ancient Roman. She is strong, but conscious of her duty. She has a strong sense of the importance of family. She genuinely loves Aeneas, and her insights into Aeneas are interesting, and very much in line with what I remember of the Aeneid (which I confess is precious little). The entire story is told by Lavinia herself, a decision that allows LeGuin to really get into her protagonists mind, and produce a very different, interesting, and very real vision of a part of the Aeneid that Virgil did not get to.

I think that is the thing that makes me enjoy Lavinia so much; it is LeGuin’s addition to the myth. Not a refutation, or an attack, but merely another side of part of the story. A side as compelling, powerful, and insightful as the original itself. Unquestionably worth the read.

Next time: I have no idea. Not really sure what to read next, though I’m tempted to read the Aeneid again. I’ll have to go scan the shelves.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Conquering Sword of Conan

The Conquering Sword of Conan (Conan of Cimmeria, Book 3) (Paperback)

by Robert E. Howard

Publisher: Del Rey (November 29, 2005)

ISBN-10: 0345461533

This book is the final in a series of three collections from Del Ray (the other two being Coming of Conan the Cimmerian and Bloody Crown of Conan) that collect the entire corpus of Robert E. Howard’s writings about his now well-known, if often misunderstood, barbarian hero. This volume contains the last stories written by REH about Conan, including Beyond the Black River and Red Nails, which are apparently (and deservedly) two of the more famous of the Conan stories.

As a recent, but avid, fan of Howard’s writing, it was almost inevitable that I would like these stories, but I have to say that this really is Howard at his finest. The stories are beautiful in their writing, intricate and interesting in their structure, and really dive deeply into some of Howard’s themes about civilization versus barbarism in a very interesting way. Beyond the Black River brings Conan into a Howardian version of the French and Indian war, and the Black Stranger follows up the tale, after a fashion. Red Nails takes a somewhat different turn, trapping Conan and Valeria inside a walled city that borrows a great deal from Mesoamerican culture and trappings. The Servants of Bit-Yakin and the Man Eaters of Zamboula are more traditional Conan tales, and while not quite as strong or as interesting as the other stories, are still decent, fun, and well-written reads.

As part of a generation whose first impressions of Conan were formed by a future California Governator (which, I admit, does lead to some great jokes about him becoming a king by his own hand), it’s been very revealing to get to know the real Conan. While I still have a soft spot in my heart for Conan the Austrian, he really is nothing like the original character that is far more interesting, thoughtful, and moving than that movie would lead one to believe.

Anyone with the most remote interest in fantasy literature should be reading these collections; so should anyone interested in a good story. Howard is amazing. That’s all I’ve got to say for now.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda

Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda

by John Keegan

Publisher: Knopf (October 21, 2003)

ISBN-10: 0375400532

Of all of the clichés of the information age, “knowledge is power” might be one of the biggest and most prevalent. Living in a world where we have daily access to more information than we can possibly process or comprehend, we’ve become conditioned to think that knowing more is in of itself a means of being able to do more. This particular cliché extends to most people’s vision of military operations, where it is assumed that “intelligence”, which is the collection of information about enemy plans and movements, is somehow key in defeating an enemy. More knowledge and more intelligence, we believe, equal a greater chance of victory.

In Intelligence in War, John Keegan sets out to challenge that particular belief; he does so through a series of case studies throughout history, beginning with Admiral Nelson’s pursuit of Napoleon in the Mediterranean Sea, and continuing up into the second world war, where he looks at the Battle of Midway, and the Battle of the Atlantic, specifically at the submarine warfare conducted there. After working through his case studies, Keegan works through a summary overview of intelligence operations between the Second World War and the present day, before wrapping things up with an overview of his original thesis, and working towards his own conclusions.

For the most part, I enjoyed this one; Keegan writes history well, and has a gift for being able to deliver an historical narrative in an engaging and thoughtful way, without either becoming so mired in the details that he bores, or being so superficial as to miss the point. In a few of the chapters, particular the ones on Stonewall Jackson and Midway, I felt as though he was sometimes rambling a bit from the topic of intelligence in favor of a more narrative story of the battle(s) in question, but overall, it was a rather readable book. I found Face of Battle a bit more engaging, but this one was still interesting.

Looking at the Amazon page, I can see that this book generated a fair amount of flack and criticism, which isn’t really surprising to me. Keegan’s assertion that intelligence is less important than other factors in warfare doubtless ruffles some feathers, particular among those in or connected to the intelligence community. For my own part, I think Keegan’s point is at least somewhat valid when he says that “Decision in war is always the result of a fight, and in combat willpower always counts for more than foreknowledge.” While intelligence clearly has its own value leading up to an engagement, at the end of the day, it’s the actual fight that determines the result of a military engagement, not the knowledge. Of course, the knowledge can help, but alone, it isn’t enough. I have the impression that several of Keegan’s critics are taking Keegan’s arguments to mean that he believes intelligence ahs little, if any value, which I think is misinterpreting him a bit—he seems to be speaking primarily about the actual military engagements, and not the overall course of warfare and the effects of intelligence upon it.

In any case, for people interested in military history, and the role intelligence operations plays in that history, this book is certainly worth a look.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dragon and Judge: The Fifth Dragonback Adventure

Dragon and Judge: The Fifth Dragonback Adventure

Timothy Zahn

Publisher: Starscape; 1st edition (May 29, 2007)

ISBN-10: 0765314185




Dragon and Judge is the fifth book in Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series. The basic conceit of the series is fairly straightforward; young Jack Morgan is an orphan being raised by his Uncle Virge, a rogue and conman in the tradition of Han Solo, but without the redeeming features. Jack’s life gets turned around drastically when he ends up rescuing the last survivor of a ruined K’da expedition. The K’da are a race of warrior poets who need to exist in a symbiotic relationship with a host in order to survive. Draycos, the aforementioned survivor of the crash, bonds to Jack, and the two of them find themselves on the run, and trying to figure out what happened to Draycos’s people, and why. Later books in the series introduced other recurring characters, most notably Alison Kanya, a female counterpart to Jack who, at the end of the last book, acquired her own symbiote named Taneem, after Draycos’s departed love.

Dragon and Judge takes the series for an interesting turn of events, when Jack decides, against the advice of Uncle Virge, to go investigate something on the planet where his parents died. Naturally, the circumstances of his parents’ death are a bit more mysterious than Jack was initially lead to believe, and he quickly finds himself drawn into that mystery. Allison, for her part, is separated from Jack through unforeseen circumstances, bringing her back into contact with some old villains, and allowing her to dig up some clues about the big plot that has hovered in the background of the series for so long.

Like the other Dragonback books, this one is filled with a lot of intrigue and suspense; despite the title, there’s surprisingly little “judging” done by Jack, at least, not in a literal sense. Frankly, I was fine with that—Zahn shows enough of the judging Jack has to do to make it clear what his role is, and then backburners those scenes in favor of moving the action and story forward. The main characters all get to do some interesting personal evolution along the way. It’s not perfect—there’s a character introduced in the middle that takes an odd turn in the cliffhanger—but overall, I think it’s a solid, fun, space-opera kind of romp. I’m having fun reading it, and it’s the sort of thing I’d be happy to read with a kid, if I had one to read it too.


Friday, July 11, 2008

The Prydain Chronicles

The Prydain Chronicles
Lloyd Alexander
 
I just finished listening to this series on Audiotape (no, that is not a typo—I own this on a series of cassettes), and since I failed to review it as I was listening, I thought I’d make some commentary about it now that I’m done.

The Prydain Chronicles consists of a series of five novels (Book of Three, Black Cauldron, Castle of Lyr, Taran Wanderer, High King) that follow the adventure of an “assistance pig-keeper” Taran, and his varied companions throughout the land of Prydain. The series is heavily influenced by Welsh mythology, but apparently departs from it in certain notable ways (not being at all familiar with Welsh mythology, I cannot speak to how and when it departs). The series is aimed at a younger audience, but there is a level of violence and gore that makes the series probably quite inappropriate for younger children. The first two books were mashed together into a Disney film at one point, which I have never seen (and will pass on, thank you very much). I assume Disney omitted the people being burned alive inside wicker baskets, though I could be wrong.

While all of the characters get some kind of development in the series, the books are really primarily about Taran, and the process of him growing up and becoming a man. The other characters serve as support, role models, flavor, comic relief, or some combination thereof, but they are never as important as Taran himself. Of all of the characters, only Faithful Gurgi shares as much “screen time” as Taran, and he doesn’t get nearly the development that Taran does (though, not being human, I think he can be forgiven).

This is actually the second time I have listened to this series in recent years, though I don’t seem to have recorded my thoughts on it the first time, so I can’t be sure what I’ve already said, if anything. In any case, I think it’s a marvelous series; the writing is brisk, vivid, and intense. The characters are interesting, the plot generally gripping, and the world that Lloyd Alexander creates is a fascinating one. Frankly, I’m kind of surprised this hasn’t been optioned into a Lord of the Rings style modern fantasy movie series, because holy crap, it would work perfectly. Some of Alexander’s descriptions are vivid enough that they damn near function as staging directions.

I find myself thinking about this series in comparison with the Harry Potter series, mostly, I think, because it’s two stories about a boy growing up. That’s really where the similarities diverge, however. I’ve been working to quantify exactly how, and so far, this is the best I’ve come up with.

Harry Potter is a modern-day book; it’s about a boy who is told, from very early on, that he is, in fact, special. That he has a special destiny, and that when he grows up, he’s going to do something amazing. The series is very much about Harry struggling with the high expectations everyone has of him, and trying to figure out how to deal with that. He struggles with the consequences of fame, of being the powerful, but not always cool, kid. As I think of it, a lot of Harry Potter is about a kid dealing with a kid’s world, where as the Prydain Chronicles are about a boy dealing with a man’s world.

Taran doesn’t know of any special destiny he has on him, but he thinks he wants one. He thinks he wants to be a great warrior, and a famous hero. In a way, he wants what Harry Potter has (and what kid doesn’t, on some level), but he doesn’t have it. He’s just a lowly “assistant pig-keeper” (a title given to him in jest by his mentor Coll), who appears to have no special destiny at all. Of course, that isn’t quite true, but Taran doesn’t know that. What he does find, as he grows older, is that adventure and heroism are not all they are cracked up to be, and that being a good and responsible human being is harder than it seems.

I need more time and coffee to really think about this, but I think there’s definitely a bit of a generation gap between the two books, and it shows in the kind of problems that the characters face and deal with. It’s interesting, even if I haven’t full fleshed it out yet. I’ll get there. Or I won’t.

Also, the audio versions are great. James Langston, the reader, does a fantastic job, and you actually get to hear Lloyd Alexander read the author’s notes himself.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

Dave Grossman
Publisher: Back Bay Books (November 1, 1996)
ISBN-10: 0316330116

I first became aware of On Killing when Tony Blauer referenced it at one of his PDR seminars, and have heard a fair amount of good press since then. It’s one of those books that martial artists/self-defense junkies seem to like to talk about, or at least, claim to have read, and I figured it was time I finally saw what all of the fuss is about.
On Killing is the first of Col. Grossman’s works on “killology”, which he defines as “the scholarly study of the destructive act, just as sexology is the scholarly study of the procreative act. In particular, killology focuses on the reactions of healthy people in killing circumstances (such as police and military in combat) and the factors that enable and restrain killing in these situations.)”

On Killing focuses primarily, but not exclusively, on examining the techniques and methodologies that militaries have used to condition soldiers to kill, and the effects of those techniques (and of killing) on the minds of soldiers. Grossman starts from the perspective that killing is something that most humans are naturally predisposed to avoid, and that it is only the influence of a variety of other factors that will compel human beings to kill under most circumstances. He cites a variety of sources, some of which are very convincing (a comparison of firing rates between soldiers in the second world war and in Vietnam, respectively), and some of which are wholly unconvincing (a passage in Vegitus [I think?] which seems to refer more to the difficulties of training people to fight in a technical manner than any revulsion to killing, particularly). The whole book, in fact, seems to flip-flop between some very well reasoned, well-thought out arguments, and some not so well supported assertions that, if not out of left field, are at least, not particularly compelling.

The last portion of the book is the most sudden turn, as Grossman suddenly veers from talking about the psychology of killing into talking about the dangers of violent videogames and television shows. I have to admit—it was very hard for me to approach this section with anything resembling an open mind; I have a huge problem with the mindset that blames videogames and movies for what often amounts to shitty parenting, and I have no sympathy for those parents who expected the television to raise their children, and are then unhappy with the results. At the same time, Grossman does make some convincing comparisons between certain types of games and the sort of “operant conditioning” used by the military, and I think it’s worth considering that he may at least be right about some of the effects of exposing children to these sorts of games and movies, which any sensible parent ought to consider.

Ultimate, I find that I have the same issue with this book that I have with other, similar sorts of, “science for lay-people” books, which is that they seem to rely a lot on careful research and study, but don’t necessarily give you a lot of details about that research. The result is that you’re sometimes forced to take the author at his or her word about what a particular study proves, because they aren’t even showing you the parts of the study that serve to back up their point (never mind the parts that might refute it).

Still, it is a good, thought-provoking book, and is certainly worthwhile reading for anyone who is interested in the effects of learning to kill (and killing) on the human mind. There’s also some interesting discussion of how society treats its soldiers, which has a lot bearing on our current socio-political climate. Not a book for everyone, but definitely a worthwhile read.