Sunday, January 16, 2022

Book Review: 2034 - A Novel of the Next World War

book cover for 2034I read an excerpt of this in Wired magazine and was intrigued. It helped that the authors are Admiral James Stavridis and Marine veteran Elliot Ackerman.

While patrolling the South China Sea, a small flotilla makes a surprising discovery after coming to the aid of a fishing trawler in distress. Over in the Persian Gulf, a test of new stealth technology mounted on an F-35 goes awry. A cyberattack upon D.C. briefly knocks out the power at the White House. Events spiral out of control from there.

The premise that makes this all possible is a technological leap made by China, granting them superior cyberespionage skills, strong enough to incapacitate the American military. Given the lack of cybersecurity infrastructure and the growing prevalence of ransomware attacks plaguing America over the last few years, it does at least seem plausible.

But there are other assumptions that take away from the scenario presented. Iran is struggling too much right now to suddenly become a successful expansionist state. As much as I'd like India to succeed as a nation, the authors envision it making leaps and bounds in infrastructure and military strength in too short a time, particularly for a country that has issues providing sufficient potable water to its cities. NATO is notably absent, albeit still intact. The impact of Covid-19 on the world seems to be largely ignored, granted the manuscript was probably at the publisher.

The story is told from the viewpoint of five characters: US Navy Commodore Sarah Hunt, Chinese Admiral Lin Bao, US Marine pilot Major Chris "Wedge" Mitchell, Iranian Brigadier General Qassem Farshad, and US Deputy National Security Advisor Sandeep Chowdhury. The authors provide them with enough backstory to have a sense of who they are, but there was never quite enough for them to leap off the page. They were like made-for-TV characters—functional but not memorable.

I think a major reason for that is, with maybe with one or two exceptions, that most of the action and decision-making takes place off-screen. We get a character's perspective just before something happens and then switch to a different character's viewpoint as they react to the news of the event that just took place. End result: All telling and very little showing. That's a major mistake.

This is no military thriller—Tom Clancy will not be dethroned here. This is meant to be a cautionary tale, a war game scenario turned into a novel. While a U.S. - China confrontation over the South China Sea or Taiwan is always a possibility, particularly if jingoistic factions take control, it seemed as though everyone made the wrong choice whenever possible. While the characters were mere pawns, hubris seems to be a large part of the decision makers' choices. A lesson in Pride goeth before the fall. Maybe that was the authors' intent as the novel was written during the Trump administration. But whatever their reasons, it just didn't work for me as a novel.

2 1/2 stars.


Monday, January 3, 2022

Book Review: Binti

book cover for BintiHer name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti's stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself—but first she has to make it there, alive.

I found a copy of this book in a little used bookstore up on the Cape this summer. Recalling that it had won several awards, and only being a novella in length, I picked it up.

We follow 16-year-old Binti as she steals away in the night to embark on a trip to Oomza University. Instead of being proud of Binti's acceptance at such a prestigious university, her family forbids her to go. They say that Binti's place, like all Himba, is at home with family. The narration and theme makes this seem like either middle grade or young adult fare, but I can still appreciate it.

As Binti makes her way to the spaceport, she has to deal with the Khoush, fellow humans of an unknown ethnicity. They scrutinize Binti's appearance as if she were an insect under a magnifying glass with all the poise of middle school biology class.
  “It smells like jasmine flowers,” she said to the woman on her left, surprised.
  “No shit?” one woman said. “I hear it smells like shit because it is shit.”
  “No, definitely jasmine flowers. It is thick like shit, though.”
  “Is her hair even real?” another woman asked the woman rubbing her fingers.
  “I don’t know.”
  “These ‘dirt bathers’ are a filthy people,” the first woman muttered.
On the trip to Oomza University, Binti gradually makes inroads with her fellow students, apparently all Khoush. I thought that the story was going to be about Binti winning over her fellow students, but instead, the plot takes a sharp turn. A Meduse boarding party arrives out of nowhere—it's never explained how—and mercilessly attacks the passengers. Her survival appears to be a bit of deus ex machina, but the story would be over if she died right there.

I was hoping that Okarafor was going to have Binti rally her fellow Khoush students to repel the invaders, but no. Everyone was killed, all 500 passengers, except Binti and the never-seen pilot. So then I was hoping Binti was going to use her wits to work with the pilot to repel the invaders. Nope. Instead, Binti parleys with the Medusae, in particular one named Okwu, in an effort to think of a way out of this mess.

While I enjoyed learning about this future version of the Himba, I'm left wondering why a people who never travel have a need for an astrolabe, much less build them. But it's clear from the text that Okorafor has changed the definition of the device to be something much more.

Who are the Khoush? Initially, they were described as being lighter in skin color than Binti, but towards the end of the story, she encounters a dark-skinned Khoush. It's said at one point that the Himba don't like outsiders. Since no other types of humans are mentioned in the story, does that mean that everyone who isn't Himba is a Khoush to these isolationist xenophobes? The adult Khoush certainly have their attitude issues, the younger ones are more curious and open to new ideas than their parents, but we never see how the Himba act toward them. Might the rudeness of adults go both ways?

Another thing that nagged at me was Biniti's response to landing on Oomza. I was given the impression that there was artificial gravity on the spaceship. At no point is anyone or anything just floating about. But when the ship lands, she falls to the floor upon encountering the planet's gravity. The world is described as "a small planet compared to Earth" so smaller size means less mass (unless the world's density is somehow greater than your typical terrestrial world) which means less gravity. An editor should've caught that.

While I won't spoil the ending, I have to say that I find it troubling. If you want a spoiler, highlight this next section of text.——> The Medusae are angry at the university because they stole the chief's stinger. How this was accomplished is never explained. The chief is fine by the way. He just feels emasculated. Regardless, this is the Medusae's justification for killing all of the students on the spaceship. It's a matter of honor, never mind that the students had nothing to do with it, nor knowledge of it. After some debate, the university agrees to give the stinger back and they give the Medusae named Okwu what amounts to a full scholarship at the university. No demands from the university to atone for the 500 dead students, nor are there complaints from the crowd in attendance. No apologies or remorse from the Medusae; they leave completely satisfied. The terrorists win.

On top of this, Okwu and Binti become friends despite the fact that she witnessed it kill a fellow student right in front of her, splattering blood on her face, and it was going to kill her, too, were it not for her magic pet rock. Does Binti have Stockholm Syndrome? She does care that these people, although they were Khoush, were brutally slaughtered, right? We're given a sentence or two where she's upset by what happened, but the narrative's focus is on Binti making a fresh batch of otjize. Yes, I get that it's her cultural tie with home, but I wish more had been written about Binti dealing with her traumatic experience instead of just focusing on her being homesick.

I've learned that Binti's PTSD for this experience is addressed in Sacred Fire, a short story that was written after the series concluded and inserted into a special trilogy collection, officially book 1.5 in the series. The cynic in me says, "Damage control."

Overall, I enjoyed Okarafor's world-building and learning about these future Himba, even though Binti seemed a bit obsessed with her otjize. Setting aside my nitpicking over some details and the childish behavior of the Medusae, I would've been fine with the story, but that ending ruined it for me.

2 stars