2013. december 28., szombat

Hippie's wet dream - The Neanderthal Parallax

I think I get it what bugs people in Neanderthals, the presumably bushwhacked cousin of ours. Since the belief that humans are the best thing happened to Gaia shattered, and our taking of the planet can well lead to our own demise make some people wonder about different ways of living. Being a human as Homo Sapiens is not so straightforward anymore. The gap between us and the supposed Neanderthal traits closes by every year. It's not only we had a common ancestor. The hunched, hairy, dim-witted caveman evolved into a conscious being with language, comparable intelligence in the eyes of the scientific community. And, the human club was joined by at least two, possibly three other hominids in the last decade only. 

 The fear of extinction and the Neanderthal agenda

Knowing and understanding the Neanderthal and the truth about their demise might bear answers about the true nature of mankind. Who are we? What can we do differently to save our natural environment? There are very few things we know about Neanderthals with a certain degree of sureness. Genetical and anatomical research pointed out that they were capable of talking and producing their own language. They buried their dead, they made clothing, they might had beliefs in the afterlife. A one–digit percentage of the human genom carried by non-African populations is shared with the Neanderthals, so presumably there was some interscrewing around when the Homo Sapiens and the Neanderthal populations overlapped in time and space. But the when and where is an open debate, there isn't a consensus about if us and the Neanderthals in Eurasia ever shared the habitat, and the exchange of genes might had occurred somewhere in the Middle East when the modern Homo Sapiens was swarming out from Africa some 40 000 years ago.

What happened then and there is the field of interpretation, theories and speculation, just like the rest of Neanderthal traits are, nobody knows for sure. There had to be some contact, genes don’t lie about that. Either the yet dark-pigmented, tall and lither hunters blitzkrieged them into oblivion with their projectile weapons, raved them with their new pathogens carried, just like it happened with the meso-americans when the Spaniards began their conquest. Climate change could take its toll on the already sparse Neanderthal populations, the more prolific new people swarmed and absorbed them by the virtue of their numbers, or all the above at once. I just hope it wasn’t always the classic tribal hostile takeover scenario when all males and women in non-productive age are slain, and the survivor females are for daily rape and hard labour.

Ginger people have no soul, but what about Neanderthals?

The ways of the Clan

Writers in the popular culture profit from this uncertainty, and truth to be told, describing a fictional encounter between the two human species is at least as interesting and chilling as a contact with aliens. Readers like me are hungry for the worlds collide experience. Among more known works, the Quest for Fire and Iceman movies introduce the Neanderthal as simple but simpathetic wildmen. Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children novels establish a whole pre-writing universe of two different hominins and shows the Neanderthal, the Clan as a kind of archaic people with intimate knowledge about their environment and barely known and understood culture by the newcomer Others who tend to overlook those primitive and besides rare flatheads. The first novel, the Clan of the Cave Bear is really intriguing. A young girl, Ayla grows up between Neanderthals and struggles with the biologically determined conservativeness of the Clan.

It's well worth to read, but I gave up by the third because the rest of the novels felt like a feminist parade, where Ayla becomes a cultural Eve. I actually enjoyed the movie version as well, and not only because of Daryl Hannah's  (the blondie gal from Wall Street and Blade Runner) long legs. The Clan is shown as people with unique and fascinating straits but with numbered time. They were left behind in the dust and silence once, just like the protagonist did that in the movie.

 Now I admit, I’m a bit in trouble (SPOILERS ONWARD)

I usually recommend good stuff they are worth to watch and read, but I have ambiguous feelings about Robert J. Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax trilogy. I cannot criticize it without spoilers. Long story short, a quantum-computer experiment in the Neanderthal world (where they reached consciousness and became the dominant species) opens a transdimensional portal accidently into the present day World of Homo Sapiens. Cliched as it is, I was over it. Besides, I couldn’t really follow the scientific mambo jambo, but I gave the plot a chance nevertheless. 

The first book, the Hominids proved to be promising. I started to envision the story as a tv-show, and the female protagonist as a younger Jodie Foster exploring a different human existence. The fish out of the water element is there on both sides of the portal. That’s all well, I was hungry for the sequence. 

The second book (Humans) functions as a suspended tension before the endgame provided by the third book, the contact of the two different hominims didn’t escalate yet, but the promise was there. The real deal about these kind of books is what changes such contact can inflict on the human perception of life. The bitchslap came with the third book (Hybrids) which I put down feeling cheated. The neanderthal civilisation on the other side is essentially the antithesis of ours. And hey presto, the original sins of humanity are no less than agriculture and religion themselves with all the social issues brought with them. Everything since then is a screw-up. The still hunter-gatherer Neanderthals managed to build a technological civilisation without the aforementioned bollocks and without ravaging their natural habitat. Every hippie and treehugger would love that.

This is gonna be a trainwreck...

These Neanderthals keep their population in bay. Men and women live separately most of a month and make sex per calendar method. They practice eugenics so their classic evolutionary straits didn’t degrade over time, and even physics professors enjoy recreational mammoth-hunting under the sky still darkened by passenger pigeons. It’s like some reclused sect in the Latin-American jungle, the only spot on their clean face is the deranged juristic system. So, not only they are physically stronger and faster, but smarter too with a hardcoding for eco-consciousness. The author is preaching through the Neanderthal protagonist’s mouth and points his finger at the deeply flawed development of this humanity. By this verdict, we cannot think and act responsibly about our lives and our home as long as the religion puts the consequences in the afterife, something hardcore materialists and well, Neanderthals refuse to exist.

I had the inside gut that the author demands some kind of paradigm-shift in human thinking, and the neanderthal contact potentially is comparable to Jesus and the advent of Christianity. Now it’s not like I’m against some floor-sweeping by more advanced and/or different conscious beings, it worked pretty will in The Swarm, but do it in a more credible and more original way. This story bleeds through multiple wounds, and I feel sorry for wasting my nights for a three volume anti-religion pamphlet and cleric-bashing it turned out to be in the end. Frankly, what I would do with the author is dropping him out of a hovering helicopter naked over the Amazonian Jungle like deceased Tom Clancy or one of his ghostwriters did that with those eco-terrorists in Rainbow Six. Here is your chance to live in harmony with mother nature, sucker!

I have other issues with these books. I sort of expected the author to unfold the neanderthal world better in the third book, more shades of grey, a real conflict and movement in both worlds, but nothing like that. What we get are the sexual adventures of the female protagonist and her road to the liberating polygamy and bisexuality, the cream of the Neanderthals keep on their guiding us into a new Enlightenment, some awful madman story with bioweapons (how original…). And yes, we get a fix on the deficient shielding of our brain, the reason we are suspectable to religious ideas. Human consciousness came by accident, and the next big change of the planet's magnetic field will make us drooling retards again who beat each other up with bones. For crying out loud...

What gives, the humanoid wolf idea resurfaced several years ago. Give that man a script to write!

Word of advice, if you are really interested, read the first book, maybe the second, but avoid the third because it's really a screw-up, and it does not really more than enforce some American stereotypes about Canadians and their leftism. I wonder how much the author's concept would have changed if the trilogy had appeared ten years later, because some new results about Neanderthals came up since then. As a science-fiction the Neanderthal Parallax is obsolescent by now


2013. december 16., hétfő

The super brother always watches – Superman: Red Son

Today, we enter deeper into Nerdistan and explore a different kind of historical fiction. I don’t know if the dear reader is into comics or not. Regardless, I can show you a story with a historical, what more, with political-philosophical depth. The alternate history novels of the DC Comic Book Universe are the so called Elseworld novels, where crucial timeline events could turn out fairly differently, and we can meet otherwise well-established fictional characters in the mainstream continuity in a different light. In this case, what if the freshly orphan Kal-L’s tiny ship had arrived twelve hours later from the exploded Krypton and the later Superman would have found and grown up in the stalinist Soviet Union instead of Smallville, Kansas? Thank God for Mark Millar.

The answer for many prayers

Zor-L loved mankind so much that he gave his only son to redeem us from our sins and lead us into a new dawn… Well, yeah, despite years of comic books reading it didn’t strike me until I watched Man of Steel how much the origin creators had borrowed from christian mythology. The character of Superman has a lot of common with Jesus, Son of God. They were sent into this savage world by an enlightened force to give guidance and protection. Both lived simple lives to a point, both had an encounter with their nemesis before choosing paths to fulfill their destinies, and so on. But could twelve hours of difference corrupt the iconic character of truth and justice, the American way so much that we will percept the saviour as a crab of humanity’s own idealistic improvement?
Somewhere in an Ukrainian kolkhoz

The road to hell and those good intentions

Enemies in a prolonged struggle start to remind of each other in time, war and conflict do this to people. I read once that preferring one political philosophy over another depends on how we see our own race (or how old we are). A leftist down deep believes in the innocence of the noble wildman, who was dragged out from his happy and social being before the times of writing. He may look savage and chaotic in nature now, but if we establish the perfect political-economical system for him, he will have the chance to sing kumbaya instead of the selfish struggle of necessity for survival. So, people are good in heart. But a rightist doesn’t see this original sinlessness but the savage creature that cannot control himself. For this different reason he wants to maintain the order and set the rules through a class in charge. In a nutshell, you are free to do what you are allowed to because we above know it better.

We can do it without the alien! Luthor on his campaign.
Now, they don’t look much different on the second reading, do they? How can we classify living socialism or modern democracy? Is the former leftist because it establishes a new ruling class, which keeps telling what is the best for us? Or do representative democracies really belong to the right spectrum? Utopias or transitional orders have the nasty habit to re-establish obsolate ruling patterns because it’s all about control and better knowing than the mass in the end. Power can blind and corrupt even the saviour, and human made political-economical orders strived so much to prove themselves independent from the „celestial” influence can turn into an utopia like Yin and Yang turn into each other.

Superman, a force that can bring the light?

A childhood friend of mine once told me, Communism would be the perfect order for mankind, but everybody must be a saint for it. Well, what we have now here is an almighty alien, a demigod even, who can literally move mountains, change the weather, even keep you safe on roads day by day. His own self-sacrifice can make the system work. Resistance is futile because he can hear every word like no totalitarian state did before. And how does the other self-proclaimed beacon of light answer his challenge in providing for humanity? This is where Superman: Red Son fascinates me because it grabs the history of the 20th century by its very core. How do the opposing systems and ideologies look like in each other’s mirror? How despite all the antagonisms are they still connected? 

A new page is the metahuman arms-race in this Cold War

Why does it worth it?

Yes, a comic book can provide this thought-provoking, and it entertains the reader immensely. Superman: Red Son revives Cold War like a historical footage and breathes life into it. Things are upside-down here. Forget the stupid-looking pants worn on the outside, the hero cliches, everything and everyone are well-placed. What did I miss in Red Son is a little more from the classic pantheon of Superman villains, but hey, it’s only three volumes. The end is no less than shocking, or what does „L” really mean in Superman’s kryptonian name?


2013. november 29., péntek

March to hell - Red Inferno: 1945

The final showdown between the West and the East is a recurring theme of alternate history novels and videogame scripts. The never materialized Third World War, the arms race and the amassed weapon stockpiles always kept the fantasy of military minded people occupied, and the chess boards with the red and blue figures were set up again and again. The better known examples are Tom Clancy’s classic Red Storm Rising or the Red Alert real-time strategy games. Robert Conroy’s less known but highly enjoyable Red Inferno: 1945 put this clash at the very beginning.


Plot quality

Adolf Hitler still draws a breath when the winners start to quarrel over the spoils, and the relatively unharmed countryside of Germany to the west of the Elbe are ravaged by a old-new war. The victory parade in Berlin never happened. And this is all the SPOILER you will get from me.

I have to give it to Robert Conroy, he described a plausible scenario about what events could have led to an all out war between the USSR and the Western Allies. The phases of the rapid escalation and the reasons behind them in Red Inferno are well articulated and easy to follow. Conroy clearly wanted to write an entertaining history novel and not a deep political thriller.

Entertaining factor

But what military hardware nerds are really interested at are the flow of battles and technical details of this major test of strength. I was kinda happy with the script of the war itself. The turns of events in the Red Inferno: 1945 are plenty. I didn't get a chance to be bored, the book makes a real good job at keeping your attention, right until to the explosive finish. Just keep up with dealing with all those horrors and the dark side of the human nature because a lot of ugliness awaits.

Artwork from http://alternativeforcesofwwii.devhub.com/


 On the other hand, veterans of Tom Clancy books or military history buffs might miss the deeper details about the technical aspects of this war. I had the feeling that Conroy's knowledge about the then military technology is a bit superficial, or the author chose to focus more on the human faces and experiences of the war consciously. The lack of finer technical details and comparison of the military hardware of the opposing sides can bother some. It's a great war story, but not a techno-thriller by modern means. Actually, it reminded me a bit at Larry Bond's Red Phoenix in that aspect, a bit simplistic, but the „casuals” will have a great reading nevertheless.

Hold that thought, the human characters. Cute and plastic they are, one of the love stories in the book is so clumsy and ackward that I have almost jumped to the conclusion that history novelists just haven't got the mindset for writing credible romances. Well, the other love story kinda works. I guess you just can't have it all. But this should be our greatest problem with the Red Inferno.

Picture from Wikimedia


It's more painful that the novel is short, you can finish it off in a weekend. This topic deserves two volumes at least. The Red Inferno: 1945 could have been a starting point of a whole „Conroyverse” with a unique timeline instead of an enjoyable quicky. So, you will get what you pay for, but Red Inferno – as happy ride it is - won't make you read itself over and again like the Tom Clancy classics do. A pity, Robert Conroy didn't give us a classic but more of a consume and forget piece. And, it's still worth it.


2013. november 21., csütörtök

Zipang - Ode to an extinct order, the Imperial Japanese Navy

Cover for the English edition on DVD. Wikimedia.
I have to admit that my knowledge at the anime world is very limited. Since the Akira, which I did not really comprehend I hadn’t watched another. But when I had stumbled upon the anima-series Zipang I was genuinely surprised how mature and intelligent work I was looking at. Cultural differences did not limit my understanding of this manga adaptation, and the 26 episodes had a great promise for quality entertainment. If you like history or big battleships, if you find astounding situations and how human-like characters handle them fascinating, you cannot go wrong with Zipang.

Zipang – for a different Japan

Plot quality

It's not the first time that science-fiction and alternate history writers toy around with time travel. One liked plot element is that high-tech military hardware appears in the distant past . Think about Confederate soldiers of the American Civil War with AK-47s or what if Napoleon had a B-52 bomber by Waterloo. Rest assured, nothing as stupid like the latter here. But after a Bermuda-triangle-like experience, one advanced warship of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces runs into an unknown armada, which set sail for a mission with crucial importance and historical significance.
This scene never ceases me to give the goosebumps. The Mirai on collision course with the biggest and meanest battleship ever built. At least the writers didn't make it a spaceship this time. No pun intented, Starblazer-fans.

The Aegis destroyer Mirai has enough firepower to sweep away waves of piston engined attack planes or  to destroy whole contemporary battle fleets. This might well sound like the Final Countdown movie from 1979, except the protagonists switched sides. So much for originality. But the way the storyline of Zipang builds up and showing what lesser known forces were at work then makes you think how different imperial and the post-war Japan could have been? The Pacific War is a goldmine for alternate history novels.

When these shoes are on the other foot. Classic dogfight scene from the movie The Final Countdown

Entertaining factor (SPOILER ALERT!)

Although I have to give a fair warning that Zipang isn’t a revisionist hymn for the Imperial Japan nor an Axis of Time-like historical cataclysm. What Zipang puts into a perspective is how historical and the made-up characters would act if they somehow receive a wake-up call (in that case, the appearance of the Mirai), a hindsight about the end of the line, and how they would struggle to trigger something different and less grim than the looming total defeat.

One big flaw of the series is that it feels unfinished somehow. Like the writers were afraid of the potential of the plot and upsetting national feelings much on both sides of the Pacific. They had touched the plot maybe with too much care and sophistication, and then did not give Zipang a satisfying end.

Who are we? Soldiers of Japan or embassadors of an enlightened future ?


I felt Zipang like a drama of the other then Japan, which is not ultra-nationalist nor warmonger. It is very aware of its own precarious situation, but wants to shape its own future by everybody’s rules nevertheless. This is what makes Zipang particularly interesting for a history buff. The world war and „future” military hardware and tactics, their clashes are well worked out. Someone did watch for the details with enthusiasm.

A scene of the Manga-series. Available on http://manga.animea.net/


But as I tried to imply earlier you shouldn't watch Zipang for glorious Japanese troops armed with high-tech equipment or for a radical (and of course, fictional) rewriting of real-life historical events. Such works exist in the anime world, we might come back to them later. But those are meant strictly for a Japanese  niche audience, and it would be a bad move to introduce them in the West or in different regions of the Far East for that matter… 

Nope, The authors of Zipang wrote for two markets, and the animated version of the series are available in English (if you don't mind certain Japanese officers with a Texan accent), without the danger of upsetting the war winners and their need for feeling righteous much.


2013. november 13., szerda

Jar Jar Binks comes to conquer Earth - Harry Turtledove’s World War Series

What if Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds radio drama had become a reality, and alien species would have visited our planet with an imperialistic agenda? How could humanity stand up against a technologically much more advanced foe, and what changes did the opposing sides inflict on each other in an all out war? How would known and less known historical characters have acted in such an unprecedented situation? These are the major themes Harry Turtledove comes around in his World War saga.


 Alien invasion meets Vietnam war

In this alternate universe a completely unexpected event changes the course of known history. Global conflict escalates into interstellar when our alien conquerors, The Race arrived at the peak of World War Two, and they couldn’t have picked the wrongest day.

1. Plot quality

I think I don’t spoil the fun of the new readers much if I tell that factions of humanity at each other’s throat behave like hooligans when someone else tries to force a new authority upon them. Uneasy truces and staggering alliances come into being overnight, strange bedfellows try to stall the alien juggernaut all around the world with an eye on each other. Harry Turtledove tells his story through four quite long books, and the master did pretty good job at emplacing known and lesser know historical characters in this fictitious situation.

Maybe the biggest achievement of the author is that he emphasizes greatly what wartime and occupation means for the average Joe, when daily meals, electricity, fuel comes at premium. The sheer cumulative length of the books and Turtledove’s expressive descriptions can make the reader feel almost war-weary at the end.

2. Entertaining factor

The author takes his time. If someone is used to and expects a plot with stunning and abundant turn of events like in modern TV-series can be for a disappointment. These books do not want to stun us in every chapter and they require a longer attention-span. Overall, the plot is predictable in the long run, and my biggest problem with real life history interpretations is exactly this that their message is often the couldn’t have happened any other way. If we can set this aside,  HarryTurtledove can still entertain us for a long time, hilarious moments sparks through the flow of events occasionally.

The human and alien characters of World War Series are loveable or despisable, they feel human, and that is the point. The writer has the guts to kill some of them. It’s a war drama after all, if somebody dies it stays dead. No soap opera comebacks.

3. Homework

This is Turtledove excels. He really shows us this alternate history as a global conflict and chooses his characters accordingly. He does the picturing of  different cultures so well that I felt some of them more alien than The Race itself. Various people, depending on the weight of the oppressing boots on their necks do everything to survive, and accordingly to their own historical and cultural heritage they percept the alien invasion.

By the way, the aliens. Turtledove put a lot of effort in creating a different (with capital d) foe for humanity, with a dissimilar mindset and without our everyday urge for sex and domination. Yet, he provided them with enough human traits for us to sympathize with them sometimes.

I think it’s time for an explanation how a Star Wars character appeared in my title. The Race or the Lizards as humans call them strikes me visually as the slipping reptiloid from The Phantom Menace. Before somebody jumps to the conclusion that the invaders are more funny than menacing, I have to tell, they really give us a beating before it gets somehow better.

Another important thing that the World War Series are less of a science fiction when it comes to technology. Despite space travel, the Race war machine is not much different from today’s high-tech armies and military methods.

4. Endwords

I do not have regrets about reading through the four books, but sometimes I had to collect some strength for days to pick up the line again. Don’t worry in that case, we won’t forget anything important because Harry Turtledove is repetitive enough to keep us up to date about who is who and how he/she/ got there at the first place.

The four book saga does not end here, but will I go through the sequels (because there are) as well? Sooner or later, the Worldwar Series are reliable but not necessarily a stunning entertainment. The real question, is this good enough for you?

And who (else) can be that maniac human wall who trots out in his SS-uniform in the Kremlin? I just wish a cable channel picked the story up and made in into TV-series. Any road, the World War Series could be a proper present to a history buff for Christmas. It certainly helps to kill odd hours.

"Meet the author". This is the good man himself. Turtledove's alternate history works can fill a small library, so I'm pretty sure that we will meet him again on these pages.