Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell

All those stories about cowboys, lawmen, and outlaws? Most of them occurred here, in the American Southwest. The people behind them have become legends, glamorized by Hollywood, stretched and exaggerated until they are hardly recognizable. Good guys never do no wrong and the bad guys are truly evil. Life is never so black and white and Mary Doria Russell tries to put some human perspective on one of the most famous events of the old West, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Once the smoke had settled, three men had been killed. The Earp brothers, and their friend Doc Holliday, at most suffered relatively superficial wounds. However, the controversy over who drew first, whether the dead men had even been armed, and the bad blood between the Earps and the so-called Cow Boys that boiled over led to the shooting of two of the Earps, one who died, and a vendetta ride by Wyatt Earp that cemented his place in American history.

Epitaph is a novelization of the history of the gunfight. It begins in a seemingly unlikely place, with the childhood of Josie Marcus, who became Wyatt Earp’s wife and outlived them all. If there is a common thread that pulls the narrative together, it is Josie’s, but Russell does an excellent job of juggling a huge cast of characters and, more importantly, providing them with a voice. Even the most despicable of the so-called villains has his time on the page. Events are given view through the eyes of characters not directly involved in the gunfight, such as the wives of the various Earp brothers. Russell doesn’t lay blame for the gunfight at the foot of any one character. Rather, she tries to provide context for the events as they unfold and maybe some rationale for those events.

Being a novelization, Russell certainly takes liberties. There are quiet moments where she fills in the blanks. There are events where we don’t know enough to be certain what really happened — Russell adds her own details. And there are contradictory accounts, for example, how Josie originally left her family and found herself in Tombstone, Arizona. Russell chooses one of those stories, the one told by Josie herself, and uses it as if it were canon. One of the Earp brothers, Warren, never makes an appearance. I’m not enough of a historian to really judge the historical accuracy of the events as Russell conveys them. However, it seems she has a solid skeleton based on history and her details add the flesh that lead to a great story.

Maybe I learned something from this book about the history of the American Southwest. Certainly, names and places that dot our collective consciousness are given meaning: Doc Holliday, Albuquerque, Tombstone, Wyatt Earp. And new details arise that pique my interest, such as the fact that Earp spent some time in Idaho, in Eagle City. Other characters emerge as important players in the drama of Tombstone, including the other Earp brothers and John Behan, a would-be political mover and shaker whose life is very much intertwined with those of Wyatt and Josie.

Even though Russell may have taken liberties with some of the details, the story moves along and keeps you engaged. I’m keen to read more about the men and women of the American Southwest and that is as great a testament to a book like Epitaph as I can make.

#heyjohnkelly

My dad came to this country without a high school education, having stopped going to school when he was about 14. When he arrived, he didn’t know a word of English. He died having never become a citizen of the United States. He came with a drive for a better life, to improve his lot. He brought a tremendous work ethic that was second-to-none. He instilled this work ethic in his three boys, who all obtained college degrees and have had very successful careers in highly technical fields — engineering, environmental science, and physics. How is my dad not the type of immigrant we want in this country?

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The true makers of history are often hidden from us, either owners of softer voices or casualties of the rhetoric of louder glory-seekers. More often than not, those lost voices below to women and that is the case for Elizebeth Smith Friedman, one of the first people to develop a science for code-breaking and a key, if not the key, figure in the development of the US’s intelligence services. As the author of her story, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone writes, “It’s not quite true that history is written by the winners. It’s written by the best publicists on the winning team.”

The story of her and her husband, a leading code breaker in his own right, is fascinating, not only for the development of code-breaking as a science and their contributions to more than one war, but also because of the odd and eccentric characters that populate Elizebeth’s life. Her husband, William, was perpetually on the edge of a nervous breakdown, in part due to the extremely long hours both Friedmans put in service to the US government. Maybe most fascinating of all was Elizebeth’s first patron, George Fabyan, who created a compound outside of Chicago — the Riverbank Laboratories — which was a private laboratory researching a multitude of topics, some scientifically sound and others very much of the crack-pot variety. It was at Riverbank that Elizebeth first encounter cryptography and her future husband William. Riverbank was full of would-be scientists, studying a range of topics from hidden messages in Shakespeare’s plays to acoustics, for which it still exists. The compound raised all its own animals and grew much of its own crops for food.

During World War I, there was a dearth of people who understood encryption, much less could decipher the messages of the enemy. William and Elizebeth demonstrated their abilities and developed a true scientific approach to the problem. Both Friedmans had an uncanny knack of seeing patterns in data, at a time when computers weren’t available to help with the task. But, at the same time, one had to discern real patterns and not ones made up by their own brain. As Fagone writes, “Humans are so good at seeing patterns that we are often able to see patterns even when they aren’t really there” and “One way of thinking about science is that it’s a check against the natural human tendency to see patterns that might not be there.” Seeing and identifying real patterns was the first criterion for breaking a code.

During the time the Friedmans were developing the science of cryptography and creating the profession of the cryptanalyst (“a person who analyzes and reads secret communications without the knowledge of the system used”), the world was changing at an incredible pace. Radio communications meant that agents could speak to each other across the globe, without the need to exchange paper. The atom bomb was being developed. Politics were changing too. J. Edgar Hoover was accumulating power in the FBI and was at odds with the military in the use of cryptography. What do you do when you break a code? As was highlighted in the movie The Imitation Game about the life of another famous cryptanalyst, Alan Turing, if you act on the intelligence from the broken code, you reveal the fact that the code is broken to the enemy, leading them to change the code and breaking that stream of intelligence. Her husband called this dilemma “cryptologic schizophrenia.” It is a no-win situation for the cryptanalyst, especially since human lives were often at stake. The FBI was chasing sensationalist news rather than maximizing the benefit to the nation of the broken codes.

The story follows Elizebeth’s career from a scientist building the beginnings of a new scientific field to her work for the government, where she ultimately found a home with the US Navy, where she tracked Nazi spies in South America. She also worked for the US Treasury, intercepting the messages of crime lords working within the US. Throughout it all, Elizebeth simply did her work, serving her country, either not willing or even able to really tout her contributions and role in developing the field. In fact, after the death of her husband, she dedicated much of her life organizing his records and documents, his legacy, at the detriment of her own. However, her work, along with that of her husband, led directly to the spy agencies we have now, such as the CIA and NSA. What they created, however, ultimately led them to become uncomfortable, as the reach of agencies such as the NSA extended far into every aspect of our lives.

An interesting note that relates to our own times. In discussing the context of Germany in the lead-up to World War II, Fagone notes that “The international press covered him [Hitler] like a normal leader. Many Germans did not think he would really do the things he had said he would do.” Perhaps a caution for our own times.

Fagone weaves an excellent story, filling these larger-than-life characters with personality and telling an exciting story involving spies, drug dealers, and the future of Western Civilization. Learning about hidden heroes such as Elizebeth Smith Friedman is always a pleasure, even more so when the story is well executed.

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

The third and final installment in N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, The Stone Sky, continues to deliver.  (The first two books are The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate.) It has everything anyone would want from a strong fantasy story — climactic battles, death-defying acts of bravery, and heart-tugging moments between characters. But, it is done in a way and in a world that is both unique and goes the extra step to pull you in, to make you care for these characters.

Jemisin’s world is so unique and so well developed, but even more importantly, her characters are deep. Characters that I hated in the first two books because they seemed so evil are given their own voice and own perspective. In the end, you realize that they aren’t evil but that their motivations are so against the protagonist that they seem evil. When they suffer, you feel for them.

And, this is probably the thing I’ve liked most about her books. Her worlds are grey. They are nuanced. There is no absolute evil, there is no absolute good. Good characters do bad things and bad characters do good things. Even the overarching conflict that drives the plot is about survival, of both sides. One side isn’t trying to conquer the world just because, but rather, both sides are fighting to exist, in some sense. It’s just that the fight ends up taking place on a planetary scale.

As in the previous two installments, Jemisin delves deep into issues that affect us in real life. There are questions about slavery, for example. In her world, there is a class of people that can control, to some degree, the tremors that wrack their world. These people — orogenes — have been subdued and controlled by regular people. They are treated as non-human. But, from the point of view of the regular people, this is almost essential. As one character states, “Orogenes are essential. And yet because you are essential, you cannot be permitted to have a choice in the matter. You must be tools — and tools cannot be people.”

The other big issue she tackles is the environment and people’s impact on it. It turns out that the horrible state that the current people find their world in is the direct consequence of a previous civilization’s attempt to extract energy from the planet. In some sense, the planet rebelled.

The broad theme of Jemisin’s book is subjugation and what happens when the subjugated, whether it be people or the planet, rebel. Whether it is an individual, a class of people, a whole civilization, or even an entire planet, at some point, things break, people can’t take any more, the environment shatters. What are the consequences when society or culture is built upon subjugation? “Some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall.” There are lessons for all of us in The Broken Earth.

This is one of the best fantasy trilogies I have read, with characters that are meaningful, plots that engage, a story that is relevant, and a world that is nuanced and complex. I give it 5 stars.

An aside that I found interesting. Jemisin has a group of characters — called the stone eaters — that can communicate with each other through subtle tremors in the earth. They create microscopic earthquakes that they use to talk to one another. It is interesting how this is similar to the communications that the mechanical characters use in Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical. The robotic characters there communicate via subtle changes in the motion of their gears and springs. In both worlds, these are the subjugated beings and they both find secret ways to communicate. An interesting coincidence.

 

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

My grandpa only ever gave me one piece of advice (well, besides “keep your eyes on the damn road!”). He said, “They can take your land, they can take your property, they can even take your family, but,” pointing to his head, “they can’t take what is in here. They can’t take what you know. So, learn as much as you can.”

Well, what if they sort of could? Or at least, take away your ability to think for yourself?

That is sort of the premise of Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical. The Mechanical is set in a world where, sometime after Europeans stumbled across the Americas, the Dutch find a way to make sentient machines, through some alchemical process discovered by famous Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (what?!? You’ve never heard of him? He discovered a moon of Saturn, invented the pendulum clock, and was a major authority on optics). This gives the Dutch a leg up in the world, and allows them to conquer pretty much all of Europe. Seemingly only the French remain to resist, and they must do this from a small enclave in exile on the North American continent. This is the backdrop for an amazing story of court intrigue, international politics, and a different approach to the discussion of slavery.

This is, because, we quickly come to learn that the machines the Dutch build their empire on not only think, but have some sort of free will, a free will that is subdued by whatever process creates them. Whenever they try to do anything that is not in direct fulfillment of their masters’ wishes, they experience extreme pain, a pain that grows until it is completely intolerable and the machine is forced to act to subdue the pain. “The head faded as he [one of the machines] abandoned his own wishes in favor of his masters’ whims.” Thus, the machines are slaves, forced to subvert their own will to that of their human masters’. Tregillis does a great job of describing the torment the machines feel whenever they try to do something on their own.

With this backdrop, Tregillis discusses free will, slavery, and equality, in a way that advances the plot of his story. One of the main characters, Jax, is one of these machines. But, there are several human characters that represent various views of the treatment of these machines. Not all humans are blind to the suffering of these machines, but even some that are against the Dutch would rather use the machines for their own purposes. “The prosperity achieved through slavery had a way of blinding men’s hearts to the evil of their own hands.”

Thus, along the way, Tregillis, while telling an immensely satisfying story, does get into some pretty deep thoughts about the nature of free will itself. Do the machines have free will? Maybe they don’t, by some definition, but then, maybe humans don’t either. For the machines, “Free Will was a vacuum, a negative space. It was the absence of coercion, the absence of compulsion, the absence of agony.” But, what does that mean for humans? “How did they order their daily existence without somebody to tell them what to do? Or was that the purpose of God?” Or are humans “Some squishy biological machine whose structure imbues it with a complex functioning and a delusional belief in its capability to determine its own course, but which all along follows a path predetermined by its own nature or maker?”

It is always nice to find a book that both provides a very interesting plot as well as thought-provoking material. The discussions about free will flow naturally through the course of the book, they are not force fed or heavy handed. Rather, they are integral to the relationship between the machines and the humans. They drive the plot forward. Tregillis does a great job of pulling these themes forward but in service of his story. I think my ony quibble is that, at the end of the story, some of the actions of some of the characters seem less than reasonable. One can chalk this up to the trauma some of them have endured up to that point, but it still seemed a little forced, like Tregillis needed a way to get to a certain point in the plot and this was the best he could come up with.

However, in spite of this, I am greatly looking forward to reading the next books in the series.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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